Shang­hai: Art Deco cap­i­tal of the world – for now

Just as Shang­hai’s priceless ar­chi­tec­tural legacy is gain­ing over­due recog­ni­tion, it faces new threats from de­vel­op­ers, re­ports Richard Spencer

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Arts -

Say Art Deco and ev­ery­one knows what you mean: sharp ge­om­e­try, cool curves, an ef­fort­less mar­riage of style and func­tion. Where to find it, though, is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

Dot­ted around Lon­don and New York are palaces of 1920s and 1930s modernism – such as Se­nate House in Blooms­bury and the Chrysler build­ing on Lex­ing­ton Av­enue – their straight lines and sweep­ing curves dom­i­nat­ing their his­toric sites or look­ing al­most quaint amid the higher, newer sky­scrapers now sur­round­ing them.

But Lon­don and New York are not Art Deco cities. The 1930s, the move­ment’s peak decade, were not great years for the West, and while apart­ment blocks from the pe­riod still punc­tu­ate the sub­urbs, they suf­fered from the Sec­ond World War and post-in­dus­trial de­cay. Too of­ten, they look shabby and forgotten be­side the stur­dier homes of pre­vi­ous eras and the bright con­ve­nience of the present.

Yet in a few hold-outs, where his­tory played odd tricks, Art Deco still dom­i­nates. Their names are sur­pris­ing: Napier in New Zealand, re­built in one go af­ter an earth­quake in 1931; Mi­ami Beach; the Eritrean cap­i­tal As­mara, a mas­ter­piece from the age of the brief Ital­ian em­pire.

Shang­hai, home to more

sky­scrapers than New York and a pop­u­la­tion of 20 mil­lion swept into an end­less sprawl of sub­urbs, is not a city one tends to as­so­ci­ate with Art Deco. Yet the 1930s was Shang­hai’s first great decade of eco­nomic boom, and both the West­ern bankers who ran the city and the new Chi­nese mid­dle classes wanted to as­so­ci­ate only with the new. In a whirl of con­struc­tion, grandiose of­fice build­ings, apart­ment blocks and show­piece vil­las were erected by in­ter­na­tional firms, for Euro­pean ex­iles washed up on the shores of the Yangtse, young bach­e­lors on short-term post­ings or Chi­nese stu­dents who had fol­lowed the fash­ion for pro­fes­sional train­ing abroad.

Ladis­laus Hudec, a Czech ar­chi­tect from Bu­dapest who was sent to Siberia by the Rus­sians, ended up in Shang­hai de­sign­ing high-rises such as the 22-storey Park Ho­tel (1934) over­look­ing the race­course, at the time the tallest build­ing out­side of Amer­ica.

CH Gonda, an­other Czech, built cine­mas such as the Capi­tol, now gov­ern­ment of­fices, and the Cathay, a star­tling ben­e­fi­ciary of Shang­hai’s new trendi­ness. Re­cently re­fur­bished, it re­mains a gleam­ing star on the for­mer Av­enue Maréchal Jof­fre, now called Huai­hai Lu and once again the city’s most fash­ion­able street.

The years in be­tween have been trau­matic: war, Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, the sud­den re­open­ing to the West. It is only now the city is be­ing re­built once again (and much of this ar­chi­tec­tural reli­quary is be­ing de­mol­ished) that Shang­hai is be­ing recog­nised as prob­a­bly the most ex­ten­sive Art Deco land­scape any­where in the world.

Af­ter five decades frozen in time, in which waves of poor new res­i­dents have been bun­dled, a fam­ily to a room, into ex­pro­pri­ated man­sions, this ar­chi­tec­tural col­lec­tion is now emerg­ing.

Two new books, and an as­so­ci­ated ex­hi­bi­tion on dis­play in the city, have fo­cused minds. Whether they will be enough to stop the ram­pant de­struc­tion is an­other mat­ter. “So many beau­ti­ful build­ings have been knocked down: I can’t be op­ti­mistic about the out­look for pro­tect­ing his­tor­i­cal build­ings,” says Deke Erh, co-au­thor of Shang­hai Art Deco, who grew up in Shang­hai’s French Con­ces­sion and has be­come the city’s best-known ar­chi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­pher.

Yet there are signs that even a coun­try as mer­ci­less with its past as China has recog­nised that its colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture could be an as­set, not an em­bar­rass­ment. The Peace Ho­tel on Shang­hai’s fa­mous wa­ter­front, the Bund, is un­der gov­ern­ment restora­tion; once upon a time it was the Cathay, East Asia’s most glam­orous ad­dress, from whose win­dow young Jim watched the start of the Sec­ond World War in Em­pire of the Sun. A hand­ful of the grander fam­ily homes, of the sort Jim lived in, are be­ing “done up” as sta­tus sym­bols by Shang­hai’s new elite – in some cases the re­turned grand­chil­dren of the old elite.

It’s not just the build­ings. The French Con­ces­sion, which along with the In­ter­na­tional (Bri­tish and Amer­i­can) Con­ces­sion has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary West­ern ar­chi­tec­ture in the city, used to be full of junk shops. To­day it has bou­tiques and an­tiques stores, where the same dis­tinc­tive old ra­dios and wooden chests are sold at much higher prices.

Cul­tural left­overs il­lu­mi­nate Phan­tom Shang­hai, a col­lec­tion of ghostly images by the Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher Greg Gi­rard. While Erh fo­cuses on what is there, Gi­rard pho­to­graphs what is not. Nav­i­gat­ing the flu­o­res­cent­tinged de­mo­li­tion zones of old Shang­hai, Gi­rard nar­rates the de­struc­tion of a way of life. In some images, house fronts have been ripped off, to re­veal the re­mains of bed­rooms or kitchens. In oth­ers, peo­ple still eke out a life amid furniture and de­tri­tus in­her­ited from an­other age. The de­cay of a city as its res­i­dents lapsed into squalour is all too ev­i­dent; in one man­sion, a fan­tas­ti­cal mix­ture of Art Deco and South­ern Chi­nese fancy, Gi­rard counted 152 peo­ple oc­cu­py­ing a space orig­i­nally built for an opium mer­chant and his fam­ily – al­beit a fam­ily that in­cluded four wives.

But there is also great hu­man­ity here, and Gi­rard finds it hard to be­grudge th­ese fam­i­lies their new flats. “I am very anti-nos­tal­gic,” he says, though it would be a hard heart that found no nos­tal­gia here.

The flu­o­res­cence is that of the gaudy new Shang­hai that over­looks th­ese curious scenes. And of course it con­tin­ues; as Gi­rard and I spoke in a café on the Bund, more bull­doz­ers were mov­ing in a few hun­dred yards away.

Shang­hai Art Deco’ by Deke Erh and Tess John­ston (Old China Hand Press, Hong Kong). ‘Phan­tom Shang­hai’ by Greg Gi­rard (Ma­genta, £25). An ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs from ‘Phan­tom Shang­hai’ runs at Stu­dio Rouge M50, 50 Mo­gan­shan Lu, Shang­hai, from Sept 30–Oct 21.

Shang­hai sur­prise: clock­wise from left, the Metropole Ho­tel, by Deke Erh; ‘Shang­hai Fall­ing No1, Neigh­bour­hood De­mo­li­tion, Fuxing Zhong Lu’ (2002), by Greg Gi­rard; old door of Shang­hai, by Deke Erh; en­trance to the Wash­ing­ton apart­ment block, by...

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