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
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 Deke Erh