Re­viv­ing a Mas­ter­piece

Prada has breathed new life into a Shang­hai man­sion, painstak­ingly restor­ing it into a dy­namic, mod­ern venue that pays homage to its rich and vi­brant past. Lead ar­chi­tect Roberto Ba­cioc­chi walks Tamsin Brad­shaw through the pro­ject

Hong Kong Tatler Homes - - NEWS -

Ar­chi­tect Roberto Ba­cioc­chi dis­cusses Prada’s am­bi­tious restora­tion of an his­tor­i­cal Shang­hai man­sion

Lo­cated in Shang­hai’s pres­ti­gious Jing’an district is a grand, three­storey villa with a grace­ful beaux arts ex­te­rior and orange dome. Now known as Prada Rong Zhai, this West­ern-style gar­den villa has a rich his­tory, one that’s peo­pled with opera singers, en­trepreneurs, jour­nal­ists, and one of China’s wealth­i­est and most pow­er­ful fam­i­lies in the 20th cen­tury.

For the first half of the 1900s, it was the home of Yung Tsoong-King (Rong Zongjing) and his prog­eny. Yung was known as the “flour king of China” for his role in es­tab­lish­ing flour mills all over the na­tion. He also built cot­ton mills and yarn fac­to­ries. By 1936, given his in­volve­ment in sources of food and cloth­ing, he es­ti­mated that he owned half of China. But Yung was also a phi­lan­thropist, found­ing schools, plant­ing forests, restor­ing mon­u­ments, and build­ing roads and high­ways.

Yung bought Rong Zhai in 1918. He was not its first owner but he was the most fa­mous. He com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tect Chen Chun­jiang to re­model the turn-of-the-cen­tury home. His chil­dren were born there, and busi­ness meet­ings, opera per­for­mances, ball­room danc­ing, and bil­liards all hap­pened un­der its roof and in its gardens.

The home’s glory days ended with the ap­proach of World War II. Yung aban­doned the man­sion in 1938 and fled to Hong Kong. Since then, it has housed a lo­cal in­sti­tute of eco­nomic research and me­dia mogul Ru­pert Mur­doch’s lo­cal com­pa­nies, among oth­ers. Its hey­day, how­ever, re­mained its time as the home of the Yung fam­ily.

It is this golden age in the man­sion’s his­tory that Prada wished to re­vive when the Mi­lan-based lux­ury brand be­gan restor­ing the home in 2011. Hav­ing re­stored Mi­lan’s Gal­le­ria Vittorio Emanuele II and a Vene­tian palazzo, Ca’ Cor­ner della Regina, Prada had the ex­pe­ri­ence and the fore­sight to see the Shang­hai man­sion’s po­ten­tial. Here was a fu­ture hub of arts and cul­ture, a venue for ex­hi­bi­tions and events.

With the in­ten­tion of demon­strat­ing the brand’s com­mit­ment to China and to fos­ter­ing cul­tural ex­change, Prada com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tect and restora­tion ex­pert Roberto Ba­cioc­chi of Ba­cioc­chi As­so­ciati to re­store the man­sion to its for­mer glory. “The most pre­cious thing inside the man­sion is the tes­ti­mony to a life­style: [that of ] a rich and im­por­tant fam­ily, with fam­ily ties typ­i­cal of the Chi­nese cul­ture,” says Ba­cioc­chi.

A Meet­ing of Minds

“With this kind of work, the most dif­fi­cult as­pect is the com­plex­ity of the prob­lems you face,” says Ba­cioc­chi. “You need to work with ex­pert pro­fes­sion­als and ar­ti­sans, and they should have a cer­tain sen­si­bil­ity for the work

they are do­ing. A very beau­ti­ful re­la­tion­ship flour­ished be­tween the pro­ject’s Ital­ian and Chi­nese ar­ti­sans, as ev­ery­one in­volved was work­ing with the same en­thu­si­asm.

“The first phase was to iden­tify all the el­e­ments of the build­ing, from colours to wood treat­ment to locks, with­out leav­ing out any de­tail,” Ba­cioc­chi con­tin­ues. “The sec­ond phase was to re­pro­duce an­cient ar­ti­sanal tech­niques to ob­tain the par­tic­u­lar ef­fects on ma­te­ri­als and colours as they orig­i­nally were.”

Sim­ply Floored

“We con­served ev­ery­thing that was pos­si­ble to pre­serve. We didn’t change any­thing; we only re­placed the parts that weren’t re­cov­er­able,” says Ba­cioc­chi.

Prada took this ap­proach with ev­ery­thing, from the win­dows and lights to the tiles and hard­wood floors. The hard­wood floors were re­stored to mir­ror the orig­i­nals wher­ever pos­si­ble, treated with a nat­u­ral fin­ish and beeswax pol­ish. There are also beau­ti­fully de­tailed tiled floors through­out the home, and th­ese needed to be re­worked. Clay was for­mu­lated to match the orig­i­nal tile colours and then hand-poured into moulds based on the orig­i­nal tiles.

On the Sur­face

For the walls in this man­sion, work­men be­gan by re­mov­ing decades of lay­ers of gyp­sum, re­veal­ing the orig­i­nal plas­ter­work and the beau­ti­ful colours of the orig­i­nal wall pig­ments. “Once we found the orig­i­nal colours, we con­sulted an Ital­ian re­storer who then ap­plied the colours as they were tra­di­tion­ally cre­ated, with lime and nat­u­ral pig­ments. The method and the ma­te­ri­als are very im­por­tant, be­cause when light hits those sur­faces, it gen­er­ates unique ef­fects and re­flec­tions that only those ma­te­ri­als could pro­duce,” says Ba­cioc­chi.

Many rooms in the home are also clad in cloi­sonné tiles. Ceramiche Giotto of Italy spent two years recre­at­ing 1,600 tiles us­ing tra­di­tional cloi­sonné meth­ods to match the colours and translu­cency of the home’s orig­i­nal tiles ex­actly.

Ital­ian ar­ti­sans also worked care­fully to

re­store the orig­i­nal gilded ceil­ing in the bil­liards room, ap­ply­ing gold leaf by hand.

Let There Be Lights

Ital­ian ar­ti­sans from met­al­works com­pany Mi­cromet recre­ated the home’s early 20th-cen­tury light­ing fix­tures. Us­ing spe­cial moulds and a lost-wax process, the ar­ti­sans man­aged to cast metal light fix­tures that echo the orig­i­nals in all their del­i­cate el­e­gance. To give them an an­tique ap­pear­ance, the work­men painted them in an ox­i­dis­ing fin­ish to give them a time-worn patina.

Win­dows of Op­por­tu­nity

“For the stained-glass win­dows, we in­volved the most ex­pert pro­fes­sional in this sec­tor liv­ing in Italy,” says Ba­cioc­chi. Franco Dall’Ara led the team in charge of restor­ing Prada Rong Zhai’s stained-glass win­dows, many of which are adorned with orig­i­nal art deco and art nou­veau mo­tifs. “He con­sol­i­dated the struc­ture [of the win­dows] and re­stored all the glass win­dows,” says Ba­cioc­chi.

Two sky­lights re­quired par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion: a 15sqm sky­light in the pas­sage­way be­tween the ball­room and the meet­ing room, and a 45sqm sky­light that pre­sides over the ball­room it­self.

Dall’Ara and his crew had to re­move the en­tire ball­room sky­light—a to­tal of 69 pan­els—be­fore re­plac­ing miss­ing or bro­ken pieces with pe­riod-ap­pro­pri­ate glass from Ger­many, re­in­forc­ing the metal frame­work and clean­ing it all be­fore re­turn­ing it to its po­si­tion above the ball­room.

Beauty in the De­tails

“Even if it was very chal­leng­ing and com­plex work, the build­ing now ex­presses the great char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity it had when it was first cre­ated,” says Ba­cioc­chi.

The level of de­tail and care Prada and its ar­ti­sans ap­plied to the man­sion’s restora­tion is cer­tainly as­ton­ish­ing, and the re­sult is Prada Rong Zhai, a venue that is true to its his­tory while serv­ing as an ex­cit­ing con­tem­po­rary hub for the arts.

RE­TURN TO SPLEN­DOUR From left: The metic­u­lous ren­o­va­tion of Prada Rong Zhai fo­cused on re­pair­ing and restor­ing the orig­i­nal de­tail­ing, from stained glass to ce­ramic tiling and gilded ceil­ings; the man­sion was once owned by “Flour King” Yung Tsoong-King

PRADA’S PRIDE Clock­wise from top left: Beau­ti­fully de­tailed tiled floors through­out the home; hand­carved wooden dado pan­elling and a glimpse into the for­mer meet­ing room; the ball­room with the 45sqm sky­light; the stained-glass win­dows in the for­mer sun­room fea­ture images of junks me­an­der­ing past a pagoda

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