Skip to content

Second Time Around

Post date:

This curious nautical building with the striped masonry is Shanghai’s Gutzlaff Signal Tower. It was built in 1907 and the podium was added in 1927. Flags provided the weather forecast and a ball on the mast dropped at midday so mariners and townspeople could adjust their clocks. This little functional building facilitated the shipping that generated the commerce that produced the historic buildings I mentioned a few posts back. At the time, there can’t have been many precedents for a building like this, and it’s been obsolete for some time now. It’s now a museum of itself, as it’d have to be. I’d love to know what an “Alonobo-style” building is, especially if there are only two of them left in the world. The internet is silent.

This next one’s special. It’s perhaps Ladislaus (Lazlo) Hudec’s best known building and for many years Shanghai’s as well. Until 1983 it was the tallest building in Shanghai, and thus in Asia. It’s the Joint Savings Society Building (1934) better known as the Park Hotel which was its major tenant at the time. The building originally had banking offices on the lowest two floors and the main banking entrance on the front facade, private apartments on the uppermost three, and the hotel occupying the remainder of the building’s 24 floors. Today that front entrance is the entrance to the hotel. The polished granite on the lower floors and the ceramic tile above haven’t aged a bit.

If it hadn’t been for the slight change of use from mixed use to hotel, this building would have been in the previous post with the others. It’s a small niggle, but the current lobby is the former two-story banking hall. It’s still a beautiful space, especially when seen from the upper level but, stunning as it is, it’s definitely a hotel lobby and no longer a banking hall.

The next two photographs are from that book Classical Huangpu I mentioned. The many interior photographs remind us that these buildings weren’t just meant to make an impression on the skyline. They were there also to be experienced. Some of the interiors are heartbreakingly gorgeous, revealing a standard of attention and care that no longer exists. In the UK, Edwin Lutyens might have been the last person who cared to this level of detail.

Along South Shaanxi Road is the rather fabulous Moller Villa (1936). The Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel Shanghai website tells me it has 53 European style rooms and suites. A sign at the gate asks people to not loiter at the gate taking photographs because it is not a tourist attraction. It is – but we know what they mean.

I took the above photo from a pedestrian overpass nearby. The building behind might have done its curious neighbor more of a favor by being a background to it and not trying to “respond” to it so literally. Or maybe the problem is it didn’t go far enough? China being China, curving the roof was no problem, and the towers are passable if that’s what one wants to do. If only the building behind had the same colored brick, a few more arched windows and some decorative string courses it’d be pastiche meets pastiche and job done. If I could change only one thing it’d be the colour of its walls.

The hotel website has images of the conference room and dining room. A villa of this size and vintage for a shipping magnate is going to have spectacular reception rooms and many bedrooms, and servants’ quarters and a significant kitchen and service corridor detached from the reception and living areas of the villa. It was practically designed and built as a hotel and I expect slipped into its new use without major trauma.

Many of Shanghai’s grand apartment buildings have found extended life as hotels, often luxury ones. The Picardie Apartments (1935) is one of many. It’s now the Shanghai Hengshan Hotel. It originally had multiple elevator cores and stairwells accessing lobbies with one double-sided apartment each side. Such an arrangement works well for apartments and allowed cross ventilation in the humid summers but it works less well for modern hotel operation, and is redundant for small rooms (or even small suites) having air conditioning. A quick snoop around shows corridors now running the length of the wings.

Grosvenor House (1934) remained an apartment building until 1956 when it was confiscated and the following year transferred to the Jin Jiang hotel group. Plans show three cores but, not having been inside, I can’t say if this arrangement survived its re-use as the five-star Shanghai Jinjiang Hotel. I hope so, but the hotel was renovated in both 1998 and 2004. I can’t find any photographs of corridors but the cool modern decor of the hotel rooms makes me suspect the worst. The ground floor spaces remain magnificent.

When President Nixon visited China, the American delegation stayed at this hotel and the Shanghai Communiqué was signed there.

The building is set around a courtyard blocked from the street by a low-rise building that has a curious concentration of tailors. Given the number of reception rooms inside the hotel and its reputation for foreign meetings, this was probably once a commercially astute location for tailors.

Broadway Mansions (1934) is now the five-star Broadway Mansions Hotel and my last example of apartment-to-hotel change of use. It overlooks Garden Bridge and the historically crucial location where Suzhou Creek meets the Huangpu River. It’s in the stripped-down Deco style that went mainstream with New York’s Shelton Hotel (1924). Although the exterior is original and intact, the upper floor interiors won’t have survived the hotel conversion.

Which is better? A building unchanged on the outside yet compromised on the inside, or a building compromised on the outside yet intact on the inside? There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. The answer probably depends upon whether you prefer your history living or not. I blame Post Modernism. This building is a representation of a preserved building but its typical floors have been gutted and rebuilt. A building exterior dotted with reverse-cycle air conditioner compressors is more likely to be the real thing on the inside.

I thought this next building, Shanghai’s Paramount Ballroom (1933), was one of those buildings still being used for its original purpose and, though it’s true you can still go there to foxtrot and tango, the building is no longer being used as intended. Wikipedia tells me it was only open a few years before it was converted into a hostess dance hall, continuing until 1949. From 1956 it was a cinema but deteriorated until 2001 when it was bought and restored by Taiwanese investors who, in 2006, converted the second and third floors into clubs of the type we used to call discos, leaving only the fourth floor ballroom in its original condition. So although the Paramount Ballroom survives partially intact and, after a long period of irrelevance, is once again a dance-themed building, it is only by the grace of investors.

This is the other of Shanghai’s two YMCA buildings, the one from 1932 was known as Foreign YMCA Heaquarters and was next to Park Hotel. In 2006 at least it housed the Shanghai Sports Club and some government offices. The sign is current and, roughly translated, says Sports Big Building. I imagine the building always had a gymnasium and a restaurant and floors of rooms opening off corridors. In that sense it’s a generic building and to be re-used is its nature.

It’s very easy for waterfront warehouses to find second life as upmarket apartments or a restaurant complex as these two buildings along the Huangpu River did. It’s difficult to tell how old these repurposings are. Neither building had precious interiors to protect. I think it’s a case of these buildings being left alone until rebuilding is no longer desirable and/or profitable. I’m amazed yet very pleased this happens. It’s not a case of investors wanting to quickly inflate the value of their land by clearing it and gaining planning permission for change of use before selling it on.

Commissioned in 1911, the Yangshupu Power Station was Shanghai’s first power station and also the first power station in the Far East. It closed in 2010.

It’s the centerpiece of a new Shanghai arts district that includes a fashion school repurposed from a former factory, as well as several new buildings. Power stations are huge sheds located not far from urban centers so it’s no surprise they find new use as art galleries. This one has links to the Cartier Foundation. The building has a pleasing frankness and doesn’t make a fetish of either new or old.

New uses sometimes involve change and we have what we call adaptive re-use. In the post on the ZHA exhibition I mentioned how Modern Art Museum Shanghai was built around some disused coal hoppers.

This could be called a change of use but it’s really just repurposing a structure. The biggest change is us as we can now admire a piece of former industrial infrastructure, at only the former conveyor gives an external clue. The hoppers remain mostly intact but are appreciated less as relics of an industrial heritage but more as a passive way of giving the building a depth it wouldn’t have had if it’d been new build. The building makes wonderful use of an extant structure and an ornament of its heritage when it doesn’t get in the way. It’s efficient like that.

This final project is called The Waterhouse and was completed by Neri&Hu Design Office in 2010. It’s a mixed-use development including restaurants, a gym and a hotel. It’s on South Bund, bang in the middle of an important conservation area. Ostensibly, the idea was to add to and convert the existing three story building to its new uses while changing it as little as possible. When I first saw this building I thought it was an insensitive and attention-seeking addition of the kind one sees in ArchDaily [and you will find it there]. I now think it’s a finely-judged insensitive addition and hope to explain why next week.

In Shanghai you’ll often see queues of people outside store counters open to the street. This is a supermarket with window counters selling take-away and pre-prepared food not as street food but as take-aways for consumption elsewhere.

I’ve seen butchers, grocers and fruit shops like this. The Eddington Apartments of the first post in this series had this counter-only shop.

My Shanghai friend tells me there’s been an explosion of coffee shops these past five years. I learn from my graded Chinese reader that, in January this year, there were 6,913 coffee shops in Shanghai, compared with 3,826 in Tokyo and 3,233 in London. The constant aroma of coffee reminds you you’re never far from one. It’s not so much a change of building use but a change in how the city is used as people now drink coffee while standing around like in Italy or while walking around like in New York.

• • •