Category Archives: GUIDES

Misfits’ travel guides to buildings around the world.

Misfits’ Guide to NANTONG

History, Location and Geography

How old can a city be? Where Nantong is now was the site of neolithic settlements 5,000 years ago but they disappeared when the sea level rose 4,000 years ago. During the Han Dynasty (approx. 2,000 years ago) the land rose and continued to rise during the Song Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty (1000-1500), making the city into a centre for the production of salt. Fertile alluvial deposits from the Yangtze River meant the salt industry was gradually replaced by cotton growing and a textile industry. Current-day Nantong is not as close to the coast as it used to be.

The first city was founded in 912 [Year 5, Houzhou Dynasty, Five Dynasties] and was called Tongzhou, meaning gateway as in “passage to”. Because it was founded so late, it’s said it was possible to learn from the planning mistakes of other cities. One of those mistakes must have been a lack of planning because Tongzhu was a very planned and orderly city.

The square city had a defensive wall facing the cardinal points, and was surrounded by a moat dug on a natural river fed by the River Hao which joints the Yangtze slightly to the north. The River Hao is Nantong’s river. The Yangtze belongs to all of China.

The production of salt and the production of cotton are both bounties of The Yangtze which is also a 3,000+ kilometer long trade route deep into the country. Industrial production in the Yangtze Delta region (Hangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing and Nantong) in the 19th century was comparable to that of Great Britain’s, with Nantong being China’s Manchester, supplying cloth, clothing and other textile products to the entire country.

About 1600 – the middle of the Ming Dynasty – the city was expanded southwards to protect the growing population from Japanese bandits. This entire area bounded by the moat is now known as Old Town.

Nantong’s most famous son is Zhang Jian [Jian Zhang]. His story is the story of Nantong, and also the story of modern-day China.

He set up cotton mills in 1895, fully integrating them into the supply chain of factories. He had land reclaimed to accelerate the transition from the production of salt to that of cotton, and had roads and railways built to shift goods and people. He reformed the system of education, setting up the first normal school in modern China in 1902, Nantong University the same year, and three other universities and a middle school all before 1915. He was involved in municipal construction, and opened Nantong Museum as China’s first free public museum in 1905. He founded charities. He was both an official and an entrepreneur head of a conglomerate that modernized Nantong in the space of 30 years and [according to Wikipedia] made it a template for later urban development in China. This is his house. It’s now part of the Nantong Museum complex on the northeast corner of the 1600 city extension.

The entire museum compound is a snapshot of Zhang Jian’s legacy and this period in the history of not only Nantong but modern China.

Old Town is now in the north of Nantong and still the heart of the city while to the south is Langshan (Wolf Mountain) which is more of a rocky outcrop than a mountain. The city is laid out between Old Town in the north and Wolf Mountain to the south, with airport and industrial areas to the east, and harbour and warehousing to the west.

The city is overlooked by the temple and pagoda on Wolf Mountain.

The land is flat and people from Nantong find the lack of mountains pleasing. Residential areas spread southwards from Old Town and towards Wolf Mountain, with the new commercial and retail New Town midway.

The reality of this is that both old and new residential districts can be thought of as located somewhere between Old Town and Wolf Mountain. Wolf Mountain orients people. It makes them feel at home. The first two lines of the new Metro system will follow this north-south axis established a millennia ago.


Nantong has been spared the attentions of architects, the only exception so far being Nantong Art Museum and Nantong Grand Theatre, both designed by Paul Andreu. The art museum was bright, pleasant and easy move around. Unlike Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, it wasn’t designed as a single route to get you from entrance to gift shop and restaurant as quickly as possible.

Inside was a Ma Yansong/MAD exhibition that I thought could have done with some more plans, but at least it was spread out and didn’t feel like a trade show.

The New Town Zhongshan shopping mall reminded me a bit of a Shin Takamatsu project. Who would’ve thought chocolate brown PoMo with Deco light fixtures on two tiers of parapets linked by a glazed solarium would work so well together? Or that glass elevators would suggest a clock tower? A guilty pleasure.

Old Town has an historic residential area about to transition to crafts and small-scale retail.

Less celebrated buildings are the neo-Constructivist China Telecom building, and the solid People’s Cultural Centre nearby.

Also nearby is Nantong Tower – a communications tower of a classic design, now enlivened by an LED and best seen from the revolving restaurant at the top of the Jingxuan Hotel [in the header image].

Old Town is defined not so much by standout buildings but by the moat that continues to give the city its identity and heart. It’s best appreciated from an electric paddleboat rented for an hour before dinner.

Food & Drink

Restaurants and bars that are small and do only one thing but with care and attention tell me that people are content with their lives and their place in the world. Higher rents probably prevent this from happening in the larger cities.

Tongmian [Nantong Noodles] Breakfast only. They close when the noodles for the day are all sold. Their signature dish is the dry noodles with a pork chop, served with bone soup.

Mr. Malt’s Malt Bistro is a shrine to beer, but the kitchen serves excellent roast lamb (to order), pasta, and the best chips/fries I expect I’ll ever have.

S19th St. They also sell fried chicken and fries but their signature dish is hamburgers which they make simply and and beautifully. Buy at least two.

Cream Coffee Shop It’s only coffee but it’s excellent and the seats at the front are a pleasant place face a park and are a pleasant place to be.

117 Coffee House This is in Haimien, a separate town, but too good to miss. The owner has a few hundred varieties of coffee beans of which about one hundred are available at any one time. He does his own roasting and, much like a cocktail barman, will guide you until you find the bean, degree of roasting and water temperature that works for you, interspersed with biscuits he’s made himself. And all for the one flat charge of 98 yuan (US$15) for as long as you like. Opens at 3:00pm.

Mrs. Wang’s Table

These links at the end normally refer back to the post but this week’s don’t. The only connection is that I had some reason to revisit these posts during this week while I was finalizing this one.

Misfits’ Guide to SHANGHAI

Shanghai is what it is not just because of its built environment but also because of some unique chemistry of culture, geography, history, politics and the people themselves and, as a recent visitor, I can’t pretend to understand any of it.

If you want to learn more about the historic development of Shanghai, then I can recommend Edward Denison & Guangchang Yu Ren’s book Building Shanghai. There’s also Modernism in China by the same authors and also published by Wiley. Classical Huangpu by Shanghai Culture Publishing House is a photographic record of “The Heritage Architectures of Huangpu District, Shanghai”. Published in 2006, it’s not a new book but nor is what it records.

Unlike previous Misfits’ Guides, this one won’t attempt to be a comprehensive selection of anything. For one, I haven’t even been to Hongkou or ventured into Pudong apart from my visit to the ZHA exhibition at Shanghai MAM two posts back. Instead, this is a first attempt to organize thoughts on what I’ve seen so far. An early draft quickly grew large and was clearly going to split. But into what? The following categories are provisional but are all aspects of the built environment that I think contribute to making Shanghai the unique and uniquely wonderful place it is. This list will convert to links as the various topics are covered, not necessarily in this order.

  1. Misfit’s Guide to SHANGHAI (incl. old buildings still being used for their original purpose
  2. Change Of Use (keeping buildings useful)
  3. The R’s (Reconstruction, Repair, Restoration, Remembering)
  4. Shikumen (a traditional Shanghai housing type)
  5. Learning from Shikumen (is there any life left in this typology?)
  6. Gardening The City (plants and their place in the city)
  7. Exceeding Expectations (when things are better than you were able to imagine)
  8. Aesthetic Efficiency (big returns for little else but thought)
  9. Delirious Shanghai (commercialized entertainment; nothing to do with housing)
  10. New Shanghai buildings (Pudong, outer Shanghai, etc.)
  11. Misfits’ Guide to HONGKOU (an older part of Shanghai)


It’s a miracle the West Bank of The Bund has survived as intact as it has. It’s now separated from the river by a raised embankment promenade that doubles as flood and storm surge barrier. It’s a popular place to enjoy the city on hot summer evenings. The historic buildings are illuminated as a single tunable array switched on at precisely sunset.

These historic buildings on and near The Bund resulted from China’s entry into the world of international trade and banking in the 1920s and 30s. Many are designed in the sober commercial style of the time and all seem strangely familiar. None would be out of place in Australia in St. George’s Terrace in Perth, Flinders Street in Adelaide, or Swanston Street in Melbourne, the common factor being a history of ties with the UK.

Most of these buildings have well-recorded stories and it’s difficult to say anything new about them. Instead I’m going to organize them differently and, at the top of my classification are old buildings still being used for their original purpose. Wherever they are, buildings like this are a very special and rare subset of historic buildings. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #19: Illarion Ivanov Schitz] Conversion, re-use and adaptive re-use are all important ways of extending the working life of a building but this has never been necessary for these buildings that were fit for purpose when they were built, survived various historical events and indignities, and are still fit for the same purpose today. In this next photograph, the HSBC Building (1923) on the left is still the HSBC bank, and Customs House (1927) on the right is still a customs house. Time, history, and modernity are all meaningless.

The tall building the right below is the Bank of China Headquarters (1937) which is still the Bank of China Headquarters and the one on the left is Sassoon House (1929) which is now a hotel on all floors instead of just five thru nine. The Hong Kong architecture firm Palmer & Turner either designed or had a hand in the design of these two buildings as well as the two below. Now known as P&T Architects, they recently celebrated 150 years since the company’s founding. Their work in Shanghai alone is a book in itself. Hereinafter, I’ll refer to them as P&T for, like these buildings, they’re part of a living history.

Shanghai’s Grand Theatre (1933) and Cathay Theatre (1932) are still cinemas.

Originally known as the International Savings Society Apartments (1924), this building is now known as Wukang Mansion and is the most famous apartment building on Wukang Road. It was designed by Ladislaus (Lazlo) Hudec, a Hungarian architect whose work in Shanghai is also worthy of a book if there’s not one already. The ground floor level may not always have been an art gallery but the upper floors are still apartments.

Changde Apartment (1936) formerly known as Eddington House is still apartments.

I’ve no information for this next building. It’s some distance from the river, and doesn’t have the swagger of many of the other buildings of the period. The minimal amount of applied ornament suggests economy and the late 1930s. I have warm feelings towards these underdog buildings. It’s still apartments.

The exteriors of these last three buildings all now have reverse-cycle air conditioner compressors they were never designed to have. This tells me these buildings are still used for their original purpose, and that their corridors and interiors might still be intact. In the case of large and grand apartment buildings now converted into hotels, an unchanged exterior most likely means upper floor interiors have been gutted to install additional plumbing and centralized air conditioning.

It’s relatively easy though not guaranteed for small apartment buildings to stay apartments. These next three examples were neither important enough or large enough to warrant attention let alone a change of use. I’m glad they remain along with many others, and that they remain residential.

If a villa remains, it’s more likely to remain a villa if it’s not too large. The one below has a plaque and I’m glad to see many other buildings with similar plaques that remind us to look and to see why.

A plaque at the northern end of Garden Bridge tells me it was completed on December 29, 1907 as the first long-span bridge in Shanghai linking the Hongkou residential area to the north with the then city centre. Now known as Waibaidu Bridge, it was a important link across the river and it’s probably still in use because much traffic was absorbed by Shanghai’s metro and the inner and outer ring roads, construction of which began in the 1990s. The miracle is that the bridge survived until then.

I can’t find any information about this next building. I’d expect to see a plaque if it was a reconstruction, restoration or relocation but no. One aerial photograph shows it whitewashed. I think I can just make it out in a photo from maybe 1935. My guess is it’s just something that survived, probably because it never had an important use and there was never any reason to demolish and re-use or appropriate its narrow site. It’s currently a restaurant but the large windows and roof deck make me think it’s always been something similar, perhaps a clubhouse or, at most, a police checkpoint for river traffic along Suzhou Creek which is what this Huangpu tributary is called.

On one corner of the intersection known as Bund Circle is this building (1922) which was the Shanghai Municipal Council Building (1922). It’s currently vacated while the rear of the block is being redeveloped.

I’m mentioning it here because its curved entrance facade is mirrored across the street by the Hotel Metropole (1933) designed by P&T, mirrored again with Hamilton House (1933), also by P&T, and mirrored again in the third building (1937) for the Commercial Bank of China. The corners of the intersection follow these four facades and the curbside hotel drop-offs form what looks like a roundabout. I can’t vouch for the traffic safety but these drop-offs are space-saving, efficient and impossible to clog as hotel drop-offs often do. The hotel is still a hotel and still an upmarket on. Alas.

There’s something compelling about the space these four buildings make. It’s too strong and unapologetic to be pretty, and impossible to convey without resorting to panorama.

Shanghai has two YMCA. The one from 1938 was, in 2006 at least, the Shanghai Sports Club and government offices and so will appear in a later post. Chinese architect Poy Gum Lee’s 1931 YMCA is in this post because it was the YMCA Hotel for a while and is now the Jinjiang Metropolo Hotel Classiq, YMCA.

If ever anyone was to write the book Delirious Shanghai, then The Great World (1917, rebuilt 1928) would be Shanghai’s Coney Island and Downtown Athletic Club combined, and probably it’s Rockerfeller Center as well. It was an entertainment complex with all the amusements and entertainment of the times, as well as music halls and theatre. The building suffered an accidental bombing in 1937, service as a refugee center during WWII and closure between 1974 and 1981 before reopening as the Great World Entertainment Centre.

Despite these periods of abuse, disuse and re-use, the Great World is once more doing what it was designed to do although with different amusements and entertainments. I’m told the interiors are relatively intact but, more importantly, the building is still as popular as it ever was.

“Great World Entertainment Center” (1941), signed An Lan, Published by Global Heji Poster Company, Collection of the Shanghai History Museum, Contained in “Shanghai: Art of the City” by Michael Knight and Danny Chan, Asiann Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2010

There are also department stores that are still operating as department stores. This one is the Wing One Department Store (1918) by P&T.

On the adjacent corner is the Sincere Department Store (1917) which was Shanghai’s first department store but only because it opened slightly earlier. Both department stores included hotels, restaurants and tea rooms as well as retail spaces and continue to do so today.

“Nanjinng Road – From Series of Views of Shanghai (after 1932), Zhao Weimin, Published by Global Heji Poster Company, Collection of the Shanghai History Museum, Contained in “Shanghai: Art of the City” by Michael Knight and Danny Chan, Asiann Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2010

These two department stores are the only two buildings in this post I deliberately set out to find. The others I just happened to pass by while wandering across and around Shanghai’s Huangpu District. There’s much I missed and much more I don’t even know I missed. I will return to Shanghai with a list of buildings I want to see but it’ll just be an excuse to walk the city again and get to know it better.


Misfits’ Guide to VIENNA

I didn’t go out of my way to look for Otto Wagner’s Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station. I just got off the train and there it was.

And I didn’t seek out Josef Maria Olbrich’s Secession Hall but there it was at the other end of Karsplatz.

A few days later I encountered Otto Wagner’s Schützenhaus (1904-1908), of which I was a fan, but mainly because of the paint job that made it look vaguely maritime but, given the photograph circa 1910, I now doubt it’s original. Shame.

Anyway, on my first morning I walked past the Opera House and towards the cathedral, admiring the buildings that were obviously and reassuringly older than their unintentionally retro neon signage. It all seemed very European.

And I’d never been a fan of Hans Hollein’s 1990 Haas Haus so it was a bit of a shock to see it so early in the day. I’m still not, although the street-level columns are nice and the rear elevation inoffensive. Unfortunately, the things I like least seem to be the overwrought and overthought design features. I understand that the curvy bit “responds” somehow to the cathedral opposite, but don’t see why it has to be curved or why mirror glass has to accentuate it. Vienna is not a curvy or shiny city.

The horizontalish canopy on top is jarring from any angle. Old towns don’t do cantilevers. But if I had to name my least favourite part of this building it would be the stepped diagonal where the stone facade changes into the glass one. I don’t mind the diagonals within that diagonal as it seems to be a preferred pattern for slates and facades in Vienna, not least of all on the cathedral opposite, as can be seen in the image above right.

A few days later I was at the AzW (Architekturzentrum Wien) and there was an exhibition devoted to the design and development of Haas Haus. It just goes to show that mass models might reveal something about Shape but can’t inform choices about Colour or Pattern. They’re proof of effort but not of comprehensiveness.

Hollein’s influence doesn’t permeate Vienna but I did think of his collage at left below when I saw this sculpture for a water fountain or similar. Both do the “cloud-rain” thing and have the same incongruity between shape and materiality.

[The former] Retti Candle Shop, 1965

Incongruities were Hollein’s thing and his Retti Candle Shop is a more successful example of sensational grandstanding of materials incongruities. Kohlmarkt is a very upmarket street leading to Michaelerplatz (which we will get to), but what can one say about Retti Candle Shop apart from it being a jewellery store now? It’s famous for having being famous in 1966. It was a staple in architecture books when I was at school but I can’t remember what I was supposed to think about it. Something about glimpses of an essentially closed interior? At the time, precision shaped metal probably meant The Future, as it still tends to. I peered through the windows but there wasn’t much to see. It makes more sense as the expensive jewellery shop it is now.

Goldman & Salatsch Building (a.k.a. Looshaus), 1909-1912

This building is located Kohlmarkt meets Michaelerplatz. It’s famous for its facade that was shockingly devoid of ornament for the time, so much so that the windowboxes were allegedly added to appease the city officials. Notice the pattern by which some windows on the main facade don’t have windowboxes and thus generate diagonals? [These are accentuated by the central not-a-dormer window that does not appear in historic photgographs.] As I mentioned, diagonals are a comfortingly Viennese thing to do on roofs and facades.

In the middle of the platz are some partially exposed Roman ruins dating from the year 1 or 2.

Unremarkable at the time, the bevelled glass panels and patterned stone appear decadently decorative now.

Loos American Bar, 1908

One of the world’s top 100 bars, Freud and Schiele were regulars. It looks wonderful inside but it was too early in the day. The umbrella hides a wonderful mosaic sign that, again, to modern eyes, appears extremely decorative.

Viennese buildings have a very casual relationship with applied ornament. They’re not afraid to make some unapologetic decorative flourish. There’s also a very relaxed attitude towards gold as a colour. Klimpt makes sense. Look at these railings on an otherwise unexceptional apartment building. They’re okay.

I found the flues on this building very ornamental even though they don’t seem to present themselves as a design feature. Their added height probably improves their functionality, as with chimneys but, as with chimneys, we will never know and it’s probably not important that we do. For me, this was an example of the formalist device of “making strange” being used to (ever so softly) call attention to itself. [c.f. Making Strange]

A little bit further downriver …

Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts, 1998-2006

This is a classic case of a client commissioning the wrong architect for the wrong project on the wrong site. Spittelau Viaduct itself was designed by Otto Wagner project and unfortunately bisects the site. With its multiple inclined column and volumes coming apart/together, the ZHA project is presented as a stylistic development of her 1990-1994 Vitra Fire Station.

Press releases at the time described the project as social housing but the ZHA website currently describes the project as

“A landmark project completed as part of a waterside revitalisation project – our three part structure comprising apartments, offices and artist’s studios, woven through, around and over the arched bays of a disused railway viaduct, creating new exterior spaces and vistas.

Clearly, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority. When I was there in August, there was no evidence of any revitalising development ever having existed in the arched bays. The project seems to be abandoned after less than 15 years. Some of the problems may have been due to a condition that, being an historic structure, the viaduct itself could not be touched. The ground floors are slightly sunken, possibly due to an overall height restriction that would not have mattered had not the decision been made to span the viaduct multiple times to create a spatial promenade that goes somewhere else. Here’s that spatial promenade.

Originally from the ZHA website, this is closest to a layout we’re going to get. You could click on it and try to work out what’s going on. As I said, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority.

Two of the three buildings are entered from the riverside pathway and, for some reason, the first building is entered accessibly and unpleasantly from the street side next to the garbage skips. [Classy! Did nobody see this coming? In a residential development?] The link on the SEG sign led to a website under construction.

That glass balustrade wasn’t a clever call.

The construction leaves something to be desired. This is a building nobody wants. It’s a mystery why it exists, and why it ever existed. A must-see if ever you’re in Vienna. A must-see before it’s demolished. I give it five years.

Just around the corner is this block of apartments from Vienna’s 1918-1934 period of social democratic government. Despite being on a busy corner with a view of the Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, it remains a fully inhabited and functioning building.

Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1992

Even if the name doesn’t immediately spring to mind, you know a Friedensreich Hundertwasser building when you see one. This is Vienna’s Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant. The original was badly damaged by a fire in 1987 and Friedensreich Hundertwasser was asked to design its replacement for the same site. Each year it incinerates about 250,000 tonnes of household waste and produces approximately 120,000 MWh of electricity, 500,000 MWh of district heating (equivalent to heating 60,000 dwellings per year), 6,000 tonnes of scrap iron and 60,000 tonnes of leftover stuff such as clinker, ash and filter cake. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I did notice a lot of garbage trucks coming and going.

In 1958 Hundertwasser had said in a 1957 talk titled Mouldiness Manifesto (Against Rationalism in Architecture)

“A man in a block of flats must have the possibility of leaning out his window and – reaching as far as he can with his hands – scratching away at the wall. And he must be allowed to paint everything pink with a long brush – as far as he can stretch – so that from a distance, from the street one can see there lives a person who is different to his neighbours, the tamely allocated flock! And he must be allied to cut up the walls and make all kinds of changes, even if this destroys the architecturally harmonious appearance of a so-called architectural masterpiece, and he must be allowed to fill up his room with mud or Plasticene.”

The Spittelau re-design better represents this idea but my problem with it is that most of the windows aren’t real, and those that are, don’t represent private spaces. I’m glad it’s there and it is what it is, but it reinforces the mindset that waste incineration plants are inherently ugly. This one in Munich is still my favourite. An incinerator recycling plant for all seasons.

I can cope with Hundertwasser and much prefer Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant to the Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts despite both being jollied up by adding some colour.