Tag Archives: history in motion

Formative Furniture

This list of memories isn’t ordered according to my memory but according to the year of manufacture and so it’s an unintentional history of materials, technology and trends over the past fifty or so years.

Ahh the 1932 1227 Anglepoise desklamp, designed by George Carwadine! Circa 1975 when I was in second year, I bought mine secondhand along with a double-elephant size (cedar!) drawing board and stand. The square base of this one looks familiar, although some had a G-clamp to attach it to the upper edge of the drawing board. Now that I think of it ….

The design of this chair was unchanged for most of the 20th century. It probably had a name but I just knew it as a drafting chair. Mine was all black and I bought it new to go with my drawing board and lamp. Drafting chairs like this existed for as long as there was hand drawing. Probably only Japanese manga artists still use them. For a few years I lived in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro area in an apartment across the road and a couple of stories higher than one where some manga artists/authors lived. I recognized the chairs, the tables, the lamps, the takeaway food, the long hours …

The MoMA website tells me my first formative chair was designed in Argentina in 1938. For me it never had a name but many know it as the Hardoy Chair, Butterfly Chair, Safari Chair, Sling Chair, or Wing Chair. Its correct name, MoMA tells me, is The BKF Chair after its designers Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy. I learn that the first two exported to the US went to Fallingwater by one Edward Kaufmann Jr. The first chairs had a leather “sling” but later canvas ones were inexpensive, stylish, and very popular with architects and people wanting a California vibe for their patio. I thought it very modern. A relative must have had one because I know it wasn’t that comfortable, and that rainwater would collect in the canvas if it was left outside. Taking it undercover must have been cumbersome as the steel frame was rigid and not that light. Left outside, it rusted. They’re still being produced, in the US by Knoll.

The Noguchi Ceiling Lamp 60D was designed in the early 1950s and, though I never had one, student houses everywhere had a cheap copy machine made with wire instead of hand-tied bamboo.

In 1975, now in my second year and liking all things Japanese, I did pay full price for an Akari 3X Table Lamp. Designed in 1951. They give off the best light with the old incandescent bulbs they were designed for.

My memory of spun aluminium lampshades is from the 1960s but it was the previous decade when manufacturers discovered they were simple and inexpensive to make as long as the shape was vaguely conical. These lampshades came in many anodized colors but I remember gold and turquoise were popular. Too inexpensive and ubiquitous to ever be regarded as a design classic, they were everywhere for a while and then disappeared, much like laser-cut metal screens came and went in 2008.

The 1956 Saarinen Tulip Chair is another chair I didn’t know had another name. They seem to have always been around and part of my mental library of furniture. Again, as a kid, I thought it was very modern but this was probably because I’d already seen either it or something referencing it on The Jetsons. In the 1960s, as now, the future was all curvy and white but it was 2017 when I sat in one for the first time. I discovered that the upper part swivels, making it difficult to reposition the chair unless you lift it. When sitting down, it also means you have to sit first and then swivel to face the table. Standing up and sitting down become things you have to think about. This is the price you pay for the absence of visual “clutter”.

Much of my first knowledge of contemporary furniture came via television shows. It may be a false memory but I remember seeing and liking a chair like this in the 1960s Irwin Allen series Lost in Space. It would have been all-white. The Herman Miller website tells me it is the Nelson Coconut Lounge Chair, designed by George Nelson in 1956.

The Folding Black Canvas ‘NY’ Chair was designed in 1958 by Takeshi Nii. I didn’t know that in 1975 I bought one to put in my dorm room with my Noguchi lamp. Sitting in it was comfortable, especially when cross-legged, but being very low with respect to everything else in the room was uncomfortable. The chair was what we now call flat-packable with the two L-frames and the canvas between them being one piece, and the arms/legs being the other. Assembly involved using two bolts each side to attach the L-frames to the arms. This chair had more pieces than the BKF chair but it made sense when you sat in it because the legs spread outwards to stretch and firm the canvas across the back. The chair is light and bringing the arms together folds the chair so it is easy to carry. It seems even more beautiful now I know it was designed in 1958. I must have bought it from an imported furniture and furnishings store called Habitat, which was close to the UWA department of architecture. The store itself was rather architectural, and eventually became the headquarters of the Western Australian chapter of the RAIA. You can imagine why.

The Verner Panton Fun 5 DM Shell Chandelier is sometimes called a Capiz Shell Chandelier and was designed by Verner Panton in 1960. Bond villain Blofield had one in his Swiss mountain lair in the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As these things go, lair and lamp were blown up just prior to the gunmen-on-skis chase.

https://www.jamesbondlifestyle.com/product/verner-panton-fun-shell-lamp photo © Mass Modern / Eon Productions, United Artists
By Schilthornbahn – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87851712

The Arco Lamp was designed by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni for Flos in 1962, although it’s usually attributed to only Castiglioni. I’ve never wanted one but I appreciated its few parts and how it provides overhead illumination without the inconvenience of a ceiling. The last of the three stainless steel parts must telescope into the second last to allow the height to be changed. These also seem to have been around forever, although the shape of the lampshade has dated, unlike a big chunk of Carrara marble. The drilled hole is a fabulous example of “It’s just design.”

The Lava Lamp was designed in 1963 by Edward Craven Walker who later founded the lighting company Mathmos. I saw one not too long after when my cousin Hadyn gave one as a birthday present to my Aunt Vera who was always the most progressive of my aunts. The lamp had pride of place on the cocktail bar in her living room with its pastel sheepskin rugs and stuffed baby crocodile.

The unikko [poppy] pattern was designed by Maija Isolator for the Finnish fabric and clothing company Marimekko in 1964 but my blue and white Unikko tablecloth was bequeathed to me in 1976 when a friend went overseas to study. This tablecloth always made food look great, especially if served on white plates. It must be because there aren’t any blue foods.

Blow, the first mass marketed inflatable chair, was designed by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi, and Carla Scolari in 1967. It was everywhere almost immediately and I probably saw it on some television talk show. It was 2017 when I actually got to see one at a furniture exhibition at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum. (1933, Giovanni Muzio). 1967 was also the year of Jean-Paul Jungmann’s Habitation Pneumatique Expérimentale.

The Pratone lounge chair, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti and Riccardo Rosso, was designed in 1966 but production only began in 1971. It’s easy to see how there might have been some problems finding a material that was pleasingly flexible and durable yet still pleasant to touch. Again, it was the same 2017 exhibition before I saw one for real. A sign said “Don’t touch!”

It’s hard to believe the “beanbag” has only been with us since 1968 when Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro designed the Sacco. A 1970s staple in student houses, kids’ rooms and children’s reading areas in public libraries.

Photo: Andrea Pavanello

In the same 1968 the modern waterbed as we knew it, designed by Charles Prior Hall, a design student at San Francisco State University. A friend of mine had one in 1975. They didn’t look that different from any other bed but they came at a time when anything was new and different was enthusiastically adopted. New things to sleep on don’t get invented very often.

The 1970-something folding clear lucite Plia chair by Piretti Castelli was something I’d never seen but I admired its clean lines. There’s something about a cantilever. Lucite, I learn, is another name for Plexiglass and Perspex, two names that you heard a lot in the 1970s.

The 1970s [why are dates so vague in the 1970s? doesn’t nobody remember?] Joe White armchair by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Lomazzi. I understood that it was meant to look like a baseball glove and looked comfy and comforting. I didn’t yet know postmodernism existed so its associations of secure and winning were lost on me. I must have been borrowing art books from the local library because it seemed like an Oldenburg sculpture you could sit on.

This 1972 Furniture Unit by Joe Colombo was designed to allow all the activities of living in a single piece of furniture. You can see the beds that roll out beneath the television, etc. I still like this idea because it says nothing about what kind of enclosure it should be in. This ought to have been a liberating idea, but nothing happened. Or you could put 100 of them in a grid in an exhibition centre and have some kind of negative city without architecture, a bit like Archizoom’s 1972 No-Stop City but with more creature comforts. I’ve never seen it.

From the pop-art device of taking something ordinary and scaling it up as with the grass chair and the baseball glove, we now have the post-modern device of shrinking something large. This is Gaetano Pesce’s 1980 New York Sunrise sofa. I never wanted one but I could appreciate it as something that a sofa could be. There’s been many Italian designers in this small sample of mine.

The Grandmother sofa was designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brownfor the 1984 Parker Knoll series but I only saw it in a Tokyo store about 1990. The sheer size of the it 88×42×31″ (224x107x77cm) L x D x H made it unlikely to fit in, let alone suit many Japanese dwellings. It was an amazing thing, like some archetypal sofa.

In the same year and Tokyo store was another sofa with perhaps a 1.2-metre high timber back and sides (rather than arms). It was at least 2 metres long, and at least one meter high and 1 deep so it was more room than furniture. The single cushion was packed with down so it was up to you whether that room was bedroom or living room. The image at right is Ettore Sotsass’ sofa for Cassina is the closest image I can find, but the one I remember had a full length timber surround, was much higher, and was so huge the frame had to be put together from two halves. I’ve never seen it again.

In the 1980s Memphis was impossible to avoid. It’s Carlton bookcase / room divider by Ettore Sottsass is the piece I remember most. I didn’t much like the style but it chimed with a theory I was then developing about the fittings and furnishings of a house being physically and aesthetically independent of the space that contains them. My logic was that separating them would make for better furniture and for better architecture. In the same (manila) folder I probably had a photocopy of this in some unlikely room, and probably along with the Joe Columbo Furniture Unit I’ve already mentioned.

The Prince Imperial chair was designed by Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti in 1985 and I learned of it not too long after. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one unless it was two decades later and through the window of a furniture gallery along London’s King’s Road. I liked its unconventional appearance and materials and how it made me think of Africa. Coming soon after Sottsass’s Carlton, it’s too raw and rough to be called postmodern although it probably couldn’t have happened without it. Lacking a pigeonholeable name, Garouste and Bonetti’s “More is more” style has been called The New Romanticism.

This is the end. Furniture had become collectible art pieces divorced from even its ostensible function. Some of the things above (such as drafting stools) simply aren’t used anymore. Other items such as the Arco Lamp and the Saarinen table and chairs still have licensed production but aren’t cheap. The Noguchi lamps were never that cheap but there once was a time when they were affordable for an architecture student. Furniture as collectible art pieces is still being produced but there seems to be little in the way of affordable yet durable and well designed furniture. I include durable as a criteria to exclude much of IKEA’s offerings, although there are exceptions such as the MELLTORP table that is still excellent value for money.

Next week’s post, The 2nd Misfits’ Triennale: WEEK 2, will cover the period August 18, 2020 to August 18, 2021.


The 3 R’s

The Three R’s used to without irony refer to Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic but, more recently, we know them as the sustainability performance mantras Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are as many R’s as you want. Re-use works for buildings but Repair works better for washing machines and Replace better for old refrigerators. It’s not that difficult to find a word beginning with an R to add a sense of logical inevitability to whatever list you have. Here’s some more.


Shanghai’s Columbia Circle was developed in the 1930s as an upmarket residential area with some very large villas. It’s currently being reconfigured as an urban pedestrian thoroughfare with retail and various amenities. The feel is of an open-air mall with an urban/architectural/spatial/historic attractor.

The language on these posters made me sense the presence of architects’ promises so it was no surprise to learn Columbia Circle was masterplanned by OMA 2015-2017.

I recalled the marketing promises for the ground level of Foster+Partners’ Albion Riveside development in London’s Battersea. It would become some new and vibrant place of restaurants and bars and such but, as it turned out, this was the last thing the only people who could afford the apartments looking over this potentially vibrant ‘new town square’ wanted it to be. The last time I saw it was 2008 when there was one upmarket Italian kitchen store (beneath the “affordable” housing component in the dark at the top right of the photo below) while the spaces under the building were vacant. The idea of creating a convenient thoroughfare is a good one but, while I passed through this development twice a day for two years, I never once spent any money there and, even if there had been the opportunities to in 2008, I doubt I would have.

Some vibrant neighbourhood hub may have flourished and died in the meantime but this current listing makes me doubt it.

Columbus Circle is done well and without recourse to pastiche or historicism, or at least no more than was already there. It’s definitely a special place and a pleasant and traffic-free route for pedestrians. Its upmarket restaurants and outlets however contradict the claims of vibrancy and interaction. Entry to the Japanese art bookstore is by appointment only. The people who use these aren’t going to be the people who walk by them to “populate” and “animate” the development on their way to somewhere else, in the architectural spin on the truism that if something is free then you are the product. This is the way with shopping malls whether they look like shopping malls or not. At Columbus Circle, history and ‘a different architecture’ function much like Dubai Mall’s aquarium and fountains do to attract people with no desire to spend money there. Even so, their passing through can be monetized by making the place seem more lively to those who will. OMA’s brief was to do this in a unique, upmarket and apparently genuine manner. Their dark genius is to encourage this non-spending footfall to pass through and not linger for any length of time.

Retain (Reprieve, Respite)

Residential buildings such as these next immediately behind the historic buildings of The Bund are sealed with concrete blocks not so much to prevent squatters occupying them but to prevent them becoming derelict while the property value appreciates and/or a new use is found. Or so I’m guessing. Such reprieves buy time to observe and make judgements better suited to how the city is to develop. In times of downturn it’s best to do nothing and in boom times it’s best not to do anything hasty.

Shanghai has many old buildings in this state of limbo. Some are on the edge. Some we can imagine in some happier future we hope they have. Squid Game. Not all will survive.

In other countries the norm is to demolish immediately because that’s supposed to add value to the land. A scheme would be duly (and possibly genuinely) produced by some architect for some readable, walkable, vibrant, mixed use community with interactions between new and old and the property will invariably be promptly sold on once its value has inflated by planning permission being granted. I’m sorry. This is my experience and how how I once saw my place and, by extension, that of the architectural designer in the property development food chain. For designer me, success counted as proposing something municipalities (and thus clients) wanted to see exist, even if their reasons for wanting it to exist did not align with each others’, let alone naïve me and mine.

Reduce to Rubble. Redevelop.

I’m curious why these next buildings have a two-story arcade overlooked by residential spaces, of which there are more above. Other than wanting a double-height arcade, I can’t think what would generate such a typology. Luckily for these buildings, they’re very close to the river and still being used for their original purpose.

Identical buildings further up the street don’t look like being so lucky. Openings have been blocked up but, this time, the decision to demolish has been made. It was the fate of these buildings to have been built on land more valuable for some future use the buildings couldn’t accommodate.

Redevelop is the final R – though there’s always the possibility it could be followed by Regret. Buildings such as the earlier two storey blocks and the single story residential further what would’ve been demolished to make way for Foster+Partners/Thomas Heatherwick’s mammoth The Bund Finance Centre development which, to use another extinct animal metaphor, seems a bit of a dinosaur. I’m reminded of F+P’s Central Market development in Abu Dhabi and its griddy bits.

This time, instead of Arabesque lattices recalling mashribaya, perception management is deemed satisfied by shovelfuls of Chinoiserie in the form of lattices alluding to Oriental screens combined with much use of a colour that’s not too bright to be mistaken for gold (by us) and not too dull to be mistaken for bronze (by Chinese). They know the ropes and the tropes these F+P people.

Summarizing the past sixty years of modern architectural history, we can say that The International Style never died but lives on as decorated mixed-use development gain. To satisfy some international expectation of technological prowess, the structure has been picked out in granite cladding with a pattern of CNC milled concavities (though the press release TWICE implies its hand carved.) These concavities straddle panels, pointlessly yet decadently indicating the entire facade has been designed and milled as a single pattern. The size of these panels is unimpressive and at first I mistook them for GRP. Having said that, they look very pretty when the sun catches them after it rains,

This apparent structure decreases in width as it rises. Whether this is some misguided attempt at a plant growth allusion or an attempt to “dematerialize” the building with increasing height I don’t know. It’s not an eyesore and, for what it is, it’s okay. Not that many people were caring as I passed by. The development was suffering from a lack of international tourists expected to patronize the ground level luxury retailers with their assorted fashion houses, jewelers, perfumeries and restaurants. Various attempts were being made to attract people to the spaces between the buildings, if not into the buildings themselves.

This next bit of text is the project description “From The Architects.” As is the way. I won’t bother quoting a source as the same text is everywhere. It confirms my dematerialization hypothesis but throws up questions regarding the efficacy of the massing strategy over which F+P’s Studio Head gushes. I say this because the development is a fair bit displaced from those famous historic buildings along The Bund. And, regarding the massing strategy, the development site is not a situation with only tall modern buildings at one end and low-rise historic buildings at the other. Using buildings of decreasing heights as a mediation strategy presupposes the conditions for it to work and that’s simply not the case here. The photograph below left looks north towards the low-rise and historic area, with an inconveniently tall white building inbetween. The one below right is looking south from the white building back towards Bund Financial Centre. I think the designers overated the relevance of their strategy. If they ever believed it to begin with, that is.

I’ve picked out in yellow the parts I think are meaningless, contentious, or total rubbish. There’s not much left. We’re told three times about the “420,000 square metres” of office space, once every 230 words on average.

It’s not exactly pre-2008 levels of hype, but it is an example of the kind of expectations inflation we tend to ignore until a global financial crisis or pandemic forces a reckoning. If ever you go to Shanghai and you can be bothered, please visit this place and judge whether it lives up to these claims. These next images are Heatherwick’s cultural centre that was mentioned in the last two paragraphs of the press release above. It’s horrid on many different levels. No-one I know has seen the “veils” move. An architect friend said he learned to hate this facade as queued for three hours beneath it on the last day of the Tadao Ando exhibition last December. Another architect friend told me Heatherwick was dating Foster’s daughter at the time.

There’s a whole universe of tabloid gossip to be mined here. Intrusive yes. But if protagonists choose to live by the media, then the tabloidifaction of architecture is long overdue. I don’t see why architecture with its cult of personalities, is any more special than musicians or reality tv stars. Kudos to ARK Architecture and their attempts to break this impasse. This was 2013 though.

I don’t know anything about traditional Chinese bridal head-dresses but, as far as bamboo-shaped things on the sides of buildings go, I much prefer this building anyone can see on the way from South Xizang Road metro station to Powerhouse of Art. It’s a single-layer of stationary bamboo and I like it for being what it is not what it is not..

A few blocks further north and immediately behind the historic centre is this development next to Yu Garden [which will feature in a future post]. Full of restaurants and shops selling foodstuffs and other things for people to take back home from the big city to give to family and friends, it’s Shanghai’s most popular destination for domestic tourists and always full of happy people.


Second Time Around

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 Booking.com 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 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 amn 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.


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.