Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.

Wattle and daub

As we passed a village on our way to a gate of the Kaziranga national forest, The Family took photos of the huts and sent it to our extended family. One of my nieces, the one who’s studying to be an architect, responded immediately, “Wattle and daub”. I was unaware of the conversation that she had with The Family about the method and its problems. Instead I was trying to get information out of our driver, Hemant.

I found from him that the nice-looking tourist huts in the featured photo, need a change in thatching every couple of years. I suppose the window frames and glass panes also cost a bit, so these wonderful “eco huts” require capital and maintenance costs significantly more than what the villagers can bear. The plastic tank on a tower is good, because of the increased pressure it will impart to the water in your shower, but that comes at a cost in electricity. But the very fact that tourists are now willing to pay to stay in places like this is a welcome beginning of a change in our mindsets.

When I was younger than my niece, a thatched hut was the definition of how poor people live. In my lifetime our consciousness of human impact on our planet’s climate has reversed opinions, and we look at sustainable housing. The village was full of houses like the ones you see in these photos. The walls are made of bare bamboo mats fitted inside a sturdy wooden frame. A little river mud is daubed over these outer walls. Notice the lack of windows and the tin roof. Windows require wood, and cost more. While cost is a factor for these villagers, one must also remember that sturdy wood requires cutting slow-growing trees, and is therefore less sustainable. Bamboo grows fast, and using it is perhaps more sustainable. The tin roof does not require frequent change. Tin is cheap, and the environmental cost of extracting tin is passed on outside the forest.

In the photo above, you can see an element which surprised me: a brick outhouse pokes out of the line of the hut. Why brick? According to Hemant, the government is paying for toilets, and the design includes brick and a flush tank. One of my friends works on water management in a different part of the country, and says that this well-meaning gesture by the government is ill thought out, because the kind of water tank that is used is unsustainable in water-poor areas of India. Brick is the unsustainable element here. Centralized design which comes out of a single office will not be able to take into account the gradations of reality across the country.

Noticing the three kids, I took a closer look. I did mean “kid”, when I wrote that word; the primary dictionary meaning of the word is a young goat. You might want to remember that when you talk of them; also that the meaning of the word kid as a verb is to “(of a goat) give birth”. In any case these kids were sitting outside a lovely wooden door. And, on closer look, there were possibly four of them, not three. The design of the house seems elaborate, with at least two front doors.

I was still thinking of air circulation inside the house. We’d driven on, but Hemant stopped at the hut in the photo above, and told me to take a closer look at the side wall. Indeed this was wattle without daub. I also noticed an undaubed portion of the front wall, presumably for the same reason. He smiled at me when I walked back to the jeep. I remembered the freshman’s exercise my friends were given in their architecture course: to design mud huts. We’d laughed when we were teenagers, but this seems much more relevant today: use local materials to lighten our footprint on our planet. Maybe James Lovelock is right, and we need a sustainable retreat. But then why not to a technology which has been used since the ice-ages, made more efficient with today’s scientific knowledge?

Grunge, Germany

Urban renewal near the Spree, Berlin

Germany is not just shining BMWs and Mercedes screaming down Autobahns. There are broken down, unloved areas. Areas which we would mostly not photograph. These are things which a tourist’s eye would slide over, unseeing. Or there are things which are pushed out to places where people would not have to look at all the time. I love looking at such grunge. What a country does not love sometimes tells us as much as what it does.

I see lots of photos of sunlight on cracked plaster or weathered wood from southern Europe, but little of these dreary but atmospheric places in Germany. I wonder whether there is a new genre waiting to become a meme. Click on the mosaic above to get to an annotated slide show.

What is authentic

We walked through the Forbidden City and came across some renovation going on. A whole wall was being plastered with the lovely red colour that this palace is famous for. The wall was built in fired brick and the worker applied coats of plaster swiftly and efficiently. The work was clearly of high quality, and when finished, would be hard to distinguish from the other walls we saw.

The Family and I had already discussed the question of authenticity before. How does China have so many well-preserved monuments, when India finds it hard to preserve the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal? Part of the answer is a different notion of authenticity. In China authenticity seems to be a fluid notion. The Forbidden City periodically falls into ruins and is rebuilt, but still said to be the same. Buddha’s statues in temples, even the temples themselves, are often rebuilt, but said to be a thousand years old. Some things are recreated from ancient descriptions and then said to be the same as the original.


One can think of degrees of change. Is the material used the same as before? Some castles in Germany have been reconstructed in this fashion after the war. Do we see them as authentic? The temples of Abu Simbel were moved when the Aswan high dam was constructed. Do they remain authentic? The prehistoric wall paintings of Lascaux have been recreated for tourists in Lascaux II, so that the originals remain undamaged. How authentic is the feel of walking through this cave? The Taj Mahal was recreated by Donald Trump in Atlantic City. How authentic is that?

One may say that authenticity resides in the social function of a monument. Then Abu Simbel cannot be authentic, since it has been recreated and the social system which gave it symbolic meaning has disappeared. The Forbidden City is certainly no longer forbidden. So is it just a disneyland? The Great Wall of China was rebuilt many times during its 2000 year history, but it has no function now except as an anchor for vendors of selfie sticks. Are the modern renovations then more inauthentic than the sections which are crumbling away into ruin?

One may say that historical authenticity resides in the material. Is Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, with its stone-by-authentic-stone reconstruction of the Ishtar gate, more authentically Babylon than the vandalized spot in the walls of Babylon from where it was taken? Does a tribal house transported from the rain forests of the Amazon into a museum in the frigid north of Europe retain its authenticity?

I have no answer. But I suspect that either the material or the function must remain. The Forbidden City feels like the Louvre: a museum within a disneyland. The Great Wall has a more authentic feel.

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