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.
Lisbon seems to be in the middle of a slow renewal. Every cab driver we talked to told us the story of how Marquez de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon after the disastrous earthquake of 1755. He has a huge Praça named after him, with a statue atop a gigantic pillar. I wonder who will be deemed responsible for the ongoing renovations.
The metro nearest my hotel in Lisbon was named after Marquez de Pombal. Before rushing off to work in the morning, I would sometimes have a quick breakfast at a pastelaria (bakery) on the way. I liked the busy atmosphere of the bakery. The coffee was good, and I liked the array of cakes to choose from. I was fascinated by the fact that the pavement in front of the bakery had its name done in mosaic tiles (see the photo alongside). Clearly the city had torn up the pavement to install these tiles, or allowed the bakery to do it. I thought this was pretty cool.
As I had my breakfast, I watched the empty facade of the building opposite me being worked on. The rest of the building was gone, and one wall was held up by an ingenious scaffolding. I suppose that eventually a whole new building will come up behind this facade. Later, as I walked along the street, I wondered how many of these beautiful facades hide completely modern houses behind them.
Probably it is only the shapes of the windows and doors which are old. The beautiful tiles and plaster mouldings must have been added after the rebuilding, if one believes that the building under reconstruction is typical. I wonder how little authenticity this leaves to the very beautiful looking buildings.
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.