Essay by Rachna Kothari
“What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.
—Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, 2011
Architecture lives to be transformed, and there lies its true calling.
—Eduardo Souto de Moura
A building envelope, the space it encloses and the potential of experiences it can evoke remain the most primary realm of architecture. Analyzing these—the form, the space, and the phenomenal experience of a building is to study the aspects of longevity that persist beyond the temporality of styles, technologies, conditional programs, and the expanse of the physical and historical contexts. With the accretion of time, layers of use, memory, symbolism, cultural attributes, interpretations, and physical weathering influence the connotations of a building, but for the architectural concinnitas which, in constant possibility to adapt, can attain emancipation from time. Within this purview, to leave a lasting value is the passion and the very drive of architecture. The conventional notions of legacy are often pitched on a high alter, privileging a certain “elite” form of architecture or compendiums of lifetime achievements, weighed by associations than by the building itself. More often though, the actual significance of a building, of architecture as an enduring connection between generations is distinguished not so much by palaces, museums, or skyscrapers, as by the obscure ruins of everyday. While the semantic range of legacy tends to presuppose (due to conventional bias) and underscore (for marketability) grandeur, monumentality, religious significance, or cultural attributes, it remains for a more differentiated approach that can isolate these layers to reveal the very material, spatial, and intangible aspects of architecturality that pegs the building in time.
1933 Shanghai is one such urban oddity at the confluence of an alternative quotidian and histories. Used as an abattoir in 1930s and recently opened in 2006 after a supposed 80 million yuan ($12.85 million) renovation, the poured (read crafted) concrete building is a peculiar architectural relic of morbid charm, possibly a last one of its kind in the world. It is located in the historic Hongkou district—an area that has its own chapters of Jewish refugees and Japanese occupation, today a core district for businesses, financial services, and shipping service industry in the north of Shanghai. Reckoned to be designed by a British architect and built by the former Shanghai Municipal Council with high-quality cement aggregate imported from Britain, the building, covering about 32,000 square meters spread on five levels, was considered the largest slaughterhouse of the Far East, producing by one account, two-thirds of the total meat supply of the city then. Since being abandoned as an abattoir, it has been used as a meat plant, a warehouse, a medicine factory, and for other auxiliary purposes prior to the recent restoration. In its latest avatar, the building was renovated and launched, antithetically to its initial function, as a platform for lifestyle and creative industries, and boasts the likes of Ferrari Owners’ club, Cigar club, and Retro Revo Furniture boutique as well as design offices and event spaces. However, in rapidly growing countries like China, where the concepts of heritage preservation and urban regeneration swing between high profile properties such as on the Bund to arrant commercialization, 1933 Shanghai treads a precarious path. The irony of such massive investment for the building is in the danger of pushing the ingenious value over to banality, devoid of deeper readings, instrumental to consumerist culture or tourist attraction. But the unsettling vibe of the place, its limited size compared to other similar centers in Shanghai and the high standards maintained in the restoration and management keep its integrity in check, just yet. It remains rather vacant except during events. On regular days its deserted monochrome corridors are a draw for lone photographers, architects, and visitors who wander around the maze of its bridges, ambitiously trying to capture its form in singular frames.
Unruly and Escherisque, its charm lies in the poetic multiplicity and seemingly morphing form that leaves one delirious. Surprisingly though, the building plan is rather simple, composed of an outer rectangular ring and a central cylindrical workshop tower connected by twenty-six varyingly sloping “cattle bridges” crossing over intermediate open courts. In lieu of mechanization, the building got its form entirely from the functional requirements of movement of cattle and the evisceration processes that were aided merely by the principles of physics. After the restoration, the outer rectangular ring is converted to spaces for restaurants, cafes, stores as well as design offices, while the central tower is left open for events and art exhibitions. A 1,500 m2 plush sky theatre, with a suspended glass-floor stage, a steel-dome roof, and dramatic blood-red curtains, is added on the top level of the central workshop building and has catered to Porsche and Rado anniversaries celebrations among others. Quite commendably, while instigating a new vitality into an otherwise derelict antiquity, the restoration remains faithful to the tacit historical connotations and integrity of the building. The building shell and its conditions of a slaughterhouse are preserved, not disturbing the authenticity while adding the theatre, elevators, toilet blocks, and safety aspects with apparent contemporary identity. Although the restoration keeps the chronology distinct, the building itself has layers of time—historical, experiential, and otherwise embedded in its reading.
Traces such as chutes, heavy metal grills, non-slip floors of cattle-paths, and high walls of the bridges are left unchanged, quite unsettling for some while revealingly authentic for others. These design conditions of an animal facility comprise the very guidelines that were devised a few decades later by Dr. Temple Grandin for what is known as humane slaughtering. Anticipated way before the time of their widely accepted formulation, stress-free, natural animal movement, chamfered corners, resting places, and slopes of movement are integrated in the 1933 Shanghai, pointing at a possible pre-existing empirical knowledge of these standards. Set against the nouveau-rich lifestyle backdrop these conditions of slaughterhouse evoke an eerie presence. The interlooping bridges and corridors afford a vivid non-hierarchical circulation diagram; movement along them often brings one to the same nodes, albeit offering different perspectival frames each time. One would be teased into thinking that Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five got its name and the theme of non-linear time on these very bridges. Historical without nostalgia, melancholic in its atmosphere and distinctly contemporary without the parametric formalism or techno-determinism, 1933 Shanghai seems to fictionalize time and outwit conventional space.
Within its interiority, 1933 Shanghai is away from all the jazz—the regal colonial buildings of Pudong, design museums of the recent governments and vertigo instigating heights of the Shanghaian towers. Except for stray views of higher (and uglier) buildings of the surrounding from the open corridors, there is barely any visual reference to the outside world. The unpretentious candor of the building, with its bare concrete structure sans ornamentation, its emptiness taken over by atmospheric light is poignant and incredible in an age of buzzing glass malls. The building is encased in 50 cm thick and sometimes hollow concrete walls for temperature control and art deco inspired latticed windows in the west, to allow for air circulation, lighting, and disseminating the stench. Having survived seventy years of natural weathering, all the concrete components together create a monolithic labyrinthine shell. High-quality gray concrete contorts to form more than 300 umbrella columns, large at the ground level and reducing in size on upper levels. The columns around circulation routes and bridges are uncharacteristically placed along the central axes of sloping bridges of narrow widths, possibly to control the movement of cattle through differentiation and shunting (or to avoid cross beams). In its present use, the narrow width of column-bridge condition and constricted spiral and linear staircases (built for workers to escape) persuade solitary movement around the premises, encouraging a subject to explore the building individually while often being in vision of another observer on a different level across the open light court, creating a space for collective individual movements. High bands of concrete parapet walls flank narrow corridors, toppling conventional proportions. Parapet bands when viewed from across appear as continuous looping bands luring the vision to follow their chamfered corners and meandering turns, encouraging further movement. The density of the conditions of movement is highest within the central cylinder wherein, a smaller radial area and a shorter viewing distance created by the limiting peripheral walls of the cylinder enables viewing multiple bridges and spiral staircases within a single glance; Piranesian complexity can be captured in a single frame (the modern mechanical eye) adding to an overwhelming sense of spatial ambiguity.
Atmosphere, light, and tactile materiality—phenomenology makes up for the lack of geometric rigor, delighting the sensory as much as the cognitive faculties. While the cylinder is dark and complex, the radiating bridges straddling between the cylinder and peripheral building reduce formal complexity, but for the intense light that adds a parameter of visual play. When observed from the open court of lower levels, the bridge slabs appear solid surfaces punctuating light wells. This relation gets flipped from the upper levels, looking down from which the tall concrete walls of bridges appear bright bands of light punctuating a dark volume. This interplay of light imparts its own layer of spatial density where the building in silhouette, its shadow and light keep shifting the perspectival form—the shadow indistinguishable from the gray figure. For a layout rather simple and almost vertically layered, the figure-ground condition itself becomes a destabilizing and thereby enticing aspect.
The introvert focus of the building complemented by deep shadows create a perception of dark underground cellar at ground level, thus playing with a subliminal sense of ground plane such that the well-lit top floor feels like a new ground. One is reminded of Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart by UNStudio, where the planned circulation brings visitors to the top floor to enter and then descend through the building, subtly reversing ground datum’s relation to one’s location within the building; in here, the light performs that role quite intangibly.
As can be deduced, wandering through the phenomenal corridors of 1933 Shanghai evokes an array of responses—from awe at the labyrinthine concrete bridges rendered noir by strong piercing light, subtle discomfort at traces of abattoir left explicit to disdain at the signs of handy consumerism that the place can possibly be reduced to. Like a sensorial piece of art, it combines stories of human industries, smell, materiality, art deco elements, bloodstained history, and light-washed poetics of concrete into an evocative composition. Beyond its phenomenology, 1933 Shanghai is a microcosm—a parti diagram of fascinating multiplicity of form and order. It presents possible models of complexity and posits the case for differentiation, to produce unexpected and truly spectacular results out of limited geometries. Studies on figure-ground relations shaped through light, planer simplicity vis-à-vis spatial complexity, center-edge conditions at architectural scale and to that of a singular column as well as forms that elicit movement, impart atmospherics and a sense of place can feed contemporary architectural discourse. Again, 1933 Shanghai is more pertinent as an urban concept where it raises questions on the socio-cultural influence of non-hegemonic places in today’s cities as well as their economic viability.
Interestingly, in contradiction to the glorious monuments and epitomes of solo visionaries, 1933 Shanghai finds its signification and phenomenology only in retrospect, drained of its then present program. Its architectural legitimacy lies not in denying history or being an extension of it, but only in lingering correspondence with the history. Its adaptive restoration is a testimony to the longevity of a valid spatial configuration. By extension, the case study grants the agency of the profession to the everyday practicing architects, to achieve quality in the local building practice in spite of typological limitations, thereby shaping the spatial and social environment to last. Ultimately, in peculiar ways and within the diverse scope of poetics and theories, the building asserts the prospect of architecture as a profound legacy, timeless and enduring, irrespective of its conditional associations.
Rachna Kothari is an architect with Jaeger and Partner Architects, Shenzhen. Other work experiences include that with Rahul Mehrotra Architects and her freelance practice and writing where she explores with earnestness socio-spatial and experiential nuances of the built environment. Her alter ego, however, measures cities by running them, clubbing them, and chatting with the cab drivers in broken local dialects.
www.rachnakothari.com | @KothariRachna