From the Pudong observation decks, Shanghai seems an endless city of anonymous towers, relentless development, and little respect for historical structures or districts. I cringe when I see block-after-block of shikumen torn apart to make way for highrise apartments and office towers, though I realize most locals would gladly trade these dilapidated dwellings for ‘houses in the sky‘ in modern apartment blocks.
It’s not all bulldozers here. Successful redevelopment projects such as Xintiandi have proven that there is economic value in historic structures, so some developers are thinking twice before calling in the teams with sledgehammers. There are a number of excellent restoration/adaptive reuse projects around the city, but one of the most striking is “1933” – a complex of restaurants, offices, and event space in a restored slaughterhouse.
Imaginatively named “1933” after the year of its construction, the renovated structure reopened a few years ago, but remains relatively deserted unless there’s an event, making for great photo opportunities in the labyrinthine spaces of the former abattoir. Though details on it’s construction are scarce, its location in the former International Settlement and vague references to a “British master architect” assure us that the design was an occidental import.
If I remember my Sigfried Giddeon correctly, slaughterhouses in the US and Britain were largely mechanized by the 1930s, but the design here seems almost pre-industrial: like many agricultural structures, its form is inseparable from its function.
The building is composed of two parts: an inner circular tower and an outer rectangular ring. The cattle would proceed upward through the outer ring via ramps connecting the various levels, stopping in large feed halls while awaiting their fate. Upon reaching the top, they would cross the bridges to the inner core, then proceed downward (aided by gravity) while they were systematically eviscerated.
In the restoration, the feed halls and staff offices were converted to restaurants, shops and offices, while the workshop tower was left open for art exhibitions and events. Luckily, very little of the concrete structure was changed, and the soaring aerial bridges – straight from Piranesi’s Carceri – are a big draw for photographers.
For me, the aesthetic beauty of the former slaughterhouse is easily matched by the architectural innovations that streamlined the process of getting meat to market.
In slaughterhouses, ramps were purely functional elements, but if we trace their development through the architecture of the 20th century, we find that these simple inclined surfaces became increasingly theoretically-loaded.
Ambitious students of architecture know that Le Corbusier’s famous inclines have their origin in the slaughterhouses designed by the architect circa 1918. Ramps would appear frequently in Le Corbusier’s work, most notably in Villa Savoye (1928), where the incline is deployed in the service of the promenade architecturale.
Le Corbusier composed the house as a sequence of spaces and views, a cinematic technique that would never fall out of fashion. By allowing an uninterrupted ascent through the villa, the architect extended the democratic space of the free plan (and free facade) into three dimensions, allowed the ground plane to extend throughout the dwelling, and anticipated by 70 years the smooth non-Euclidian spaces made accessible to architects through 3D modeling and animation software. But while most recent projects have favored open, continuous spaces for all, the Villa Savoye and the Abattoirs have clear distinctions the different modes of circulation.
In the Shanghai slaughterhouse, there were separate routes for workers and cattle. The inclined path through the outer ring was solely for livestock; workers would circulate vertically via narrow staircases scattered throughout the complex (This separation is no longer so evident as all temporary barriers have been removed, and the ramp is now the preferred circulation path for ambulant photographers). Similarly, the circulation in Corbusier’s Villa Savoye operates on two hierarchical levels – the open, visible promenade, and the enclosed vertical stairs. In 1933, these separate paths are subdivided further: each aerial bridge is a different width, to sort cattle by size.
So, the circulation diagram of the slaughterhouse is fairly complex, and to me represents a possible model for contemporary urban design and architecture.
Since arriving in China, I’ve noticed that there are a great number of private, gated communities – isolated blocks within the city characterized primarily by long blank walls pierced mid-block by guarded entry gates. While these complexes can be appealing for residents, they contribute nothing to the urban vitality of the neighborhood. If buildings can represent cultural attitudes, I’d say these structures demonstrate a desire for security, hierarchies of access, and the need for communal (as distinct from public) space.
In a way, these apartment blocks are an evolution of shikumen, the predominant housing type in Shanghai from the late 1800s until the 1960s or 70s. (A great, exhaustive thesis on shikumen housing was written by McGill graduate student Qian Guan back in 1996. Available here and well-worth a read if you have the time.)
In essence, shikumen blocks consist of a ring of commercial space surrounding a dense residential core which is organized into lanes and alleyways, connected to the main commercial streets via a small number of narrow gateways. The organization of a shikumen block establishes a hierarchy of space from public to communal to private that (almost) removes the need for security guards and checkpoints: when you pass through a gateway into an alleys it’s clear that you have crossed a threshold. The communal sinks and toilets are one clue, but the primary distinction is the geometry: the scale of the urban space indicates that you have entered a more private zone.
I hope to examine shikumen housing in more detail in a later post, but for the moment I’m content to ruminate on the fact that the geometry of an urban block can preform the same type of “sorting” operation as the cow-size bridges at 1933: architecture as control-mechanism, shape as security.
Ultimately, I think an analysis of the abattoir and of Shanghai housing blocks can be a first step towards a new urban design methodology that respects the desire for security and differentiated access, but allows for greater civic life at the boundaries. In my previous post on Hong Kong, I suggested that a multi-level “thick”/”woven” urbanism may be a valid area of research in the coming years, as architects and urbanists will be faced with a rapidly increasing population and limited land on which to build. With the simultaneous pressures of unprecedented urban density, increased fear of terrorism, and a common desire for private and communal space, the differentiated circulation paths of the abattoir may prove a fruitful area of study…….
More of my photos on 1933 Shanghai on Flickr.
The development’s official website: http://www.1933shanghai.com
Here is a diagrammatic plan of 1933:
UPDATE (April 4, 2013):
Many thanks to Bert de Muynck of movingcities.org for a bit more info:
Location：No.611, Liyang Road, Hongkou Distract, Shanghai
Year of Completion：1933
Master Builder：Shanghai Yuhongji Building And Construction Company
Building area: about：31,700 sqm