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Small but packs a punch
By Michelle Qiao

Small but packs a puch

The Midget Apartments on Wukang Road reflect the Art Deco trend that swept across the city in the late 1920 and into the '30s.

Wukang Road is mostly known for it lovely villas, but there are some other notable buildings that stand out, including the Midget Apartments.

Jiang Jiang, deputy director of Xuhui District Housing Security and Building Administration Bureau, says he was amazed when he was researching the building at 115 Wukang Road.

“The architect was incredibly smart," Jiang says. "The stairwell is particularly amazing because he only had a rather odd, hexagon-shaped base to work with, but he made the best use of the space.”

Made of grey cement and yellow terrazzo, the stairwell looks especially cool from the top floor when looking down.

The five-story building was designed by Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruze, a prolific French firm in the city that had a big impact on the look of the former French concession.

Tongji University Professor Qian Zonghao is the co-author of the book “Shanghai Wukang Road.” He considers the Midget Apartments and the visitor's center at 393 Wukang Road as “the two most Art Deco buildings along Wukang Road.”

Although the French firm designed other "stronger" Art Deco buildings in the city, the Midget Apartments certainly catch the eye when walking along Wukang Road.

The edifice is treated in a simple way, decorated with geological relief and architectural details shaped like stairs on the corner of the second floor.

“The cloud-shaped architrave on the northern eaves added a delicate style to this grey-toned, cement stucco apartment building,” Qian’s book notes.

Chinese walking tour guides often describe the building as a “gigantic grey elephant with white teeth.”

As one of Shanghai’s earlier Art Deco practitioners, the French firm also designed a series of other Art Deco apartments, including the Willow Court Apartments on nearby Fuxing Road. 


Apartments offer a peek into the lives of expatriates

According to the 1930s and 1940s “Shanghai Directory,” most residents in the Midget Apartments were expatriates who worked for big Western companies.

In 1941, residents included R. F. Pirard, who worked for Sterns Ld. China Agency, which sold lubricating oils and greases. V. B. Russakoff, another resident, was employed by petroleum company Texaco. R. Berg was a staff member of engineering company Telge & Schroeter.

All three companies were located on or near the Bund. It was typical at the time for Shanghai expatriates to work in that area while living in the quieter western district of the former French Concession.

Even Arthur Kruze, one of the architectural firm’s three partners, was a resident, living in a flat on the fourth floor.

Leonard, Veysseyre & Kruze may be unfamiliar to many, but the firm designed numerous buildings around the city like the classic Cercle Sportif Francais (the annex of the Okura Garden Hotel) and the Bearn Apartments (Shanghai Women Goods Store) on Huaihai Road.

Tongji University researcher Chen Feng has mapped out the lives of the company's three partners in his master's degree thesis.

Alexandre Leonard had studied in the famous L’Ecole des Beau-Arts de Paris while Paul Veysseyre had learned from G. Chedanne. Both of them were wounded in battle during World War I. They met in Shanghai in 1922 and founded this architectural firm.

The youngest partner Kruze, who had been director of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts de L’Indochine, moved to Shanghai in 1933 and joined the firm the next year.

On July 14, 1934, the French newspaper, Le Journal de Shanghai, published a supplement showing more than 60 buildings designed by the firm along with the firm’s group photo and a map of the former French Concession. 

“The firm’s significance in modern Shanghai architectural design is hard to ignore," Chen says. "They achieved great success by demonstrating a new style and perfectly realizing it in architecture. Largely owing to their work, the former French Concession had kept up with global architectural trends."

After studying the firm's buildings designed from 1922 to 1936, Chen has classifies the works into four periods — garden residences from 1922 to 1924, Western classic architecture from 1925 to 1928, Art Deco buildings from 1929 to 1932 and modern works from 1933 to 1936. The Midget Apartment was built in 1931 and is a typical Art Deco creation.

According to professor Zheng Shiling’s book “The Evolution of Shanghai Architecture in Modern Times,” Shanghai was dominated by Western classic styles before modern styles such as Art Deco made an impact in the mid-1920s.

"When most foreign architects still swung between classic and modern styles, French architects embraced the new trend,” Zheng notes.

Professor Qian says the city’s Art Deco architecture transmitted via two channels.

“The elegant and luxurious ‘authentic Arts Decoratifs from Paris’ was introduced by French architects, such as the interior decoration of Cercle Sportif Francais,” he says.

“The decorative architraves on the walls and patterns on the columns
in the vestibule, sculpture atop the column and glistening colorful glass ceiling of the dancing hall, all made you feel the elegance of Paris,” Qian says. “The ‘American Modern Art Deco’ was brought over by Chinese and Western architects from New York and Chicago.” 


Old French Concession gave wealthy folks a fancy playground

Wukang Road is in the former new French Concession, or the western district of the concession. The French Municipal Council gained this vast area by expanding its concession westward as far as today’s Huashan Road in 1914.

The French Concession was created in 1849 on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the British settlement and Shanghai old town. The concession was expanded in 1900 and for the last time in 1914, when its area totaled more than 1,000 hectares.

“The breakthrough point for Shanghai’s modern urban development was the first decade of the 20th century. This period marked the beginning of massive industrialization, a booming population and rapid expansion of urban space. The new French concession thrived from in this period,” says Tongji university associate professor Liu gang, who did his PhD research on the area.

According to the book “Shanghai Wukang Road,” the eastern district of the French concession with Jinling Road as its axis had become commercialized by around 1915. A high-density road network and alleyway houses had also taken shape in the area.

On the contrary, the concession’s western district still looked like countryside, crisscrossed with farms, villages, graveyards and small rivers.

It was planned as a high-end residential zone to accommodate the city’s growing population of wealthy individuals. By the 1920s and 30s, the city witnessed the fastest urban development in its history.

under this background and owing to high construction standards and strict management by the French Municipal Council, the new district, including the neighborhood of Rue de Ferguson (today’s Wukang Road) quickly grew to be an idyllic, convenient community with garden villas and apartment buildings. 

Experts praised it as “the only well-planned, high-quality residential area in old Shanghai.”

“Buildings along Wukang Road were mostly low-density, independent residences, which was rather different from the high-density, mixed-used buildings, such as shikumen, in the city’s earlier settlements and concessions,” Liu says.

“In the 19th century, the urban space was divided by Chinese and foreigners. But after 1900, social groups began to define urban spaces.

“In shikumen, poor people had to live in high density homes because it was cheaper,” Liu continues. “Residents usually exchanged services with each other to keep their costs down. But in the new district, wealthy people were enjoying more space and privacy. They did not rely on their neighbors for a living. With these different urban spaces, and the rich, the poor, the foreigners, the Chinese, men and women all mingling together, Shanghai was a very interesting city.” 


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