The grand and gorgeous No. 15 on the Bund is the city's earliest surviving Western Classical building, a bold design by a young architect 110 years ago in 1902. The building is undergoing a renovation which has just completed the facade.
Tired of the plaster fa?ades popular in Shanghai over a century ago, 34-year-old German architect Heinrich Becker used heavy marble and cream-colored enameled tiles to decorate the fa?ade of No. 15. His approach was bold at the time and created a magnificent effect.
The four-story, 5,018 square-meter structure was built for the Russo-Chinese Bank, the only joint-venture bank between the Qing Dynasty's (1644-1911) royal government and foreign capital.
According to "Banking History of the Bund" published by the Huangpu District in 2010, the bank originally known as the St Petersburg Russo-Asiatic Bank was founded in St Petersburg in 1895 with Russian and French capitals.
One year later, the bank opened a Shanghai branch at No. 29 on the Bund. The bank was later joined by the Chinese government as a partner to fund construction of the China Eastern Railway. The bank had employed Yu Qiaqing, an influential Shanghai tycoon, as its comprador.
In 1899 the bank bought the site of No. 15 from the British company Dent & Co and commissioned Becker to build a new Shanghai branch. He was assisted by British architect Richard Seel.
"At that time there was not a classic-style building built with stones on the Bund yet. Experienced architects had laughed at the 'fancy idea' of the young architect," says Lin Yun, chief architect of the renovation, who is from Shanghai Zhangming Architectural Design Firm.
"Moreover, driven by the panic of 'the Boxer Rebellion,' Chinese construction workers ran away from work. Becker had overcome great difficulties to complete No. 15, whose fa?ade and layout were well designed. It was the first Shanghai building that could compete with European counterparts in terms of design, materials and construction. And he was the first man to introduce 100 percent European classic architecture to China."
Like other century-old Bund buildings, No. 15 encountered turns and twists over the past hundred years.
The business of Russo-Chinese bank declined after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and it went bankrupt in 1926 after losing a large sum in foreign currency speculation in Paris financial market. The Central Bank of China founded by the Nanjing Kuomintang government became the new owner of the building in the winter of 1928.
No. 15 had been repaired in 1938 and housed state-owned institutions including several democratic parties after 1949.
After a speedy renovation of only several months, No. 15 became the home of the China Foreign Exchange Trading Center, which was launched in April 1994.
It was the first banking organization to return to the Bund, the former Wall Street of the Far East. The Shanghai Gold Exchange also opened at No. 15 in 2002.
However, the building remained unused after the China Foreign Exchange Trading Center moved to Zhangjiang in the Pudong New Area six years ago. It's now undergoing another renovation to convert it to a venue for business exhibitions and conferences for the site. It is scheduled to reopen by late 2013.
I visited the building during renovation on a late autumn afternoon. Although many of the original architectural details had been boarded up for preservation, the building still looked more beautiful than I had imagined.
The fa?ade is graced by two Ionic columns, four pilasters and two pair of Tuscan-order columns underneath. Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao says the architect may have been inspired by the Petite Trianon, a small, delicate palace built with white limestone and rosy-hued marble in the garden of the Versailles Palace.
The entrance hall contains numerous towering columns and a W-shaped white marble staircase leading to the third floor, which had a stained-glass ceiling. The ceilings are more than five meters high.
I had the opportunity to enter two rooms on the third floor. Room 301 on the east side was embellished lavishly with chestnut-hued carved wood for the wainscotting, door frames, furniture and the entire ceiling. In the dim late afternoon light, I was amazed to find vivid animal patterns on wainscotting; each animal was distinct.
Room 300 next door was in another style. Both the pilasters on the white walls and the white ceiling are highlighted with golden patterns. Like many Bund buildings, the third floor features a lovely balcony that allows visitors to appreciate the river scene in front, with a humid breeze from the "Whampoo."
The city's most famous architecture historian, Luo Xiaowei from Tongji University, described the style of No. 15 as "commercial classical."
Renovation of the 110-year-old building was not easy because there was only one copy of the original basic blueprints, but it only depicted the shape of the building and drainage to Jiujiang Road.
Lin, chief architect of the renovation, made a plan to preserve the original facade, the courtyard, the staircase and decorations in major rooms, including carved wooden ceilings, wall frescoes and patterned floor tiles.
"To repair the broken enameled tiles on the facade, we recreated tiles in three different hues of creamy white to make the subtle differences between the originals and the new ones even less visible," Lin says.
The creator of No. 15, architect Becker, had studied architecture in Munich and lived in Shanghai from 1898 to 1911.
His firm Becker & Baedeker in cooperation with Karl Baedeker designed a range of heritage buildings, including the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank at No. 14 and the Club Concordia at No. 23. Both were demolished, the first to make way for the Bank of Communications, the second for the Bank of China.
Only No. 15, on which he had lavished so much effort, still survives on the Bund.
Hard work paid off. When it was completed in October 1902, a German newspaper published a report calling Becker a dare-to-think architect:
"It was undoubtedly the most solid and expensive building on the whole Chinese coast in history. It was really a breakthrough of architectural achievement. German architects had completed the mission after battling incredible difficulties. From all aspects the building was well-designed and delicately constructed, winning the ultimate honor for two hard-working architects R. Seel and H. Becker."
Yesterday: Russo-Chinese Bank
Present: China Foreign Exchange Center
Built: In 1902
Architect: Heinrich Becker
Tips: Renovation is underway, but the completed facade can be appreciated.