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Stately red-brick wonders retain original charm
By Michelle Qiao

The red-brick Ampire & Co Building is Lin Yun’s favorite building on Yuanmingyuan Road. “It’s like cutting a cake,” says Lin, an architect who authored the book “Shanghai Waitanyuan Historical Buildings.”

“Each layer is different and beautiful. From both a horizontal or vertical angle, the visual effect is refined and you simply want to admire it longer and longer.”

Ampire & Co Building is a 4-story, wood-and-brick structure built in 1907. Not much is known about the building’s early history, but Lin says the tenants included the Panama Legation and the Rubber Trade Association.

According to Shanghai Urban Construction Archives, the building was named after the Swiss trading firm Ampire & Co, which imported chemicals to China and had an office here. The building’s original owner is not known, adding a certain mystique to the address.

“The building features two round rooms with curved wooden gates, very rare,” says Lin, who is also impressed by the brickwork and delicate details on the staircase, ceiling and fireplace. “Even the windows range from straight lintels to brick arches and key stones. But all these details reveal subtle connections with each other.”

Lin’s favorite edifice also has a connection with neighboring Yuanmingyuan Apartment, another wood-and-brick structure designed in 1904 by Algar & Beesley.

Both buildings are defined in the Queen Anne style, which originally indicated a furniture style popular during the reign of Britain’s Queen Anne (1702-14). The style came back in vogue during a renaissance of British artistic and architectural design in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao.

“The architects drew inspirations from local buildings in the suburbs of London or English countryside, instead of French and Italian architectural textbooks,” Qian says. “They used local stones and red bricks. The buildings feature scrolls, curved gables, broad cornices, white protruding windows and refined wood window lattices, with classic or Baroque decorations only at the entrance.”

Another signature building of this style was No. 19 on the Bund, the former Palace Hotel and today’s Swatch Art Peace Hotel.

However both Ampire & Co Building and Yuanmingyuan Apartment were in poor condition before the Rockbund project kick started renovations in 2007, according to Lin.

“Yuanmingyuan Road was filled with trash and shabby attics illegally built by residents. Even the signature red-brick walls had been covered with three layers of pink coating. Despite that I could still see it was a well designed building,” Lin says.

UK-based David Chipperfield Architects sent two experts from its office in Germany after winning the Rockbund renovation project. The goal was to identify surviving heritage buildings on Yuanmingyuan and Huqiu roads so that they could be restored.

Chen Libin, Shanghai office manager of David Chipperfield Architects, says the renovation was difficult and slow because the bricks walls were also coated with lacquer.

“This was not only ugly, but also sped up the erosion of the red bricks because the lacquer trapped the dampness inside,” Chen says.

Probably owing to the cheap labor in old Shanghai, the buildings artfully used dozens of strangely shaped bricks, which subsequently required much more work during the restoration project. Chen says the old bricks were made in England and were used as ballast because many ships returning from Europe early last century were empty.

A cheaper and easier solution, Chen says, was to simply repair the bricks with brick powder, which has been done for other old buildings including the renovation of the former British Consulate General. Chen says this created another problem as the brick powder was a different color to the original bricks.

Facing a wall of greatly deteriorated bricks, Chen and his team decided to keep the original bricks if the rotted part was less than 5 millimeters. New bricks were used for the remainder for the sake of architectural safety.

The firm teamed up with the Architecture Conservation Laboratory of Tongji University to get the color of the new bricks to match. They experimented many times before finally creating the ideal bricks in a factory in Yixing, Jiangsu Province.

“I find it interesting that both Ampire & Co Building and Yuanmingyuan Apartment were made in the ‘Shanghai style’ that is to say economical and practical. The front façade was finely designed and used the expensive red bricks. The back was rather plain with cheap grey bricks,” Chen says, chuckling.

Chen says another building identical to Yuanmingyuan Apartment was behind it and in better condition. But it was demolished because it was on Huqiu Road, which was regarded as the back of the Rockbund project. Chen’s team used some bricks from this building in the restoration of Yuanmingyuan Apartment.

Today the auction firm Christie’s has an office and showrooms on the ground floor of Ampire & Co Building while Yuanmingyuan Apartment will soon house a jewelry store. Each building also has a high-end Chinese restaurant on the upper floors.

Take a stroll along the streets around the Bund to uncover a world of great architectural beauty that stands the test of time.

Ampire & Co Building and Yuanmingyuan Apartment

Yesterday: Ampire & Co Building and Yuanmingyuan Apartment

Today: Ampire & Co Building and Yuanmingyuan Apartment for Rockbund

Architectural style: Queen Ann style

Architect: Algar & Beesley for Yuanmingyuan Apartment

Built: In 1907 and 1904

Address: 97 and 115 Yuanmingyuan Rd

Tips: Observe the similarities and different nuances of the two buildings. I love the color of the red bricks when cast under the light of street lamps.

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