Asni`eres Art Deco

The 1920s and 30s was a period of intense building in Paris outer districts and in Paris close suburbs. Away from the grand building of Central Paris, buildings in suburbs tend to be a little smaller, with more space around. They are more similar to the ones of Shanghai former French Concession.

As a stopover before flying back to Shanghai, I spent a day in Asni`eres/Seine, a very close suburb to Paris. Asni`ere is familiar for French people, as French standup Fernand Raynaud (1926-19730) mentioned it in one of his most famous pieces, asking for phone number 22 in Asni“eres in the 1950 (see video below).

Like many cities in the Western part of Paris, it was built up before and after WWI, so Art Nouveau and Art Deco are plentiful. Another similar exemple is much more though after Boulogne-Billancourt (see post From Boulogne to Nanjing for more details). Walking around the city, I found a number of nice Art Deco examples.

With such a sunny and hot weather, it felt even more like in Shanghai, surrounded by Art Deco buildings.

Shanghai customs house 1860

Travel books from the late 19th century are a good source of information about Shanghai at the time. However, the engraving that come with them are often wrong or invented. I recently receive the picture below, a extract from French review “Le tour du Monde” (around the World) from 1860. Unlike some others in the same review, this one seems pretty true to the original scene.

The above engraving was made from a painting from Pierre-Eug`ene Grandsire (1825-1905), a well known French painter. As the painter did not travel, it was made from a description or an earlier drawing from French marin officer M de Trévise. The picture must have been a great success, as it was later used for other publications in the UK.

Published in 1860, the picture is a reflection of 1858 or 1859. Control of the Chinese customs was handed to the British in 1854, and in 1857 the Shanghai authorities spent 6800 taels to built the customs office that was located on the Bund. From some sources, it seems that the building was originally a temple on the river side. The engraving is quite similar to the few pictures of the building that there taken later. The shape of the building was kept, though the actual proportions and size of the building is somewhat flawed.

A picture of the early Shanghai customs house, courtesy of https://www.hpcbristol.net/

In 1893, it was replaced by a more western building, as seen below. That building was demolished in 1925 and replaced by the current customs house in 1927.

The 1893 Shanghai Bund customs house (Shanghailander.net own collection)

Short trip to Lyon Art Deco

After 2 years without foreign travel, I was able to get back to France. The trip included a short day in Lyon, with some Art Deco photo opportunities. This post follows another post about Lyon Art Deco from… 2012.

Lyon has a lot of Art Deco architecture (See one of the best sites on the topic… in French only). Unfortunately, I did not have so much time to visit it apart from walking around between business meetings, so I focused on the business district of Lyon 3rd district. The first stop was this beautiful building on Avenue Maréchal de Saxe, that features really of lot of the Art Deco ornaments.

Later I walked up Cours Lafayette, one of the main boulevard leading to Lyon Part-Dieu station. Bordering the 3rd and 6th district, that were developed in the 1920s and 1930s, it really goes trough Art Deco splendors in Lyon and is located very close to Palais de Flore, on the Art Deco Lyon icon.

It was a really short view of Lyon Art Deco, but was a nice a sunny reminder of a style that is so present in Shanghai.

Bucharest Art Deco

Art Deco was a major artistic movement in the 1920’s to 1940’s. Although it was overlooked for decades, attention has come back to it, first in the US, starting with Miami Beach, as well as in Australia and New Zealand (See post Napier Art Deco). In the last ten years, Art Deco has also come back to Europe, including France the original location of the 1925 exposition des Arts Decoratifs. Shanghai Art Deco was celebrated by the 2015 World Congress on Art Deco, with Paris being the location for the 2025 Word Congress, 100 years after the original exhibition.

The rediscovery of Old Shanghai was also a discovery of the Art Deco heritage of the city. As Old Shanghai buildings were uncovered (from add-ons in particular) or restored, they could be classified in various style, with the leading style being Art Deco. The next step was to realize that “unique” Shanghai buildings where unique in Shanghai, but very similar to some in far away places. For a while, I was travelling to various destination, looking for buildings that looked like the Shanghai own, often from the same period. The first post was probably “London recalling“, followed by many trips in Auckland, Sydney, New York, Miami, Paris, Lyon, Budapest, Dijon etc etc. The feeling of Deja Vu was summarized perfectly in ” Deja vu from Paris to Shanghai “, as well as in post “Shanghai flashback“. Although I have reduced travelling for architecture in the last years, friends who lived in Shanghai started to send pictures to me. The latest example, is from Bucharest, from Old Shanghai specialist Peter Hibbard.

Art Deco building in Bucharest… that would look just at home in Shanghai

The above corner building could fit very well in the streets behind the Bund, or near Hamilton House, Grosvenor house or the corner of Avenue Edward VII and Szechuen Road (today Yanan Dong lu and Sichuan Lu). Just like building in Old Shanghai, and most communist countries, it was poorly maintained after WWI, but I am sure it was originally a very high class building.

Another example of Art Deco / modernist similarities is the above corner building in Bucharest, that is quite similar to some in Shanghai, including the Bearn apartment building in Shanghai, buy French firm LVK.

2025 Paris World Congress on Art Deco

Shanghai 2015 World Congress on Art Deco was a major event for the Old Shanghai lover community. Bringing dozens of delegates US, the Americas, Europe and Asia, it focused the Art Deco World’s attention to Shanghai heritage, thanks to organizer Historic Shanghai. It was also a great meeting place for Art Deco people and an introduction to the very few Art Deco societies in France and other European countries to ICADS (now Art Deco International). As explained to post “Art Deco in France” from 2014, Art Deco was not really well recognized in Europe then, particularly in France.

French speaking gathering of the 2015 World Congress on Art Deco

French speakers taking part to the Shanghai 2015 World Art Deco congress gathered for an informal meeting after one of the Congress diners at the former Cercle Sportif Français (today the Okura Garden Hotel). The conversation moved to the plan of having the World Congress on Art Deco in Paris in 2025, that seemed like a distant dream.

Now in 2021, Art Deco in France has gained a lot of exposure in the last years following the first Art Deco exhibition in Paris in 2015, “1925, when Art Deco dazzled the World“. This was followed by a massive Bauhaus exhibition in 2017 “L’esprit du Bauhaus“.

Another major event was creation of Paris Art Deco society, with a Facebook group with 6000 members. A new Art Deco society has opened in Vichy and the media exposure around the re-opening of the renovated Villa Cavrois in Lille area in 2015 shows that Art Deco is now getting a lot of attention in France.

Villa Cavrois, Croix near Lille

The best part is that the 2025 World Art Deco Congress in Paris has been confirmed, starting on 28th April 2025. An early version of the project has already been presented. This event will mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of the original exhibition and will be a great boost for Art Deco in France. The dream from Paris is now becoming reality. Surely a Shanghai delegation will join!

In April 2021, Art Deco International (formerly ICADS) has also introduced the first World Art Deco day, on 28th April. The date was chosen as the anniversary date of the opening of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Lafuente article in Madrid paper

Spanish architect Alvaro Leonardo has been instrumental in the rediscovery of Spanish architect in Shanghai, Abelardo Lafuente. While being in Shanghai, he researched his thesis on his forefather. He has been back in Madrid for a couple of years and his thesis is now completed, though only in spanish. His work is starting to get attention, like in this recent article in major Madrid daily Diaro ABC (in Spanish only).

Like for most Shanghai architects, their legacy was lost for many years and has only recently reappeared. It is then a struggle to find back information and an even bigger struggle to achieve recognition in their home country, so far away and after so many years. Congrats to Alvaro for this article!

Staying on Rue Colbert

Spending a staycation around the Yu Garden area became a great way to enjoy an overlooked part of Old Shanghai, before it disappears. Bordering the Renmin Lu (former Boulevard des deux Républiques), the building hosting the hotel occupied a complete block, with a great view in all directions.

Hotel location on a very old map

Above map shows the location of the block, at the cross Renmin Lu, Xinyong’an Lu and Yong An lu. Although the hotel is mostly known for its proximity to Yu Garden, it’s view on the former French concession that really interested me.

Boulevard des deux républiques (carte 1932)

Renmin lu was originally a canal, like many streets in Shanghai including today’s Yanan Lu (see post “Crossing the Yang Jing Bang” for more details). As the South border of the French Concession, it was called “Quai des fossés”, meaning “pit quay” in English), and was facing the North part of the Shanghai city wall. The city wall was teared down in 1912, the canal was filled and turned into a street called “Boulevard des deux Républiques”, meaning two republics Boulevard, i.e. the French Republic and the newly formed Chinese Republic. The Chinese name was and still ease “Renmin Lu”, republic street. Along with Zhong Hua lu, litteraly China street, making a circle following the former city wall, they form “Zhong Hua Ren Min”, meaning “The people of China”.

Xinyong’an Lu, was one of the early roads of the early French Concession, called “Rue Colbert”. One block down from the main road Rue du Consulat (today Jinling Road), it was the original seat of the Shanghai General hospital. Xinyong Lu was called “Rue Laguerre”, after French Commodore Adolphe Laguerre, who helped liberate Shanghai city from the Small Swords Society in 1855.

The whole area was covered with lanes, or Lilong housing many people and shops. In 1937, the block where the hotel is now located had 1200 inhabitants, with 33 Europeans and 70 shops. Shaped as a triangle, it could offer a very long line of shops. The building was on the border between the Chinese city and the back street of the French Bund. Located close to the Northern gate of the Chinese city, it must have been a great location for shops.

The opposite block was much larger, housed 2000 people including 49 Europeans and only 30 shops. Those Europeans were mostly living in the Saint-Anne building, a long 6 storey building on the side of Rue du Consulat, that was the highest building on this part of the French Concession.

The opposite corner from the sky

It was great to give a last look to this area that is now scheduled for redevelopment, as the opposite corner has already been emptied of its inhabitants and will surely massively change in the coming years. The other side of Route Colbert must have been built with similar kind of housing. A few year ago, this stretch of the street was a great spot for being ribbons, knots, fabrics and was needed for sewing.

wheelbarrows on Rue Colbert (Picture virtualshanghai)

Above picture shows the half way between de rue Laguerre corner and the river. The first building is the back of the Butterfield & Swire godown (warehouse). Being close to the French Bund, or Quai de France, and with a major trading company this part of the street must have been busy with warehouses and coolies. This is very different nowadays as the river front is not used for unloading cargo anymore. Route Colbert nowadays is a much quieter street.

Mr Loo’s pagoda in Paris

Mr Loo, the novel of an Asia art dealer” is a post I wrote in November 2014 about the book by Géraldine Lenain focused on CT Loo the main Chinese antic dealer in the early to mid 20th century and a colorful character (Follow this link to original post for more details). CT Loo lived three nearly parallel lives in China, France and the USA. His former Paris gallery shaped like a pagoda is probably his most visible creation. Modern pictures of the building are easy to find, but I recently found a much older one.

Amazingly, the building existed before taking this shape in 1925. It was of Louis Philippe style building and surely less visible in Paris landscape. The tour de force of CT Loo and architect Fernand Bloch was to turn it into a classical Chinese style building. Inside was also changed to reflect the outside Chinese style. Interestingly, it seems to be the only noticeable building by Fernand Bloch.

Although there is no date for the picture, people’s dress style and the car visible in the picture make it possible to date it to end of the 1920s or early 1930s. This was probably shot in the months or years after completion. At a time when the only pictures of foreign country were black and white, and people did not really travel, it must have been a real shock for Parisians to see it and a great advertising for CT Loo.

Modern view of the pagoda

Being so different from the surrounding buildings, the pagoda is still an amazing view in today’s Paris. The pagoda is located 48 Rue de Courcelles, in Paris 8th district. For more details about the original owner CT Loo, follow this link.

French Master of Shanghai Art Deco

Le Petit Journal Shanghai edition has republished an article about Art Deco in Shanghai, focusing mostly on the work of Léonard, Vesseyre and Kruze firm. I wrote the article together with my friend David Maurizot in 2018.

The article is in French only and can be found following the link below:

https://lepetitjournal.com/shanghai/a-voir-a-faire/promenade-historique-les-maitres-francais-de-lart-deco-shanghai-221435

It’s a great way to enjoy autumn in Shanghai.

Béla Mátrai, Hungarian architect in Shanghai

Having lived for years in Budapest before coming to Shanghai, I still feel connected to Hungary after all those years (see post Budapest Old and New). As explained in post ” Looking for Hudec“, discovering about the Hungarian architect in 2008 was a big surprise and I could see the parallel with my own travel from Budapest to Shanghai, actually visiting Hudec alma mater during one of my trips there. At the same time, it was also an eye opener into the incredible vitality of Hungary’s architecture before and after WW1 (see post Budapest Art Deco for more details).

Thanks to the research of the Livia Szentmartoni Consul for Culture at Consulate General of Hungary in Shanghai, it turns out that Hudec was not the only Hungarian architect in town. Her 2019 book as put Karoly Gonda’s work into light, and while both Hudec and Gonda came from Hungary, there was little connection beetween both. 2020 brought news of another Hungarian architect in Shanghai, Béla Mátrai.

Picture National Archives of Hungary / János Mátyás Balogh

Just like Hudec, Mátrai was a Hungarian trained architect, taken prisonner during WW1, sent to Siberia and finally arriving in Shanghai in the 1920s. It is unknown whether both men knew each other before Shanghai, but Mátrai worked a number of years for Lászlo Hudec firm. He is part of the team creating Park Hotel, a project that lasted from 1929 until completion of the building in 1934. Mátrai was listed as “field assistant to Laszlo Hudec” (source Poncellini 2007). Although unverified, it is very likely that he was also involved in other major Hudec projects before Park Hotel, including The Grand Theater and the Women College of Université Aurore.

In a similar way to Hudec a few years before, he left Hudec firm sometime in the early 1930s to create his own firm. One of his first design was the Modernist apartment building on 273 Route Culty (today Hunan Lu), completed in 1934. He had is office on 278 Route Culty, on the other side of the street.

273 Hunan Lu – Picture Livia Szentmartoni

Interestingly, I had recently visited an apartment in this building, while noticing the floor tile pattern (see post “More on tile pattern” for more details). Here is below a picture of the South garden side, that cannot be seen from the street.

The design of the apartment was very modern with 2 large bedrooms, a large combined dining and sitting room. Kitchen was very much in original condition, including the original wall mounted foldable ironing board. The apartments in this building also have an underground cellar, which is very rare in Shanghai.

The large South oriented windows gave a lot of light and a very modern feeling. I am not sure how it feels with the cold and damp Shanghai winter, though. It was definitely a modern apartment for a wealthy modern family in the 1930s.

According to official Hungarian sources, Mátrai married a Russian lady in 1924. They had 2 children, Margit & Jeno. They divorced in 1935 and Mátrai married Lucy (Ludmila) Dobrjansky. At the end of his time in Shanghai, he sent his children away in 1947 and left Shanghai on 13th March 1948. He settled with Lucy in Glen Ellen (Sonoma, California). Lászlo Hudec settled and died in Berkeley, California… about 80 km away. Somehow, Mátrai followed Hudec path for most of his life.