1933, the slaughterhouse-turned mixed-use complex, is an Art-Deco/Expressionist masterpiece of function-over-form, and one of Shanghai’s best off-the-beaten-track architectural highlights.
Shanghai is an architect’s paradise. In the run-up to the World Expo 2010, Shanghai alone seemed immune to the worldwide financial crisis: Dubai was “over” with thousands of luxury cars reported abandoned at the airport. The US and western Europe seemed frozen, with little-to-no new construction. While “starchitects” continued to complete the occasional vanity project in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, only one country continued construction unabated, providing not only the occasional glamorous commission for world renowned designers, but more modest (if there is such a thing in the Chinese architecture scene, in 2011) projects for local and expatriate designers alike.
This was the state of the industry in early 2010, when I moved to Shanghai, descending through the clouds into a thick grey-brown haze of construction dust and auto emissions, to find a city where every block seemed to be in process; either of demolition, or of construction, or occasionally, of both, simultaneously.
The theme of constant renewal, this cycle of demolition and construction, will manifest in various ways throughout this series of articles. This week we visit 1933, the slaughterhouse-turned mixed-use complex, an Art-Deco/Expressionist masterpiece of function-over-form, and one of Shanghai’s best off-the-beaten-track architectural highlights.
The success of this complex of restaurants, offices, shops, and event space (imaginatively named after the year of its construction) remains an open question, as it seems only half of the space is filled, and even on weekends one sees few tourists, but as a sensitive architectural restoration, I call it a triumph.
The labyrinthine spaces of the former abattoir make for great photo opportunities, and the system of ramps and bridges make for an incredibly complex circulation sequence and a highly enjoyable spatial experience as one explores the complex.
Though details on its 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 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 the big draw here.
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. These separate paths are subdivided further: each aerial bridge is a different width, to sort cattle by size. The complex circulation of the slaughterhouse is fairly simple when one recognizes these two intertwined paths, and this separation of circulation seems to represent a possible model for contemporary urban design and architecture.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Chinese cities is the hierarchy of space. Shikumen housing provides the clearest example, with large commercial streets ringing blocks divided by small lanes and tiny alleyways, the scale of the space determining the degree of privacy and potential of public access. In a later post I will explore shikumen housing, and I hope to show how the geometry of an urban block can perform the same type of “sorting” operation as the cow-size bridges at 1933: architecture as control-mechanism, shape as security.
Ultimately, an analysis of the circulation paths of the abattoir may 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. I believe this could be a fruitful area of study.
Regardless of the theoretical implications, 1933 remains a great place to explore, simply to enjoy the sequence of spaces.
1933 is located in the Honkou district of Shanghai, in the former International Settlement, at No 10 and No 29 Shajing Rd, accessible from Metro Line 10 & 4 at Hailun Rd, or Line 10 at North Sichuan Rd.
Official Website: http://www.1933shanghai.com/