Hong Kong-based architect Philip Liao has a reputation for resurrection. His firm Philip Liao and Partners has offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong that concentrate on a wide range of jobs including large-scale residential developments. Yet it is his revitalisation projects that have been demanding attention. Already honoured twice by the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Awards for breathing innovative new life into Hong Kong’s Bethanie and Tai O Heritage Hotel, his master plan for the ongoing Bishop’s House project in Central adapts an old with new approach.
It is no wonder that an Art Deco 1930s gem in the heart of Shanghai caught his eye when he was out on a stroll one day. Located south of Yu Yuan Lu, it is a short walk to Jiangsu metro station and just outside the buzz of the Jing’an district. The 80-year-old, 8,600-square foot, four-storey stand-alone house boasts a large garden in the rear, and previously belonged to a single owner until Liao purchased it. “From what I heard about its history, the family had a son who went to Germany to study locomotive engineering,” says Liao. “When he returned to Shanghai, he built two houses side by side for his family: one was this house. The site is famous. It was a former stronghold of the Kuomintang and there used to be a lot of spies within the compound. Next to the houses was the logistics department of the Kuomintang, which is now used by the People’s Liberation Army.”
Liao loved that the Bauhaus style with curving planes so influential to European architecture throughout the 1920s and ’30s made its way to a Shanghai abode. “You can really see the influence of German engineering in the details,” he says. “For example, the metal window grills are typical of Art Deco styles from that era. The house also has a lot of Chinese characteristics. It is really a fusion of East and West. For a house of its time, its spatial relationships and proportions are very good and the sequences of spaces are comfortable. I’ve been to many others that are like dark mazes. This one immediately felt good when I walked through it. The rooms are bright and airy, with high ceilings. And you don’t see too many large gardens attached to Shanghai houses. This one had a huge terrace along its south façade that looked out to the garden.”
After consulting with his brother, Liao wasted no time in contacting the agent and making the deal. “My mother comes from Shanghainese stock and the original owner’s family members were very happy to sell to us after hearing her ability to speak in the Shanghainese dialect during the transaction,” recalls Liao. He then proceeded with renovating the house to suit his family’s needs while keeping as much of the original architecture as possible. To go with the original grey brick tiles, he chose travertine due to its porous, anti-slip nature and classic aesthetic as it gracefully ages. “I added an outdoor swimming pool: Shanghai summers can be very hot,” Liao explains. As the house had no existing plans to work from, he went about drawing up his own during the conversion from a single family dwelling to three separate apartments: one on the ground floor with direct access to the garden, one on the second and one that combines the third and fourth floors.
Lessons to Learn
“It would be difficult to find a single tenant for a house this big,” he says. “One of the things I love about this house is that every storey has access to outdoor spaces via balconies or terraces. We converted the attic into one large room with an ensuite bathroom and heated flooring. It is magical to be lying in the bathtub watching snow fall softly into the connecting terrace. The house is a bit of an urban oasis. Since it’s not on the main street, all you hear is the waterfall at night. Yet it couldn’t be more conveniently situated. You can literally walk out and be dining at some of Shanghai’s best restaurant in a matter of minutes. The only equivalent neighbourhood for luxury and convenience in Hong Kong is Kadoorie Hill — and many of the houses there are a fraction of the scale.”
Currently the house is occupied by his brother’s family (and Liao whenever he needs a place to crash) as well as a French tenant; the latter takes up two apartments in the house. “The expat community in Shanghai enjoys these types of character historic flats,” notes Liao. He also believes that Hong Kong can learn from Shanghai when it comes to preserving its heritage architecture yet making it relevant for how people live and work today. The government should start by allowing different usages for its residential buildings. “There are a lot of conversions in Shanghai where historic buildings are being converted into offices as well as residences for contemporary living. The amazing thing about Shanghai is its abundance of historical buildings and its discernable East meets West architectural culture. Adaptive reuse along The Bund and Huaihai Lu has been particularly successful. Its equivalent of the Antiquities Advisory Board does a better job than Hong Kong: if there is a bronze plaque on the building, no one can touch it much less build a skyscraper there.”