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Project Profile


2009 Award of Merit

Huai Hai Lu 796

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Project Title: Huai Hai Lu 796

Location: Shanghai, China

Size: 4,500 square metres       
Cost: Approximately US$ 15,070,000

Responsible PartyRichemont Group (Alain Lee, Didier Battiston) and Kokaistudios (Filippo Gabbiani, Andrea Destefanis)

Heritage Architect: Kokaistudios

Contractor: Shanghai Construction Decoration Group

Date of Completion: September 2008

Project Synopsis

Located off one of Shanghai’s busiest commercial roads, in the former French concession of the city, the complex at 796 Huai Hai Lu is comprised of an amalgamation of buildings, dominated by two Neo-classical villas set in a landscaped garden.

The 1920s-era villas were built independently, with the first one completed in 1921. Built six years later, the second intentionally replicated the original in nearly all of its details. The symmetry of the buildings led to their designation as the “Twin Villas”. The other buildings on the site, including an incomplete concrete structure dating from the 1990s, reflect the site’s evolution over the years.

Following the restoration of the complex, the buildings today serve a variety of purposes, including an art gallery, retail outlets, a private member club and restaurant, and a garden.

Conservation Approach

Thorough research of the original character, materials and surfaces by means of a detailed site survey was the key thrust of the planning phase. The survey results proved not only a useful reference tool for the restoration but also helped inform the process of integrating the twin villas into their physical and historical context. These results were combined with designs by an architectural firm to meet the requirements of the property’s new uses. The final project combined the functional requirements of the property’s new uses with the heritage requirements of both the city and the owners themselves.

The owners and architects shared the vision that the villas be returned to their original 1920s appearance and configuration, and be restored in accordance with the highest possible standards. The project gave a priority to the reclamation and reinsertion of original features and finishes and the careful retrieval of still extant elements.

Occupied for many years as offices, the villas, which are connected at the rear by a corridor, had belonged to a succession of owners and had been altered in various ways over the years. The building façades, in particular, had been subject to several uninformed repairs. Most significant of these was the application of modern concrete stucco in place of the original, softer “Shanghai plaster”. In the restoration, the reinstatement of the original plaster surface was a high priority as was the reintroduction of many other historic building details, including window and door treatments.

The fact that most of the original surfaces of the exterior of the villas had been covered by layers of concrete render presented the conservation team with the enormous task of removing this inappropriate addition. This preliminary work demanded a high level of commitment and concentration and helped set the standards for the remainder of the project. With directions from conservation experts, local artisans reapplied the original Shanghai plaster surfaces, using age-old techniques, and duplicated the terrazzo-like appearance of these surfaces.

Other features required a similar degree of care in the execution of the work. This included the conservation of the intricately carved woodwork of the main staircase balustrades, which were cleaned and carefully restored by hand using traditional techniques. All of the original steel windows, doors and brass handles were in poor condition and required re-engineering by local artisans. Workers overhauled the windows and, depending on their condition, repaired and re-installed the originals or replaced them with exact replicas. The project’s designers insisted upon the replication of the original screws and nails, all of which added to the sense of authenticity conveyed by the completed work.

Rather than simply demolish the half-finished concrete structure that made up part of the complex of buildings, the project’s designers chose to turn this feature into an art gallery, thereby offering another amenity for the site’s owners and visitors. The vocabulary of the historic villas served as the template for the rehabilitation of the concrete gallery, with each feature and material used on the gallery complementing those of the original structures without necessarily copying them.

The juxtaposition of the older villas and the 1990s gallery space provides an interesting commentary on the relationship of old and new, conservation and development. The completed property sets a precedent as an outstanding example of restoration at its highest level and it is expected that the twin villas will continue to be enjoyed for many generations to come.

Conservation and the Community

Although serving a commercial function, much of the complex is visible and open to the public. This includes the garden setting created as part of the combined restoration and rehabilitation effort.

Collaboration between international experts and local artisans was a hallmark of the project, allowing for the sharing of knowledge across countries and professions. The project also attracted interest from local universities, students from which visited the project during and after the project period.

Quote from the Project Team

“To restore and renovate historic buildings is an architectural practice that is not codified by fixed rules or methodologies but is based on one simple open principle, namely that each building has been designed with different intentions, built with different methodologies and materials, and has passed through a unique history of events and damages.”