Shanghai's garden mansions are rarely open to the public. Usually, their majestic facades are hidden behind tall gates and leafy foliage, adding a mysterious allure to the meandering streets of Xuhui and forming verdant yet hidden pockets among the dense buildings. And though they are relics of a time when Shanghai was home to foreign merchants confined to designated trade concessions, they retain a flair that is distinctly Chinese.
This cultural mix is what guided Prada's restoration of Rong Zhai, a stately mansion tucked in a gated compound on North Shaan Xi Road. The villa, which opened to the public in October, is intended to serve as a venue for cultural exhibitions and performances, and to this end, its vast interiors spaces have been largely left unchanged. The meticulous renovation, completed under the direction of Italian architect Roberto Baciocchi, focused instead on repairing and restoring the original detailing, from chinoiserie elements to ceramic tiling and gilded ceilings. However, the team was careful not to exaggerate the period details, says Prada's head and driving force, Miuccia Prada: "We were especially adamant about preserving the house's subtleties, avoiding gilded pretension."
Roberto Baciocchi, known for his restrained architectural style and the crisp, monochrome interiors of Prada and Miu Miu stores worldwide, selected a team of some 20 Italian and Chinese artisans to undertake the conservation of the building's many ornamental details and structural components, including plasterwork, wooden panelling, stained glass and several types of decorative tiling.
Whenever possible the workers modelled their techniques on the traditional methods used by the craftsmen who built the mansion more than a century ago. The architects felt it was important to maintain the nuances of the original materials while preserving the blend of European and Chinese influences that gives villas such as Rong Zhai their idiosyncratic character.
Though the property is Western in style, the atmosphere inside it, created by diffused light and shadows, is typical of China. "Similar buildings constructed in Europe are sometimes more rigorous, and often the materials used do not 'soften' the spaces," says Baciocchi.
Rong Zhai was built during the early 20th century for a German expatriate who returned to his home country during the First World War. The property's subsequent owner, local business magnate Yung Tsoong-King, remodelled the villa and throughout the 1920s the beaux arts structure was reinforced with concrete, while the rich, eclectic designs of the interior were extended to historicist revival styles and modern art deco embellishments.
When Prada began the restoration in 2011, the property was in a state of neglect. "Many parts had been damaged, but fortunately no very aggressive alterations had been made," says Baciocchi. He and his team began by working on structural reinforcements while at the same time cataloguing the villa's original features and period details. Then, slowly and meticulously, the restoration commenced.
This is an excerpt from “Fashioning interpretation", an article from the January/February issue of Perspective magazine.
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