China has been the subject of much architectural news in these past few years. Its no-looking-back race to technological supremacy has left a trail of new constructions, sending glass and steel shooting into the sky and leaving the nation’s history very much in the dust. It is easy to forget that an older China exists, a China that bears the traces of colonialism, and a China fossilized around an older way of life, one that existed prior to that wave of hyper capitalism that came veiled under the guise of communism. Shanghai-based photographer Sue Anne Tay recently visited a century-old villa, tucked away behind one of Shanghai’s busy shopping arteries. Through Tay’s photographic lens, the ancient four-story villa reveals chapters of Chinese history that are frequently overlooked today.
Tay described Shanghainese villa in The Atlantic Cities as “designed in the Queen Anne style with warm orange bricks, an imposing turret and flower motifs running alongside the arcs on the bay windows. A first-time visitor to the city might think he or she wandered accidentally into a private estate in the English countryside.” The telltale signs that one is indeed in China: sticks with clothes hung to dry and clusters of air conditioning units, protruding haphazardly from the ancient façade, not to mention the middle-aged and elderly Chinese residents, dressed in pajamas and calling to each other for a game of mahjong.
Tay goes on to explain how the entire city was once an eclectic blend of Eastern and Western architecture, exhibiting Art Deco, Bauhaus, and French Renaissance styles designs overlaid upon classic Chinese housing structures. Likewise, the villa exhibits a lively blend of Eastern and Western influence; the façade is decorated with vaguely neoclassical elements, agglomerated according to their own logic. Meanwhile, in the interior, intricately carved railing echoes traditional Chinese woodwork as well as Western medieval stone ornament. These historical elements are made even more jarring by the signs of contemporary everyday life: bicycles parked in the stairwell, belongings stowed in the bathroom, and a man in sandals ambling around the wood floors. The villa continues to uphold the stress of over 50 families occupying the structure at once, according to Tay, and it is clear that the building and its residents are struggling to persevere amidst their nation’s rapid transformation.
[All photos © Sue Ann Tay]