New lease of life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2006, 12:00am

The wooden sign over the door might still read 'Chartered Bank', but the transformation of the decaying colonial relic into a sumptuous retail and restaurant complex has helped revitalise Shanghai's waterfront Bund.

Bund 18 is certainly not the city's first historic structure to be restored and put to commercial use. Last week, however, the project received an Award of Distinction for cultural heritage conservation from Unesco, the UN's cultural organisation. It was the only entry from the mainland to win an award in the Asia-Pacific category this year.

Two Awards of Distinction - one notch below the highest-level Award of Excellence - were given. Hong Kong's St Andrew's Church received an Award of Merit, while the Qing dynasty-styled Liu Ying Lung Study Hall in the New Territories was given an honourable mention.

The Shanghai government realised there was money to be made from renting or selling historic buildings in the early 1990s, but often it is overseas investors who have shouldered the burden of lovingly restoring the structures.

Taiwanese and Hong Kong investors spent US$15 million to create Bund 18 after taking out a long-term lease. The developer, Bund 18 Real Estate Development, invited Italian architectural firm Kokaistudios and a restoration artist to tackle the project. The neoclassical building, built in 1923, is best known for its lofty atrium, marble columns and ornate ceiling.

Unesco said: 'The project's prominent location and subsequent popularity promise not only to redefine the modern face of Shanghai, but also to establish a new benchmark for technical sophistication, conservation rigour as well as commercial success.'

Historical renovation isn't limited to the Bund. New restaurants in old buildings are changing the face of Julu Road, which has been dominated by a strip of sleazy bars.

The latest restaurant to open in a historic mansion on Julu Road is the Foreign Culture Club, following a US$1.3 million makeover funded by a Hong Kong investor.

'All of the old houses are starting to be renovated,' said Foreign Culture Club manager Jerome Le Carrou. 'There are some hidden treasures.' The club groups Mediterranean and Vietnamese restaurants and a French patisserie.

Kokaistudios, the same architect behind Bund 18, extended the front of the building to create a glass-encased dining area on the ground floor, but preserved the rest of the exterior. 'It was something to be here from the beginning: from demolition to renovation to people having dinner,' Mr Le Carrou said.

The restaurant would like to expand the garden to bring greenery right up to the building - now occupied by parking spaces. But some ideas are still too revolutionary, even for Shanghai.