Old slaughterhouse revamped as creative centre

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2007, 12:00am

Where there was once death, Paul Liu is trying to create life by turning an old British-designed slaughterhouse into a centre of creativity.

In the 1930s, workers herded cows, pigs and sheep, brought by barge on a nearby tributary of Suzhou creek, up five flights of ramps in the building to be slaughtered to feed Shanghai's swelling population.

Now the structure will serve another purpose, offering an alternative to rampant commercialism in a city that is booming once again.

In doing so, Mr Liu and his partners hope to give new life to a long-forgotten area of Shanghai's northern Hongkou district.

Hongkou, previously known as Hongkew, was the northern part of the International Settlement. It has historically been considered a 'low corner' area, where slums mixed with mansions for foreigners.

Japanese forces moved around 16,000 Jewish refugees into a ghetto in the district in 1943.

Mr Liu, a former banker and one of the driving forces behind the Three on The Bund restaurant and retail complex, first saw the derelict slaughterhouse on a gloomy Shanghai winter's day in 2005. The building resembles a circular amphitheatre surrounded by a square, linked by more than 20 bridges.

'We looked up and I saw all these bridges connecting the square building to the round building. The result is an incredible architectural legacy left behind for us to work with,' he said.

After two years of work and a US$20 million renovation, the complex - dubbed '1933' for the year the original building was finished - will formally open next year, although it has already hosted events.

Axons Concepts, the company Mr Liu heads, is handling the restoration and management of 1933.

The building is controlled by the local government-backed Shanghai Creative Industry Centre and owned by Shanghai hotel operator the Jin Jiang Group.

Renovations included blasting away the pink plaster and removing temporary structures put up by previous tenant, the last a state-owned pharmaceutical company, from 1970 to 2002.

The facade, which has elements of art deco, has re-emerged in its original glory with a geometric design replicating the building itself - circles within squares.

The intention was to modernise the building but not erase its legacy as a slaughterhouse. It will retain the ridged ramps and imperfections in the raw concrete.

The management will lease out nearly half the space as offices to creative industries, such as architecture, graphic arts, fashion design, art and communications. Law firms, trading houses and accounting firms will have to look elsewhere.

The challenge will be to bring firms and visitors to the destination, even though the famed Bund can be seen from the top of the building.

'There is a psychological leap once you cross Suzhou creek. If we do execute what we planned, people will want to come here,' Mr Liu said.

A massive theatre has been installed on the top floor of the circular building, with space below for exhibitions and possibly a private club open for people in the creative industries.

Part of the complex will be given over to restaurants, including a steak house, in keeping with the original use of the building.

Space has also been reserved for education, such as venues for lectures and courses, and shops.

Mr Liu insists he is not trying to recreate the Bund, now occupied by luxury shops and financial firms, or Xintiandi, an entertainment district of restored lane houses which has become a playground for tourists.

'In Shanghai, oftentimes creative zones are actually real estate projects masquerading as creative zones,' he said. 'We're trying to create a destination where people can come and not just spend money but take something away, something that can give them some inspiration.'