A Restored Villa in Shanghai Opens its Doors
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.
Yung’s occupancy of the property came to an end with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). While he was forced to flee, the residence itself was spared from bombing – perhaps due to its proximity to the Japanese Consulate-General – and following the formation of the People’s Republic of China, it was rented for many years by the Chinese Economic Research Institute.
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.
In the dining room, for instance, Baciocchi copied the profile of existing fragments to recreate missing portions of the ceiling cornice, creating a vintage effect with a lime surface coating. He then concealed modern wiring and the ventilation system within the elaborate cornice, enhancing functionality without compromising the room’s early-20th-century appearance.
In the meeting room, the focal point is an original ceramic tile fireplace, framed by a hand-carved sculptural ornament made from solid teak. To restore the incised pattern, workers painstakingly removed a coat of paint and repaired the missing sections with wood treated to match the colour of the antique surface.
The ballroom also proved to be a challenge: the massive 45sqm stained-glass skylight had to be completely removed. The team replaced broken and missing pieces with vintage glass, and reinforced the metal support structure. In this way, the renovation continued, room by room.
But while the restoration aimed to emulate the building’s original features in a sympathetic way, the nature of the restoration was open to interpretation, particularly when it came to the chinoiserie-style detailing found in the meeting room and other areas of the villa. Restoring original imitations of Chinese embroidery within a Western-style villa built in China must have given pause for thought – what, indeed, is the true ‘original’?
But Prada does not appear to have dwelt too much on such matters. The company sees the project as a testament to its ongoing commitment to China and, more generally, to the arts. Since 1995 Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli have been running the Milan-based Fondazione Prada as a way to bridge the worlds of fashion and art, and architecture has played a central role in this mission.
“It must be remembered that architecture represents a way through which Prada expresses its identity,” says Stefano Cantino, the company’s strategic marketing director. Since the early 2000s, Prada has enlisted architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & De Meuron to design flagship stores in New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The company also has extensive experience with historic preservation projects, including Milan’s 19th-century luxury shopping arcade Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Ca’ Corner della Regina on the Grand Canal in Venice.
“The restoration of Rong Zhai combines that experience in historic building,” says Miuccia, while according to Roberto Baciocchi, the spheres of fashion and architecture are united through insistence on quality. “Fashion and architecture are visible expressions of a constantly evolving lifestyle,” he says. “The methodology applied to the project was in perfect tune with the Prada style, with its focus on quality and attention to detail.”
This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Perspective magazine