Recording his city's rich architectural heritage has been a demoralizing task for Shanghainese photographer Deke Erh. While Art Deco buildings in Miami, New Zealand's Napier and even the Eritrean town of Asmara are lovingly tended, Shanghai has demolished scores of equally historic structures in its headlong rush for modernity. "I've been taking photographs of old Shanghai for 20 years, and I've continually seen these things torn down," says Erh. "But I still have hope. Even today, Shanghai has more Art Deco buildings than any other city in the world. If I didn't have hope, I'd have to give up."
The publication of Erh's self-funded new book Shanghai Art Deco is testament to the 47-year-old photographer's determination in the face of the city's merciless wrecking ball. In 320 pages and over 1,000 photographs, Erh and other photographers capture many of the city's surviving historic residences, hotels, cinemas and municipal buildings—creating a sweeping survey of the architectural and cultural treasures that could be threatened by relentless development. "When these buildings went up in the 1920s and '30s, a great deal of money and thought went into creating a beautiful city," says Erh. "Since then, so many new skyscrapers have gone up haphazardly without any aesthetic plan. I just want to show those in power how things could be."
Erh would like things to be as they once were. Emphasizing clean, uncluttered shapes and simplified lines to express the dynamism of the mechanical age, Art Deco first gained recognition in 1925 at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Within a few years, its influence had spread to Shanghai, at a time when the "Paris of the East" was largely under the control of Western powers. With close to 4 million inhabitants, 1930s Shanghai was the fifth-largest city in the world and the most cosmopolitan place in China. To reflect the era's gin-and-jazz culture, Shanghai's architects turned their backs on the pompous colonial edifices of yesteryear and embraced the modern sophistication of Art Deco. It was a prolific but short-lived phenomenon. When Mao Zedong's communists seized control of the country in 1949, the clampdown on Shanghai's foreign influences was total, and a period of isolationism began.
"For almost 40 years Shanghai was cut off from the world," says Tess Johnston, a 75-year-old American who has lived in Shanghai for more than two decades and who wrote the text for Erh's book. "Now that the city has a chance to catch up, it is looking to the future and neglecting the past. If things don't change, everything that makes Shanghai unique will be lost forever."
Shanghai Art Deco is the eighth collaboration by Erh and Johnston. Though their previous works, all celebrating and recording Western architectural influences on Chinese cities, were published only in English, this book is bilingual. "The others were really aimed at a foreign market, but it's important for me to spread my ideas about conservation to the Chinese population," says Erh. It's not yet a lost cause, adds Johnston, noting that an increasing number of Shanghainese are finally recognizing the value of the more mature buildings in their midst—not least because foreign professionals are willing to pay top dollar to rent them. "Perhaps purely economic incentives might actually save old Shanghai yet," she says.
An awareness of the contribution of Chinese architects may also make the Shanghainese look at these buildings in a new way, for not all were shaped by colonial hands. Though prerevolutionary Shanghai's most high-profile proponents of Art Deco were non-Chinese—including Hungarian architect Ladislaus Hudec and the French architecture firm of Leonard, Veysseyre and Kruze—Erh brings to light the forgotten Chinese architects of the period, such as Benjamin Chih Chen, Shen Chao and Chuin Tung, all graduates of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s. As founders of Allied Architects, the city's most famous Chinese-owned design firm, the trio was responsible for the imposing Chekiang First Commercial Bank, completed in 1948. Erh also highlights the delightful Chinese Aviation Association building, which the U.S.-trained Chinese architect Dong Dayu designed in the shape of a stylized aircraft of the mid-1930s. Today the structure is a military hospital.
The release of Erh's book was timed to coincide with one of the world's biggest architectural-appreciation gatherings—the annual Art Deco Weekend organized by the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL). This year's event, held over three days in January, was entitled "East Meets West: Art Deco from Shanghai to Miami," and featured an exhibition of Erh's images of both cities. "Shanghai and Miami Beach share a great deal in common," explains the MDPL's spokesman Scott Timm. "They are both economic and business centers for their regions, represent a blending of cultures and both contain a large number of Art Deco structures that must coexist with growing pressure for high-rise development."
Erh hopes the spate of publicity generated overseas for Shanghai's Art Deco tradition might serve to boost his conservationist cause. But getting Shanghai itself to take notice is a slow process. A delegation of Shanghainese officials—representing government, urban planning, preservation and business development—attended the Miami event. "I invited them all to see the same exhibition in Shanghai, and they never came," says Erh. "It's a joke. I spent $3,750 of my own money to ship the pictures to Miami, when they could have seen them right here in Shanghai."