Architects like Hudec and Veysseyre are well-known to Shanghai Art Deco-philes. Less well-known are the Chinese architects who built 20th century Shanghai, but they left just as impressive a mark on our landscape.
Prominent on this list is Robert Fan, 范文照 (Fan Wenzhao), one of several Chinese architects to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s renowned architecture school. Born in Shanghai in 1893, Fan was heavily influenced by his UPenn professor Paul Philippe Cret, who was trained in the Beaux-Arts style. Beaux-Arts is a Neoclassical style that emphasizes sculptural decoration and extravagant detail, and one favored by the pre-Art Deco age: the Neoclassical style is on many buildings along Shanghai’s Bund.
Fan graduated from UPenn in 1921 and upon his return to Shanghai, he teamed up with fellow architect and UPenn alum Zhao Chen to open one of the first Chinese architectural practices in Shanghai. Although they eventually opened separate firms, Fan and Zhao worked together to design the Nanking Theater in 1930, a Beaux Arts building now called Shanghai Concert Hall on the outskirts of People’s Square. The following year, Fan strayed from the Beaux Arts style but stuck to tradition with his design of the Chinese YMCA (now the Marvel Hotel), which combined typical elements of Chinese architecture with Modern lines.
Aside from his own firm, Fan worked with the government on several occasions. He served as a member of the Committee of the Nanjing City Planning Bureau in 1929 and as a technical expert at the Ministry of Railways in Nanjing in 1932; he was responsible for both the Railway and Health Ministries here as well.
Eventually Fan abandoned his Beaux-Arts training for the increasingly popular Modernist style, promoting function over aesthetics. In 1933, he completed the Yafa Court apartment complex (253 – 267 Wuyuan Road). Fan’s family owned the Art Deco buildings and lived in one for a time. The apartments were advertised as having “modern sanitation, central heating, hot and cold water, Westinghouse refrigerators, and garages” (Shanghai Art Deco, Deke Erh and Tess Johnston). Fan also designed the Georgia Apartments (1942) on Hengshan Road, whose clean lines and lack of ornamentation are an excellent example of the third generation of Art Deco.
After tours to Europe and the United States in the mid 1930s, and perhaps also because of the antics of the rising Communist party, Fan became critical of the Chinese architectural style and further embraced modern, Western architecture. Shanghai’s Majestic Theater, built in 1941, is pure Art Deco, although its main lobby has since been ‘renovated’ to appear more classical than modern. Fan remained in Shanghai until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when he migrated to Hong Kong. There, he continued his successful architectural career, with several landmark buildings to his name – including Art Deco ones. But that is another story. –With special thanks to Maureen Fan, Robert Fan’s granddaughter, for photographs and information.