The atmosphere of an authentic Shanghai of the past are still encased in the precious grid of the lilongs, the narrow streets of the historical city. Many have vanished, but others have survived the sweeping changes of urban development, without succumbing to the advance of skyscrapers and temples of luxury shopping. This atmosphere can be clearly grasped in the new headquarters of the international communication agency Attila&Co, which carves out a space inside a typical courtyard building rooted in the Chinese architectural and urban tradition, in the large panoramic historical area of Hengfu.
Between art deco and modern contaminations
The construction, consisting of two merged buildings, was built in 1923 during the period of the French Concession and, over the course of almost a century, has maintained its original position and identity, welcoming art deco elements and more contemporary influences. "It is curious to discover from the satellite maps from 1948 to today, how many nearby buildings have been demolished, modified, rebuilt, but not the House of Attila", explains Andreina Longhi, founder and CEO of the Milan-based communication agency since 1981. .
Beauty and authenticity
“Who knows, perhaps it was the result of the intolerance of the former owner, or the protective attitude of the local residents. We like to interpret this immutable persistence as a refuge for beauty and authenticity: a destiny involving our encounter with the place. Those who have known, visited and loved our first office-showroom on Yongnian Road will find the same passion for the true China here. That of simple people, of the life that flows in every alley, where behind every door you can glimpse young and old people, always busy, always with big smiles that go straight to the heart.”
Packed with stories from the past and those yet to happen, the Attila space extends for about 438 square meters on two levels, around a classic courtyard-garden of the oriental tradition. It has been refurbished with sensitivity and respect, down to the smallest details, by Nathan Hou/Nothing Studio. “We wanted to protect the timeless charm of the Shanghai Shikumen style in a building that is almost 100 years old, using salvaged materials and modern techniques to connect past and present, the functional needs of a workplace in the Internet era and the values of a different culture,” says the designer.
The successful dialogue between languages and traditions immediately urges visitors to grasp all the nuances, layers and complex relationships. After the entrance with its marble frame cut into a perimeter wall in brick, with alternating gray and red tones to underscore – in the Chinese style of the past – the threshold between public and private space, those who enter find themselves immersed in an introverted garden-courtyard surrounded by plants with solid roots and vivid green leaves, set off by the black and white figurative motif of the mosaic paving.
Shapes and symmetries
This axis of reference of the narrative pathway interacts with the elevations of both the buildings, placed in a symmetrical way with respect to the central façade with the entrance. The façades feature large windows and glass doors, with segments framed in solid wood salvaged from dismantled buildings, and stringcourse decorations in dark, intense wood, continuing on all the sides, examples of the exceptional craftsmanship of oriental architecture. The correspondences between forms and symmetries become constant motifs, which are also mutable in the internal space. The offices created in the two lateral wings of the building on the ground level, though separated from the central welcome zone, communicate with each other thanks to glass and white partitions that echo – in a modern tone – the geometric grid of the outer façade.
What changes is the tone of perception of the rooms, dominated by pure white on the walls and the pale wood of the furnishings, in tune with the golden hues of the recycled wood floors assembled in a herringbone pattern. The forceful contrast to the material-chromatic palette of the exteriors produced an effect of contracted fluidity, enhanced by the natural light that penetrates the internal and perimeter glazings, updated with custom double glass to improve energy efficiency in the spaces equipped with climate control systems.
The mood shifts again on the first floor, where the opening of the walls on both sides of the corridor produces an effect of spatial expansion, immediately perceived after passing the glass parapet of the internal staircase. In what has become a single dematerialized open-plan area of great visual impact, besides the light the other protagonist of the story is still wood, with a grid of tall pillars setting the pace of an area of about 150 square meters for relational activities and events. The upper level is discreet and secluded, almost secret, surrounded by roof tiles and boasting a small balcony in classical style outside, taking on the prestigious role of a lounge: the most private space, full of retro details and decorative elements that pay homage to the Italian identity of the mother company.
Like the marvelous chandelier in blown glass from the Milanese headquarters of the agency, which establishes a new dialogue with the solid wood of the original salvaged beams of the suspended ceiling. The most welcome guest of all is sunlight. “At any time of day, the light enters silently, even mischievously, through the squared pattern of the windows in dark wood,” Andreina Longhi remarks, “producing natural decorations that enchant visitors and accompany the working day.”
Project Nathan Hou / Nothing Studio - Photos courtesy Bono Yan