Seeing beauty in a beast

In Shanghai’s overheated property market, buyers typically gravitate towards glossy new buildings, and the more luxurious, the better.

But Ms Hebe Ting, a property investor from northern China who moved to Shanghai in 2001, has always been attracted to the traditional, specifically, the fast-disappearing early – 1900’s lane houses in the former French Concession.

“I didn’t want to live in a big new building where everyone has the same things. I wanted something private and special,” said Ms Ting, 40.

So when she first stepped inside a rundown apartment in a quiet lane lined with towering trees in the French Concession in 2006, she immediately saw its potential and launched into a bidding war with another interested buyer on the spot.

“I walked in and within five minutes knew I wanted it,” Ms Ting said. “But someone else was trying to negotiate for the apartment.” She told the owners that she would pay 100,000 yuan ($19,595) over the other buyer’s bid. The owners accepted, and an hour later, she brought them a cash deposit.

The history of the lane was one of the selling points for Ms Ting, who now lives in the apartment with her American boyfriend, Mr Eric Ransdell, 46, a co-founder of Fly Films, a television production company in Shanghai, and the director of the Chinese version of The Amazing Race.

Originally constructed as Japanese luxury apartments in the 1930s, the buildings were taken over by the Communists in 1949 and turned into housing for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of the country’s top research institutions.

In the 1950s, botanists planted more than 100 species of trees in the lane to create a miniature botanical garden.

“The air is different – it’s cleaned by all the trees and plants,” Mr Ransdell said. “The temperature is three to four degrees cooler in the summer.”

But the apartments, many of which are still occupied by octogenarian scientists or their families, have not been very well maintained over the years.

Ms Ting said her apartment, which she bought for five million yuan, was in such disrepair, she decided to gut the space and start anew. The renovations, completed in October 2007 after eight months of work, costing another 900,000 yuan.

Choosing an architect was easy. She hired the boutique firm A00 because she admired the commitment the Canadian co-owners, Messrs Raefer Wallis and Sacha Silva, have towards sustainable architecture, particularly their use of recycled building materials in their projects. “Plus they have really good taste,” she added.

Because the rooms in the 1,184-square-foot apartment were small and dark, Ms Ting’s first priority was to knock down the walls and create an open, loft-like space. Mr Silva then discovered that the apartment was raised several feet off the ground, giving them enough room to build split-levels and increase the size by 538 square feet to 1,722 square feet.

The bedroom and entertainment area are on three-foot-high platforms made of wood salvaged from demolished lane houses in the French Concession; the cavities beneath the platforms are used primarily for storage.

Filling the narrow space between the platforms is a 26-foot-long table, custom built from recycled pine. It spans nearly the length of the apartment, from the kitchen to the stairs leading to the storage rooms.

“Eric always cooks and has big parties so the main thing was to have a big table,” Ms Ting said. It’s also practical for working at home,” she added, motioning to their two desktop computers.

Eight-foot-high windows running the length of the opposite wall allow copious amounts of light into the apartment. They also provide a view of the trees, a rarity in such a dense city.

“I wanted each window to be like a picture,” Ms Ting said. “You open all of them and you’re in a forest.”

Source : Today – 19 Nov 2010

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