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Richard Paulick and the Remaking of a Greater Shanghai 1933–1949

Coffee table with abstract murals, Modern Homes, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

Known as a great designer, a convincing planner, a beloved educator, a resourceful leader, it is arguable, however, whether considered in terms of identity, ideology and style, if Richard Paulick (1909–1979) can be listed as a true Bauhausler. Paulick had always felt himself as “other” from his peers. A GDR modernist, who devoted the latter half of career to the industrialization and standardization of housing, and planning and building socialist new towns, yet whether during his Shanghai exile or later in Berlin, Paulick sometimes camouflaged his political ideals, which were of a decidedly mixed nature.

He claimed himself a true Marxist, while also serving as “a court-decorator of (Jewish) tycoon Sassoon’s and other local grandees”1during his time in Shanghai from 1933 to 1949. He was still suspected as a Bolshevik when he applied to migrate to the United State after the end of the Second World War, and while working for the Chinese Nationalist Government (as well as for American Missionaries). His politics shifted stylishly to fit the time and situation.

Examining his works, words and practice, it is clear Paulick was a modernist. This is especially true of his sixteen years in Shanghai. During the war years Paulick had rich opportunities for practicing in a variety of disciplines, and in doing so was able to transplant concepts from the modernist movement, profoundly shaping the future of Shanghai and influencing the academic and professional circles in which he moved. This article traces his life and work in Shanghai, inquiring into the “other modernity” that he developed during that period, especially during his work on the Greater Shanghai Plan from 1946 to 1949. I argue his experience in Shanghai shaped his way of thinking in the years following his return to Germany.

The Shanghai Exile

Dining Room, Modern Homes design published on China Journal, Vol. 3, 1936.

In the summer of 1933, Richard Paulick, the son of an SPD official and himself politically active on the left, hurriedly left Berlin. Transferring in Venice to the Asia-bound ocean liner SS Conte Rosso, he disembarked some weeks later at Shanghai’s Hongkou Harbor.2 Shanghai at the time was expanding at extraordinary speed, being that the city served as both a treaty port and a haven for refugees entering China. Meanwhile the Chinese hinterland was under-going great economic, political and cultural turmoil. The distinction between Shanghai’s relative affluence and the poverty of the vast countryside underscores the harsh contradiction between (Chinese) tradition and (Western) modernization. In the decades before the Second World War, China’s port cities had begun to play an increasing role in the political-economic life of Chinese society. With the end of the imperial period, modern transportation, telecommunication, science and technology, foreign and domestic capital, as well as information from the outside world, all poured into these open port cities. This transformation was one reason for the growing gap between urban and rural China. The 1911 Revolution, the first of its kind in China to originate in cities rather than rural areas, indicates this dawning awareness of the disparities between urban and rural, rich and poor, coast and the hinterland, would greatly affect the country’s future.

The wars of the first half of the twentieth century helped Shanghai further develop into a capital and industrial city. Before WWII, Shanghai had become the financial center of China and the Far East. Until Japan occupied Shanghai’s foreign concessions with the start of the Pacific War (Chinese parts of the city had been occupied in 1937) these areas had been largely shielded from warfare. Refugees poured into the ten square miles from all parts of the lower Yangzi, swelling the population from 1,5 million to 3 million in a few months3. Work remained plentiful. Due to well-established sea routes, Shanghai had emerged as one of the most important port cities on the eastern Pacific rim. Construction of railway lines and modern communication infrastructure strengthened Shanghai’s strategic position, helping it to earn the name, “Capital of modernity” (mo du). Furthermore, with its abundant capital resources and strong merchant class, Shanghai attracted extensive investments in industry and manufacturing. What it lacked in raw materials it made up for with its extensive water transportation system and almost infinite supply of cheap labors. Shanghai industry rocketed ahead between and during the wars, making it a hub of China’s textile, food processing and mechanical industries.

Because of its booming economy, in the 1930s Shanghai had become a paradise for adventurers as well as refugees. Before the Pacific War broke out, a population of more than three million resided on an area of land only 75 square km, with the size of the average household reached thirty-one people.4 As the most westernized and modern city in the nation, Shanghai was also site of the greatest polarization between rich and poor. Wealthy Chinese nationalists/capitalists, a growing administrative class of bourgeois compradors allied with imperialist powers, and those living in absolute destitution lived in the same place, yet their access to the city was distinctly different. The border of the concession areas witnessed sharp contrasts between modernity and tradition, advancement and regression, peace and gunfire.

The Modern Home, Modern Home, and Modern Homes

Upon arrival in Shanghai, Richard Paulick immediately began working for the Modern Home, an interior design firm established by his friend Rudolf Hamburger (1903–1980). After Paulick joined the firm, the Modern Home was transformed from a modest interior design firm into a much larger concern offering furniture, fabrics and interior decoration services: “the firm is now incontestably the best far and wide, in its line,” Paulick wrote in a letter to Walter Gropius in 1941.5 Offering all things necessary for the home, its business model made it appealing to wealthy home owners while also corresponding with the Bauhaus’s idea of breaking the boundaries between the arts, craftsmanship and industry, and improved construction techniques.

In 1934, the year after his arrival, the Modern Home was bought by the Sassoon family, who eliminated the indefinite article, changing the name simply to “Modern Home.” Its Chinese name was also changed from “锦花” (Pronounced “Jinhua”—“glory flowers” in Chinese) to “时代” (“Shidai”—a more accurate translation of its English name).6 From the beginning of his years in Shanghai, Paulick demonstrated his stylistic versatility and an ability to keep pace with changes in popular fashion, becoming highly successful as a commercial designer. He mainly referred to classic decorative styles—with necessary modifications, if required by clients—e.g., designing in the Louis XIV style, the most popular style among Shanghai’s merchant class.

By the end of 1936, with the threat of a total war haunting China, Modern Home was liquidated. Paulick, his brother Rudolf (1908–1964)7 and their fellow German exile, the architect Hans Werther8, started a new company, named by simply appending an “s” to the end of the Sassoon-owned firm—Modern Homes. With war approaching, modernism, functionalism and a simple, pared down design aesthetic began appearing more often in Modern Homes projects. Mixing materials such as wood, glass and chrome together, Paulick began experimented with a more streamlined style while at the same time introducing rich color patterns into his interior design schemes. For example, inlay sofas in contrasting colors became more fashionable during this period. Changes in Paulick’s design sensibility reflected the latest international artistic trends, but the hardships of wartime were another factor that lead to his increasingly modern design approach. Raw materials were in short supply, necessitating cost controls, while the bulkier classic furniture could not fit into smaller rooms. In a way, the introduction of rich colors could be seen as a way of compensating for the furniture’s lower quality.

Living room, Bedroom and showroom, Modern Homes design published in China Journal, Vol. 3, 1936.

Tango Bar interior, Modern Homes, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

Advertisements of Modern Homes could easily be found in China Journal, an English-language magazine promoting modern science and arts. In the winter of 1941, Paulick published an advertorial in the magazine introducing the latest trends in interior decoration, clarifying his developing approach to the relationship between art, taste, fashion and function:

"Interior decoration like all architectural arts and handicrafts is always subjected to two contrary groups of demands. On one side the group of art, taste and fashion, and on the other, the demands of comfort, climate, daily use, durability and affordability. Everybody knows that these demands are continually changing all over the world as well as in Shanghai, and it is the task of the artist to find the solution between these demands."9

With the end of the Pacific war in August of 1945, Modern Homes began receiving interior design commission and furniture manufacturing jobs for a series of important clients. The firm rented a spacious showroom on the fourth floor of the Sun Department Store on Nanjing Road, the largest department in Shanghai, attesting to its postwar success on the market. Modern architecture had begun to acquire greater respectability across the ocean. This trend soon was closely followed in Shanghai, leading to a sudden emergence of modern styling in the city by the end of the 1940s.

Coffee table with abstract murals, Modern Homes, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

In 1948, together with his brother, his stepdaughter Evalore Hess, and his students Zhong Yaohua (1913–1998)10, Zheng Guanxuan, Li Dehua (1924–present)11 and Zeng Jian (1925–2011)12, Paulick founded the firm Modern Textile. Postwar scarcity had forced Richard to open his own weaving workshop to provide quality textiles for his furniture and interiors. He and his collaborators took great pleasure in textile design and production, an attitude also in line with the Bauhaus ethos.

Paulick’s designs for nightclubs, restaurants and bars inside the concession areas was further evidence of the postwar economic recovery. One representative work is the Tango Bar—done in a combination of contrasting colors, curves, collages and abstract patterns to emphasize its avant-garde appeal. By contrast, Paulick’s design for a high-end club like Silk Hat was a model of elegant restraint, proving again his ability to utilize different styles according to the requirements of different market niches. Rumor has it that he also designed many private residential buildings in the immediate postwar years—such as Sun Ke’s Mansion in Nanjing, and the Rong Yiren and Guo Dihuo Residences in Shanghai—although these projects have proved impossible to research due to a paucity of references. According to his former students, Paulick’s design touch is still visible at the Yao’s Garden (now part of the West Suburb State Guest Houses).

Towards a modern Chinese metropolis

In 1941, by chance an article in Life Magazine came to Paulick's attention. Its topic was Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s instituting of a Bauhaus-style design pedagogy at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Writing from Shanghai on July 6 Paulick wrote a letter to Gropius in Cambridge. He never received a reply, but nevertheless this letter brought him to a pivotal point in his wartime career, for the following year Henry Huang (1915–1975), one of Gropius’s Harvard students, returned to China to assume a teaching post at St. John’s University in Shanghai, where he had been hired to establish the Department of Architecture within the engineering faculty. Huang invited Paulick to join as the second full-time faculty member. The offer afforded Paulick a rare opportunity to teach during the Japanese occupation. It also placed him in an advantageous position to enter the field of town planning in postwar Shanghai, for after the war’s conclusion he was invited to serve on the Shanghai Commission of Public Works, the Huangpu River Crossing Engineering Board and, later, as a consultant for the Ministry of Railways (explaining the several design commissions for Chinese railway stations he would later be awarded).

With the end of WWII, the extraterritorial rights held by foreign powers were abolished, and three urban conglomerations—the Special Municipality of Shanghai, the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession of Shanghai—were consolidated under the nationalist government as the Municipality of Greater Shanghai. For the first time the city was governed under one political unit, enabling a truly comprehensive metropolitan plan to come into being. Compared to the prewar “Greater Shanghai Plan” of the 1930s, which was limited to the new civic center scheme at Kiangwan (“an architectural protest of the national revolution against imperialism,” as Paulick put it, “architecture [being] an inefficient tool in economic and political struggle”13 [he also wrote that “to plan towns as a separate secluded unit on the map would be paperwork only”14]), T. K. Chao (Zhao Zukang), the new commissioner of public works, initiated a large-scale planning program immediately after the end of the war, with enthusiastic support from the Municipal Council and the assistance of a large number of planners, architects and other technical experts.

The postwar Greater Shanghai Plan conceived by Richard Paulick and his colleagues followed a modernist schema: years of destruction having provided a fertile ground for radical progress. Paulick’s profile within the planners’ group was greatly improved by his success in convincing the planning board that Shanghai’s population would exceed 10 million in the next 25 years, and it was imperative that any future Shanghai plan be developed on a regional basis. Since overpopulation was already severe in Shanghai and its immediate environs, additional land would have to be incorporated into a proposed greater Shanghai region during the next 25–30 years.15 Taking a cue from England’s Garden City movement and neighborhood unit theory in the US, Paulick also argued that a decentralized model should be arranged in a hierarchical order, although he cautioned that planning for density should not follow the European or American models precisely. At the urban planning studios of St. John’s University, Paulick and his students had carefully tested ideal population densities for different urban regions, coming up with recommended ranges of from five to fifteen thousand people per square kilometer.

Yin Sze University Civil Engineering School, 1946-1949, Paulick & Paulick, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

Yin Sze University Civil Engineering School, 1946-1949, Paulick & Paulick, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

Yin Sze University Civil Engineering School, 1946-1949, Paulick & Paulick, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of the Richard Paulick Estate.

Central Terminal Nanking, 1946-1949, Paulick & Paulick, Architeckturmuseum der TU München, in courtesy of Richard Paulick Estate.

As previously noted, Shanghai owed its importance and growth to its strategic location midway along China’s coastline, at the mouth of the Wusong River. Between 1865 and 1935, Shanghai harbor experienced steady and nearly uninterrupted growth in shipping and commerce: in the 70 years succeeding the report’s writing, the port experienced an almost twenty-fold increase in tonnage moving through it.16 Its significance resumed immediately after WWII, obtaining a lion share of the foreign trade in the Pacific rim. Basing his observations on European port cities such as Rotterdam and Hamburg, Paulick argued that Shanghai’s port facilities should be greatly upgraded and clustered at the Wusong River’s mouth and in Hangzhou Bay. He thought the greatest mistake in the prior development of Shanghai harbor was allowing “pony-express” operations, which took advantage of the cheap cost of labor and land, to be scattered in intervals along Huangpu River. These prevented the introduction of mechanized cranes for loading and unloading ships.

First Draft, Greater Shanghai Plan, Dec. 1946. Shanghai Archives.

Paulick also strongly recommended building a comprehensive elevated throughway to connect outlying new-town developments with the city center. In his proposal, an aggressive throughway system and network of sub-arterial roads, accommodating industrial freight traffic and public transportation, would further define the planned independent urban units.

Much of the Greater Shanghai Plan was criticized for being unrealistic, and, in its rationale, which followed a Western model of organization, poorly suited to the Chinese situation. Interestingly enough, the critiques Paulick’s plan received were based on cost/benefit analyses—i.e., whether Shanghai could afford such a radical development project—rather than on cultural or identitarian concerns. Unlike the pre-war Kiangwan Plan, which articulated a distinctly Chinese-style of architecture and urban space, cultural concerns were never mentioned in the post-war discussions and debates. Paulick argued that while Chinese town planning should not apply European standards, industrialization and modernization were a commonly shared goal. Hence, social re-organization and the re-settlement of great swathes of the city population were inevitable. Another example of the imposition of a hyper-rational city planning strategy was a planned express gridiron system that paid no respect to the existing urban fabric. In fact, built urban space was not yet considered as urban heritage, but was viewed, on the contrary, as “evidence of imperialist powers and backwardness.”17 Later, this comprehensive grid plan was downsized—again, on the basis of economic considerations. It was not until 1952 that the Soviet architect Alexander Mukhin would criticize the road system plan’s emphasis on traffic and efficiency as inadequate for representing the spirit of the new socialist city.18

“A new science of urbanism was rapidly promoted,” wrote W. G. Hamburger, who at this time was the civil engineer in charge of port planning, “… the organization of the Shanghai City Planning Board is extremely modern and streamlined.”19 Though it was rare that a modernist faction could continue to dominate plan-making in the latter half of the 1940s, they were boosted by Chinese society’s strong urge to modernize after the end of the war, and the nationalist’s willingness to keep this dream alive as they muddled through the civil war period. Such grand schemes served as evidence of the regime’s progress in countering the crises of legitimacy dogging it in this period.20 A final draft was completed on June 6, 194921, but by this time the People’s Liberation Army had already taken over the city, and subsequently the plan was presented by T. K. Chao, the acting Nationalist Mayor, to the new Communist Mayor Chen Yi. At the time of this presentation, the city’s population stood at 6 million people.

The Greater Shanghai Plan Paulick helped to develop between 1946 and 1949 was the first time in Chinese history where city-building had been based on modern city-planning principles. For him it was a period of extraordinary professional experience. He had been instrumental in developing an ambitious modernist redevelopment scheme for a metropolis numbering many millions, while his peers struggled to survive. In a letter to his former Bauhaus friend Georg Muche he wrote, “I have the feeling that I won't find this degree of professional freedom anywhere else, having three official and three private jobs at the same time.”22 This experience also placed him in an extremely advantageous position after his return to the German Democratic Republic, a country that was itself facing the tremendous task of postwar reconstruction and socialist new town city-building.

Concentric Density Zone Model for Greater Shanghai, September 1947, Greater Shanghai Plan Outline Report, Shanghai City Archives.

Paulick’s Legacy

Shanghai Land Use and Throughway System Masterplan, May 1947, Greater Shanghai Plan, Shanghai City Archives.

When he left Shanghai on 1 October 1949, four months after the Communist took over, only one student from St. John’s University showed up at Richard Paulick’s farewell party.23 Faced with a change in political regime, most people chose to act cautiously. Paulick, his Chinese students and colleagues corresponded sporadically in the early 1950s, but after the nominal unity of the socialist bloc disintegrated, it became impolitic for Chinese and Europeans alike to mention Paulick’s 16 years in Shanghai.

As a foreigner who scarcely left Shanghai’s international settlement24 and was unable to speak the local language, Paulick remained unfamiliar with rural and inland China. Living amongst other European refugees, it is quite obvious, in retrospect, that Paulick’s condescending attitudes towards this “culture-less” society remained unchanged.25 At a time when 75 percent of Shanghai’s populace was illiterate, Paulick’s social and professional circles were restricted to an educated elite who could speak English or German. Nevertheless, he did develop an outstanding group of friends among his modernist peers, and helped to import a modernist design sensibility to China through his pedagogical and city-planning activities. He was one of very few Westerners who left behind solid evidence of Shanghai’s links abroad—through the connections he made between proponents of modernism in Germany and China, and between St John’s University in Shanghai and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Following the merger of St. John’s department of architecture with Tongji University, in 1952 the latter established the first urban planning program in China. Undoubtedly something of Paulick’s influence persisted there after his return to Europe.

Paulick never truly agreed with his peers. At St. John’s he attended faculty meetings no more than was necessary—“to spare [his] nerves” against the university’s “old fashioned” American colleagues from the South and Midwest, as well as the “Chinese brothers who have adapted their mentality and gestures.”26 He would later criticize many Bauhauslers for taking modernism for a style rather than a social movement, while at the same time regarding Bauhaus communists as “politically so untrained that uncertainty is the decisive factor.”27 Paulick believed a new Nazism would eventually rise again from capitalism, as “Nazism is rooted in our means of production, in their character, their technical development and ownership, which they are embedded in.”28 Following the parallel trends of modernist movement and socialist construction, later in his career Paulick devoted himself into the mass production of affordable housing. Many of his former students in China did so as well. Nevertheless, whether or not we can say contemporary cities are a triumph of modernism, socialism, or capitalism is a question yet to be answered.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Paulick’s letter to W. Gropius, dated July 6th, 1941. Harvard Houghton Library, MS Ger 208: Walter Gropius papers.
  • 2 Paulick Legacy, Architecture Museum of Munich Technical University.
  • 3 Wen-hsin Yeh, Wartime Shanghai, Routledge, 1998, p. 4.
  • 4 Greater Shanghai Plan reports, First Draft, chapter one.
  • 5 R. Paulick’s Letter to w. Gropius, dated July 6, 1941. Harvard Houghton Library.
  • 6 North China Daily News (Shanghai), p. 179, 1933; p. 188, 1935.
  • 7 Rudolf Paulick graduated from Bauhaus under the direction of Mies van der Rohe in 1932.
  • 8 Hans Werther was a graduate of the Bauhochschule Weimar, the school that followed after the Bauhaus. Werther also came to Shanghai in the early 1930s. He committed suicide a few days after the opening of “Modern Homes”. Eduard Koegel, “German Modern in China (1930s)”, Bauhaus Annual Journal 01, p. 92.
  • 9 Richard Paulick: “Interior Decoration,” in: China Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4, Shanghai 1941.
  • 10 Zhong Yaohua received his bachelor of arts at Harvard University in 1935, with a concentration on civil engineering. He worked for the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau after 1949.
  • 11 Li Dehua graduated from St John’s University with diploma in architecture and civil engineering in 1945. He later taught at St. John’s and then Tongji University, and he was the first dean of architecture and urban planning at Tongji University established in 1987.
  • 12 Zeng Jian was one of the first architectural students at St. John’s University. He was the founder and a key figure of China Academy of Interior Design.
  • 13 Richard Paulick, Speech to officials of Shanghai City Government, January 4, 1946. Paulick legacy, Munich Technical University.
  • 14 From Paulick’s handwritten draft, unidentified year. Paulick legacy, Munich Technical University.
  • 15 The recommended expansion of the Shanghai municipal boundary was finally achieved thirteen years later under the communist government.
  • 16 “The Port,” Greater Shanghai Plan report, Shanghai City Archives.
  • 17 Self-criticism Report on Urban Planning Thoughts (chengsh guihua sixiang de jiancha baogao), May 27, 1955, p. 2, Shanghai Archives 138–2–9.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 W. G. Hamburger: “The Work of the Shanghai City Planning Board,” in: The Far Eastern Engineer, Manilla, March 1948, p. 126.
  • 20 There had been several initiatives in the Municipal Council to cut the budget of planning from 1946 to 1949, but it was saved from complete cancellation by the Commission.
  • 21 According to my interview to Chai Xixian, a junior planner at the time, the actual date of competition is May 24, one day prior to the People’s Liberation Army took over the city. But it was intentioned dated on June 6, 1949 on the cover of the final report.
  • 22 Paulick’s letter to Georg Muche, April 11, 1949, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.
  • 23 Based on a 2016 interview with Luo XIaowei and Zhao Zukang’s Dairy.
  • 24 Paulick became stateless in 1938, five years after his arrival, after the German Nationalist Socialist Consul in Shanghai refused to renew his passport.
  • 25 Paulick’s Letter to Walter Gropius, July 6, 1941. Harvard Houghton Library.
  • 26 Paulick’s letter to Georg Muche, April 11, 1949, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.
  • 27 Paulick’s letter to Fritz Levedage, Sept. 1, 1949. Original text in German. Paulick Legacy. Technical University Munich.
  • 28 Ibid.
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