The Five-Avenue Area, with more than 2,000 garden-style foreign buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s, is a showcase of historic international architecture and has earned the reputation as a “World Building Exposition”. Its old world charm also makes it a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
The Five-Avenue Area is a rectangular region in Heping district, Tianjin. It is south of Chengdu Street, north of Machang Road (Race Course Road), east of Xikang Road, and west of Machang Road and Nanjing Road. Local Tianjinese call it the “Five Avenues”. Covering 1.41 million square meters, it comprises 22 roads with a total length of 17 kilometers.
The Five-Avenue Area features for its buildings with different European architectural styles. There are more than 300 buildings and residences that have been completely preserved, including 89 in British styles, 41 in Italian styles, 6 French, 4 German, 3 Spanish, 46 courtyard-style, 40 apartment-style, and 3 that are a unique fusion of Chinese and Western styles. Colorful architecture styles constitute a true fun of art. Among them, the Porcelain House and the Geda Building are the two most distinctive.
The Porcelain House, at the intersection of Munan Street and Hebei Road, was elaborately built over six years on the basis of a French-style building. It is covered by over 4,000 pieces of ancient porcelain and more than 400 pieces of white marble sculptures, as a way to promote Chinese porcelain at home and abroad.
However, not all people are happy to see the house is decorated in “this way”. The Geda Building nearby was built in 1937 by an Italian architect and features thousands of knots on the surface of the walls. This was not deliberate. The unsophisticated early craftsmanship of southern Europe meant bricks were fired badly, leaving various sizes of knots. When the bricks were used to build a wall, the knots ( “geda” in Chinese) decorated the building.
Western-style buildings contrast strongly with China’s architectural traditions. Western-style buildings tend to be eclectic, because eclecticism was popular in the 1920s and 1930s when designers integrated various styles in order to demonstrate their individuality. Buildings blending Chinese elements with Western styles are particularly charming. Prince Qing’s Mansion in Chongqing Avenue is a typical example. The original owner was a chief eunuch of the Qing Dynasty. It is laid out like a Chinese-style courtyard house with rooms on the four sides and a reception hall in the middle, but all its exteriors, decorations and furnishings are European. Auspicious Chinese patterns such as the dragon and phoenix were added for good fortune.
Another thing that makes the Five-Avenue Area fascinating is the people who once occupied them. Two presidents of the Republic of China and seven premiers or acting prime ministers resided here from the 1920s to the 1930s. In addition, more than 200 celebrities also had lived in the area. For example, the 31th American president Hoover had lived here.
The Five-Avenue Area is free of charge and the best visiting time is between May and November, especially in autumn when the fallen leaves paved the avenues with romantic golden color. The most interesting way to go sightseeing along the area is by horse-drawn carriage, which offers you the opportunity to see a truly unique cityscape.
(A man drives a carriage drawn by a tall horse slowly along the road. The cityscape is early 20th Century European, but this is Tianjin’s Five-Avenue Area.)