CBR would like to say a big THANK YOU to those who attended last week’s YISHU 8 event for an interesting conversation with Caroline Odinet on “A Second Life for the Sino-French University”. Special thanks to Christine Cayol and Xue Yunda (founders of YISHU 8) who generously let us hold the event at their venue, and to Caroline Odinet (the lead interior designer of this project) for sharing her experiences in the design and renovation process with our CBR community. We had ourselves a full-house with over 60 guests and we hope you all enjoyed yourselves!
About The Former Sino-French University
Caroline started with a brief introduction on the former Sino-French University. Established in 1920, the university grew out of the ‘Organisation of the Work-Study Program in France’ and the ‘French Preparatory School’ sponsored by Cai Yuanpei and Kongde School. Thousands of students graduated from its two campuses in Beijing and Lyon during its thirty years’ existence. Many of the most influential characters in China’s modern history like Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yi, Li Fuchun, Ba Jin were also their graduates. The Sino-French University played a crucial role in the recent history of cultural and education exchanges between France and China. In 1925 the Sino-French University opened its doors on the old footprint of the imperial city wall, where the YISHU 8 now sits. It was designed and constructed by Peng Jiqun and Wang Shenbo, two architects who had been trained in France and later taught lessons at the university.
About YISHU 8
Christine Cayol (French) and Xue Yunda (Chinese) together founded YISHU 8 in the Shang8 Creative Zone of Guomao District in 2009. Their goal was to create a platform where arts, cultures and inspirations could be exchanged. In 2012, following six months of design and renovation led by Caroline Odinet YISHU 8 relocated to the former Sino-French University next to the Forbidden City.
When this site was first discovered, it was a resident for artists, having been used as a factory for many years. Looking past the vinyl floor coverings, imitation-timber wall cladding and off-white plaster, the two founders were amazed to find this unique building with well combined Chinese and Western architecture styles.
A Second Life For The Sino-French University
When entering the main gate and looking straight ahead, the 1920s building displays an interesting front facade. The single story porch exhibits typical Chinese architectural features with red columns and traditional woodwork supporting a grey barrel-tiled roof. Frankly speaking, I haven’t seen a roofer like this before. The beams under the eaves are decorated in the traditional Chinese way with different paintings depicting scenes in history and nature. The decorations are akin to that of a wealthy merchant home. Look beyond the porch towards the main building and you will notice the three large arched wooden windows on the second floor. These arched openings, set in yellow brick, clear indicate a Western architectural style. The entire main building however is covered in a pitched roof reminiscent of a Chinese roof. Throughout the entire building you will be able to find these bits of hybrid architecture. Caroline’s primary principle which guided her through the renovation process was to be respectful of the building’s history and keep the Chinese and Western features well balanced.
“I was very excited when passed the mission of sitting YISHU 8 in the century-old Chinese and French styled building. A lot of the rooms had only plain whitish Chinese decorations, but I could already see them in beautiful colours.”
Upon entering the front door into the hallway, the first thing to notice are the two walls on either side covered in convex mirrors upon a teal background. This idea of Caroline’s came from the existing traditional ceiling panels in the porch area. She brought the teal colour from the ceiling panels into the room and used different sized convex mirrors to represent the repeating circular design of the each panel. This not only connects the outside to the inside, it is also meant as a contrast between new and old and has become a permanent installation upon entering the gallery. In front you see a French chandelier hanging in the centre, a nod at the original chandelier that was found when the building was taken over.
The porch ceiling panels and red-painted beams and door frame were all in relatively good condition, needing only to be cleaned and touched up in certain areas. During the renovation works the original terrazzo floor was also uncovered, and remains exposed today. Bronze thresholds, door plates, hinges and floor profiles were all restored and fortify the colonial feel. You can feel the handicraft of a skilled locksmith.
Annexed on either side of the entrance hall are smaller salon rooms fitted out with comfortable furniture for conversation and dining. Considering the limited budget Caroline had to work with to revamp these spaces, she called on her talents in use of colour to make a large impact with minimal costs. Caroline describes the dilemma she faced back then with using strong colours traditionally reserved for the elite, such as the typical Chinese red and the Emperor’s yellow. It was a bold move and some visitors would react strongly to the unconventional use of these colours.
“Yellow was sort of a forbidden colour in design because it was only used for Emperors, but I decided to try it anyway, and it turned out great!”
Walk through the entrance hall and you are faced with YISHU 8’s current exhibition hall. This large hall used to be the main lecture hall of the university. As can be seen from the old photographs, the hall used to have steps with tiered seating leading down another five meters leading to a podium for lecturers and speakers. Behind on the back wall was located a fresco about Sun Yat-sen, who promoted relations between France and China.
According to Caroline when the building was transformed into a factory in the 1950s the floor was levelled, covering this lower part of the lecture area. This is why today when you enter the hall there is a feeling of disproportion, with the large beams feeling too heavy and low to the ground.
Caroline explained how the decorative beams were unique both in their structural and aesthetic purposes. When the hall was built it was the first time this type of concrete beam technology was implemented in a building of this size in China. The beams – which measure 120cm x 50cm – are entirely unsupported by columns and have a span of 17 meters across. Caroline pointed out how each beam is uniquely decorated using a mixture of French and Chinese styles of painting. Their patterns are never repeated and the only colours used are blue, green, yellow and white. The original Art Deco lamps were also loyally maintained with many glass orbs having to be replaced, leading Caroline in a wild goose chase to find the right manufacturer able to make these special glass fixtures.
“It was important for me to keep the beams and chandeliers even though it was costly and challenging to do so, because they are the gift for the house and they tell us stories of the building.”
The large windows on the north and south sides of the room also went through several transformations. During their factory days they were half their current size, the lower half being entirely blocked by a plaster wall. During the restoration work Caroline tore down those coverings in order to restore them to their original size and bring more light into the room.
In front of the main hall on either side are symmetrical double-height staircases leading up to the second floor. Walking up these grand stairs, running your hand along the original iron-wrought Art Deco handrail, with the soft light and shadows playing off the white walls, certainly one feels transported back to an earlier time.
The three large arched windows as seen from the entrance gate greet you at the top of the staircase. Wooden double doors opposite lead to another exhibition space, this time decorated more simply in white. The room functions as an event space and gallery for displaying young artists’ works. During its university days it was divided into several classrooms using wooden wall partitions. Upon entering the gallery, on the right hand side is another luxurious salon and wine bar. Other rooms surrounding the main gallery house offices, artist spaces and a more private seating area.
Caroline’s effective use of bold colour, both on the walls and with the furniture and decoration, are what really bring these spaces to life again. She was very careful to keep all the features that were part of the original fabric of the building in tact. All Chinese-style windows painted in red with the traditional green lattice-work coverings were maintained. In order to insulate the rooms from these draughty windows Caroline came up with a simple and elegant solution. A second window leaf was added to the inside of the originals, also openable from the inside. This new layer of glazing, their timber frames painted in the same red as the originals, allowed the originals to stay in place without much visual distraction. A false fabric ceiling and inconspicuous lighting help to focus the eye and bring order to the rooms. Traditional Chinese furniture painted in bright colours add accents of colour and reinforce the Chinese-Western theme. The before and after pictures Caroline presented prove that to transform a space you don’t need to implement costly changes. A touch of colour, some well-placed furniture and a reinterpretation of certain design traditions can be enough to stop you in your tracks.
About CBR Speakers Events Series
CBR’s Speakers Events Series is co-hosted with architecture and design consultants anySCALE and cultural heritage preservation organisation the Courtyard Institute. We present informed speakers on topics such as building preservation, restoration and retro-fitting, culture and heritage, and much more. Our aim is to provide a platform for those who share our passions and interests in these related subjects, promoting building restoration and raising awareness in historic building preservation and heritage protection in China.
If you would like to share your own unique projects, please do get in touch via email: email@example.com