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From slaughter to laughter: the renovation of a slaughterhouse in Shanghai by IPPR

The 1933 Shanghai Slaughterhouse, which revolutionised abattoir design, has been impeccably transformed by IPPR into a fun palace

In 1970, Monty Python featured a sketch of an architect pitching his proposal for a radically new housing project. ‘The tenants arrive here and are carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort’, he says, ‘past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes, towards the rotating knives. The blood pours down these chutes.’

There are some architectural typologies that are disdained. A few of these become acceptable over time, while others never become cool. For example, recycling facilities and public toilets have become socially worthy; but designs for shopping malls or a Mexican wall continue to mark the architect out as a fundamentally wicked person. As a young architect, I worked on the Vickers tank factory in Newcastle and a prison in Saudi Arabia, projects that no amount of stylish architectural photography could generate front covers of glossy magazines. 

shanghai slaughterhouse IPPR

shanghai slaughterhouse IPPR

Source: 1933 Shanghai

The original poured concrete building has been revivified by introducing even more light while deferring to its Art Deco ancestry. The windows, west-facing, were designed for maximum air circulation.

Where do abattoirs fit into this hall of shame … especially in an era of militant veganism or at a time when the American Institute of Architects is being pressured to legislate against designing spaces for killing or inhuman treatment? Clearly facilities are still needed, but no one shouts about them. In 2014, CF Møller Architects designed the Danish Meat Research Institute, and recently Nimmo & Partners have obtained planning permission for another major abattoir commission in Scotland. In general, though, abattoir design is a rather sheepish specialisation. 

In our era of hipster outrage, the slaughterhouse is a typology ripe for conversion from, not to. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is currently transforming a disused slaughterhouse in Porto into a cultural centre. Patagonian architect Pedro Kovacic has created a luxury hotel in Chile from a derelict meat-processing plant. Then there’s Luis Bellido’s regeneration of Matadero Madrid into an arts complex. It seems that vegetarians need these ironic spaces to feel better about having to wash down their quinoa salad with avocado tea.

shanghai slaughterhouse IPPR

shanghai slaughterhouse IPPR

Source: 1933 Shanghai

To paraphrase a recent article by architectural critic, Aaron Betsky, ‘someone has to design them’, even though architects might be ethically split over accepting the commission. At the turn of the 20th century, however, a commission for socially progressive meat production facilities would have been held in better regard than it is today. Raising butchery practices from the barbaric, brutal and insanitary conditions that pertained in the 19th century, was recognised to be a necessary improvement. 

Unsurprisingly abattoirs came into being as a way of removing the gruesome sights and sounds of killing animals from the public gaze. Instead of executing a cow or a pig in the public square, the ideal location of a slaughterhouse at the time was said to be: ‘distant from the city centre, balanced atop an elevated site, surrounded on all four sides by opaque walls, and hidden from view’. Such was the low regard in which abattoirs and abattoir workers were held that, in the early 19th century, abattoirs were ‘completely removed from all ambitions to architecture and ornamentation’, writes meat-packing aficionado, Paula Young Lee in her book Meat, Modernity and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse. In this context, Shanghai’s Slaughterhouse was a new concept altogether. 

Shanghai Slaughterhouse (also known as Old Millfun) is in the Hongkou district 1km north of Shanghai’s Bund, and it still proudly announces its unsavoury credentials. The original building was designed by Shanghai’s Public Works Department in the 1920s for a decadent city that was then divided into foreign concessions. The brief insisted that the new building ensure that ex-pat communities got meat of the highest quality. Headed up by Englishman CH Stableford, the local design team proposed a building that committed to the highest Western standards of design and efficiency. It contained state-of-the-art equipment and new techniques to maximise efficiency and ensure satisfactory hygiene standards. No expense spared. As a result, this building revolutionised the arrangement of industrialised butchery practices and set new standards for husbandry and meat production. 

Archive image shanghai slaughterhouse

Archive image shanghai slaughterhouse

Foto zaboi nogo tseha v 1933 godu s architecture research quarterly

Foto zaboi nogo tseha v 1933 godu s architecture research quarterly

Designed and built as a modern facility at a time when architectural debate was coloured by a variety of influences – from Beaux-Arts to Bauhaus – there were a number of possibilities for architectural expression in China. As an example of how China absorbs contradictions, the Art Deco exterior housed a Modernist interior. The outward appearance of this important industrial building conveyed civic pride, while the interior was an abstract, futuristic riot of concrete. 

The almost obligatory conversion of this structure into a modern-day consumer fun palace has managed to retain the key architectural features that made this one of the most unique structures in the world. It is an Art Deco masterpiece and one of the earliest attempts at combining stunning animals with stunning architecture.

The Shanghai plant is a four-storey square building with a round central core. The monolithic mass is broken down by an arcade on the ground floor, the colonnade of tapering Art Deco columns supporting the floor above, and the stylised geometry of the huge latticed windows that span three storeys to the eaves. These windows – an element seldom incorporated in slaughterhouses before – allowed much-needed ventilation and natural cooling. Inside, the systematic separation of functions is its true genius, generating much of the design innovation. 

Archive drawing Shanghai Slaughterhouse

Archive drawing Shanghai Slaughterhouse

archive drawing shanghai slaughterhouse Floor plan 2

archive drawing shanghai slaughterhouse Floor plan 2

Old Millfun was designed with the welfare of animals in mind, to make the journeys to their death less traumatic than was the norm in the 1930s. The sharp angles allowed the workers to have somewhere to stand if the cattle panicked

The three key functions are the animal pens, the slaughter hall and the refrigeration area. In its heyday, around 1,200 cattle, pigs and sheep would be killed every day at the abattoir, before which the animals would be driven up the respective ramps in the corners of the building to be penned on various levels. (Actually, the pigs were kept on the ground floor because they couldn’t walk up ramps fast enough.) The animals would then be marched to the central slaughterhouse, across narrow bridges that isolated each animal as they moved forward. The killing took place in the centre and, whereas conventional slaughterhouses were on one level, the unique multi-storey nature of this building allowed gravity to drain the blood, to lower the carcasses, to drop the waste, collect the hide, and so on. The slaughterman’s job of killing the cattle was retained on one floor while the cage containing the dead animal was lowered to the butchery floor below. A maze of narrow workers’ staircases snakes between the ramps and bridges creating shortcuts between floors. 

All animal carcasses were hung above ground to prevent contamination, and a pulley system wheeled them across the void to the health inspection team that weighed and certified the meat. Finally, it was all taken to the west wing for cold storage prior to delivery to the city. All unusable waste produce, or substandard or diseased meat, was taken across the street to the incinerator; a building also in the Art Deco style. 

Shanghai slaughterhouse elevation

Shanghai slaughterhouse elevation

Every aspect of this building was fit for purpose. A research paper by Wang and Pendlebury notes that 20th-century abattoir design, with its rational organisation and mechanised production line, influenced early car-factory design. The car-plant assembly line made products from parts; the abattoir was a disassembly line. In line with this observation, the interior form of the structure creates an incredible machine aesthetic. It’s a cross between an Escher drawing and a Vorticist painting wrapped up in an enigmatic Art Deco outer layer: pulsating innards encased in a beautifully crafted skin. 

As time passed, the building became a processing plant, a location for various food manufacturers and even a drugs company, eventually falling into disuse in 2002. After being listed in the same year, the IPPR (Shanghai Engineering Design and Research Institute under project architect Zhao Chongxin) began reparations and conversion to its current condition … a cultural quarter. 

The £10million refurbishment was intended to reclaim the building as a destination and also to kick-start the regeneration of the area. Such grand plans haven’t yet materialised, but the building is a popular destination for the city’s artists, film-makers, designers and various other creatives. The Ferrari Owners’ Club of China has a private space on the ground floor, while small-scale crafts and coffee shops take up a number of units around the central former killing spaces. 

Shanghai slaughterhouse plans

Shanghai slaughterhouse plans

Click to download

Shanghai slaughterhouse sections

Shanghai slaughterhouse sections

Click to download

Now, the halls are quiet – partly because there is not enough rental interest in the animal stalls-cum-retail stores. Mostly, tourists wander the bridges and arcades, the building has simply proved to be of architectural and historic interest.

The conservation status placed significant restrictions on new architectural interventions. On the upper floor of the old animal pens, timber walkways have been introduced together with discreet glass balustrades to provide access at height in relative safety, without detracting from the concrete aesthetic. 

A great deal of the budget was spent on the Sky Theatre at the top of the central slaughter building, which can be accessed from the high-level walkways or by a glazed lift. This theatre replaces the old water tower, allowing the architect to create a circular room with a huge glass floor. It is effectively a massive functional rooflight. Daylight streams in through the curved glazed walls and filters down through the floor into the body of the building. It is described as a penthouse ballroom, but this is where you find the fashion shoots and the wedding photographers gathered. Meanwhile, the old carcass storage facility is now a highly sought-after restaurant and function room.

1933 mill2 (1) shanghai slaughterhouse

1933 mill2 (1) shanghai slaughterhouse

The ground-floor shops have replaced the central killing spaces, substituting dying with buying

Modern interventions – like lavatory blocks, glazed walls, fire protection and so on – don’t detract from the careful repairs carried out by Zhao and his team, taking the building back to its 1930s glory days. The quality of the material and the details are as crisp as the day it was built. Chamfered columns, shadow gaps in the concrete bridge flank walls, Art Deco column capitals, all were created and lovingly restored as a function of craftsmanship rather than ornamentation. The detailing is exquisite. 

Keeping the solidity of the grey concrete lends a respectful solemnity to what once went on here. But it is the daylight that has utterly transformed this building. It is now hard to imagine the dark, murky atmosphere of these concrete yards when it was fully operational as a slaughterhouse. Occasionally, screams of laughter from children running along the glass floor transport you back to the days when squealing kids (and piglets and lambs) would echo around these blood-soaked walls. Time for a cappuccino.

Architect: IPPR (Shanghai), Engineering and Design Research Institute

Project architect: Zhao Chongxin

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today

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