Friday, 24 September 2010

Wangfujing Dajie, Beijing (1)

Wangfujing Dajie, a couple of blocks east of the Forbidden City, is Beijing's main shopping street. Its name reminds us that a well was located along this street that ran through an area reserved for princes and other high ranking nobles: 'Wangfujing Dajie' means 'Well of the Princely Mansion Street'. Yet this was between the 15th and the early 20th centuries and even if Wangfujing Dajie is now once more geared towards those who have been benefiting most from the country's impressive economic growth, it is no longer 'princely'.

The evolution of the street since the beginning of the 20th century mirrors the political and socio-economic history of modern China, with all its tensions and upheavals. What had been until the early 20th century a muddy lane was transformed after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 into a fashionable street where all kinds of luxury goods could be found. Indeed following the failed siege of the foreign legations established under the 1860 Tianjin Treaty, foreign powers increased their presence in Beijing. Permanent military forces were stationed in town and growing numbers of English, French, German, American, Italian and Japanese traders came to the city to cater for the expanding foreign population as well as for wealthy Chinese willing to acquire foreign goods. These traders settled close to the foreign legations, along Wangfujing Dajie.
As a result, Wangfujing Dajie became one of the first streets in Beijing to be paved, and later asphalted, and one of the first parts of the capital to be lit by electricity. These first electric lights and the basic neon signs installed by some shops drew crowds of bewildered Chinese.

Hundred years later, Wangfujing Dajie is still for better or for worse at the forefront of modernity and with its countless colourful lights and adverts, it is a favourite destination for a stroll at night.

Many of these lights may look quite tacky to unaccustomed western eyes. At least the changing colour displays on the facade of the Intime Lotte Department Store are much more restrained. This joint venture owned equally by the Chinese Intime Department Store and the South Korean retail group Lotte Department Store is one of the latest additions to Wangfujing Dajie.

Opened in August 2008, Intime Lotte targets high-end consummers, who can find within its walls all the latest Chinese and foreign luxury goods. After lean times under Chairman Mao, Wangfujing Dajie is back where it was in the early 20th century.

To be continued...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Jugendstil bat, Aue

Inspired not only by sculptures found on Romanesque and Gothic buildings and on their nineteenth century revival versions, but also by recently discovered antique ruins and artefacts from Assyria to Greece, as well as by a whole range of legends and tales, many Art Nouveau - Jugendstil architects allowed animals and fantastic creatures to stand guard by the entrance of their buildings, creep on their facades or keep a watchful eye from their roofs. If some looked fearsome, others were simply grotesque, playful additions to buildings that were breaking away from Neoclassical and Historicist architecture.
When it comes to grotesque creatures, this female bat -Batwoman?- which stands on top of a town house in the small industrial town of Aue in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) may well top the list.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Port-d'Envaux station on the Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire narrow gauge railway line

The grand houses built by ship owners along the western bank of the River Charente in Port-d'Envaux, France, testify to the importance of the river for the local economy. For centuries barges and ships carried local products such as stones, ceramics, salt, and foodstuff upstream towards Saintes or downstream towards Rochefort, where goods could be loaded onto seagoing vessels.
However in 1867 the Compagnie des Charentes built the Angoulême-Cognac-Saintes-Rochefort railway line, which followed the eastern bank of the River Charente. Its opening led to the rapid decline of inland navigation. Still, since the nearest station was located a few kilometres away on the opposite bank of the river in Taillebourg, a few boats continued to sail in and out of Port-d'Envaux for a while.
The isolation of Port-d'Envaux and its hinterland from the railway network came to an end in 1904 when the Chemins de fer Economiques des Charentes built a narrow gauge line between Taillebourg and Saint-Porchaire. Shortly after leaving Taillebourg station the railway crossed the Charente by means of a metallic bridge. The first station was Port-d'Envaux. Then came Crazannes, Plassay (a halt only) and finally after a 13 km journey, Saint-Porchaire. Like many rural railway lines with small levels of traffic and low returns on investment (if any), it was built as cheaply as possible. Apart from the bridge over the Charente, the only major engineering works were a short trench spanned by a road bridge followed by an embankment between Port-d'Envaux and Crazannes, and a couple of very short stone bridges over streams. As the station of Port-d'Envaux above illustrates, the company did not spend much on buildings either. One half was used to store the equipment needed to run the railway, from shovels to lanterns, while the other half housed the railway office. From the beginning three mixed trains a day ran in each direction. They usually consisted of two or three passenger carriages and six or five wagons pulled by a 0-6-0T built by Corpet-Louvet. The maximum speed was 20km/h.
The First World War had a dramatic impact on the railway. Traffic and maintenance were reduced to the bare minimum and part of the rolling stock was requisitioned and used on the networks near the front line. The Taillebourg - Saint-Porchaire line never really recovered. Facing increasing competition from cars, buses, and trucks, it laid moribund for a few more years. Finally in 1925 the railway company received the autorisation to close this loss-making line.
The Port-d'Envaux station is the only one that survives. It was restored a few years ago and is used by a local association.

The trench with the bridge carrying the Route de la Garenne. The stones at ground level on the right of the track bed are part of a small bridge over the local stream.
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