More than glittering Lujiazui or the facades of The Bund, Shanghai’s shikumen lanes remain the best representation of the myriad influences in this multi-cultural metropolis.
No series on Shanghai’s architecture and urbanism would be complete without some mention of “Shikumen” housing. Even casual tourists will have no doubt seen Xintiandi mentioned in guidebooks and on websites, and while the overpriced tourist haven does give a glimpse of Shanghai’s most unique urban typology, it would be a mistake to consider the successful “lifestyle center” an authentic representation of the form. Luckily, an intact, well-maintained, residential shikumen block is not far away: a stroll from Cité Bourgogne to Tianzifang to Xintiandi makes for a pleasant afternoon walk, loosely structured by the past, present, and future of Shanghai’s “lilong” housing stock.
Any guidebook will tell you that Shanghai’s “shikumen” (“stone gate”) houses are a blend of Chinese and Western influences, combining aspects of both traditional Chinese courtyard houses and European row-houses. The form developed over time following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and the subsequent opening of Shanghai to foreign concessions, when rapid population growth necessitated accelerated construction of housing. The dense “lilong” (or “neighborhood lane”) configuration seemed to grow naturally from the collision of European and Chinese cultures in Shanghai, and the urban form enjoyed nearly a century of evolution between the 1850s and late 1930s.
This evolution is outlined in excellent, exhaustive detail by Qian Guan, in a thesis available on the McGill University website. In this six-chapter epic, the author identifies the different types of shikumen housing, places them all in context, and shows how the form developed from a simple hybrid to a unique, mature, residential housing type.
By tracing the development of “lilong” housing, Qian Guan ably demonstrates how this unique urban typology was shaped by key political and cultural events in the city, and shows in turn how the type shaped the city. Moreso than the glittering skyline of Lujiazui, more than the Art Deco facades of The Bund, Shanghai’s shikumen lanes remain the best representation of the myriad influences at work during the development of this multi-cultural metropolis.
Though many shikumen blocks still exist (in various states of disrepair), many more have been demolished and replaced by anonymous apartment towers or shopping malls, while others have been rebuilt as luxury boutiques or high-rent condominiums. Cité Bourgogne remains in pristine condition, whether through careful maintenance or sensitive restoration, and as such is one of the best places in the city to see shikumen housing in its most authentic state.
Like most “lilong” developments, the block is bordered by major streets, and the perimeter (at ground floor) is occupied by small shops and restaurants. This commercial ring is forms the outer layer of the block, punctured by several access points: the main entry gates to the community. These gates (manned by nonchalant security guards and flanked by community bulletin boards) mark the ends of the primary axes of the housing block, wide enough to accommodate automobiles, but narrow enough to discourage through-traffic. Branching off of the primary axes are the narrow lanes, wide enough for pedestrians and scooters. Off these secondary lanes are the eponymous stone gates, behind which lie the small entry courtyards of the individual houses.
This progression from boulevard to lane to alley (and then to courtyard) establishes a hierarchy of space that is simply not found in other housing typologies. This spatial configuration produces a gradient from public to private space that ensures a high level of security and fosters a strong sense of social cohesiveness. ‘Outsiders’ become more and more visible the deeper they venture in the complex, the restrictive size of the lanes limits automobile access, neighbors will no doubt meet one another in the alleys and congregate in the shared semi-private space, and the commercial ring provides a visual and auditory buffer between the calm interior of the block and the bustling city beyond.
These productive spatial shifts are clearly evident in Cité Bourgogne, and the sense of a thriving, vital community is strong. As such, Cité Bourgogne is an excellent place to see shikumen blocks in a relatively unaltered state as a representation of “Old Shanghai.”
Perhaps more exciting for most visitors is Tianzifang (Taikang Lu, near Dapuqiao metro station), where the houses have been subdivided, converted to shops and restaurants, capped with precarious additions, and subjected to other manipulations. The thriving arts-district-turned-tourist-hot-spot is worth a visit to size up the altered state in which most of Shanghai’s shikumen now exist. A more extreme example is the aforementioned Xintiandi, where a questionable “restoration” has left few original buildings remaining, but whose architect can be credited with almost single-handedly raising awareness of Shanghai’s rich heritage of historical shikumen architecture, and proving that the past is not always something to be discarded – a valuable lesson in this rapidly-developing country.
Cité Bourgogne is located at Shaanxi Nan Lu & Jianguo Xi Lu, near the Jiashan Road metro station on Line 9 (Map)
As always, more high-res photos are available on the author’s Flickr stream.