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Shikumen (石库门)

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Shikumen (stone gate buildings) are a housing type peculiar to Shanghai, and named after the stone gates leading from the street to a hierarchy of orthogonal alleys. The collective unit is called a li-long.

As an subject of academic scrutiny, shikumen are well-trodden ground well picked over. Everyone will want to tell you shikumen are hybrid of a Chinese courtyard house and a British terrace house even though terraced houses aren’t uniquely British. Nevertheless, combining the liveability of a courtyard house with the resource economy of a terrace house is no random mashup. The courtyard goes some way to making up for the lack of window opportunities caused by the party walls. It’s easy enough to build speculative and minimal area row houses but the persistence of a courtyard when land is at a premium indicates not only the absence of mechanical ventilation and artificial illumination but perhaps a cultural preference for the natural kind.

The excellent blog Shanghai Street Stories will tell you much more about them than I can and also has many wonderful photographs. If you’d like to know more about the historical development of shikumen, then I can point you towards From shikumen to new-style: a rereading of lilong housing in modern Shanghai.

Chunlan Zhao (2004) From shikumen to new-style: a rereading of lilong housing in modern Shanghai, The Journal of Architecture, 9:1, 49-76, DOI: 10.1080/1360236042000197853

The basic housing unit ranges in width from five bays down to one bay. They are arranged in rows in the li-long with all houses facing the same direction so that the front of one house faces the rear of another across a secondary alley. These secondary alleys join to the primary alley that has stone gates at each end. Shops front perimeter streets such as the one below.

These are the primary alleys. These photographs I took in the Kongjia Nong (孔家弄, Confucius Lane) area of Shanghai. Most of the residents have left and the area is in limbo.

Around 1870, the first Shikumen were adapted from vernacular dwellings to became a form of high-density low-rise mass housing in Shanghai that was growing rapidly. Built for the Chinese population, they once (circa 1920?) comprised 60-75% of Shanghai’s housing stock. Regardless, shikumen have the universal construction and resource efficiency that comes from party walls, and a plan with a courtyard as transition space between street and house.

The universal problem is to get as much light and ventilation as possible into a plan that is deeper than it is wide. In this next example of an older style shikumen, the front courtyard provides ventilation and illumination to the three front rooms, and the open corridor is a light well that also provides a degree of cross ventilation to these three rooms as well as to the kitchen that opens onto the secondary lane at the rear.

This image from Alice Pontiggia’s research into shikumen describes all of the above. In the lower right you can see the shops along the street frontages, the stone gates and the rows of houses with their main rooms all facing south and their service rooms on the north side.§

A two-bay shikumen will have only one side bay and a one-bay shikumen will have none. A newer type built largely between 1920 and 1940 lacks the central open corridor and has larger windows to compensate. Again, in response to the need for light and air, the courtyard walls became lower to make the courtyards more like garden areas. The newer type also tended to have fewer shops and less identification as a walled neighbourhood. The single orientation of the dwelling units was maintained however – a cultural preference that guarantees maximum daylight for all and also means that living spaces do not face each other across the narrow alley. While the front courtyard was becoming more of a garden, the rear open corridor was atrophying into a lightwell.

For more information on the development of this, I can refer you to the next article by Peter Wong, republished on the blog The Thinking Architect, a site maintained by the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC).

The new-type plan on the left doesn’t have this internal lightwell and it would be the same as a British two-up two-down if it weren’t for the rear rooms being entered from the half-landing to enable three storeys of reduced height. We’ve seen this before in Russia in the 1930s, where this middle floor was used to access apartments both up and down. This arrangement also produced front rooms with higher ceilings, as you can see in the diagram at right. This large and cross-ventilated upper room is the bedroom. Because this layout on the right is a two-bay (a two-jian) house, it has the width for a staircase without winder access the upper rooms. Although the secondary courtyard is more of a light well, it still provides improved light and ventilation to all rooms that open onto it, as well as to the staircase. It is this secondary courtyard rather than the front one that makes the new li-long into a true cross between a courtyard house and a terraced house from most anywhere else.

Regardless of the plan contractions, the orientation of all apartments so that primary habitable rooms faced south never changed. This stubborn preference increased build cost by increasing surface area compared with back-to-back developments in Britain but then, if you want windows then you need external walls. This tells me that windowless, poorly lit and ventilated rooms were not considered a marketable product, even for the poor. Overcrowded as these houses most probably were, at least it wasn’t a developer-led market.

• • • 

What is taking their place are terraced houses that are two or three storeys high, in rows 2-3 metres apart and, if they are all of the “new” style with front “courtyard” gardens, then we get the British terrace house but with the front/rear access alley instead of a garden. If we ignore the orientation preferences and mirror alternate rows of houses, then we get alternating access roads on one side and either a communal garden or patch of private garden on the other, making it even more like a British terrace house. This point has not been lost on developers and new developments in shikumen style are appearing.

These shikumen style developments are again a kind of cultural crossover, appropriating marketable aspects of both the Chinese and the imported residential architectures of early last century.

The rear side is either communal space or semi-private private space. Whichever it is, it’s too early to tell how it’s going to be used.

What we do know is that the idea of housing units this size and this close together is one that people are comfortable with. The style has been successfully (i.e. commercially) applied to the Xintiandi (新田地) retail area, but with added trees.

It has also been applied more ruthlessly to less upmarket housing developments in locations less prime. In many ways this development is truer to the origins of the li-long typology, if not the shikumen. Two apartments per floor with borrowed light from the stairwell illuminating the entrances. Inside, two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom (which probably has the small windows on the end walls). Habitable room windows probably facing each other across maybe four meters. It’s an improvement. It’s approaching handshake housing densities and distances. The only question is whether it can be done any better?

These buildings above look like three-storey apartment buildings with two apartments per floor. As it does anywhere else, this means that land pressure (or development returns) favours the building of apartments rather than houses. Courtyard houses constructed in terraces are still a good idea for locations that don’t yet have such high densities. The question is whether there is any life left in the typology.

Shikumen were a very successful housing product but the concerns they address weren’t unique to Shanghai either then or now. It’s the same problem of how to provide living space, sanitation, ventilation, and illumination at low-cost and high density and without conflicting with existing social norms and structures. It’s a very important problem and one we shouldn’t stop thinking about.

People at Shanghai’s Tongii University have been thinking about it and this is what they came up with. It’s a three-storey H-shaped plan with what looks like four studio apartments and communal kitchen on each of three levels. It’s good work. I like how it adapts the old solution to the same problem that’s moved on a bit since.

The proposal extends this typology that’s common with student housing and applies it to housing more mainstream.

The configuration on the left above reminds me of one I made earlier.Regardless of whether it’s co-living or co-mortaging or for two or four, I prefer my arrangement with its independent entrances creating a larger shared space.

The individual bathrooms suggest a co-living variation or perhaps even student housing but the central rooms aren’t living rooms but a single communal kitchen space with individual kitchens. Each room has a sink and kitchen associated with it. Kitchens in Chinese houses and apartments are typically isolated from the living areas by sliding glass doors but, with this proposal, the isolating doors are the apartment entrances. The larger apartment units have tables, suggesting that the eating is done there. This kitchen room will be the best ventilated space and that alone is a good reason for consolidating the kitchens and putting there, but it also serves as circulation space and social hub, even if this social aspect of It revolves around the preparation of food and the cleaning up after cooking and eating it.

I’d like to see what other variations are possible that, though they may seem harsh and dense now, might one day be regarded as having been ahead of their time.