By Peter Wong (Associate Professor of Architecture) | The following case study examines the ways that material forms come to be associated with the values and cultural patterns of racial and ethnic groups. The historical development of lilong housing dramatically illustrates the active and dynamic processes that are required to form long-lasting associations between local communities and physical structures. This essay is reprinted from the volume Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden Consequences (Routledge, 2015).
Urbanism in modern Shanghai resembles to many expanding Eastern and Western cities in the first decade of the new millennium. Tall buildings pierce the ground, squeezing sidewalk space between bright storefront displays and noisy street edges. Signage and brands compete for pedestrian eye-time accompanied by smells of traditional soup dumplings or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yet if one slows to observe the gaps between buildings, evidence can be found of an older city hidden inside the block. Small gatehouses – thresholds between the city streets and these interior realms – are managed by guards who monitor flows of pedestrians entering narrow lanes that connect to a network of low-scale residences.
Also known as longtang or lilong (translated as ‘community lanes’) these pedestrian thoroughfares were important in forming a residential architecture unique to Shanghai from the 1850s to the 1940s. Like a wood puzzle, the arrangement of lanes, housing, and small courtyards created interlocking patterns that governed community life in many neighborhoods in the city. The architecture from this urban layout became synonymous with the lilong name, but was frequently referred to as shikumen architecture, because of the stone walls and gates that became the notable features of the residences that bordered these lanes.
The history of lilong residential architecture is rich and well-documented. This essay traces how that architecture became an important record of cultural and community change from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century as Shanghai underwent various social, economic, and political changes. Lilong and shikumen architectures were originally Western forms of worker housing commonly found in the industrialized cities of Britain, Europe, and America in the 1850s. Their arrival in Shanghai helped solidify a Western presence with the promise of lucrative real estate ventures and the establishment of off-shore business colonies that would take advantage of Asian markets, labor, and goods. They became homes for both foreign as well as Shanghainese residents, and therefore present a clear example of how design is continuously challenged (and made) by diverse interests, competing influences, and cross-cultural inhabitants. Shikumen residential architecture in Shanghai helped to create a unique experience of urban life that could not be found elsewhere.
Brief Account of the Shikumen House
The Shanghai shikumen house originated as a developer’s model of housing under the British and French Concessions arising from a resolution of the First Opium War. Under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, foreign interests negotiated complete and long-term control of Shanghai districts for business purposes as well as for the building of housing for foreign nationals moving to the city. At first these blocks were developed for American, British and French residents. It soon became clear, however, that foreigners alone could not fill the districts. This led to negotiations with local government to house Chinese migrants moving into the city from rural provinces to undertake factory work and commercial labor. Lilong developments were considered a valuable and sound investment for foreign investors as the population of Shanghai rose, and capital was to be had from the selling and renting of lilong villages.
The persistence of this architectural type provided an easy way of repeating sound labor practices, capitalizing on local building traditions, and creating a dense fabric of residences that could be marketed to both the Western population and a Chinese audience accustomed to living in housing that shared similarities with the water towns outside of Shanghai.
Early shikumen (1879-1910) versions were constructed as 5-bay (5-jian) or 3-bay dwellings. The configurations of these early urban houses were very similar in morphology to the rural country houses of the Anhui Province in the region west of Shanghai. The orientation of living spaces was directed to the south while service spaces were situated to the north. Located between these houses were uncovered alleyways that accessed cooking and storage areas, often with second-story areas to house additional family members. Early versions of these multi-bay houses were constructed as post and beam wood structures in the tradition of rural village types built by local carpenters that provided a ready source of labor. Masonry infill between these timbers and party walls provided lateral stability, and also kept sparks from skipping between adjacent dwellings in the event of a fire.
Late shikumen (1910-30) architecture was characterized by a two or one-and-a-half bay module to create an even denser grain of urban housing. During this time, we also see three-story units that increased the population density of the concession districts. The size of these houses would average between 1,800 and 2,500 square feet.
The Lilong House (1920-40) paralleled late-shikumen architecture but was constructed mainly of masonry walls and concrete floors reflecting more modern building techniques. The masonry wall and stone gate of the courtyard were often replaced with a low garden wall or wrought iron fences allowing an unrestricted view of the lane. By 1930, lilong housing could be found in both attached and detached villa variations. Both foreign and Chinese developers sought the lucrative possibilities of this era of construction. Variations were rich, and the type was often repeated in both grandiose as well as humble versions according to the class and income of the homebuyer.
As Chinese families moved into these dwellings, it was common to rent north rooms in the home to students and artists. This was the first instance of the shikumen being occupied by more than one family. The kitchen was shared, and access to the house was altered to accommodate the coming and going of additional residents.
By the 1940s, lilong housing and its neighborhoods made up more than 50% of the urban fabric in Shanghai. Though the urban type remained resistant and strong, the 1949 Communist Revolution brought dramatic changes as the government began to assign families to existing housing. It was not uncommon for a single house to accommodate as many as five or six families, each living in one room, with as many as 20 people per house. These modifications significantly changed the interiors of the lilong as well as the social and living patterns in the lanes themselves.
East + West
The typological architecture of worker housing from a dense urban British and European model served as the type-form for most lilong developments. The overall layout placed public interior spaces to the south and service parts of the program to the north. This arrangement of south to north distribution of the housing elements provided the fundamental arrangement that served as the basic patterning of the lane, sub-lanes, and ultimately the layout of the block. Hence, most of the major streets running east-west in the city served as the entrance points in the urban fabric.
Exterior courtyards and light wells for appropriate light and ventilation were a main spatial feature of these houses. British versions of the type often offered exterior spaces, in particular the courtyard, which allowed families to plant vegetable gardens. When settling the North American South, for example, the British general and planner, James Oglethorpe, drew up a plan for Savannah, Georgia that featured houses with adjacent gardens in a military-style camp arranged around a central square. This open space reinforced the idea of self-reliance but also reflected a layout that could be easily defended.
The provision of an exterior yard was also sympathetic to the patterns of life found in the traditional Chinese house. Though the courtyard in shikumen architecture was too small for agricultural purposes, it did serve to provide essential domestic needs such as clothes washing and drying, meal preparation, and other daily uses. These similarities in the spatial planning and arrangement of the house helped anchor both Asian and Western needs, leading to the durability of the shikumen type.
Resistant to the influence of architectural pattern books, the shikumen represents a more natural development of architecture, space and culture. On the one hand, it offered comfortable yet familiar spaces for foreigners. A clear rendition of public parlor and private living quarters was customary for Westerners. The separation of family and daily rituals was comparable to European dwelling standards. Kitchen and private services were allocated to a subservient position in the house, and most hygienic and personal needs could be hidden from general family activities. On the other hand, this dense arrangement also suited traditional Chinese, who were familiar with perimeter-wall architecture that protected the patriarchal organization of the interior spaces.
Artisan practices also contributed to the confluence of the type. Design features of the interior were performed by local tradespeople. Details and ways of construction reflected a knowledge of Chinese construction in early-shikumen houses. Living spaces for entertaining and social functions were often outfitted with the most fashionable Western finishes. At the same time, the remainder of the house’s fittings and equipment were given over to tradespeople, furniture craftsmen, cabinet makers, and finishers that spoke of a local character. For example, one might find modern wallpaper in the guest parlor and other formal areas of the house while the kitchens, stair halls and service rooms had traditional Chinese joinery and other artisan details.
Stone construction (stone gates in particular) encouraged the use of local building materials and labor. At the same time, the durability of these materials was also part of the defensive requirements of the house during a time when the Chinese still feared civil unrest from aggressors. The stark opacity of brick party walls between houses added further defense from fire threat, and, at the same time, restricted direct interaction between side-by-side neighbors.
A Two-Sided Puzzle
The social life of shikumen and lilong housing presents a special circumstance different than most urban settlements. Due to their small dimensions, the lanes encourage public interaction between residents in these neighborhoods. Often no wider than 15 to 20 feet, interior block lanes are designed for pedestrians rather than vehicles. Lane housing also functions as a place for walking, sitting and play. In many instances, there are small stands set up to sell food and other items as well as haircuts and various services. The alleys branching off of the main lane become even more intimate, with residents cooking, washing clothes or talking with their neighbors. But it is the structures of the alleys themselves that reveal the secret of the rich social conditions inherent in all lilong settlements.
Unlike the Western arrangement of streets, which present their public faces to one another in a double-loaded fashion, lilong houses are oriented along a directional grain where the most public parts of the house almost always face south. This orientation to the alley has its roots in Feng Shui planning, which echoes ancient Chinese philosophy, where the relative position to sun, water, mountains and wind are an important factor in the siting of the architecture, town, and landscape.
Lilong neighborhoods take advantage of this granular orientation, since the front courtyard of any one house faces the rear kitchen and service façade of another across the alley. Someone leaving the formal side of a dwelling always has the opportunity of witnessing the backside of the house opposite. In turn, the owners of this house, if arriving or leaving via their kitchen, are in view of the formal side of the residence behind. This unique social opportunity can allow a myriad of different scenarios. A person returning from work in the afternoon through her front door may run across a neighbor washing vegetables in the alley as dinner is prepared. Children playing cards or Chinese chess might be sitting in the alley as the mail carrier arrives with packages. Or freshly washed clothes could be dripping from the rear of a house as a grandmother lounges in the sun shining through the open door of her stone gate courtyard.
One of the housing types that offers suggestive comparisons to the shikumen would be the ‘single-house’ form built in Charleston, South Carolina from 1780 to 1820. In this urban example, houses are lined on one side by a two or three-story veranda or porch (more typically known as a “piazza”). This porch generally faces the south to catch light and breeze, and is placed adjacent to a small garden. The opposite side of the house sits directly on the property line in such a way that a rhythm of the garden, porch, and body of the house repeats itself as you move down the block. The public character of the porch and garden are oriented against the body of the house on the next lot in such a way that public and private faces must interact with (or screen off) neighbors. This A:B:C rhythm (garden:porch:house) can be easily seen as one faces the row of houses from the street. One enters the end of the porch, moves to its center, and then enters the house proper at 90 degrees to the street.
The comparison between these two examples illustrates how the shape and form of architecture can guide different social relationships. The Charleston house encourages social manners between neighbors along shared property lines across a garden space. In contrast, the Shanghai house establishes social interaction at the front and back, with neighbors presenting themselves at the stone gate and kitchen door. In both cases, architecture is the stage for rich social exchange.
In Shanghai, these social opportunities are reinforced when the formal meets the informal, public overlaps with private, and sunlight illuminates the shadows. Lilong villages, therefore, promoted human interaction as a direct response to neighbors. The social scenarios in the lanes were often positive, but living in these dense quarters could also create conflicts. The morphology and layout of these dwelling presented a rich condition for a particular type of social life that is often lost in contemporary high-rise architecture.
To further understand the cultural space of the shikumen, we can turn to the vivid scenes created by Chinese artists, writers, and filmmakers. Some of the first pictures of shikumen life were described by Chinese literati and dissidents in the 1920s and 30s who often rented rooms above kitchen spaces in shikumen houses. These were the least expensive rooms to rent, harsh in the summer due to the excessive heat from the kitchen below, and chilly in the winter due to the lack of direct sunlight and the cold north wind. These spaces, known as tingzijian (small room, cabinet or cubicle), were frequently inhabited by famous Chinese authors such as Lu Xun and others. Some historians go so far as to claim these rooms as “think tanks” (or political hideouts) for those eager to launch the political interests of the Chinese Communist Party of the 1940s.
Leased spaces, like the tingzijain, began a trend that saw most shikumen houses change from single-family residences into multi-family structures that housed several Chinese families. Floors or rooms were taken over by entire families as the new Communist leaders attempted to provide housing for new residents to the city. Additional rooms were created by adding floors between the original ones. The south-facing courtyard was enclosed to allow for additional living space. The kitchen and stair became the new foyer and public hall.
The modern fiction writer, Xiaolong Qiu, describes this “flip-flopped” arrangement in his detective novel When Red is Black. The story features a Shanghai police inspector who is investigating a murder that takes place in a tingzijian room. Qiu, through the eyes of his protagonist, describes a shikumen that is occupied by several families highlighting the public nature of the house’s stair:
In a shikumen house, any usable space was precious. Since no single family could claim the space under the staircase, it became an additional common storage area for all sorts of hardly usable stuff which, in its owner’s imagination, still had some potential value – like a broken bike of the Lis, a three-legged rattan chair of the Zhangs, a trunk of coal of the Huangs.
This description accurately portrays how the social arrangement of the typical shikumen house was inverted in the 1940s and onward. As more families were crowded into these houses, the northern service side was transformed into the day-to-day entry while the grand stone gate facade became less frequently used. This change also reversed the activities and importance of the lanes as kitchens became the front door of the house and the stair a public meeting place that ascended through the interior to reach individual families.
Life of the Stair
The stair is a wood puzzle at the center of the shikumen architectural experience. In all its historical iterations, the shikumen contains a tangle of risers, landings, handrails, swinging doors and screens. This knot–like interior space is a vertical vortex of moving bodies, ascending and descending, going about daily activities, presented in a performance of movement that the static condition of the architecture alone lacks.
The stair is perhaps the most significant element in the shikumen, serving as a measure of its historical development. This can be seen over time as the stair acquires new uses that were not original to the building. In early, grand versions of the house, the stair was based on a Western model, and a vertical service hall was buried in the body of the building so that servants and private matters of the house were hidden behind the more formal business of the living areas. Before the introduction of the bathroom in the 1920s, the stair and landings were used to store chamber pots, which were set outside bedroom doors after use, well away from cooking and eating areas. The routine of emptying these vessels occurred in the morning hours, when they were carried out through the rear of the house and into the alley.
In the 1930s and 40s, as owners begin to lease rooms as well as entire floors, the stair gained a new role as the formal entry to the various apartment flats. In this sense, the functional plan of the house was ‘driven in reverse’ as residents entered or exited the building more often at the north face of the house, the service side. This allowed the stair to transform into a public lobby for the flows of people in a different manner than the circulation of a single-family dwelling. Less predictable is how the tenants of the house used these stairs – for example, as a stage for the comings and goings of the elderly, a meeting place for lovers or the playground for children. The choreography of the shikumen stair became increasingly dynamic with people climbing or descending through space under different motivations, changing the flow of forces and therefore the life of the stair.
Ang Lee, the noted filmmaker and director, captures the use of the shikumen space in the early 1940s in his film Lust, Caution. The film’s setting parallels the time in which the function of the stair is changing from a service element to public passage. The sequence features architecture as one of the characters, increasing the tension in the plot. The heroine of the story is a young woman scheming to execute a Chinese spy who is sympathetic to the Imperial Japanese Army’s occupation of Shanghai. As the protagonist enters her shikumen from the public lane, we are led through a series of filmic cuts that move up and through the section of the house, introducing not only its variety of spaces, but also the residents who dwell there. Entering the kitchen side of the house, the main character is greeted by an old man washing his face; at the same time, she sneaks glances through a window into the brightly lit lane. She moves through this space avoiding a mother with a baby descending a stair before stepping on to the first riser herself; simultaneously, she watches an old woman in prayer in a distant room. The camera cuts to a skewed perspective of the young woman climbing the first run, following her as she switches back at the landing. At this position, she looks up and utters good “morning” to a passing woman. And as the camera levels out, following her hand as it slides along the rail, she leaves the frame, and we refocus to a distant view, through an interior window, of a family of four who is seated at a table engaged in a meal. This scene, no more than 20 seconds in length, allows a complex and comprehensive view of shikumen space, and, particularly, the space of the stair.
The shikumen stair is a knot that binds together the different Chinese families that define post-1949 lilong houses. From a purely architectural point of view, these platforms between stairs – i.e., the landings – expand as floors stretch to the edges of each room. By contrast, we could imagine there are no landings in these houses, only truncated stair sections reaching to branching floors. The notion of the ‘free section’ comes to mind, recalling the space of modern architects like Le Corbusier or even Adolf Loos. But things are seldom ‘free’ when it comes to the pressures of forced living situations, crowded conditions, and the increase in gravity loads. What can be best taken from the spatial excitement of the Shanghai shikumen arrangement is the harsh realities of the Chinese ability to adapt to the availability of space.
The Shikumen Today
Some architects and developers who are now recognizing the importance of preserving lilong morphology through borrowing or recreating its urban character, as in the retail developments of Xintandi or Tangzifang in Shanghai. However, while such projects have seen commercial success as shopping districts for the internationally affluent, they often recreate the likeness of the original architecture without the social richness or the historical narratives of original lilong settlements.
Several modern projects to restore and reinterpret shikumen architecture are now being erected in Shanghai. The Jian Ye Li Project, completed in 2012 in the French Concession as a joint project of John Portman Associates, the City of Shanghai, and a private developer, is one of the first to combine new housing and historic shikumen architecture. The former lilong neighborhood was divided into three sections. A portion of the site was left undeveloped in its existing condition, another was demolished and replaced with new housing by Portman, and the final third was renovated by Kokai Studios, a local preservation architect.
The Portman units are based on late-shikumen housing, but have grown to four times their size by connecting two units normally found in the standard historic type. Underground parking is provided two levels below street level. Rising above the lane are three floors of living space for a total area of 5,400 square feet of livable space. The size of these dwellings is on par with ‘super-size’ houses we see in Western suburban developments. Such recuperation efforts far exceed the historical standards of the type, and are far beyond the means of most Shanghainese residents.
The irony of the project lies in the fact that most Shanghainese who experienced the dense conditions of post-1950 shikumens cannot understand why the wealthy, many of them Westerners, would wish to live in housing that, in their mind, is associated with over-crowding and a loss of liberties.
A different approach was taken by Kokai Studios. Their focus was to recover the feeling and space of the original single-family shikumen house, preserving the original size and layout. Living spaces and service elements are distributed with respect to the building’s historic pattern. Accommodations for modern conveniences such as bathrooms, heating and cooling maintain the original spatial character of the houses. At the same time, the fitting out of these houses is updated with contemporary equipment and finishes. The adaptive reuse of the original shikumen masonry shell of this part of the site represents a more sensitive recuperation of the historic type while simultaneously retaining the original sense of the architectural and urban spaces. This kind of historic preservation is less about a strict return to past architectures and more about a modification of the historic type.
Most East and West renditions of Chinese architecture since the 1950s have resulted in grotesque stylistic examples of Chinese Imperial architecture with a modern twist. Instead, a sensitive reading of shikumen architecture could provide significant clues on how the physical style of buildings is but one aspect of recognizing architectural heritage. This opens questions about the rich and more authentic means available for maintaining an architectural tradition in the face of necessary modernization in China.
Although it appears that shikumen architecture could fade in the face of fast-paced development in China, there are possibilities for new configurations. The test of an enduring game is whether it can be taken up again by new generations and fresh minds. This begins with a quick inspection of what exists, a loosening of parts, and a careful consideration of individual pieces. Shikumen architecture was the result of a problem of competing interests and through making concessions under strict cultural determinants. The Western roots of the type was massaged and modified during its 100-year building history, reimagined and reoccupied by Chinese residents. The building type was adjusted by different patterns of life, cultural traditions, and ethnic preferences. The impact on architecture in this instance is rich, as new forms are found by bending existing canons.
How will the return of foreign interests to China and the rekindled appreciation of Chinese culture and architecture affect shikumen housing? How will foreign and Chinese interests in lucrative partnerships influence the unique fabric of lilong neighborhoods? Will tomorrow’s shikumens be subject to erasure by those unable to piece together the complexity of the conditions? Can the architectural type find new adaptations and configurations to meet changes in the cultural, political, and economic conditions of modern Shanghai, while maintaining the inherent quality of the city’s urban fabric? Understanding the nature of these houses will require finesse as well as experimentation as pieces are tried, abandoned, and used again.
Chao Wei, Shanghai Housing After Its Opening to Foreigners (Beijing: China Architecture and Building, 1991).
Samuel Y. Liang, “Where Courtyard Meets the Street: Spatial Culture of the Li Neighborhoods, Shanghai, 1870-1900,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol.. 67, No. 4, December 2008, 482-503.
John E. Orchard, “Shanghai,” The Geographical Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 1936, 1-31.
Sheng Hua, Shanghai Lilong Housing (Shanghai: Chinese Architectural Industry, 1987).
Wang, Shaozhou, Shanghai Modern Architecture (Jiangsu: Jiangsu Science and Technology, 1989).
Yu Wenming, Shanghai Shikumen (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts, 2012).
Zhao Chunlan, “From Shikumen to new-style: a re-reading of Lilong housing in modern Shanghai,” The Journal of Architecture, Vol. 9, Spring 2004, 49-76.
Author’s Note: The drawings and diagrams in this essay were created in collaboration with graduate students in the Master of Architecture Program at University of North Carolina Charlotte. The author would like to thank Thomas Barry and Lewis Mackey for their skill in preparing the graphics for this chapter.
 Shikumen or shi–ku–men translates roughly as stone, gate, door describing the portals of stone in masonry walls that separate the courtyard of the house from the adjacent lane. The doors in these portals were typically of heavy wood, painted black, and fitted with iron hardware.
 Article No. 2 of The Treaty of Nanking, signed August 29, 1842, states specifically the conditions of the concessions in Shanghai and in three additional Chinese towns.
 Type or typology in architecture is a way to categorize buildings according to shared physical traits. This is drawn mainly from similarities in the buildings’ floor plans. For example, courtyard houses from the Mediterranean, Mexico and China share similar layouts and plan configurations. These houses have an open space or court in the center or interior of their plans. Hence buildings with a similar type share the same spatial relationships and formal patterns. Architectural typology was important in the 19th century during a time when both natural and human-made artifacts were being categorized under taxonomic rules and principles. Architectural typology found renewed interest in the 1980s when architects renewed their interests in historical forms. Urban types in particular are of interest, since such forms are usually inspired by factors that include: the environment, region or locale, parcel size, the social use of space, and other determining factors.
 See Turpin C. Banister’s essay, “Oglethorpe’s Sources for the Savannah Plan,” Journal of Architectural Historians, vol. 2, no. 2, May 1961, 47-62.
 Such defensive architecture was important during the Taiping Revolution (1850-1864) and the threat of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900) in northern China.
 Feng Shui is the Asian practice of relating buildings and cities to their environs. In simple terms, this ancient practice accounts for both spiritual and physical elements of the land and site to determine the position and orientation of buildings. The practice influenced Chinese Taoist ideas of the relationship between materials, environment, and the energies associated with these elements.
 For a more complete description of this house type see, Bernard L. Herman, “The Embedded Landscapes of the Charleston Single House, 1780-1820,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture: Exploring Everyday Landscapes, vol. 7, 1997, 41-57.
 Qiu Xiaolong, When Red is Black (New York: Soho Press, 2004), Kindle Edition, page 254, Location 1636.
 Ang Lee based his film on the 1979 novella, Lust, Caution, by the author Eileen Chang.
 Colin Rowe, “Mathematics of the Idea Villa,” Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 11.
 Since the commercial success of the Xintandi shopping and tourist district by Ben Wood’s office, Studio Shanghai, the architect/developer has also created interest in building similar developments, such as: Waitanyuan and Cambridge Watertown in Shanghai as well as the new Xihutandi shopping area in Hangzhou.
 Yasmine Ryan, “Luxury Project Seizes on Shanghai’s Lane Houses,” The New York Times, September 16, 2010. url: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/17/greathomesanddestinations/17iht-reshanghai.html?_r=0 (accessed September 8, 2014).
 An interview with the project architect, Li Wei of Kokai Studios on on December 30, 2011 about the history and execution of the Jian Ye Li Project.