City of the Infinite Present

[This, and following images: Jianyeli, Shanghai]

The architecture of Shanghai did not develop along any set linear trajectory: it is a city “unstuck in time.” Beautiful French chateaus mimic styles from centuries earlier. Victorian villas stand side-by-side with international style modernism and art deco apartment towers. The Oriental Pearl – built in the 1990s – could have been an Expo centerpiece in the late 1950s (or a comic rocketship design in the ‘30s).

The architecture styles of Shanghai have largely been imported. The historical development of Chinese traditional architecture effectively came to an end here with the influx of Europeans following the opening of foreign concessions. Though traditional styles can still be seen in the Old City and at temple complexes scattered around town, by the 1920s and 30s the city was already a haphazard mashup of European and American styles, already with a good share of anachronistic novelties. For every streamline-moderne apartment block, there is a half-timbered Tudor mansion, or an Italianate palazzo capped with a red tile roof.


In an environment like this, there is no need to harness a design to a historical trajectory: there is a certain chaotic freedom in a city where any style of architecture (or mode of urbanism) is possible. The city is a work-in-progress, where it seems every block under construction. There is also a definite sense of repetition, of Buddhist mantras in concrete and steel, of reconstruction in search of perfection. If the project fails, there is no shame in demolition.

So it is not surprising to find that the “Shikumen” typology – perhaps Shanghai’s only truly authentic architectural form – is not immune to these cycles of destruction and rebirth. The “lilong” urban form developed in a specific economic and social context, the details of which are elucidated expertly in Qian Guan’s excellent thesis available on the McGill University website. These high-density (for the time) mixed-use blocks were an elegant mix of Chinese and European housing typologies, and provided adequate housing for Shanghai residents for nearly 100 years, until the opening of the Chinese economy and the relaxation of the “hukou” system allowed the city to once again increase rapidly in population, necessitating ever-denser housing types, giving rise to the cityscape of anonymous towers we see today.


To summarize the thesis linked above, the “shikumen” typology arose as a developer-driven response to mass migration, providing a secure community-policed residential structure with complex spatial hierarchies that fostered a true sense of community. In general, these blocks are characterized by a commercial perimeter ring, with small storefronts facing the major thoroughfares. Mid-block cuts allow access to the internal lanes running east-to-west, which branch off the major north-to-south axes.

This simple arrangement allows for a rich spatial sequence: as one enters a “lilong” community and proceeds to her residence, there is a gradual breakdown and compression of space. From the major public commercial streets, to the semi-public north-south lanes, to the semi-private east-west alleyways, and finally to the private courtyards and interiors of the “shikumen” townhomes, the road widths become tighter and tighter, the number of immediate neighbors decreases (so outsiders become much more visible the deeper they venture into the complex), and (I’d guess) the sense of ownership and personal space increases. Compare this to a modern apartment complex, where the block is often surrounded by a high wall with no commercial space at the urban edge, accessible only by one of two main gates (as opposed to numerous small ones), containing anonymous towers sitting in dubious “green space” (often simply given over to parking).



In Shanghai, this city of constant rebirth, arguing in favor of preservation of these fascinating old blocks is a losing battle. After all, most of the “shikumen” lanes are in a state of disrepair, having been subject to over 70 years of tumultuous history, and most having been subdivided and sub-subdivided so extensively that any pretense of luxury is surely gone. In many cases, the old homes had only limited access to utilities such as electricity and water. Shared bathrooms were common; sinks and kitchen equipment were often moved out into the alleys, to free up more living space inside. It is easy to see why modern Chinese may view these old homes with contempt, and welcome the clean (at first), modern towers that replace them.

Though strict preservation may be near-impossible, it would be a tragedy to lose this unique urban form, especially if its replacement is a form of oft-derided modernism that has fallen out of favor in the west due to its failure as a scaffold for social interaction and community-building, and its anti-urban relationship to surrounding street networks.


[Note: follow flickr photo link for detailed notes on model section]


So, with this in mind, the controversial Jianyeli Shikumen Redevelopment project (designed and constructed by architect John Portman and the associated developer Portman Holdings) can be seen as a success architecturally, retaining the urban form of the traditional lanes, while updating the homes with modern amenities.

The Jianyeli project retains the original plan of the block, but to call this a restoration is disingenuous. The service apartments (essentially a luxury hotel) to the west do retain their original structure, but everything else has been reconstructed. To the east side of the site, every building was torn down and reconstructed anew. This was necessary, the architect may argue, in order to excavate and construct the two level basement that constitutes the most major difference between this new development and the old structures it has replaced. Where there was no basement before, now there is a parking level two floors down, with a private garage for each home, connected directly to the main staircase and private elevator, and a basement living area that nearly doubles the original size of the home.


In addition to the basement levels, these new townhomes often sprawl across three or four bays, where the original houses would occupy only one. As a result of this, the wider homes feature lightwells to provide some daylight to the otherwise cold and dark basement living rooms. At the street level, this results in the somewhat odd condition of gates-to-nowhere, with heavy wooden doors that swing freely above empty space.

By combining multiple units into single ones, the architect has provided luxurious apartments in previously cramped conditions, and the additional space (and direct parking access!) will surely be a huge selling point, and I, for one, am convinced that this will be a hot property once it goes on the market.

There is, of course, the ethical question of the relocation: no one who previously lived in this block will be able to afford the new homes, and the project has attracted significant controversy. Even today, you can see traces of graffiti on the new brick walls, no doubt a protest from relocated residents or others who are offended by this form of gentrification.

Ethics aside, the Jianyeli development gives me some home for the maintenance of Shanghai’s one unique architectural typology (if only in somewhat compromised form).

Temporal Gradients

[This, and following images: Xintiandi, Shanghai]

Where the Jianyeli development is a fairly faithful reconstruction, other projects have engaged the city’s temporal nature more directly, by applying gradients that attempt to recreate the heterogeneous mix of styles present in a city that has developed over time. In Xintiandi, a block of “shikumen” lanes was redeveloped as a hip restaurant and entertainment district. While it does have its charms (among them a very European central square), its status as a preservation project is questionable. The few restored lane houses on the north block quickly give way to a modern mall to the south. The architect Ben Wood describes this as a conscious effort to mix the old and the new, to reveal Shanghai as a city in transition.


[This, and following images: Thames Town, Songjiang]

Similarly, at Thames Town, a new city on the outskirts of Shanghai, the architects Adkins refer to the project as a “simulacrum” – completely embracing the inauthenticity of constructing an English village in the Yangtze delta. Recognizing that the charm of European cities lie in the heterogeneity of styles, the architects have collected/recreated forms from throughout English history, from half-timbered Tudor villas, to vaguely post-modern public buildings reminiscent of James Stirling’s late work, culminating in a geodesic dome, surely a reference to the work of Buckminster Fuller.

These projects utilize a temporal gradient as a driving design concept. If we understand Shanghai as a city unmoored from time, where the possibilities of urban life are unbounded, depending only on the whims of power (of government officials, developers, and architects and urban planners who shape this metropolis), we can free ourselves from the restraints of real or imagined authenticity. Shanghai provides a model for urban development that embraces impermanence and temporality: a “city of the infinite present” with truly unlimited potential.




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