Lilong Visited

Lilong (里弄) housing is a type of row housing that first appeared in Shanghai in the 1840's. As detailed in an earlier post, the units are very narrow, and distinctively feature a courtyard in front that directly opens out to a public lane. The open courtyard serves as a soft edge between the unit and the street, enabling residents to actively occupy a section of the public space without feeling completely detached from their private dwellings. Lilong housing proliferates throughout Shanghai and exist in varying conditions, densities, and styles. However, the developments are dwindling in number, giving way to new high rise and retail developments much like what is happening to plots of land with older construction in many Chinese cities. As a result, many sprawling Lilong developments have shrunk in size, some to the footprint of a single city block, surrounded on all sides by stores, shops, and restaurants serving the busy street life on all four sides.

Within a Lilong development however, the scene drastically changes. Because the units aggregate in a way that shields the community from outside stimuli, the lanes within serve the purposes of domestic public life. On a recent walk within these fortress like constructions, women are seen bending over sinks washing clothes or vegetables. Old men sit around tables playing chess or mahjong. Many doors leading to private courtyards are open, with children darting in and out, laughing and adding to the livelihood of the neighborhood. In each lane, the front side of one row of housing faces the backside of another row of housing, resulting in a face off between the front side programming (open courtyard) and the back side programming (kitchen). Thus, people relaxing on lawn chairs on one side of the lane can gaze at their neighbors across the lane cooking their dinner. It becomes clear that collective life is concentrated onto these tight streets, giving them a sort of interiorized condition that becomes a spatial extension of the minimalized private units.


An elderly woman sits outside her door eating in a Lilong development in the Luwan district of Shanghai.


A man washes clothes off one of the side lanes of a Lilong development in the Luwan district of Shanghai.


A man sits on a chair watching neighbors and passerby in a Lilong development near Xintiandi, Shanghai.


Looking out from the interior of a Lilong complex out into the surrounding road. Outward facing units often connect at the second floor, forming a wall against the exterior and creating a covered passage below.


Units in Lilong housing are spaced very close together, as evidenced by the doors leading to private courtyards.


Some Lilong developments have been preserved by adapting to contemporary demands and market forces. In Tianzhifang, a shopping and entertaiment complex converted from a pre-existing Lilong block, the ground floors of all the units have been renovated into shops and restaurants, while some of the upper floors remain as private living units.

For more on Lilong housing, see the earlier post on the typology here.


Caoyang Village One Visited

Caoyang Village is well known in Shanghai as one of the first and most successful worker's settlements constructed in China. Initiated in the 1950's, the sprawling settlement now encompasses nine villages and a large park located close to Shanghai's urban center. On a cool, rainy afternoon, I went to take a stroll around Caoyang village with two interested colleagues, whom despite being local Shanghai residents have never ventured to visit the property. Not knowing what to expect, we found the area to be lively and well-maintained. Despite the age of the buildings, a recent external washing by the local government has given the buildings clean and cheery facades.


Caoyang Village One, the first part of the settlement to be constructed, is still in use much like how it was some fifty years ago. Each block is divided into several segments, served by one staircase. Each segment has living units divided over three floors, with a communal kitchen and bathroom area serving three dwelling units on each floor. Two of the private residences on a floor are reduced to only a single room, except for a larger unit on the end that is divided into two rooms. Because of the small amount of private space allocated, some residents have constructed additions on top of the third floor. A large focus is given to the public spaces of Caoyang Village One, as it is where the residents cook their meals. This allows for increased social interaction and more efficient use of space for the workers that occupy the building.  



As we clamber up the public stairwell of one of these buildings, a resident appears behind us, carrying groceries. May we go upstairs? We inquire. He nods in agreement. On the third floor, he heads into the public kitchen, unpacks his groceries and relishes the comfort of his home as he unbuttons his shirt and lights up a cigarette. In the large open kitchen, we find evidence that it has served as a well-worn space for activities and uses other than cooking. Things such as bicycles, stacks of books, cabinets, and potted plants populate the room.



We make small talk with the resident. He has been living in Caoyang Village for twenty years now. We inquire about his view of the communal way of life as dictated by the spatial configuration. He replies with strong preference of his current living situation, "I would not like to live in the new high rises that they build in Shanghai today. No one ever meets their neighbors. Here, everyone is like a family and is genuinely affectionate for each other. If my neighbors do not see me for a couple of days, they will knock on my door and make sure I am okay."


For more on Caoyang Village One’s design, see the earlier post on the complex here


BASE Beijing Visited

Tucked away in an unassuming village on the fringes of Beijing, a group of students are undertaking a series of explorations with potentially resonant results. Led by Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, BASE Beijing is a long-standing summer studio operating in Caochangdi, a former village-turned artist enclave.

Each summer, undergraduate and graduate students from the United States as well as China converge on the factory space that BASE has come to call home to formulate a series of topics relevant to their urban context, then disperse back out into the city and beyond to carry out their investigations.

Mary-Ann kindly invited me to attend one of BASE's legendary weekly dinners. Upon my arrival, the dinner is in full swing and home-made pizza, salad, and bottles of Yangjing beer overflow the long table set out in the alleyway beside the workspace. The table bustles with discussion of architecture, China, and the general day-to-day oddities and happenings of being in such an unfamiliar environment doing such unconventional work. The students work in groups - each addressing an architectural issue sited either in urban or rural Beijing. One particular topic that catches my interest involves a group of students who are studying the phenomenom of people living in underground bunkers in the center of the city. A member of the group draws our attention through a story about the sheer excitement of his research process - walking past restricted areas, concealing his identity (local people become naturally suspicious of foreigners) and spending a night in the bunker itself. Such thorough and hands-on investigation will surely produce compelling and relevant information for architects to use as tools for addressing problems encountered through China's rapid development.


Large portraits of locals in the workspace reflect BASE's ambitions to tackle architecture through an understanding of the people whom inhabit them.

For more information, visit BASE's (albeit a bit outdated) website at


Jianwai Soho Visited

If collective labor, housework, and child-rearing were the binds that drew together the proletariat population of 1950's China, then surely for today's rising middle class it is the promise of a good life enabled through consumerism. There is no better example than in Jianwai Soho, a high-end residential mixed-use development in Beijing designed by Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto. Although its private chambers are meant for China's better-heeled set, it represents as a shining example of the lifestyle that China's current labor force strives towards obtaining.

Jianwai Soho is located in Beijing's burgeoning Central Business District, close to the much publicized CCTV tower. The design encompasses 2110 dwelling units, retail space, as well as office space. It is regarded as a rather successful commercial and residential development. Upon a recent visit, it is easy to reaffirm these sentiments - the lower levels of the development are bustling with activity.


The lower levels of the complexes are filled with storefronts, which wrap around the outer streets leading to an inner sanctuary of tree-lined walkways. This continuous strip of commerce caters to residents and outside visitors alike, bringing a sort of openess to the complex unseen in many other residential developments in China.


The coherent style of the multiple towers that comprise Jianwai Soho mark its boundaries clearly within Beijing's busy cityscape.


The transparent facade reveals a range of uses for the units within the towers - some appear to be offices, others private apartments, mixed in with a splattering of workrooms as well.


In the interior of the complex there is an assortment of free-standing villas. But instead of housing wealthy single families, these are commercial villas, hosting everything from fashion boutiques to bubble tea shops to convenience stores.


The ground plane within the complex is altered at certain areas to integrate underground stores and entry to parking areas. Coupled with the three-storey villas rising above ground, these below ground areas allow the visitor to occupy the complex from various vantage points, adding dynamism to the landscape.


A view from the street reveals the basic massing of the complex - a commercial podium and residential/office towers situated on top.


Standard Architecture Visited

A view of Standard's office going into management offices.


Standard Architecture, led by Zhang Ke in Beijing, has led multiple explorations into resolving current housing issues in China through innovative architecture. They have exhibited at several architecture biennials in China to spread the word about these issues and highlight them through provocative proposals. A while back, their "egg house" project was extensively covered in the media when one of their employees actually lived in one for a month in a Beijing parking lot. The house sought to comment on the plight of the ant tribe, young college graduates whom move to large cities and can only afford housing in inadequate and cramped conditions on the outskirts of the city.

 Standard's offices stand in contrast to the other buildings in the complex.


The office is converted from a former factory space near Wudaoko, Beijing.


An office divider also serves as an informal pin-up wall.


I visited Standard in order to learn more about one of their current projects, the Social Theater Housing. The project is part of the exhibition 'Housing with a Mission: Dutch and Chinese Architects' for the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennial. Along with five Chinese and five Dutch firms, the project is done in conjunction with the Netherlands Architecture Insitute and Vanke, the largest residential real estate developer in China.

I sat down for an interview with Roberto Caputo, project manager of the Social Theater Housing. The building itself is part of a masterplan to be located in northern Beijing. The standout feature of the building is the large void carved out of the volume, a response to a regulation stating that a certain percentage of the building must be public space. Standard chooses to make the public space available to the whims and demands of not only residents but also outside visitors, resulting in a void featuring two different slopes that serve as seating. Because of how Beijing residents make use of every open space available to them, Roberto believes that opening the space to outsiders will ensure its vitality. Roberto also describes the formation of the playful facade - the varying patterns of fenestration hides the different positioning of the AC units hidden behind.

With such architectural devices, Standard hopes that the Social Theater Housing project will serve as a model for social housing in China, as such a typology is currently sorely missing and needed in Chinese cities. By ensuring that the building is of high architectural quality and engages the public through its form, Standard wants to dispel the notion that social housing is of poor quality and detrimental to the image of China's booming cities.



A rendering of the Social Theater Housing project shows clearly where its name comes from.


The project is part of a masterplan involving five Chinese architects and five Dutch architects, all in hopes of addressing current housing problems facing young college graduates in China.


A model of the building displayed at the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Biennial.