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At home in a shikumen

As an art form, architecture is nurtured by urbanization and refined by economic limits. Although Expo is the world's largest showcase of every country's culture and lifestyle, it helps to understand the architecture of different nations to comprehend their growth and development patterns.

For Shanghai, the best way to grasp how this small coastal town was transmuted into one of the greatest cities in China is to know the native shikumen (stone-gated house) style of housing from which the city grew.

When Shanghai was opened to the world as a trading port in the mid-1800s, its population exploded. To accommodate this boom in foreign merchants and Chinese traders, the new and efficient shikumen community was born.

A distinctive hallmark of the design was a pair of black, heavy wood front doors with a stone frame. Beyond the doors was a small, enclosed courtyard called tianjing. Flanking it were two residential wings, usually two- or three-story brick and wood townhouses, arranged along straight alleys or lanes known as longtang.

The earliest shikumen had door frames with minimal designs and at most an inscription of its name in Chinese characters. But as city residents prospered, the frames adopted Western-style lintels and elaborate designs.

During their peak, these shikumen neighborhoods took up 60 percent of the city's residential area. They were the basis of the Shanghainese longtang way of community life where the privacy of individual units was supplemented by communal space in the enclosed courtyard.

As the demand for modern housing increased, most of these areas were demolished. Some of the survivors were converted for commercial use while others retained their original purpose - a place for living.

Here we highlight three shikumen areas: Xintiandi is a modern replica, Tian Zi Fang is a good example of conversion for commercial use and Bu Gao Li is a living testament to a form of building in which the city's community culture was nurtured.

Tian Zi Fang

Tian Zi Fang is one of the most genuine shikumen neighborhoods and it has a haphazard charm that is a joy to explore. For that reason, It is a popular hangout for art enthusiasts, tourists and casual visitors. Since 1998, Tian Zi Fang's lofty warehouses, factories and free-standing houses in the lanes off 210 Taikang Road have become magnets for attracting design companies, fashion houses, studios, galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants run by local people and foreigners.

Artists and designers find the shikumen buildings and old Shanghai neighborhood atmosphere inspirational and turn the odd spaces into unique business venues.

Compared to Xintiandi, it is more down to earth, less contrived and genuine. Many local residents continue to live in the upper floors of buildings, evidenced by power and clothes lines crisscrossing overhead and bicycles parked against brick walls, while bars, cafes and boutiques operate at lane level. It is a great place to spend half a day or night if you want to combine bartering, shopping, eating and drinking into one unique experience.

Address: 210 Taikang Rd

Bu Gao Li

Located at the corner of Shaanxi Road S. and Jianguo Road W., this shikumen lane should not be missed. The "Heritage Architecture" plaque on the front provides a hint of its glorious past. Built in 1930, Bu Gao Li, adapted from its French name of Cite Bourgogne, was built by French merchants. Occupying more than 6,000 square meters, the 79 houses have been home to the likes of renowned 20th century Chinese writer Ba Jin and witnessed the ebbs and flows of several generations. Over the years, renovations have ensured the preservation of Bu Gao Li, maintaining its standard as one of the city's best-maintained shikumen neighborhoods.

It has a Western townhouse style with a traditional Chinese entrance arch. As a typical early shikumen with longtangs, it has a courtyard layout and homes with inner and outer living rooms, left and right bedrooms, a kitchen, a small back room above the kitchen and a terrace, replicating the folk houses of Southeast China. And, influenced by Western building styles of the day, some Western decorative elements are evident in the wall and column structures. Although modern amenities such as piping and gas have been added, it should not be missed as it gives visitors an insight into the rich architectural heritage of Shanghai. Special note should be taken of the imposing arch that dominates its entrance.

Address: Lane 1-61, 287 Shaanxi Rd S.

Xintiandi a modern replica

Xintiandi is a perfect example of how a dilapidated shikumen was transformed into a fashionable dining and shopping area. Located south of the Huaihai Road M. upmarket shopping strip, it was once home to thousands of residents living in slum-like conditions.

With Xingye Road as the dividing line, Xintiandi is split into the North (enter via Taicang Road) and South blocks. Located on the North Block's main alleys are restaurants and bars while the secondary alleys consist of restored shikumens and the original alley arch frames. Continuing southward is Wulixiang (home in Shanghai dialect), which is also known as the Shikumen Open House Museum.

It is a recreation of a typical shikumen house in the 1920s and it also tells the story of how the 2,300 residents of this estate were relocated when the area was redeveloped. Southeast of the North Block, at 76 Xingye Road, is the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party. It is where late Chairman Mao Zedong and 12 other delegates from Communist groups across China met and founded the Party on 23 July, 1921. This meeting is now commemorated inside the building in the form of a wax display, complete with the original tea cups and chairs used by the delegates.


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