At a time when China was still writhing from the ‘humiliation’ of two Opium Wars, the city of Shanghai would emerge as a bustling centre of activity, developing from a frontier market town to the first modern metropolis in China. Foreign concessions, imposed on the city by the ‘unequal treaties’, brought fresh capital and economic opportunity to the coastal port, ushering in a phenomenal surge in domestic Chinese migration.
The Shanghai alleyway house, the city’s innovative solution to this great demographic strain, is today however being pushed aside for 21st century urban towers, at the detriment of housing affordability and livability.
The new, strange, almost cosmopolitan dynamic of post Opium War Shanghai would warp the architectural face of a once modest trade settlement. Old and new Chinese districts adjoined the ill-defined borders of the British and French settlements, within which grand neoclassical Western mansions stood side by side with dense sprawls of Chinese stores and dwellings.
European merchants raced to Shanghai seeking to capitalise on the domestic property demand brought about by the huge surge in domestic migration to the city. A British diplomat at the time, Her Majesty’s Consul Rutherford Alcock, observed that visiting British merchants of the day viewed the Shanghai property market as a kind of 19th Century ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. He recorded the words of one young, ambitious visiting merchant who concluded “it is my business to make a fortune with the least possible loss of time, by letting my land to Chinese, and building … In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realise a fortune and get away.”
The consequence of this race for ‘fortune’ and maximisation of profit, was an incidental synthesis of European and traditional Chinese architectural design.
The longtang 弄堂 or Shanghai Alleyway House, combined elements of the British row house and working-class homes which ensured dense concentrations of tenants for high rental efficiency, with the principles of Chinese vernacular architecture to appeal to the domestic market. The result were dense, clustered neighbourhoods connect by narrow, intersecting alleyways organised like ‘fish skeletons‘.
These alleyways acted as communal spaces, key arteries of community interaction and public household rituals. They served as a catalyst for the creation of close-knit neighbourhoods, an essential function for a city swelling with new arrivals.
The concept proved so successful that by the end of the 1980s alleyway houses accounted for as much as 80 per cent of Shanghai’s built-up area.
Today however, these former staples of Shanghai’s vernacular design are near impossible to find.
Much like the European merchants of the 19th century, Shanghai’s current patrons and investors are pursing the maximisation of profit. The textured fabric of old Shanghai, is viewed as obsolete and unprofitable compared to the encroaching mega towers of the 21st century.
The few remaining remnants of the alleyway house typology represent distinct pockets of historical memory, threatened by the great Chinese economic machine. The destruction of the longtang is not simply the loss of an incredible piece of cultural and architectural heritage however, but the destruction of a potential solution to a crisis faced by many megacities around the world – the crisis of social sustainability.
In February 2016 Chinese government authorities highlighted the need to provide low-income urban residents with affordable housing as a top priority for the Communist Party. In order to achieve and maintain social and economic diversity within its cities, decision makers in Beijing and Shanghai should heed the lessons of the great alleyway house social experiment. The longtang have successfully forged Shanghainese communities since the mid 19th century, providing socially sustainable and economically diverse housing for residents while creating safe, liveable spaces built on principles of community interaction.
These neighbourhoods, an integral part of the identity of the city, remain however an endangered species. As China faces yet again another gigantic domestic migration to the ‘city on the sea’, the architectural face of Shanghai must adapt once more. Outside observers can only hope, that the value of social design is recognised – before it is too late.