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.