Shikumen pledged extra protection after readers offer city suggestions
By Yang Jian
CITY authorities have welcomed the suggestions of Shanghai Daily readers on the preservation of historic shikumen residential buildings.
This follows a strong response from readers to a recent Shanghai Daily report warning that many remaining shikumen — distinctive Shanghai structures combining Western building style and China’s courtyard structures — are under threat from demolition.
There are reported to be less than 100 shikumen lanes left in the city, compared to 150 just five years ago.
Li Kongsan, director with the cultural heritage protection department of the Shanghai Municipality Administration of Cultural Heritage, said the authority will list more shikumen as protected cultural heritage in an ongoing survey of historic buildings.
“Local government shares the desire of locals and expats to protect as much as the city’s signature architecture as possible,” Li said.
Many readers urged the authorities to retain the distinctive buildings, the first of which were built in the city in the 1850s by Europeans in foreign concessions to rent to Chinese residents.
“They can provide a different living environment for those who choose to live in such an enclosed community,” said Shanghai Daily reader Russell Miller.
Li said this choice will be safeguarded for more residents as dozens of more local shikumen communities will be added into the list to be protected under the law.
Currently, only a few shikumen buildings with special historic meanings have been listed such as the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Huangpu District.
A series of other measures will also be taken, said Li.
The administration plans to turn some into boutique hotels or high-end apartments for renting, with the Shangxianfang Community on Huaihai Road the first in the trial operation, he added.
In another initiative, the administration will select several of the most valuable shikumen houses in a community to be protected, while demolishing nearby structures that are in poor condition, Li said.
“The current condition is that most shikumen do not merit protection, although it’s still a pity if they’re to be demolished,” he admitted.
Developers building on an area where a shikumen with a preservation order is located can receive incentives during future development from the government.
Li said the buildings can host many different enterprises, as many Shanghai Daily readers have said.
Jeremi Bigosinski, an American landscape designer with landscape architects WAA International, suggested turning shikumen buildings into artist or craft spaces.
Artists and craftspeople can create all sorts of sought-after artistic products including furniture, ceramics, lighting, fabrics — and even stuffed animals, said Bigosinski.
They can also become creative incubators as home ventures such as music studios, printing-making studios and 3D printing, open to the general public, school groups and inspiring artists and engineers, Bigosinski suggested.
Retaining their residential function, shikumen can be used to house a variety of specific groups, such as single people, couples without families, students, retirees and artists, suggested reader Achim Muller.
“This way, traditional shikumen buildings can be maintained while also maintaining a diversity of residents that will help to preserve the social life of the lane,” he said.
Non Arkaraprasertkul, an anthropologist from Harvard University who has studied the city’s lilong, or lane buildings, since 2010, suggested the authorities should opt for “group preservation,” the preservation of an entire area — not just one building — with the purpose of retaining the overall social community.
If we only preserve a single neighborhood, or a house, but not the area, what will happen is that the neighborhood or a house will be isolated, as everything around it will change so quickly, according to Arkaraprasertkul.
Very soon that cost of living in the area will rise to the point that the residents of the preserved neighborhood would want to leave their neighborhood anyway — even if they still have the legal right to stay there, Arkaraprasertkul added.
Li said that in some circumstances this was an option.
He said the government was considering expanding the city’s “protected streets” and communities. To date there are 12 historic view protected communities, mainly in downtown Huangpu and Xuhui districts.
The Hengshan Road-Fuxing Road Historic View Protection Community, for instance, the largest among the dozen covers across Xuhui, Huangpu and Jing’an districts, covers some 2,000 buildings, including villas and shikumen built around 1914 in the former French concession.
The administration will protect shikumen buildings in three ways — a single building, a street and the whole community, or the area, Li said.
“As Beijing is protecting its siheyuan quadrangle buildings, Shanghai must protect its distinctive shikumen,” Li added.
Shanghai has lost 30 percent of its distinctive shikumen residential communities in the past five years with their residents relocated, according to Ruan Yisan, director of the National Historic Cities Research Center at Tongji University.
In their heyday, there were 9,000 shikumen lanes in the city. Five years ago, this was down to 150, and now there are less than 100, said Ruan.
THEY (shikumen) can become creative incubators as home ventures such as music studios, printing-making studios and 3D printing, open to the general public, school groups and inspiring artists and engineers.
— Jeremi Bigosinski
Retaining their residential function, shikumen can be used to house a variety of specific groups, such as single people, couples without families, students, retirees and artists. — Achim Muller
The authorities should opt for “group preservation,” the preservation of an entire area — not just one building — with the purpose of preserving the overall social community. — Non Arkaraprasertkul