The Chinese have a longstanding genius for domestic architecture, and a visit to the hutong of Beijing—the fast-disappearing neighborhoods of courtyard houses, laced with small lanes and commerce, sanctuaries of both intimacy and variety in the midst of a city too rapidly doing away with the best of its public character—affirms the singularity and brilliance of their historic accomplishment. Such places offer an alternative vision to the Modernist constructs that shape the city today and provide an irreplaceable element in the urban repertoire that demands not simply to be conserved but extended.

Photo © Clifford Pearson
Hutong are places of commerce and industry, not just residential areas.

If the hutong of Beijing represent a kind of pure Chinese urban expression (though one with affinities with other courtyard aggregations in Asia and elsewhere), the longtang (or lilong) of Shanghai (and the similar lifen of Wuhan, which I have recently been studying with my students) represent a composite architecture that is the successful outgrowth of a previous encounter with imported models. These neighborhoods developed in the wake of the Opium War, when Shanghai was forcibly opened to foreign settlement as a treaty port (Wuhan, on the Yangtze River, was another). In 1845, the local government promulgated its Settlement Law, defining both the site and the legal character of these foreign enclaves. Among the stipulations of the law was that foreigners could not lease houses to Chinese, who were forbidden to live in the settlement areas.

Fewer than 10 years later, a rebellion broke out in the city and large numbers of Chinese began to seek safety within the foreign concessions, leading the occupying powers to unilaterally revise the land law by discarding its no-Chinese stipulation. The result was a massive real estate boom that led many of the corporations (including the legendary Sassoon, Jardine Matheson, and Gibb Livingston) that had previously profited from the trade in opium and other commodities to shift focus to real estate, both by letting existing properties and by building new ones at the periphery of their immediate spheres of influence.

The architecture of these new neighborhoods quickly developed into the longtang type, a two-story row house located along a straight and narrow lane. Initially, these houses kept the layout of traditional courtyard compounds, compressed and deformed to accommodate the party-wall condition, regular geometry, and small site constraints of their urban situation. They nevertheless retained a small entry court and a sense of sequence from the public street through a private gate into a sequestered interior realm, as well as traditional forms of construction, materiality, and style. Hybrids.

As the type developed further, it was incrementally transformed. The little courtyards gave way to parlors or to unenclosed or semi-enclosed gardens. Layouts were adjusted to suit smaller, nonextended families. Rooms were organized according to more “modern” notions of function. Houses grew to three stories or were configured as flats. And the developments began to accrete decorative and morphological aspects of Western architecture. By the time the type had run its course in the 1940s, examples in Spanish, Tudor, Moderne, and other styles had proliferated and close to three quarters of the population of the city was housed in some form of longtang.

Each a little world

What makes this architecture remarkable, however, is less the character of its individual elements than the way they function urbanistically. Typically, you enter a lilong (a neighborhood of longtang) through a gateway off a major street, then turn left or right onto a lane. From the entry axis, smaller cross axes lead to parallel lanes, creating semi-autonomous neighborhood formations on part or all of their blocks, sometimes connected to adjacent developments. The lanes are almost purely pedestrian and often support an array of retail and other commercial activities, including offices and small-scale manufacture. Each of these places is a little world, housing the necessities of daily life and powerfully conducing a sense of community via the inevitability of encounter with one’s neighbors in the lanes. Although densely packed, the low scale of the buildings—which face lanes both front and back—permits the penetration of light and air.

Of course, the quality of the lilong varies enormously and many—built from the get-go for the poor—were surely wretched places, lacking adequate sanitation, shabbily constructed, and without public amenities, especially green space. But the model is brilliant. Although they are enclaved, they are not forbidding “gated” communities. In the insane hurly-burly of the city, they are islands of relative calm. And, in the face of the alienation by numbers of the modern metropolis, they create a tractable scale and an extremely rational increment of development, helping to forge the kinds of community interaction that more contemporary high-rise projects (the default alternative) seldom achieve.

Although the architectural types that make up the hutong of Beijing differ from the lilong of Shanghai, the genius of their organization is similar. Low, tight, and intimate, they are wonderful neighborhoods, tractable on foot, intimate, and diverse. Indeed, so singular, delightful, and increasingly rare are these places, that many are enjoying (or suffering) the fate of gentrification. On my recent visit, I went house shopping with a Chinese colleague who hoped to find a congenial situation in one of the better hutong, but the prices were at Manhattan levels. The market may be cruel, but it’s not stupid.

To lament the disappearance of these tight-grained communities has become something of a bromide, and the issue of saving such endangered places is hardly foreign to the Chinese. The mistake, however, is to reduce the question simply to one of preservation, to see these forms as an unrepeatable historic condition. As we all confront the need to create radically more sustainable forms of urbanism and restore the morphological basis of communities worldwide, we have a lot to learn from the lilong and hutong of China.