a research on urban typology
Lilong, where shanghai begins. 

Spring 2020
Professor: Sharone Tomer


Shanghai is an image with two distinctive sides, or a story requires two interpretations. On one side, it is depicted as a flamboyant metropolitan with exuberance, while on the opposite side, it is the scene of poor and deteriorating low-rise neighborhoods. From the bird's eye view, the dense superblocks and skyscrapers are distancing us with the massive scales. However, the perspectival experience between wavy streets and small alleys makes the city feel intimate as we meander among the urban vibrance. Surprisingly, we can still conceive the ambiguity of private and private space in traditional communities, which already disappears in most urban developments. This paradoxical urban fabric is profoundly revealed in the juxtaposition between high-rise blocks and residential alleys. To better understand this place as a contemporary global city architecturally, we have to appreciate the emergence of high-rises, which maximize the values with limited land. However, the unique traditional typology "Lilong" - "a lane in Shanghai and, by extension, a community centered on a lane or several interconnected lanes" ( "Longtang," n.d.)- is where the sense of community and diversity still exists. Thus, the Shanghai Atlas will focus on the "lilong" housing, investigate its uniquity in terms of its architectural styles, rises and falls, and propose a new way to perceive it within contemporary culture. After the First Opium War with the British Empire in the mid-18th century, Shanghai

After the First Opium War with the British Empire in the mid-18th century, Shanghai was forced to open its treaty port for international trades and investments. The city experienced a surge in population, as entrepreneurs, landlords, merchants, warlords, and laborers from all over the country rushed into the town for profits. The foreign immigrants soon established their settlements to serve their interests best. The real estate market was growing expeditiously to accommodate those rural Chinese workers. A new residential typology, Lilong," appeared to respond to this flow and overcrowing. "The name 'lilong' was used to describe the layout of the row houses –'li' means neighborhood and 'long' means leans.'" ( Arkaraprasertkul and Williams, 2019) Figure 1:A Bird’s eye-view of today’s lilong adjunct to contemporary developmentThose small-scaled houses shared with a common wall were joined into rows of blocks. The Interconnected lanes, as well as the circulation path, are separating those rows. The typical layout of the lilong neighborhood is called the "fish-bone" structure, depicted as main lanes running through the site with branches of narrower sub-lanes perpendicular to it. Over time, the efficiency and economic success of lilong led to more constructions across settlements, which housed over half of the city's population during its peak. As the living conditions get improved, the new styles with innovative designs and better qualities of stones and bricks start to emerge and prevail, such as "Shikumen," gated lilong, "Cantonese- style lilong," "garden lilong," etc. Those houses often appear to imitate European designs, and each lane is specialized with modern elements of gates, terraces, portals, gardens, etc. Besides a simple application of western style, a traditional Chinese lifestyle and values are revealed the utilization of space. The interior of each unit is constructed with an efficient division of hierarchical space, providing a sequential movement from private to public.

".. the entrance was a courtyard, then the living room, and finally a kitchen and a bathroom in the back of the house (back-to-back in order to share wet walls), all the private areas such as bedrooms were on the second floor. " (Sherwood, 1978).

The shared lanes further extend residences every-day life, providing a communal space for a diversity of activities: children's chase and run, neighbors' gossips, vendor's yearlings are what creating a glamorous past Shanghai. Just like Walter-Benjamin's fascination with the arcade projects in Paris, the novelist Anyi wang was trying to retrieve this every-day vitality with melancholy and nostalgia through her writing of "The song of ever-lasting sorrows." In the first chapter of "Longtang (the same term for lilong).", those mundane streets as the conglomerate of artifacts unfold its characters: "the handmade rooftop tiles arranged with precisions," "the cement on the balustrade peels away to reveal the rusty red ricks beneath," and "the entryways with stone gates emanate an aura of power." These lanes where the community gathers are facilitating the neighborhood's friendship, also nurturing rumors and gossips due to its narrowness. Anyi Wang illustrated this phenomenon of gossip as the invisible landscape of Lilong that is contingent on anything that exists.

".. You could say that it (rumors) is the genius loci of Shanghai's alley. If the longtang of Shanghai could speak, they would undoubtedly speak in rumors. They are the thoughts of Shanghai's longtang, disseminating themselves through day and night. If the longtang of Shanghai could dream, that dream would be gossip." (Wang, 2008)

This intimacy between each household, the sense of community, and spatial ambiguity of private and public is reinforced in Shanghainese' generations of memory and rendered as the romantic settings for countless tears and happiness.

As the People's Republic of China declares itself in 1949, the social structure of Lilong was dramatically changed. Under a Communist economy and policy, numerous lilong was converted to workers' residentials with the same limited area per capita. The staggering economy, along with the increasing population, worsen living situations, where the square footage of each unit often gets shared with multiple families. Thanks to the programmatic flexibility offered in the layout of lilong, spaces are thus reorganized to achieve extreme functionality.

"… from clan/family-based courtyard-centered living to the community-based alley-centered (lane-centered)living, from a self-conditioned traditional living style towards a more open, more independent modern urban living style, reflecting a shift from a metaphoric to a more functional layout. (Zhao, 2004)"

Over the decade, the relationship between households are further strengthened, and the residents appreciate more of lilong's capacity over various periods and situations.

Beginning in the 1980s, the reformation of the economy investing the high-rise blocks with improved living conditions has led to the fall of Lilong. Those residential superblocks typically up above thirty floors, and multiple units are distanced with the central service core consisting of elevators and staircases. They repeated with a monotonous layout across different communities are usually oriented for better sunlight and ventilation. Since the deteriorated lilong no longer has any capacity to accommodate the inhabitants of the World Factory, unquestionably, many lilongs are sacrificed for a better and more advanced tomorrow. Generations of families lived in lilong were forced or choose to set off, which leaves the place with its lowly-maintained structures and degenerated facilities. Lilong is now portrayed as the backside of Shanghai, contrasting to the urbanistic silhouette. As you walk on the street and turn at the corner of a block, perhaps you can discover the shabby housings hidden under the shadow of skyscrapers.

Nevertheless, Shanghai begins to appreciate the values of those historical architectures as considerable capitals are invested in Lilong. An excellent example to demonstrate the potential of traditional structure style is "Xintiandi," which used to be a "shikumen" (gated lilong) turned into an active commercial hub with the art galleries, cafes, stores and restaurants. Perhaps because of the nostalgia, as I meander on the streets peaking into those curved narrow lanes, I still believe there is where Shanghai begins, and there is more about its beauty

W. (2020, May 03). Longtang. Retrieved May 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longtang Arkaraprasertkul, N., & Williams, M. (2019).


Cody, J. W., & Siravo, F. (2019). Historic cities: Issues in urban conservation. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute.


In J. W. Cody & F. Siravo (Authors), Historic cities: Issues in urban conservation (pp. 137-138). Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute. Sherwood, R., 1978. Modern housing prototypes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Wang, A. (2008). Longtang. In The song of ever-lasting sorrows (pp. 3-21). New York City, New York: Columbia University Press.


Zhao, C.,(2004). From ‘Shikumen’ to New Style: a rereading of ‘lilong’ housing in modern Shanghai. Journal of Architecture, 9 (1), pp.49–76.