A bid to save shikumens from extinction
Several of Shanghai’s political advisors are pushing for the city’s iconic shikumens, redroofed terrace houses, to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List alongside other Chinese cultural sites such as the Longmen Grottoes, Mount Wutai and the legendary Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Once considered to be the most common form of housing for Shanghai residents, many of these buildings will likely be demolished in the near future as part of reconstruction efforts in old communities, as stipulated in the city’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).
“This seems to be the only way to rescue these historic buildings that were built around the 1930s. If the shikumens don’t make the list, we’ll face massive, irredeemable losses,” said Feng Xiaomin, director of the cultural and historical data committee of the city’s political advisory body. The committee had submitted a proposal of recommendations during the annual gathering of local legislators and political advisers in January.
“The shikumen is a unique architectural style that makes the city stand out from other places. We recommend that these houses be listed as a world cultural heritage candidate to preserve their precious form and cultural embodiment,” he added.
There were more than 9,000 shikumen complexes in Shanghai in 1949 and about three in four local residents lived in such homes which also served as spaces for factories, banks, newspaper offices and schools, according to municipal records. However, more than 70 percent of these complexes were demolished in the past three decades and people have either been relocated to new high-rise neighborhoods or paid compensation.
According to the committee, there are just 173 such complexes left in the city today. Only a few of them have been assigned with a city-level historical building status while most remain outside the scope of protective regulations and policies.
“Although the city’s authorities have invested manpower and money in the protection and utilization of shikumen houses these past few years, the priority is nevertheless still on land development,” Feng said.
The most famous example of how shikumens can be repurposed and modernized is seen in the Xintiandi project which has transformed old homes in the area into fashion, retail and dining outlets.
Wu Jiang, a senior urban planner and vice-president of Shanghai Tongji University, suggested integrating rejuvenated shikumens into the city’s new urban planning landscapes.
“We don’t necessarily need to abandon the old neighborhoods while building new ones. The best way to preserve shikumens is probably to repair these old residences and make them an enviable dwelling option,” Wu said.
Shang Xian Fang on Huaihai Road Middle, built in 1924, is a typical shikumen building.