Shikumen (Chinese: t 石庫門, s 石库门, p shíkùmén, lit. "Stone Warehouse Gate") is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style combining Western and Chinese elements that first appeared in the 1860s. At the height of their popularity, there were 9000 shikumen-style buildings in Shanghai, comprising 60% of the total housing stock of the city, but today the proportion is much lower as most Shanghainese live in large apartment buildings. Shikumen is classified as one type of lilong residences.
In 2010, "construction techniques of shikumen lilong architecture" was recognized by the Chinese government on the national non-physical cultural heritage register (no. VIII-210).
Shikumens are two- or three-story structures resembling Western terrace houses or townhouses, distinguished by high brick walls enclosing a narrow front yard. The name "stone gate" references these strong gateways.
Each residence abuts another and all are arranged in straight side alleys called longtang (Chinese: t 弄堂 or 衖堂, s 弄堂, p lòngtáng; Shanghainese: longdang). The entrance to each alley is usually surmounted by a stylistic stone arch.
The shikumen is a cultural blend of the elements found in Western architecture with traditional Lower Yangtze architecture and social behavior. Traditional Chinese dwellings had a courtyard, and the Shikumen was no exception. Yet, to compromise with its urban nature, it was much smaller and provided an interior haven to the commotions in the streets, allowing for raindrops to fall and vegetation to grow freely within a residence. The courtyard also allowed sunlight and improved ventilation into the rooms.
This style of housing originally developed when local developers adapted Western-style terrace houses to Chinese conditions. The wall was added to protect against fighting and looting during the Small Swords Rebellion and proved useful against later burglars and vandals during the social upheavals of the early twentieth century. By World War II, more than 80% of the population in the city lived in these kinds of dwellings. Many of these were hastily built in slum conditions, while others were of sturdy construction and featured all modern amenities such as running water and flushing toilets.
During and after World War II, massive population increases in Shanghai led many shikumen houses to be heavily subdivided. For example, the spacious living room was often divided into three or four rooms, each lent out to a separate family. These cramped conditions continue to exist in many of the shikumen districts that have survived recent development of the Reform and Opening period.
The landlords who sublet the shikumens out to other families were called "second landlords" (二房东, èr fángdōng), as opposed to their primary owners (大房东, dà fángdōng). Such "second landlords'" families often shared the same shikumen building with the tenants.
Classification and architecture
Architectural historians classify shikumen into two types, the "old type" and the "new type". The old type was predominantly built from the 1860s until the end of the First World War, while the new type prevailed from after the First World War until the development of shikumen ceased after 1949. Old type shikumen is further divided into an early period and a late period.
The defining characteristic of a shikumen building is the prominent main gate - which also gives rise to the name "shikumen". Typically, this gate is located on the central axis of each dwelling, with twin doors made of heavy wood, painted glossy black. Typical width is around 1.4 metres, with a height of around 2.8 metres. The doors usually possess brass or iron knockers. The original documented name for such buildings was "shigumen" (石箍門), which in Shanghainese Wu meant "gate framed with stone", but over time corrupted into the similar sounding "shikumen". Each individual dwelling displays typical characteristics of traditional Jiangnan architecture, while the layout of the development as a whole is adopted from Western terrace houses.
Early period old type shikumen were built between 1869 and 1910. They retained more of the style of traditional Chinese houses, but with a much condensed footprint. There are typically 3 to 5 bays to each dwelling, and two storeys. They used the traditional litie (立帖) (or "brick nogging") style of brick veneer for load-bearing walls. The houses possessed walls of equal height at the front and back, so that each dwelling (despite being part of a terrace) was an enclosed whole, separated from the outside world. This made them popular with the upper end of the residential property market.
The early period shikumen also possessed more features of traditional Chinese architecture: on the external façade of the terrace there are often typically Chinese matou ("horse head") style or Guanyin dou ("Guanyin hood") style gables; the main hall uses floor-to-ceiling windows; decorative boards below eaves; and grid windows on the side wings. However, in contrast to later shikumen buildings, the gates of early period shikumen were not elaborately decorated, and were simply framed in stone. In terms of layout, the shikumen of this period were arranged in lanes of about 3 metres wide - narrower than later buildings - and the attention to orientation, and organization of trunk lanes and branch lanes, both features of later shikumen, were also absent.
In terms of internal lay-out, immediately within the main gate is the front courtyard (tianjing 天井), flanked by wings (xiangfang 厢房) of the house on the left and right. At the centre, facing the courtyard is the hall, or ketang jian (客堂间). This large room typically has an area of about 12 square metres, and is used like a modern sitting room or living room. On either side of the hall are the cijian (次间) or "secondary rooms". Stairs to reach the first floor are located behind the cijian. Behind the hall and the cijian is the back courtyard (houtianjing 后天井), which is about half the size of the front courtyard. The well, which provided water for the house, was located here (though later houses were connected to tap water instead). At the back of the back courtyard are back buildings, usually used as the kitchen, toilet and storage room. On the whole, each dwelling preserved the main features required for traditional Chinese day-to-day living, while saving the land required.
Most early period old style shikumen have been demolished or rebuilt. Representative examples include the Xinreng Li, built in 1872 (demolished 1980), and Mianyang Li and Jixiang Li, both located near the Shiliupu dock area.
Late period shikumen were mostly built betwen 1910 and 1919. The three-bay wide frontage with two side wings was reduced to one- or two-bay wide, with one side wing. The back courtyard was reduced, but more attention was paid to natural lighting, and the laneways were widened. More Wester architectural details found favour: bannisters, doors and windows, staircase, pillar capitals and arch buttresses all used Western decorative styles. The lintel of the main gate also became increasingly elaborate, with semicircular, triangular or rectangular decorations.
Late period old type shikumen are far better preserved than early period examples. Representative examples include the west and east Siwen Li (in the process of being demolished), north Shude Li, and Daqing Li, built in 1915. One of the few old type shikumen developments to be preserved largely intact is Bugao Li, or Cité Bourgogne (built in the 1930s), in the former French Concession.
New type shikumen were typically built from 1919 to the 1930s. They were also called "reformed style" shikumen residences. The main structural difference between new type and old type shikumen is that new style buildings are three storeys high. They were built of reinforced concrete, rather than brick veneer. Some were equipped with modern sanitary equipment, and natural lighting became a key concern. Developments are typically laid out with a main, trunk lane, with houses arranged along branch lanes leading from the trunk lane. With the advent of motor cars, the trunk lanes were usually built wide enough to accommodate cars. Instead of one lane with one or two rows of houses, new style shikumen were typically developed in large blocks. Standard triangular gables and party walls replaced the more elaborate matou or Guanyin dou styles, with concrete tops. Exposed brick was used for external walls. The main gate frame also switched from stone to brick and painted stone cladding. The architectural style became far more Westernised overall.
Each dwelling was one to two bays wide. Two-bay wide houses "inherited" only one side wing, while one-bay wide houses discarded wings completely. Stairs became less steep. The new second floor typically contained bedrooms, along with a front and a back terrace (shaitai, 晒台). The ground floor were equipped with kitchens (zaopi jian 灶批间). At the back of the house, a "back wing" was added, as well as the tingzi jian (亭子间) or "pergola room", located above the kitchen and below the terrace. This was typically small, with low ceilings, and faced north, making it the least attractive room in the house. They were usually used for storage, or as living quarters for servants.
Numerous new type shikumen have survived. Some well known examples include Jianye Li (now revamped into an upmarket hotel, commercial and residential complex), Siming Cun, and Mingde Li located on Avenue Joffre.
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- Shikumen architecture, Beijing Institute of Architectural Engineering
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