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三合院 胡同 里弄 The Informal Formal Juxtapositions, Contradictions, + Regulation in China’s Contemporary Housing Alexander Morley

Contents Background 3 Introduction 4 Part One: Conceptual Framework 5 Inherited Housing 6 Neoliberal Policy 9 The Modern Aesthetic 11 Part Two: Density 13 Informalization of a Formal Living Unit 16 Spatial Container for Control + Community 19 Comparative Models 21 Part Three: Tenure 25 Informal Real Estate 27 Security and Vulnerability 28 Investment and Localized Stimulation 30 Conclusion 32 Bibliography + Credits 35


Background As the graduate level recipient of Washington University’s annual Steedman Summer Travel Fellowship, I spent the summer of 2013 in China to study the organizational strategies and social life of traditional urban neighborhoods, specifically the Hutong alleys in Beijing and the Lilong lanes in Shanghai Engaging in hours of on-site observation, I simultaneously researched the history of Chinese architecture and urbanism at local institutions while I built upon my network of contacts in the two cities. I was fortunate in my time to meet with a diverse array of local residents, real estate agents, architects, planners, conservationists, academics, and expatriates to analyze and better understand the complexities of these neighborhoods and the role that China’s current development model plays in their uncertain future. Lilongs and Hutongs differ in scale and aesthetics due to the unique histories and climate of their respective cities. They share, however, fundamental Chinese organizational systems and the commonality of a formal unit of dwelling in a dense, ground-based settlement framework that creates strong, tight knit communities. Through my endeavors, I discovered the incredibly rich history of these neighborhoods, and the remarkable evolution they have gone through as enduring spatial containers of three transformative political systems, and I became fascinated with the informalized facets of life, space, and economy, found in the lanes today. Upon returning to Washington University in the Fall, I worked with Professor John Hoal to formulate this project. Taking his “Informal Cities” seminar, I enriched my investigations from China through class readings, discussions, and focused research regarding the politics of informalization and the global policy, theory, and arguments that revolve around it. My intent was to question whether or not hutongs and lilongs can remain as relevant models of future urbanism in Shanghai and Beijing. My answer is yes.



Few countries offer such drastic juxtapositions of ancient and contemporary landscapes as China, and the contrast in housing is no exception. Focusing on the hutong alleys of Beijing and the lilong lanes of Shanghai, I will examine the conflict between the modernization of China’s two major cities and the preservation of two culturally inherited settlement patterns as they relate to social, economic, and environmental viability. Founded on climatic and social principles that are absolutely tied to the existing localized regions and history of each city, hutongs and lilongs have provided Chinese residents a spatial container that has endured dramatic revolutions and severe political turbulence over the last one hundred years. Together they share the commonality of a formal unit of dwelling in a dense, ground-based settlement framework that has proven remarkably successful in its flexibility to accommodate both formal and informal socio-economic networks. Since China’s embrace of Neo-Liberal policies in the 1980’s however, these spatial containers are fast disappearing. Public perception of these traditional neighborhoods lends to the belief that aside from a handful of restored neighborhoods reclaimed by the elite, the vast majority of the settlements suffer from irreparable, unsanitary, over-populated, and often slum-like conditions to the point that demolition is the only viable and sensible solution. To the contrary, closer examination reveals that together, the lilong and hutong share the commonality of a formal unit of dwelling in a dense, ground-based, settlement framework that has proven remarkably successful in its flexibility to accommodate both formal and informal socio-economic networks. This project argues that these time-honored housing models can indeed continue to endure as relevant living components were China to change particular planning laws that deal with density and tenure. It is the implementation of these laws that has exacerbated informalization within the neighborhoods. It is not an inability of the hutong or lilong to adapt and endure in today’s environment, but rather the fact that China currently pushes an urban policy that says, “you cannot exist.”


Part One: Conceptual Framework

China is experiencing unprecedented urbanization. If the current trends continue, China will have added 350 million people to its cities in 20 years, more than the entire population of the United States. This growth has already had enormous consequences on the existing fabric of its cities; as China struggles to keep up with the realities of growth, it has adopted a western policy to demolish centuries-old neighborhoods and communities in favor of new “modern� housing to meet the requirements of a minimum standard of living. Chinese Monumental Architecture has long been an interest of Chinese, Japanese, and Western Scholars, but there has been relatively little appreciation or interest in the vernacular house.1

As China pushes forward with increasingly aggressive neo-liberal economic market policies, it will continue to open the flood gates for increased urban migration, and inevitably create an increase in inequality amongst its population, resulting in higher levels of informal activity, as those who become most vulnerable look to adopt new methods of opportunity and self-growth. Accepting this as a given, it is in the interest of China to reexamine the inherited traits of its traditional forms of urban housing, as they provide a proven spatial container to adopt the social, cultural, economic, and environmental needs of each region. 1

Knapp, 7


Inherited Housing “Chinese houses share common and distinctive spatial compositions. Whether a dwelling is built to endure the bitterly cold winters of the northeast, the high humidity and heat of the southeast or southwest, or the extremes characteristic of the arid interior, standard spatial forms are shared among virtually all Chinese structures, whether one is examining a palace or a humble dwelling, an ancient building or a modern one, and to some degree the dwellings of minority nationalities.” – Ronald Knapp2

Both Beijing and Shanghai are each blessed with a specific regional housing block typology composed of clustered courtyard homes; the hutong alleys in Beijing and the Lilong Lanes in Shanghai. Just as traditional, centuries-old siheyuan are residential markers of Beijing’s hutong lanes, the innovative longtang of cosmopolitan Shanghai represent a unique hybrid house type identified with the ‘neighborhood lanes.’ Both hutong and lilong neighborhoods are arranged in a low-rise hierarchy involving streets, lanes, sublanes, and individual longtang / siheyuan that provide a layering of public space, semipublic space, semiprivate space, and private space. Hutong settlements in Beijing were laid out as early as the 13th - Century, by Kublai Kahn of the Yuan Dynasty as he applied ancient Chinese urban planning principles from the Chun Qui period (770-476 BC) in redeveloping the newly designated Capital City. The Siheyuan units that flanked the hutong lanes were essentially small microcosms of the city structure at large: historically related to a grid and cellular system based upon the architectural grouping of courtyard forms at many scales.3 They sit on a north-south axis, with the entry gate located on the southern side with the main building placed along the north. Two side buildings on the east and west create a fully enclosed and secluded courtyard retreat from the city. Intended for a single family, the siheyuan followed a strict building code of

2 3

Knapp, 21 Knapp, 12


uniformity in both color, ornament, height, and design during the imperial times. The higher the status of a family, the larger the courtyard home was allowed to be. It was thought that no single residence in Beijing should have walls or structure that rose higher than the Forbidden City. The Shanghainese Lilong first appeared in the 1860’s as a variation of the older Shikumen Lilong, which is itself a variant of the traditional courtyard house commonly seen in southern China.4� Adapted by the western developers of the foreign concessions of Shanghai, they sought to create a compact version of the southern Chinese courtyard house, as it could fit in the smaller block arrangements of Shanghai’s western-sized street grid, and take on a three-storey row-house arrangement while allowing for an outer shell of commercial uses. Comfortable and familiar to the Chinese migrants who came to the city for work, the Lilong settlements were flexible enough that like the siheyuan of beijing, they could vary in scale an grandeur, and were happily used by Westerners alike. They were designed for efficiency and high density, and going from the scale of the unit out to the scale of the city, as in Beijing, were truly an integrally tied element of the city and for the city. Both settlement patterns were designed to act as quiet escapes from the frenetic pace of the surrounding city; American journalist Peter Hessler eloquently


Gil, 205


describes his experience of living in a hutong lane in the late 1990’s after spending a year in a modern high rise apartment: The neighborhood was quiet – the streets were too small for buses, and big construction projects weren’t allowed. Nothing was taller than a few stories, and many buildings were single-level structures, siheyuan. Unlike the high rise sections of the city, there weren’t echoes,whose sounds were few and distinct; wind rustling in the scholartrees, rain slipping across tile roofs. In the mornings, vendors on bicycle carts rode through the alleyways, calling out the names of their products.5”

Tranquil as this description may be, these neighborhoods are far from static entities frozen in time. Though the dates and characters upon the lintels of the stone gates and tiled gables tell the passerby the rich history it carries, these units for living have evolved and adapted as dramatically as its nation. In the last 102 years alone, China has endured three drastic political systems; from the fall of a 267 year-old dynasty, to the creation of a short-lived, unstable republic, to a communist revolution and the formation of the people’s republic of China, the lilong and hutong have provided a flexible and adaptable formal dwelling pattern that has endured immense pressure and change. The value of these units lies in the spatial arrangement as much or more than in the Architecture of the individual courtyard house.6

5 6

Hessler, 174-175 THF, 6


Neoliberal Policy China was admitted to the World Bank and the IMF in 1980, by 1984, party authorities stress 2 major political tasks: restructuring the economy + opening up. In 1980, 81% of China’s population lived in rural areas. By 2005, that number had shrunk to 55% rural.7 Over the past two decades, rapid development has lead to a remarkable improvement in the quality of life for many Chinese citizens. At the same time, however, the growth in individual wealth has increased inequality within China drastically. For example, disposable income of the average Shanghainese citizen is nearly double that to the average Chinese citizen.8 Many global economists argue that these are inevitable results of Neo-Liberal global market policies. Saskia Sassen argues that these spatial outcomes in

7 8

Gil, 187 Gil, 217


wealth are ‘fed by the soco-economic dynamics that produce an extremely highly paid professional stratum of workers and firms as well as an extremely lowly paid and unprotected stratum of marginally surviving, often informal, firms and workers… both are an intrinsic part of the new urban economy.’9 In other words, because of the global markets of high paying jobs, the informal facets are completely tied to the game. Global markets come hand in hand with marginal, informal economic activity, as Sassen has said, as the two are fundamentally dependent on each other. A perfect example is in Hessler’s vivid description of the hutong lane life, when describes activity of players in the informal economy: “Freelance recyclers wheeled through the hutong, looking to purchase Styrofoam or cardboard or old appliances. Once I heard ‘Long hair! Long Hair! Long Hair!’ He had come to Beijing from Henan province, where he worked for a factory that exported wigs and hair extensions… one woman came out of her home with twin black braids wrapped in a silk handkerchief – her daughter’s clippings, saved from the last haircut.10”

Activity as remedial as collecting hair for wigs, or cardboard for recycling is absolutely tied to the larger engine of the global economy. It is thus critically vital to accept as a given, that whenever you have an increase in capitalist activity, you will have an increase in informal activity. Informality is a global Character – there will almost always be the presence of state interference, ensuring a “formal sector”, therefore, it will always have an informal counterpart.

9 10

Gil, 83 Hessler, 175


The Modern Aesthetic “There was nothing else in the world quite like it – a major capital city, designed in the 14th and 15th centuries, that had hardly been touched by modernity or war.” -Peter Hessler, describing Beijing prior to the 1950’s. 11 This was not the first time I had come across this sort of statement. Amy Lelyveld, director of the Yale School of Architecture China Program personally told me at one point in my research that “Beijing is one of the greatest miracles in the built world,” and not because of the new architecture designed and built in the last sixty years. China’s policy since its opening up in the 1980’s represent a western-imitating “modern city,” and one that ironically rejects the regions’ best urban traditions. Jeb Brugman laments what he dubs the Asian megacity phenomenon; highly transforming cities wanting to establish themselves as ‘world-class’ see ‘the most expedient way to keep up with the Joneses was master-planned and monumental ad hoc city building... for all its novelty, it disengages citizens from the basic purpose of any city: as a place in which to advance strategies of their own making... the primary designed purpose seems to be to upstage and awe - and in many ways it does. But its reference point is the master-planned cities, which are more west-imitating megaprojects than portents of confident, culturally rooted new Asian urbanisms.12

11 12

Hessler, 179 Brugman, 115-116


China, wanting to flex the political might of Beijing, and the financial might of Shanghai, are building cities as a means to build an image and the economy. It goes beyond the fact that Beijing was a well-preserved medieval city. Greg Girard describes China’s eagerness to come onto the global stage after years of selfisolation during the Cultural Revolution: “The Shanghai of the early-twentieth century was preserved for decades by a kind of benign neglect. For forty years following Mao’s victory in 1949, Shanghai experienced no urban development for profit – none of the usual capitalistic churn that over time adds and removes features of the physical city. Not until the early 1990’s when Deng Xiaoping directed Shanghai to “catch up” did the city start to make itself modern again. Since then, Shanghai has made up for lost time with a vengeance.13” Both Beijing and Shanghai have willfully embraced a disconnect between the fast- changing local urban ground realities, and the booming import/export of development finance, city models, and global construction supply chains that Brugmann warns of. “It compromises the emerging forms of urbanism, designed to respond to local social and economic problems - which can be achieved only by designing cities bottom-up from their roots and reflecting local market conditions.14” As these master plans move forward, much of the historic urban fabric of the two cities has been lost. Major roads now pierce through neighborhoods, whilst in many areas, recent redevelopment has wiped out the subtle architectural texture and spatial arrangement of the preceding centuries. In recent years, the government has placed a number of Hutong lanes and Lilong alleys under protection, but even the Tibet Heritage Fund and the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center acknowledged in a feasibility study that what exactly this protection status means is not clear… in my many discussions with architects, academics, planners and preservationists in China, I seemed to get a different answer or opinion every time I asked. Indeed, even after the completion of a comprehensive plan for these designated areas, the Chinese Government has accepted it only “in principal.” Groups and committees have formed to debate many of the practical issues surrounding redevelopment and conservation. Can a city the size of Beijing or Shanghai afford to have one-storey or threestorey housing at its centre? Aren’t the courtyard houses much too dilapidated, 13 14

Gil, 157 Brugmann, 118


and lacking in comfort, to be saved? How can the local resident community be protected from relocation? How can rights of ownership be balanced against the needs of commercial redevelopment?15 While these questions are being discussed, the re-development goes relentlessly on.

Part Two: Density The swelling urban population and sprawling size of China’s cities is a common topic of global concern regarding the sustainability of air quality, agriculture, transportation and quality of life. Pritzker Prize winning Chinese architect, Wang Shu, has openly expressed concern over the issue, warning that “Cities today have become far too large,16” and decisions are happening too fast to control. Despite these dormant and growing problems relating to sprawl, China continues to build its economy by absorbing capital surplus through urbanization. Paradoxically, for two global cities attempting to push westernimitating masterplans, Shanghai and Beijing have adopted downtown density regulations that run less than half than the average density of Paris proper, and close to a third of the density of Manhattan. Closer understanding of China’s housing in these cities reveals a much deeper fact that overcrowding in cities 15 16

THF, 6 Russel, Web.


is a sore psychological subject for many Chinese citizens. In reality, the notion of high-density urbanism is less likely to evoke images of Midtown or Les Halles, than it is to conjure harsh memories of the past like the one depicted by Shanghainese novelist Qiu Xiaolong: In the 1930’s, when the modern Chinese Novelist Lao She wrote his well-known saga, Four Generations under the Same Roof, such a large family was considered a blessing. It was in line with the time-honored tradition of Chinese Civilization in which the old and young take care of each other in a family-based social structure. But there was a fundamental difference during the 80’s in China. The 4 generations in the novel lived in a large house, but Liang’s family in Red Dust Lane lived under the ceiling of an all-purpose room of 14 sq m’s in a Shikumen house. The family members had to use curtain partitions to divide the room, which contained a bed for the grandfather; a bed for his parents; a bunk bed for his eldest brother, his brother’s wife, and their newborn baby; a foldable canvas bed for Liang himself; an all purpose table serving as a dining table, desk, tea table, and ironing board; and in a corner of the room, a chamber pot behind a plastic curtain. As in Chinese proverb, people have to perform a Taoist mass in a snail shell... The situation got even worse when, upon graduation from college, Liang was assigned a job at the Shanghai Institute of Literary Studies. He desperately needed a room of his own, where he could concentrate on studying and researching. His family tried to behave as considerately as possible. The moment the dinner was over, they would clear the table and move out into the lane, so that he could write in peace and quiet. But even in the summer, it worked only for an hour or so. His grandfather had to listen to the radio, his parents to watch tv, and his elder brother and his wife to talk – not to mention the baby, whose diaper had to be changed.17

Without question, the most significant sweeping challenge to Beijing and Shanghai’s built-environment in the 20th Century was the severe shortage in housing stock. When Mao Zedong took power in 1949, one of the first achievements of the Communist Party was the nationalization of housing and the introduction of the equalization process in the early 1950s. Private homeowners were allowed to keep the portion of their dwelling necessary to house their family and the rest of the housing was confiscated by the state and distributed among the population. With loss of secure tenure and an everincreasing subdivision of spaces, the Cultural Revolution and the social reforms compounded this change in the hutong and lilong structure From 1966 to 1976, the cities underwent enormous change and many of the cities’ ancient structures were irrevocably damaged. City Planning Offices were closed down, resulting in further uncontrolled occupation and development of land. Large numbers of 17

Xiaolong, 116-117


people drifted into the city during this period, sowing the seeds of today’s overpopulation in residential courtyards.18 The overcrowding and subdivision was exacerbated in 1976 with the devastating Tangshan earthquake, which left hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens homeless. In the words of Mr. Xiaolong, who witnessed the transformation himself: “With the lapse of time, traditional houses have turned from courtyard houses, to multi-household compounds, and then to courtyardless compounds.” These hard feelings of the past resonate today in the increasing desire of Chinese citizens to attain more floor space, and in China’s planning policy. The director of Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Shanghai office, Silas Chiow, told me personally when I met with him that the density requirement is one of the bigger hurdles they face with each project. Helen Cheung, the director of Master Planning at AECOM’s Shanghai office, independently told me that the biggest challenge with each project is to convince China to make exceptions with zoning. Mr. Chiow wrote in a recent article that, “Such newfound desires for increased personal space belies the fact that Shanghai residents have been accustomed to five square meters of per capita living space for decades.19” Despite the hard memories, a closer look at the Hutong and Lilong

18 19

THF, 18 Gil, 216


structure as a formal spatial container reveals its remarkable ability to absorb the informalized burden of the housing crisis with absolutely limited means. The make up of hierarchical lanes and linked open spaces provided an outstanding support network for even its most vulnerable residents, while simultaneously accommodating ideal conditions for the communist party’s Danwei Work units. It is a testament to the flexibility of these localized housing typologies and emphasizes the argument that China must reevaluate its density laws to allow these traditional units to endure as global economics will increasingly draw evermore vulnerable migrants.

Informalization of a Formal Living Unit Mao Zedong envisioned Chinese cities as great industrial centers, and though he wanted to rid the cities of all buildings remnant of the Imperial past, and in Shanghai’s case, the western heritage of the foreign concessions, National priority was given to reconstruction of the infrastructure damaged during the war, and to catching up with the rest of the modern world, laying the foundations for the rapid industrialization of China. Urban design practice was left relatively unchanged from that of before 1949, and the production of housing was characterized by temporary construction responding to immediate needs.20 By the end of the cultural revolution, most of Beijing’s and Shanghai’s temples had either been destroyed or converted to other uses, but the hutongs and lilongs survived Mao.21 Left to their own devices as simple containers for its citizens, as the squatters from the Proletariat class continuously occupied the homes of the wealthy, the many courtyards were subdivided by increasingly makeshift structures.22 To ease the dire needs for living space, the residents eventually resorted to building extra rooms off of the original structures and into the courtyards and 20 21 22

Broudehoux, 2.2.a Hessler, 179 Hessler, 181


lanes. A survey in 1984 shows that the self-built additions had substantially increased the living space, and consequently the FAR in these areas jumped from about 0.45 to 0.60.23 These informal extension buildings are now a defining feature of most neighborhoods today. On every lane, in nearly every courtyard, the extensions stick out, protrude from, and connect the historical fabric like barnacles on a rocky shore line or muscle ligaments between bones. In a 2004 study by the Tibet Heritage Fund, they found more than 70% of all resident families surveyed in a Beijing hutong had one or more extension buildings on their residence, usually makeshift constructions out of bricks with asbestos or tin sheet roofs. These rooms are mainly used as kitchens, but in some cases also as bedrooms or for storage. Officially, it is necessary to get permission from the housing authorities to erect such structures, but because of the realities of such dense environments it is both overlooked and nearly impossible to regulate. Apart from the flimsiness of design and often hazardous nature of materials used, extension buildings, informally spliced electrical cables, and collected items, and construction materials collect in the common areas, blocking sunlight access and causing the “slum-like” image that many have come to associate these dwellings with.24 Fused with these informal additions is the complete inadequacy of utilities and basic infrastructure; Qiu Xiaolong again strikes up a vivid image from his childhood: “… What made things worse was an inconvenience totally unanticipated. There was not a single private bathroom in the lane, as was the case with many neighborhoods, so at home, people used chamber pots, or went out of the lane into a public bathroom. In Lulu’s place, there was a small cabinet partition made for this purpose, but I found it too hard to excuse myself while in a room packed with several girls my age...”25 23 24 25

Lian, 3.2 THF, 38 Xiaolong, 64, 94


Qiu goes on to describe the difficulties of dating a girl as a young man with absolutely no privacy. It is easy to see why those who grew up in this kind of environment were eager to move into their own space at the first moment they could. Naifei Sun, a senior planner for SOM in Shanghai, also grew up in a lilong settlement, and spoke of how the neighborhoods would flood once or twice a year as the drainage systems deteriorated.

It is ironic that many of these siheyuan and shikumen courtyard homes at one point in time belonged to the wealthiest citizens of the city and were formal, homogeneously composed units designed for one family, with different rooms for specific purposes. And yet, the dynamism of these units continued to endure and evolve; Xiaolong speaks of intellectuals imprisoned during the revolution experiencing the shock of change upon being released and returning to the lanes. During communism commercial stores had been converted into residential units. From 1979 and on, businesses reclaimed the outer shells of the settlements.26 Today, even as Chinese eagerly leave the dense center for a highrise modern apartment, many are venturing in again or coming for the first time or to redefine life in the hutong and lilong. In an interview with Businessweek, Ma Yansong, of MAD Studio in Beijing explains that: “Residents are becoming disenchanted with the coldness of the instant high-rise city... When the first highrise modern buildings went up, everyone wanted to move out of the hutongs, which were dirty and didn’t even have private toilets... Now, when modern buildings are all around, even taxi drivers tell you they long for the social world the hutongs supported, a real place shared by all kinds of people.� It is the way these settlements allow for sharing that makes them such a critical element of the city. 26

Xiaolong, 80


Spatial Container for Control + Community Despite Mao’s disgust for traditional symbolism, the hutong and lilong worked remarkably well as a housing unit to support the Party’s goals and the national campaign against the Five Evils of ‘black capitalism’ (bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property, cheating on government contracts, and stealing economic information). According to a Chinese proverb, ‘the walls have ears.’ With such dense quarters, the party could keep a watchful eye on its members within each neighborhood community, which was subsequently divided into individual Danwei work units. The nature of the hutongs and lilongs allowed for a tight knit community for a sense of common identity that encouraged competition with other work units.27 Neighborhood committee informed residents of news, and the limited number of secure gates and entries allowed good control of who could leave or enter a block. The public lanes provided a common forum for public harassment and mockery of those who brought shame to the Danwei Despite all these advantages for control, these very attributes of high density and shared space in the neighborhood enabled the residents to enjoy a vibrant neighborly social life. Mr. Xiaolong recalls this atmosphere in the lane:


Xiaolong, 24-25


People of differing social or financial status are mixed together. Small-business owners or executives take the wing or a floor, while ordinary workers choose the back room or the attic. As for the tiangzijian, it usually goes to those struggling men of letters – they are fantastic places for creative souls, with constant inspiration coming from the lane... Life is incredibly enriched with all the activity and interaction of the lane. You become part of the lane, and the lane, a part of you... People get together a lot not only in the Shikumen, but in the lane too. Their rooms being so crowded, people need to find space elsewhere. All day long, the lane is vibrant with life – informal, relaxing, and spontaneous. Most families had no air conditioning or electric fans at home, and in the summer, it was almost unbearable to have a hot meal inside. There was no traffic in the lane, and a pleasant, fitful breeze rippled through, so people came out holding their rice bowls, eating heartily in the open. It was a sort of social occasion for the lane.28

What is ironic is that the unfavorable and crowded individual dwelling conditions resulted in neighbors of various economic levels interacting with each other in the common areas on a much more regular basis. When taking this principal and applying it the contemporary situation in Beijing or Shanghai, one arrives at a less extreme, but just as favorable result. The hutongs and lilongs are still composed of a rich and dense tapestry of various social classes, and the constant contact, interaction, and familiarity with fellow residents builds the bonds of solidarity which have been shown to be so crucial in establishing a support network for individuals who are most vulnerable. This model is particularly important as China continues to urbanize and draw increased floating populations.


Xiaolong, 4-5, 64, 94


Comparative Models “It was an old room vacated by another family instead of a new room. But a room of 12 sq m’s nonetheless meant a new world to them.29” Qiu Xiaolong Zoning laws in China are constantly adjusting and in flux. Even when nation-wide or citylegislated codes are in place, final decisions are often delegated to local government officials, who are quite often persuaded to bend to rules in exchange for bribery. I heard this told numerous times by many of my contacts who referred to this with a matter-of-fact attitude they could sum up as “the China Way.” Despite the back door deals, the current policy in Chinese cities is to reduce densities in new urban developments. Naifei Sun of SOM told me that the guiding metric for urban density is 100 square meters of city space per citizen. This equates to a density of about 10,000 persons per square kilometer. They also call


Xiaolong, 125


City + Minimum Allowable Residence Size

Population Density (persons/km sq) = 1000 persons/km sq

Tokyo: 1.5 sq m/person

San Francisco: 13.9 sq m / 2 occupants: 6.95 sq m/person

6,800/km sq

Paris: 9 sq m/person

21,000/km sq

New York City: 9.7 sq m/person (existing allowable)

Manhattan, Upper East Side: 45,649/km sq

Manhattan: 27,227/km sq

10,640/km sq

(new construction: 23.23 sq m / 2 occupants = 11.615 sq m/person) 4,980/km sq

Boston: 32.5 sq m / 2 occupants: 16.25 sq m/person

Dongcheng + Xicheng District: 24,282/km sq

Beijing: 1,300/km sq

Hutong + Lilong Average: 6.5 sq m/person

Puxi Historic Center: 39,516/km sq Shanghai: 3,700/km sq

Xiao Khang Modest Wealth Standard:

New Construction in Downtown BJ + SH: (WHAT CHINA SAYS DENSITY SHOULD BE) 10,000 persons / km sq


12 sq m/person


for a ‘Modest Wealth Standard’ which aims for every urban dwelling in China to have a minimum floor area of 12 square meters per person. Both of these metrics threaten the traditional lilong and hutong neighborhoods, as they set minimum standards of living that are nearly half the density than they currently exist, allowing Chinese officials to easily claim that the neighborhoods are ‘unfit’ to the acceptable standards. Indeed, even in Shanghai’s Urban Planning Exhibition center, they tout statistics of decreased density and show off models of ‘exemplary examples’ of lower density suburban influenced development models. Chinese residents, associating high density with harsh memories, are not likely to question the figures. A closer comparative examination of these same laws in other competing global cities, however, reveals that the current state of density within hutong and lilong neighborhoods is comparable to, and in some cases already less dense than some of the most famous and globally revered neighborhoods and cities in the world. It becomes perfectly clear then, that the issues and desire remove the neighborhoods for new development is not one of density but one of profit and disposal of capital surplus through city building. Further hypocrisy of these density laws are revealed when looking at past efforts in China to build new housing, before concern for density was cited as an issue for removal. Though relatively little attention was given to housing during the communist era, the People’s Party managed to build a variety of public housing projects in the peripheries of the city that grew in increasingly massive densities as they built higher and higher.


China’s Economic Liberalization of the 1980’s rapidly stimulated the economy with a particular boom in the property market. China implemented what is known as the “Weigai” system to identify the areas around Beijing with the most dilapidated housing conditions, and to tear down the old structures and redevelop the property. The Weigai system gave property developers total freedom for redevelopment without any regard to conservation, the only condition being that they rehouse the inhabitants to the adequate 12 square meter “modest wealth” metric.30 While the average unit far exceeds the minimum standard of 12 square meters per person, the city densities remain extremely high: over four times what China now says is ideal, roughly the same density of the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Furthermore, the new privately developed housing was often well out-priced of the previous land occupiers, creating an increase in inequality and an inherent increase in vulnerability. Between 1990 and 2000 alone, roughly 200,000 families were relocated by the Weigai system, and more than 4 million square meters of Hutong neighborhoods have disappeared at a rate of 600 lanes per year. As China moves forward into the 21st Century, they must reexamine their lowdensity planning policy. If concern for suitable living conditions is a key concern, issues of sanitation and infrastructure are the principal issues at stake, but this requires China additionally look to their law system regarding tenure of housing.


THF, 21


Part Three: Tenure

A continuing theme in all aspects of Chinese policy is the discord between a socialist past and China’s desire to become a part of the world economic regime. This is very true with regard to the issue of tenure. There are three main categories of housing in contemporary urban China: public housing (government owned and housing-bureau managed), work-unit owned, and ‘privately’ owned. The term ‘privately owned,’ however, carries a large weight of vagueness. Before 1978, private ownership was restricted to people who owned their house before the revolution. Private ownership is now encouraged as the commercialization of housing allows people to buy their own apartment.31 In 1988, China clarified that private citizens could obtain land use rights but not actually own the land itself, essentially maintaining Marxist principals while allowing governments to acquire enormous sums of cash in selling off the land rights. Public housing has continued in China since the 1950’s, with the buildings managed by a local housing office. The rents are subsidized down to only a fraction of the equivalent cost on the private market. The housing department, however, had no sufficient budget for regular maintenance, either. After 40 years of neglect, many buildings have assumed a run-down appearance, making them easy prey for the Weigai replacement system. 31



Government-owned work-units continue to exist from the same Danwei model established in the cultural revolution, and some privatized companies still maintain the practice of supplying housing to their employees alongside other benefits. Much better conditions are generally found in work-unit housing than in public housing. Each work unit has its own housing quota directly from the city authorities. In the past, the ever-worsening city housing shortages created a burning issue for the work units, which were in charge of deciding which employees would get a room.32 Even a private owner has no secure tenancy, however, since they only own the land-use rights and not the property itself. If an entire neighborhood or lane gets demolished and redeveloped, private homes are bulldozed alongside the rest, even though private property are compensated at a much higher rate. Generally private housing is in good or reasonable condition, because despite the insecurity mentioned, the owners generally maintain their property better than the first two categories. There is also more space per person33 The commonality between all of these is that every single person’s tenure is insecure, and is at the mercy of either the government or the job they have. When this situation brought upon millions of floating migrants with drastically polarized but parallel market values is put into the framework of the hutong or lilong, it creates the perfect breeding ground for informal real estates, increased vulnerability amongst citizens, and a deterioration in the physical quality of the surrounding built-environment. Providing secure tenure is an absolute change China needs to provide as it faces increasingly populated cities.

32 33

Xiaolong, 118 THF, 34


Informal Real Estate Before the government housing assignment in 1949, many owners of longtang and siheyuan residences had made a practice of renting out space. As Xiaolong says: “There were always rooms or apartments available for rent and sale for people who could afford them.34” The allowance of private property in the 1990’s development quickly saw the land prices in central Beijing and Shanghai soar after having been kept artificially low for 40 years. The public housing rents increased only nominally to protect the residents from market forces, but it also had negative effects; The confusing structure of property ownership in China has allowed for an immense web of informal real estate to mushroom. Completely off of the official books, real estate is a lucrative informal activity for many of China’s urban residents. The lilong’s and hutong’s ease with which to build informal extension buildings provide a logical incentive for residents to make easy money; the more land acquisition they can gobble up by building into the courtyard, alley, or even above their home, the more rooms they can rent out to the migrants that flood into the cities and desire to live in the heart of the city. Going unregistered to the local housing authority, shadow enterprises are created in which there are landlords of landlords of landlords. On the other end of the spectrum, I found in both cities, networks of informal agents who cater strictly to western ex-patriots that desire to live in a dense and vibrant siheyuan or longtang unit. Slightly larger than a typical residence, these efficiency studio apartments have modern interior fittings, kitchens, private bathrooms, and lofted sleeping areas. With a monthly rents up to $2,000 a month (of the ones I toured while pretending to search for an apartment), it is an extremely rewarding endeavor for someone who pays a nominal, subsidized rent. Author Peter Hessler lived in one of these hutong units in Beijing for over


Xiaolong, 167


a year, and was able to easily avoid the local police registration system: “In a floating city, I led a floating life. I lived in an apartment where nothing had happened, in a city that was best defined by what no longer existed.35” The fact that a real estate economy within the lilong and hutong structure can simultaneously support both the privileged wealthy and poor migrants alike, attests to the social vitality of the neighborhoods. It is just another examples of the intrinsic connection of global markets to the informal sector. However, the unregulated system of rentals not only hurts Chinese Government revenue by going under the radar and unregistered, but it adds undue stress and further deteriorates the physical quality of the lanes and structures, as it encourages more extension buildings and encroachment into open shared space. Security and Vulnerability In the 1982 constitution, the government clarified that all land belonged to the nation. Individuals could buy and sell land-use rights, but the government retained the power to force a sale if the property was necessary for national interests, Chai nar as they call it. What is quite contradictory about the idea of ‘national interests,’ however, is that because final development decisions are decentralized (refer back to the description of the China Way in part 2), the 35

Hessler, 175


interests are increasingly not those of China, but of the local authorities or government banks.36 Individual motivations and briberies combined with the authority of government makes even the well preserved sectors of the historical neighborhoods completely helpless to demolition and removal. Citing a specific court case in Beijing where neighbors sought to argue the historic value of their relatively well-maintained siheyuan, Hessler quotes: In court, independent experts testified that the home dated at least to the early Qing, and possibly the Ming Dynasty. They even located the complex on a map from the 18th century. But none of that evidence mattered: the court decided that the definition of a cultural relic depended strictly on the Cultural Relics Bureau’s definition. If the bureau said it could be torn down, then nothing else mattered.37

Beyond increased compensation, lawsuits against redevelopment schemes so far have always been lost in China. The country needs to change these examples of simply declaring “you cannot exist,” and allow its citizens access to secure tenure. The most vulnerable are those in public housing. Because they own no land use rights, any compensation for relocation is going to be far below what they would need to relocate in the city center, forcing them out to the city periphery, away from their social support network, and with increased hardship to transport oneself back into the center for work. This insecurity has a cancerous affect on the physical quality of the neighborhoods: as the residents lose any sense of ownership, they see no reason for upkeep, convinced that sooner or later their courtyard home will be demolished. One of the UN Habitat key indicators of a slum is a community without “the security of individuals and groups to effective tenure.” How ironic that China’s formal policy towards tenure is directly resulting in slum development. 36 37

Hessler, 181 Hessler, 178


Lack of Investment and Public Perception Private ownership creates a stronger sense of pride for one’s possessions, and therefore engenders a stronger desire to care for one’s belongings. The THC’s 2004 survey of Hutongs in Beijing support this theory, as they found that courtyard houses converted into public housing had been most drastically modified, and were generally in the worst of conditions with the highest densities. The courtyard homes with secured land use rights were mostly found not only in better condition, but having more personal interior space. The courtyards that still operated as work units generally fell in between the two categories. Along lanes with higher levels of tourism and commercial use, The facades had been maintained and more consistently restored.38 They also found that buildings in the survey area marked as cultural relic sites had preserved their original structure reasonably well, even if used as housing. Even when individuals attempt to improve the physical surroundings, despite the insecurity, the scope of the problem is beyond their financial or technical control. In assessing personal acts of maintenance, the survey cited many cases


THF, 35-36


where the residents had done some work, but the surveyors were told that because of financial limitations and insecurity of tenancy, they could not address all the problems in their homes. In addition, they also often lacked technical knowledge about how to solve problems in the roof or timber structure, or how to deal with humidity infiltration. Many residents blamed the government and where unwilling to undertake any major repair works.39 This highlights another factor that calls in favor of private ownership; the government has historically provided severely inadequate maintenance and upkeep to the physical infrastructure. In the public housing units, residents complain that the housing department only sometimes fixes roof-leaks and paints the facades, but clearly the responsibility for upkeep is very unclear. Even with China’s construction industry in the late 1970’s, when the labor costs were much lower than material costs, the government opted for building new housing in the periphery rather than rehabilitating the old stock. Between 1978 and 1985 in Beijing, repair and maintenance of the old hutongs accounted for only 1.78% of the total investment on the already inadequate housing construction.40 This deliberate negligence left the old residential quarters in the inner-city largely ignored until 1988, when the government decided to begin tearing them down.

39 40

THF, 35-36 Lian, 3.2


A main reason why relatively few Beijing or Shanghai residents seem to worry about the destruction of the old city is the simple fact that it is hard for them to conceive of modernization without destroying the ancient layout.41 The lack of ownership, combined with this lack of either private or public investment, provide a heavy blow to the infrastructure, the quality of life, and the public perception of the old neighborhoods. When looking at the consequences of a system that does not provide secure tenure: informal real estate economics, increased vulnerability, a crumbling building stock, and degraded public perception, it is absolutely clear that China needs to adjust its ownership policy regarding tenure.


“At present, the pre-eminent problem existing in our country’s urban construction is that some city leaders only see the economic values of natural and cultural relics and know little about the historical, scientific, cultural and artistic value of them.”42 -Wen Jiabao, sixth Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Though the new efforts of historic preservation will surely keep the hutong and lilong from total extinction, the current trajectory for these traditional settlements appears to heading toward an existence as merely an assorted patch work of “historic blocks.” Rather than their current and historic role as wholesome and evolving strands of DNA integral to each city, they will become lost relics frozen in time, bound by over-regulation, and simply serve the wealthiest citizens as nostalgic, gentrified blocks for luxury housing and retail. The concept of preservation in China, while overwhelmingly complex, tends to look overtly at historical aesthetics and materials, and quality of construction but focuses less on the ingrained ecological organizational patterns of the city. Historic preservation of these settlements is certainly a good thing, and of great cultural value for citizens and tourists alike, but it does little to help accommodate the real beauty of these settlements: its ability to contain networks of mixed incomes and mixed classes, all within varying individual densities and unit sizes. I argue that it is in the interests of China to increase their density regulations and revamp laws to allow secure tenure. The lilong and the hutong are not static 41 42

Hessler, 181 THF, 3


sihey 院三合院 四合院三合院 typologies of the past, nor are they prone to inevitable informalization, as public perception holds. The current state of these otherwise formal settlements is one that accommodates a social environment of informal living that has resulted directly from its unique and turbulent political system. If China allows higher density tolerance to accommodate the influx of migrants, and simultaneously allows its citizens a path to secure tenure of property beyond land use rights, the Hutongs of Beijing and the Lilongs of Shanghai will flourish as an urban form of the city. The increased security of ownership will drive Chinese citizens to improve the built fabric and invest more in their neighborhoods, and the social structures of the alleys provide will create supportive communities to help the vulnerable migrants get their feet on the ground as they seek new opportunities. Increased land value, tax revenues from businesses, and improved public perception will encourage the government to take a better stance in upgrading the infrastructure.


里弄胡同 里弄huto Traditional Chinese structures were not designed to last through the ages. Consisting primarily of tiles, wood, and brick, any of these old buildings that have survived the centuries have been continuously rebuilt and replaced with new materials.43 Like the inherited Buddhist principles of reincarnation, it is the belief that the old can die and reemerge in different ways. This is a fitting metaphor for the piecemeal, tactical approach that needs to happen in transforming the traditional courtyard settlements today. Even the Chinese characters for hutong and lilong depict in plan the very nature of each settlement.

龙塘里弄 龙塘lilong As public perception becomes increasingly positive, the desire to live in these settlements will grow, as will the inherited cultural appreciation. They have the potential to assume a new and innovative model for urbanism in the 21st Century that is not an importation from the west, but a Chinese model that accommodates contemporary Chinese needs.

longt 龙塘 石库门 石库门 43



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The Informal Formal  

Alexander Morley