Mission: Shanghai – Sotheby’s Domain magazine

Longtang Houses in Shanghai

Restoration would seem a difficult sale in Shanghai, as it races toward high-rise modernization, reportedly employing one-fifth of the world’s construction cranes in the process. Yet Shui On Properties Ltd. of Hong Kong and Shanghai has achieved just that. By incorporating two city blocks of a historic longtang neighborhood into a large commercial and residential complex, Shui On is salvaging one of the city’s few remaining pedestrian villages.

Built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, longtang are walled neighborhoods of up to 100 houses. The first one was built in 1872, after the Opium War, when Shanghai became an open port and the British set up a trading post. By the turn of the century, longtang were the most popular form of housing in Shanghai, sheltering an estimated 75 percent of the city’s residents during the 1920s and ’30s. Over time, the architecture of the homes evolved, fusing Chinese and Western architectural styles into what has represented Shanghai design ever since.

Traditionally, longtang were structured neighborhoods that began with a large gate leading from the main street down a lane. The two- and three-story row homes were arranged perpendicularly off the lane. Some longtang houses were single-family homes, most were apartments, and small shops at street level rounded out the community.

Shi-ku-men (pronounced “sure koo muhn”) marked the entrance to longtang homes. The thick stone gates featured wooden doors painted black and lintels elaborately sculpted either with auspicious Chinese characters or in rococo, Victorian or Mission styles. A defining element in longtang living, the gates faced south and enclosed a courtyard of nearly 12 square yards, behind which stood the house or apartment building. With the gates closed, families enjoyed privacy; with them open, they enjoyed communal living, including the services of baby-sitters, barbers, tailors and grocers.

worker updating longtang

Few longtang remain today, but there is hope that they will be preserved. “In 1995, the city government passed an ordinance so that some longtang neighborhoods couldn’t be sold to foreign companies or torn down,” explains Hanchao Lu, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of History, Technology and Society. That threw Shanghai developers into a quandary: how to serve the city’s significant needs for urban development without damaging the now-protected historic longtang.

The only answer to date is Shui On’s approach: restoring a longtang and around it fashioning a neighborhood (with shops, restaurants, cafes, etc.) in a modern but architecturally compatible style. Inspired by Western successes, the goal is to create a mixed-use complex similar to Paris’s Madeleine district or Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

But the project is not without complications, says Albert Chan, manager of project development for Shui On, including “bringing utilities up to 21st-century standards, obtaining government approvals, and determining the function and degree of restoration for each building.”

Working with an international team made up of architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of San Francisco, as well as design firms Wood and Zapata of Boston and Nikken Sekkei International of Tokyo, Shui On began by surveying the longtang. A half century of occupation, revolution and economic upheaval left the neighborhoods in varying states of decay. “Some buildings had to be torn down because they were not structurally sound,” says Chan. “Some were partially kept and renovated. A few were in very good shape, and less work had to be done to them. We tried to reuse existing, salvageable bricks and tiles as much as we could.”

Paying attention to such details was key to Shui On’s restoration work. “Our aim was to conserve and enhance the neighborhood’s traditional character,” says Chan.

Many of the shi-ku-men and alleys, which embody the spirit of the longtang, were salvageable, requiring only careful cleaning and some repair. Others required extensive restoration, which included replacing lintels, doors and cornices.

As in traditional longtang, the restored buildings will feature some shops. Instead of grocers and tailors, however, the restored shops are largely devoted to the arts, antiques and crafts of Shanghai and China, although Chan believes some contemporary lifestyle shops could come in as well.

The residences in the longtang shape the character of the neighborhood. Around them, the new buildings for restaurants and entertainment facilities have been designed in a style that respects the form and function of the old district. To achieve that, Shui On built smaller, new buildings with pitched roofs; transitional buildings and landscape elements to mitigate differing building heights; continuous street walls along major streets; and narrow alleys that contrast with larger squares. Shui On’s first restored model house — a private club with an art gallery, restaurant, lounges and conference rooms — was due to open in August. The first residences are scheduled to be ready sometime in October.

It is by no means certain that this project, the first of its kind in a country where raze-and-build construction is favored over the painstaking and costly process of restoration, will become a trend. However, if it is successful, this project will help prove the economic viability of restoration in China, and Shanghai’s long-popular form of living may enjoy a comeback.