To save shikumen, change their spatial uses | Shanghai Daily

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August 7, 2014

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To save shikumen, change their spatial uses

DEAR Yang Jian,

Preserving historic sites while encouraging community dialogue is a noble effort and is a struggle in cities all over the world, not just in Shanghai. (Ed: referring to the story, “Fears of the last of city’s historic shikumen,” August 5, Shanghai Daily, by Yang Jian.)

In the West, as is the case here in Shanghai, the usual solution is to mark the structure as under historic protection. Sometimes whole districts are designated for such protection.

Yet this falls short of maintaining a high level of community engagement, as the renovations to the buildings raise the value of the property, making it less likely for neighborly interaction — as more value necessitates more security.

And it’s a significant problem if people don’t even want to live there. Such is the case not because of the interior condition, but because the spaces themselves are too small. How can anyone reasonably expect a 21st-century Chinese family to live there? There’s certainly no room for the grandparents to raise the kids!

So instead, I think there are two reasonable proposals that can be considered, both of which would foster interpersonal relationships and a sense of community.

Repurposed shikumen

Before enumerating them, I should state that it would be very important to mark these repurposed shikumen properties as either special economic or creative zones where the rent is far below market rates. I read some time ago in Shanghai Daily about how the city government wants to encourage more creative industry, and this is a perfect opportunity to realize those dreams.

The first option is that these shikumen properties can be artist/maker spaces. Artists the world over tend to socialize with each other, especially during open studio hours. I graduated from both a fine arts program and a landscape design curriculum, so I’m well aware of this social interplay.

I don’t mean artist spaces like at Moganshan 50, but rather artist-makers who create all sorts of very low-volume artistic products that you might find on the creative marketplace Etsy: tables, chairs, pots, lamps, pillows, stuffed animals, etc.

I would suggest that all the products be created on site, within these houses and the creators be either sole proprietors or small partnerships (not a production house with tens of people).

Creative incubator

Alternatively, the shikumen could host a creative incubator.

There are already co-office/business start-up spaces in Shanghai that might be described this way, but I mean something more specific. This creative incubator would allow the public to use its services in order to create a work of art or a design.

There could be a music studio to (affordably) rent by the hour, or a dedicated painting or printmaking studio, or a small tool-and-die shop to make tools, or even a 3D printer to make almost any small-scaled item.

Open these to the public, school groups and aspiring artists and engineers.

In either of these proposals, which would preserve the exterior appearance without changing the foundational principles of the shikumen architecture, the shikumen can evolve from historic family residences to contemporary urban living rooms for a vibrant and resolute city.

Thank you for reading!

Jeremi Bigosinski

The author is landscape designer, WAA International, Ltd. Shanghai (A subsidiary firm of WAA Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui & Associates, Inc. Canada)


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