Split House

Nov 8, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Pedro Pegenaute
  • Designer
  • Architect Neri Hu Design Research Office

Shanghai’s Xinhua Art School was established in 1926: a product of the booming cultural liberalisation of the interwar period. It had a short-lived existence and in just over a decade, Xinhua (New China) was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of 1937. However the area around Shanghai’s Taikang Road, where the influential art school had been located, has retained the memory of those decadent days and is now home to a thriving arts market. It is a regeneration project that has influenced Chinese urban development, far beyond Shanghai itself.



Known as Tianzifeng (feng means lane) this area comprises 20,000sqm of narrow alleys and densely packed, low-level housing. This kind of urban configuration is known as a lilong (li means neighbourhood, long means lane), which refers to the long terraced housing, with a main front entrance and rear service lane. It is an architectural style that is barely surviving Shanghai’s modernisation drive.



These rational housing layouts are very different to the higgledy-piggledy layout of the hutongs (alleyways) of Beijing. Indeed, the grid form of these nineteenth and twentieth century lilongs, containing shikumen housing (meaning stone portal housing), is unique to Shanghai. Each house has a stone-walled gateway, demarcating the front boundary and enclosing a small private courtyard. They were the earliest type of multifamily housing in China and many of their internal layouts reflect the Western influence of the concession era.

The tight urban block allows views of the city and an open living arrangement
The tight urban block allows views of the city and an open living arrangement


At the very beginning of Shanghai’s urban transformation 15 years ago, Tianzifeng was scheduled for demolition to make way for the generic commercial, retail, corporate schtick. But the local planning authorities had the presence of mind to recognise the area’s potential: that by a careful gentrification to maintain the urban grain, it could become an economically viable tourist destination.As a result, many of the houses (or, in many cases, simply the ground floor of the houses) have been converted into a maze of independent galleries, designer brand outlets, bars and eateries, nestled amongst 200 or so upgraded local residences. With around 7000 visitors every day, this area is now seen as a model of Chinese urban regeneration.



Lane 225 is a welcome relief from the tourist bustle. Just off the busy Ruijin 2nd Road, this is a residential lane that has not given itself over to coffee and waffle stalls. It is a remarkably quiet street and it is here that local architects, Guo Xi’en and Hu Rushan of Neri & Hu, were asked to refurbish the derelict shell of Number 27.

The plot is 4.5 metres wide by 17 metres long and the working title of the project – Split House – arises from the staggered floor plans. The living quarters are in the 9 metre long front section of the house; with a small, 3.5-metre bedroom situated in the raised rear portion; each of these private spaces connected by a new steel staircase in the centre.



Intended to be for three separate families (as would have been the case in the prewar days, when tenement-style overcrowding was common), the house is currently occupied by one family. On this basis, it is a spacious home – albeit with an oversupply of kitchens – but it might be a little pokey for three households. However if you want the chic experience of a proximate 1930s slum, this might be the place to come. Externally, badly fixed cables, poor drainage and communal washing facilities have been retained as remnants of, or memorials to, the bad old days.

Dual access stair with contrasting timber finish
Dual access stair with contrasting timber finish


Between the living and sleeping spaces, the architects have chosen to locate the toilets along the most publicly accessible space: on the landings alongside the staircase. Not only is the toilet visible from the private stair of each flatlet, but it is also visible from the central public stair. Could this be taking the authentic urban memory of the communal public toilet paradigm a little bit far? In a statement, Neri & Hu recognises that these ‘most intimate spaces of each apartment, are inserted next to the most public stairway … blurring […] both the public and private acts’.



This philosophical position is something to ponder when you are next showering on the stairwell. Note: the architects have subsequently inserted a sandblasted glass divider wall between the toilet/bathroom and the passersby, although they were content enough to take all of their publicity shots through clear glass.

The dramatic refurbishment has opened up the front elevation with a wall of glass. High exterior walls restrict visibility into the house, but this notional permeability contrasts with the rear elevation, where new walls – infilled with flush laminated glass windows – have been painted black. The architect claims that this is intended ‘to make the building disappear’, but it actually has the opposite effect, especially contrasting with the existing white stonework.



In many ways, this schizophrenic project is a microcosm of Tianzifeng, where the outward appearance has been tinkered with, the central core gutted and interior gentrified and, all the while, hoping that no one will be accused of altering anything. In many ways, Split House is a dramatic, modern transformation … but one that can’t be seen to be.

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