Beijing has its hutongs (胡同), but in Shanghai shikumen (石库门) is the iconic and often over-romanticized endangered historic architectural species of note. Street photographers like Sue Ann Tay capture the decay and ultimate loss of many of these places, as development in Shanghai moves ahead at breakneck speed, pushing aside more and more of what remains of older neighborhoods. Developer Shui On Land produced perhaps the most well known attempt at preserving shikumen through placemaking style redevelopment with Xintiandi. My impression from having visited Xintiandi a few times over the past years is that, while better than having completely razed the buildings to make room for new structures, the space retains too few of the aesthetic and intangible elements that make shikumen interesting. It’s too clean, bright, shiny and open. The core part of the development has no residential housing. Designer Benjamin Wood has been criticized for cheapening the sense of place and eschewing many practices of historic preservation in his drive to create an iconic entertainment scene.
Tianzifang, though now just as much a tourist trap as it’s predecessor, does a lot of things right. For the most part, buildings and alleys remain intact. Original wiring has been left strung up along the sides of buildings and down alleys. Drying laundry hung just overhead reminds you that this is still a real neighborhood.
Tianzifang is easily reached from Dapuqiao Station on Shanghai Metro Line 9.
When plans for demolition were announced in 2006, residents, business owners and artists who had setup studios successfully lobbied the government to preserve and enhance the area as it existed.
The maze of galleries, cafes, restaurants, shops and residences overhead is the outgrowth of what had started as a core area in the center of the block and now fills all the space between Taikang Road (泰康路) and Jianguo Middle Road (建国中路).
While there is ample bicycle and scooter parking, there is absolutely no entry by cars permitted. In any event, space wouldn’t allow anything larger than a Cherry QQ to make it past the entrances.
I kept stopping to crouch down and examine the ground. The textures and patterns are great.
Try not to get lost!