'Saving' Shanghai's historic Shikumens

'Saving' Shanghai's historic Shikumens

Jianyeli, home to 200 Shikumen houses from the 1930s, is being converted into a luxury housing project

Jianyeli ShanghaiAn image of Jianyeli, before it's redevelopment into "Jianyeli, the luxury Shikumen villa houses".“[Jianyeli] will no doubt be of great public interest as it features a sensitive restoration and development of the city’s historic and fast disappearing Shikumen houses,” says Chris Brooke, president & CEO of CBRE Asia, a partner in the Jianyeli redevelopment project.

Portman Holdings, in conjunction with architects John Portman & Associates, has taken on the project of 'saving' a piece of local cultural heritage, Xintiandi-style, by turning an area of 51 Shikumen-style historic houses -- the largest existing cluster of historic Shikumen style houses -- into five-level villas, 62 luxury serviced residences and over 4,000 square meters of retail space. The project, located on Jiangou Xi Lu and Yueyang Lu in the French Concession, is expected to wrap-up by the end of this year.

“Capturing the spirit of the classic 1930s Shanghai Shikumen-style architecture, [Jianyeli] will provide high-end buyers and users with a first class city development featuring luxury villas, serviced residences and upscale shopping," says David Chen, senior director, Residential Project Marketing, CBRE China, in a company press release on the area. "It is of special significance that this landmark project will be launched in 2010, the Shanghai 2010 Expo year." 

Shanghai history

The original Jianyeli houses were built in the 1930s in the typical style of Shanghai’s Shikumen, or stone-arched gate houses. Shikumen buildings were developed in the early 1900s, an East-meets-West union of architectural styles, to meet the housing demands of booming old Shanghai. “The houses are urban Western adaptations of traditional Chinese courtyard houses and were once described as ‘Chinese houses with a Parisian sensibility,’” according to China Daily.

Unlike the purely commercial use of Xintiandi or even mixed use, Jianyeli remains true to what it was, which is a residential neighborhood.— Professor Zheng Shiling, honorary president of the Architectural Society of Shanghai

The neighborhood of Jianyeli has nearly 200 80-year-old houses, and the restoration of the areas has thankfully not brought bulldozrs -- as is the fate of so many historic Shanghai areas (for more on historic Shanghai, read on here) -- but it has brought construction noise to local residents, as well as relocation noticed. 

"I read in the newspaper that after completion, these houses will sell for RMB 130,000 per square meter," said 60-year-old resident Sun Zhangmu, who lives next door to the Jianyeli neighborhood, to CRIenglish.com.

"People who used to live here can no longer afford to do so," he added. "With this new wealth and foreign residents, it's not going to be the same Jianyeli -- at least not the one we're familiar with."

Today many of the areas where classic Shikumens stood have been redeveloped for modern Shanghai, with only areas like Xintiandi, Tianzifang/Taikang Lu and Jianyeli remaining. But even these areas that have maintained Shanghai’s beloved architecture have given way to modern stores, bars and restaurants, pushing out the residents who once called the area home. 

Preserving historic Shanghai

Although many bemoaned the urban renewal of yet another neighborhood, some see it as a step forward. Professor Zheng Shiling, honorary president of the Architectural Society of Shanghai and consultant of this year's Expo, has a different perspective. "Unlike the purely commercial use of Xintiandi or even mixed use, Jianyeli remains true to what it was, which is a residential neighborhood," says Zheng.

"Apart from that, it is important to remember these buildings were constructed in the 1930s. It's going to be very difficult for them to survive the next 100 years without renovation and special care, especially during the rainy season."

Many of those who agree with Zheng see adapting Shanghai’s older communities to meet the demands of contemporary society, as the best path to preserving the city’s cultural heritage. "The significance (of the Jianyeli project) is for us to be part of something that's very significant for Shanghai, to be part of preserving this cornerstone of Shanghai's heritage," agrees Richard Jones, executive vice-president of Portman Holdings.

A borough-bred Manhattanite, editor and writer Jessica Beaton lived in Shanghai for five years and has now moved to Hong Kong.

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