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Staged reinterpretation: Row house rehabilitation in Shanghai

The architects wanted to keep the "spirit" of the house alive on the one hand, and yet replace the historic facade with room-high panorama glazing on the other. In their translation of Shanghai's 30s typology into a contemporary architectural idiom, Neri & Hu have taken a different approach to that in other row house rehabilitation projects.

Architect: Neri & Hu Design and Research Office, Shanghai
Location: No.27, Lane 255, Ruijin No. 2 Road, Shanghai, China

Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014
Photo: Pedro Pegenaute

With its narrow three-storey row houses, the Tianzifang quarter of Shanghai is a significant example of a housing typology that emerged with the high-density developments of the early 20th century. Due to their poor condition and the demands of population growth, some of these row houses have long been replaced in major construction projects; others have been reconstructed and rehabilitated under preservation orders. While in the latter case the historical facades are usually retained or restored, Neri & Hu have gone a step further in their design, bringing the old typology back to life in a modern interpretation of their own. 

Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014, Ground floor plan
Ground floor plan: Entrance (1), Lobby (2), Public stairway (3), Private stairway (4), Toilette (5), Living room (6), Courtyard (7), Sleeping room (8), Open space (9). Diagram: Neri & Hu Design and Research Office
Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014, Second floor plan
Second floor plan: Living room (1), Public stairway (2), Private stairway (3), Toilette (4), Sleeping room (5), Skylight (6). Diagram: Neri & Hu Design and Research Office
Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014, Third floor plan
Third floor plan: Living room (1), Public stairway (2), Private stairway (3), Toilette (4), Sleeping room (5), Skylight (6), Laundry room (7), Terrace (8). Diagram: Neri & Hu Design and Research Office
Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014, Longitudinal section
Longitudinal section: Neri & Hu Design and Research Office

To this day the row houses are generally entered from small lanes at their rear, where secondary rooms such as the kitchen and servants' quarters of the past are located. The front of a typical row house is where the actual living areas are to be found, and being its public face, has a significantly more distinctive look than the rear side where the entrance door is located. It was most likely for this reason that the architects chose glass for the frontage, since the material does justice to the tradition of demonstrating status in two respects, enabling the façade to take its place in its surroundings in a totally different way to its neighbours and thus form a visually attractive counterpoint while providing views into the house at the same time. Unlike buildings that conceal themselves behind their facades in presenting themselves to the world, the transparent row house practically divulges its contents to the public eye, turning its historic typology inside out, as it were.  

Such houses were generally the home of single families in earlier times but today are typically occupied by several families due to growing population density. As a result, access and circulation within the building has had to take on the character of a semi-public space, as seen in the staircase that forms the centrepiece of the building and links its two staggered halves. In this the wooden staircase has been replaced by a new one out of steel and topped by a skylight, thus transforming the stairway into a communal area leading to the roof terrace.

Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014
Photo: Pedro Pegenaute
Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014
Private stairway (left) and semi-public stairway (right). Photo: Pedro Pegenaute

The three apartment units have an internal staircase of their own to connect their front and rear parts, each set half a level apart. The sanitary rooms are separated from the semi-public staircases by a mere glass divider. Any lack of privacy in the house is thus not a consequence of the usual overcrowding but a deliberate design decision. 

Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014
Photo: Pedro Pegenaute

Room-high, building-wide, non-openable windows with black frames have been installed in place of the historical facade, with merely small elements in the corner areas providing an idea of the original state. The gigantic glass facade at the front of the building enables views into the rooms of an almost forgotten housing type.

At the rear, a punctuated facade in black stucco makes the building practically disappear at night, and contrasts it during the day to the light-coloured, classical plaster frontages to its sides.

Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014
Photo: Pedro Pegenaute

In the interior spaces, materials such as concrete, wood, steel and glass seem to merge seamlessly, bearing witness to great precision in the planning and execution of details. Yet in terms of functionalities, the possibility for natural ventilation as well as the occasional area for withdrawal and privacy leave to be desired.

Be that as it may, the planners have achieved a clear and above all legible architectural idiom thanks to attention to detail and an almost fanatical degree of perfection. The close correspondence of concept and implementation in this building awakens hopes for more architecture beyond gigantic and less "attractive" developments.  

Wohnhausrenovierung in Schanghai, Rethinking the Split House, Neri & Hu, China, 2014, Blick von der gemeinschaftlichen Dachterrasse auf die Stadt, Foto Pedro Pegenaute
Foto: Pedro Pegenaute

Project data

Team: Rosana Hu, Lydon Neri, Tony Schonhardt (Partner), Xiao lei, Zhao Lei, Guo Peng
Total area: 193 m² inkluding courtyard and terrace
Completion: 2012

More projects on the Topic of »Interiors and Lighting« can be found in DETAIL 10/2014.

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