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Split house, China by Neri & Hu Design and Research Office

AR House 2013 Highly Commended: A local building type is imaginitively rennovated to reveal diaphanous spaces that reveal furtive glimpes of chinese domestic life

Once commonplace in Shanghai, lane houses gave the city its distinct character in the 1930s. Now, in China’s dash for growth, they are being ruthlessly demolished and replaced by featureless high-density developments. Lane houses have two distinct parts − a long rectangular space facing the street, with a smaller room to the rear half a level above the main space. This arrangement creates a split section connected by a winding staircase.


Lane houses were originally occupied by a single family, but now moretypically accommodate two or three families sharing the staircase and landings, rather like London’s Georgian terraces.

Architects Neri & Hu were commissioned to remodel a lane house in Shanghai’s historic Tianzifang district. The practice is a former winner of the AR’s Emerging Architecture Award (AR December 2010) for a project that inventively transformed a mouldering industrial warehouse into a boutique hotel. A similar spirit of imaginative adaptation characterises this endeavour, but equally importantly, it emphasises the cultural, social and architectural value of an important local building type.


Slightly disarmingly, bathrooms are visible from the staircase

In this case the three-storey lane house was severely dilapidated and had been practically reduced to a shell. The original timber staircase was stripped out and replaced with a new one fabricated from black steel. This vertical spine connects the floors and locks together the front and rear volumes. A clerestory skylight channels light into the depths of the stairwell.


A new staircase fabricated from black steel winds up through the house. Light floods down the stairwell from a new skylight

The house is now divided into three apartments, but it could conceivably become a single dwelling again. Emblematic of its radical recasting, the decaying facade has also been replaced with a diaphanous glass skin that offers tantalising Rear Window style glimpses into the domestic domain.


The refurbished rear block which is linked to the larger main volume by a spinal staircase

The jury applauded the skill and confidence of the conversion and how it suggested a new way of dealing with an old building that could act as a valuable exemplar for the future.

Split house, China

Architect: Neri & Hu Design & Research Office
Photographs: Pedro Pegenaute

Readers' comments (1)

  • "Slightly disarmingly, bathrooms are visible from the staircase". Is this a throwaway photo caption?

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