Vernacular architecture refers to designs which find their primary influence in local conditions: in climate, in materials, and in tradition. In a country as diverse as China, with 55 state-recognized ethnic minority groups and widely varying climates and topographies, many different vernacular dwelling styles have evolved as pragmatic solutions that accommodate the unique needs and limitations of their sites.
Rapid urbanization in China has favored high-rise apartment towers over traditional housing because of their ease of construction and the population density they enable, making vernacular dwellings increasingly rare throughout the country. Some firms, like MVRDV and Ben Wood’s Studio Shanghai, have taken note of the many benefits that vernacular dwellings provide, and have created projects that attempt to reconcile tradition with urbanization. Even if you aren't planning on building in China any time soon, the following housing styles have much to teach about what it means to live in a particular time and place. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does encompass the main types of vernacular dwellings seen throughout China.
A prominent part of Beijing’s culture, siheyuan are made up of four rectangular buildings arranged in a square to create an inner courtyard. They are set up for multi-generational living, with the rooms furthest from the street historically reserved for the family’s daughters, who were once expected to remain inside the compound’s walls. The main building housed the head of the household, leaving servants the smaller side quarters. The buildings’ overhanging roofs provide a shaded courtyard, which has a similar program to that of a living room, and acts as a private outdoor space for the family.
Rows of siheyuan create alleys, called hutongs, that connect the city. Today, Beijing’s siheyuan are often occupied by multiple families and are notorious for lacking amenities. Since the typical siheyuan is no more than two stories tall, the pressure of population density has made apartment blocks far more favored among developers and city planners, although some projects have attempted to create a sense of newness while maintaining the siheyuan-hutong design principles.
The Southeastern province of Fujian is home to the tulou residences of the Hakka people. Compounded earth and wooden beams form thick, cylindrical walls that reach several stories high in a once-necessary effort to protect the interior from attack. The outward facing walls have only one entrance and no windows, and all balconies, doorways, and openings face inwards, further protecting the residents from potential danger. Each structure houses hundreds of people — an entire clan — and functions as a small village, with space for communal activities in the large, open interior.
Unlike the hierarchical structure of the siheyuan, individual residences within the tulou were divided equally: a reflection of the high value of community that can also be observed in the tulou’s egalitarian round shape. In 2008, 46 tulous were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their peaceful unity of defensive and residential architecture, and will be protected should their neighborhoods in rural Fujian ever become urbanized.
Found in China’s northern provinces, including (perhaps most famously) Shaanxi, the yaodong, or cave houses, use earth from the hillside as insulation to regulate temperature in harsh winters and summers. They can be carved into a hillside, dug into the ground to create a sunken dwelling, or built standalone by packing earth on top of a brick frame. Multiple dwellings are built adjacent to and on top of one another and together make up a tiered village, often for a single clan or extended family.
As more young people have moved into big cities in search of work, yaodong living has become less popular. However, the last decade has seen a newfound appreciation for the economic and environmental benefits of yaodong living, and NGOs have found some success in building and marketing new dwellings as green and efficient housing options.
Unlike the siheyuan, tulou, and cave dwellings, which have been in existence for millennia, Shanghai’s shikumen are a relic of the early 20th century, when Western influence from the French began to take hold of the city’s architectural style. Rising no more than three stories, these wood and brick townhouses are built right next to one another within a stone gate. The rows of homes create a secluded lane, which has come to hold a distinctively Shanghainese way of life. Neighbors spend much of their time outside of the relatively small homes, and daily life—noodle making, clothes washing, card playing, coffee drinking, etc—moves into the lane, to be carried out with the community. Shikumen often bear large, ornamented door knockers and Art Deco flowers and geometric motifs indicative of Shanghai’s Jazz Age.
The low rise buildings once housed 60% of the city’s residents, but many neighborhoods have been recently demolished by the state, which in exchange provides shikumen dwellers with compensation and housing in new apartment towers that, while economically efficient, do not accommodate lane life. For the average citizen, there is nothing to be done to stop or even delay the disappearance of the shikumen, but projects like Sue Anne Tay’s Shanghai Street Stories and Richard Liwei Huang’s Cardboard Shikumen fight to preserve the memory and design of the housing through documentation, storytelling, and VR.