Living in the LiNong houses

Last time I talked about the LiNong houses in Shanghai through their external space — the laneways, this time I would like to go into the houses, and exploring more on the building itself and the interior space. Just like the exterior, the interior also shows the traditional Chinese typologies of housing, it illustrates them through its interior design, the arrangements of the rooms, the furnitures, some decorations and ornaments inside the houses.

The first thing I want to talk about is “TianJingTianJing can be referred to “the atrium” which  is not a interior space in the theoretically speaking, however, we always consider it as a internal space especially in the LiNong houses. TianJing is the only private open space that we have in the dwelling, if we say that Nong is a semi-private open space that shared by the people in a same community, then TianJing can only be shared by the people in a same dwelling. Usually, TianJing is surrounded by three or four houses (Fig 01), the only way that people entering into TianJing is entering the households first on the ground floor.

Fig 01

In my grandmother’s house, three sides of the TianJing is surrounded by houses, and the other side is the kitchen and corridor (Fig 02 & Fig 03) that leading to the staircase to the first floor. My grandmother’s living room was facing to the opposite neighbor’s living room, the doors were always keep open during the daytime. If you want to contact a neighbor, you just need go to TianJing and call the neighbor’s name, my grandfather was always called to play Mahjong from the neighbor upstairs by just yelling at the opened-window. Being in TianJing is like being in a quadrate well with long windows all sides, when I looking upward at the bottom of the “well” I only can see the sky and the neighbor’s pigeons flying in and out of their bird house.


Fig 02(Left) Fig 03(Right)

TianJing is a typical element in the traditional Chinese housing typologies, it is a building form of adapting nature and transforming environment. It can be considered as a miniature of Nong, which is a space not only for the ventilation, lighting and sewage, but also for the communications between people. In addition, the design of TianJing is deeply affected by “FengShui” theory. Firstly, it reflects the idea of “ unity of heaven and man” in traditional Chinese architecture, TianJing is considered as a space to connect people and heaven. Secondly, TianJing is deemed as a container to gather money, as water represents money in China, the fours sides of the roof are tilted to TianJing with a slope around 30 degrees, when rains, the rainwater will flow into TianJing, which means “money is going to your house instead of going away” TianJing also regarded as a space to connect heaven and earth, the top connect atmosphere for ventilation, lighting and water gathering, the bottom connect ground for drainage and decontamination, the process is continue to repeating and cycling day by day, which form a balance between old and new, express the profound philosophy of Yin and Yang.

Fig 04

Fig 05

The second interesting thing I found in LiNong houses is various of addition structures that  “parasite” on the main structure, such as arcade, attic and garret. There is no notion of  “rooms” in LiNong houses, there is just one big room that served as both living room and bedroom, kitchen is always outside the “room” either in TianJing or in the corridor, also there is no bathroom, everyone’s sanitary is rely on the wooden chamber pot and spittoon, or having bath in a big wooden tub, I still remember the laneway is always filled with the scrubbing sound in the mornings.

There was no one’s own bedroom in the dwelling, what people have is one big room with beds and all other kinds of furnitures. In the past, most of the people had a big family that lived in the same household. Before my grandmother inherited the house from her father, all her unmarried sisters and brothers were living together, and she told me that her youngest brother had lived in the house until he found a house for himself and his wife, they used a curtain to make their bed enclosed, which is the only partition in the house. At the summer holiday before my mother went to high school, my grandfather decided to make a room for my mother to sleep and study in, so he and just himself built a attic by timber in 2 months.

Fig 06

There was no notion of “Architecture” or “Architect” in the old times in China, what we have are craft and craftsman, if you want to make something, either find a craftsman or do it yourself, there was no law to rule it, so the people built more rooms one after another. As the interior height is 4 meters, it was enough to split the volume of the room into 2 levels, people can easily adding more arcades, attics and garrets which increasing total floor areas without expanding ground floor areas. “Do-it-yourselfism” is really advocated by my grandfather’s generation, although most of these addition structure are illegal for today’s society.

The interior decorations are worth mentioning as well. I found many of the decorative styles were influenced by Western aesthetics. For example, I found the the windows of my grandmother’s house are glazed with stained glass (Fig 07), which imitate from the stained glass windowpanes of churches in French concession. Other decorations such as the decorative engraving on the stone arch (Fig 08), the claw shaped Roman pillars in-between levels (Fig 09), the ceiling with complex fine pattern for chandelier (Fig 10), the detailed sculptures on the railing of wood staircase (Fig 11), are all European styles of ornaments.

Fig 07
Fig 08                                                            Fig 09                                                            Fig 10                                                            Fig 11

Currently my mother is busy at remodeling grandmother’s house, she also divided the space into 2 levels, the upper floor will be a bedroom, the ground floor will have a living room, an open kitchen, a bathroom and a working area. Sometimes she sent me the photos of the progress, she said one day this place will become my studio room to work in, I just hope she  has kept those beautiful stained glass windows and doors…





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