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Rethinking the Split House

Neri&Hu Design and Research Office sensitively transform an old and dilapidated lane house in China into three separate, modern apartments.

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BY Janice Seow

October 24th, 2014


Once a dominant fabric of 1930s urban Shanghai, lane houses are today being torn down to make way for high-density developments all over the city. With this project, Neri&Hu were commissioned to reconstruct a dilapidated lane house left with almost nothing except its shell in Shanghai’s historic and artistic Tianzifang area, and the challenge was to transform it into three separate apartment units.

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Neri&Hu’s strategy was to rethink the typology of the lane house – keeping the split level formation, a typical trait to lane houses in this city, and adding spatial interest through new insertions and skylights to accentuate the architectural integrity of such a typology whilst contemporising it for today’s lifestyle.

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Historically, lane houses are separated with two distinct spaces – a longer and often rectangular space with a smaller room half a level above that creates a split section connected by a winding stairway in between. These lane houses, which were often occupied by single families during the turn of the century, are today typically occupied by three or more families. The inhabitants share the public staircase and landings, giving neighbours the opportunity to interact as they move in and out of their personal abodes.

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To keep the spirit of this typology alive, a new continuous metal staircase has been inserted to replace the old decaying wooden stairs that was not to code. It also vertically connects the three levels. The bathrooms, the most intimate spaces of each apartment, are inserted next to the most public stairway separated only with a sandblasted glass divider. Above this stairway, a clearstory skylight has been added to bring light to the darkest space and also to the frontal room, the room half a level above, and the staircase itself. The blurring of both the private and the public acts as the central concept that binds the split level together, and at the same time, bring life to the middle and darkest portion of the lane house.

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Architecturally, the decorative elements added over the last 60 years have been stripped off, and large openings have been created on the frontal section to improve light qualities to the public spaces of each apartment. The colour black was selected to make the building ‘disappear’, in hopes that one would experience the split-section connected by a public stairway that is so vital to Shanghai’s urban life in the ‘30s. By capturing the spirit of the historic past and making new abstract insertions to meet modern needs, Neri&Hu have infused life into a lane house in a neighbourhood whose original fabric is dissolving too fast, too soon.

Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
enthepractice.neriandhu.com