Tag Archives: architecture

Shantang Canal

As I mentioned in the last post, Shantang Street and the Shantang Canal were created together c.825CE.  Suzhou is essentially a water town, with what is called a double chessboard structure, in which streets and canals sit in parallel. It is in the delta of the Yangtze river (although surprisingly we haven’t yet been to see the river itself) and the larger area is as much water as it is land.  Every empty lot has a pond, which I think it what you naturally get if you dig a hole in the ground.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Historically, the waterways were very active, filled with boat traffic, which probably went faster than the traffic on the narrow streets.  Suzhou is also connected on the Grand Canal, which connects Beijing and Hangzhou (like Suzhou, the canal is very old, with parts dating back to the 5th C BCE; the completed canal dates to about 681 CE, but of course it has been constantly worked and reworked).  This meant that water was central to Suzhou’s role as a center of trade.  Nowadays, there are still ships on the canal and on the Wusong river, but the small canals in the city are pretty quiet, mostly home to tourist boats and cleaning boats.

The Shantang Canal is plied by boats that ferry tourists between Tiger Hill and the tourist end of Shantang Street.  Taking one of these boats provides an opportunity to see traces of Suzhou’s water culture.

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

The boat ride is not all picturesque -- the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

The boat ride is not all picturesque — the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

While Suzhou’s most famous tourist canal street, Pingjiang Lu, runs right next to the canal, for most of its length Shantang Street is separated from the Shantang Canal by the houses that line the canal.  Along its length, small squares connect the street and the water, often facing onto public buildings like temples.

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Theses squares provide access to the water for those on the other side of the street and in the larger neighborhood, and may also provide loading and unloading for boats.  They always have steps leading to the canal.  Similar steps are historically part of Suzhou houses, although in many canal houses (especially in other parts of town) the steps are unused or only visible as traces.

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Back steps lead from a patio to the canal for washing or, historically more than presently, for taking a boat.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal.  Clearly this wall once held a door.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal. Clearly this wall once held a door.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal.  We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal. We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

The side of houses facing towards the canal is very much the back, and houses are often more open to the canal than to the street.

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The houses along Shantang Street face south to the canal, so the canal side creates a great opportunity for gardening, drying clothes (and mops), and sitting in the sun.

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Even more closed houses make use of the southern exposure for a miniature back yard or an outdoor room.

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Canal frontage also creates an opportunity to expand the house a bit by building over the water, whether quite modestly by suspending a porch

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more boldly with a wooden pop-out

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or pretty much just building half your house over the water on stilts.

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When you get to the tourist end of the canal, the waterscape is decorated with red lanterns, lit beautifully at night.

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But the peopled canalscape is much more interesting, and worth paying for a tourist boat to get a chance to see.

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Urban Village

In teaching the first year intro to urban planning and design, I realized that the term “urban village” has at least three quite distinct meanings depending on what country you start from.  In China, urban village refers to an slum area created when a rural village is swallowed by an expanding city.  This is an area with poor infrastructure and low-quality buildings, and a high density of population, particularly poor migrants.  Andy just participated in a workshop in Guangzhou focused on a large, complex urban village there (and I will do my best to get him to post about it).  They are less common here (largely because of different ways of managing urban expansion and compensating villagers, I think), but there is at least one small urban village in Suzhou.  As I have mentioned before, I am working with colleagues on an app to guide students through several cultural landscapes of Suzhou.

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia village, an urban village just across the eastern boundary of SIP, in the shadow of the elevated road, is one of the sites that we are guiding students to through the app.

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Lu Jia village is a small patch of housing surrounded primarily by worker housing.  As you can see from the view of the roofs of Lu Jia village looking north, its buildings are at a much smaller scale, and using more traditional materials, than the workers housing and commodity towers and villas around it.  The buildings of Lu Jia Village were self-built, in narrow east-west rows with at least one courtyard area.  The alleys between the buildings are very narrow, keeping sun from the lower stories, and leading to the term “handshake buildings” because you can shake hands across the gap.

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A courtyard within Lu Jia village

A courtyard within Lu Jia village

Buildings also push out over the sidewalk between the village and the road, expanding into any available space.

This building extends well into the sidewalk.  Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This building extends well into the sidewalk. Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

As you can see from these photos, there are many signs that these buildings, in spite of their regular layout and relatively standardized form, are probably self-built and at the least heavily modified by users who do not follow building regulations. In addition to the extension over the sidewalk, patchwork roof, and unusual building materials, narrow and poorly planned access ways, including the staircase below, attest to the informality of building practices.

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Residents of this village are largely poor migrants, for whom this dense, sub-standard housing allows a chance to live affordably in very easy reach of both downtown Suzhou and SIP and in a well-connected site next to a bus stop and near to the subway.  There is evidence in the site of residents making money through collecting recyclables, running small businesses, and the sex trade, as the village serves as a red light district.

Piles of scavenged materials

Piles of scavenged materials

An apparent depot for metal recycling

An apparent depot for metal recycling

A small shop within the village.  The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

A small shop within the village. The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

Young women waiting for clients

Young women waiting for clients

I am very much an outsider in this place and felt myself under scrutiny.  Some of these photos were taken by the student research assistants who helped us with fieldwork for the app project; although they are from a very different background and class position from the residents here, their ability to speak Chinese, their youth, and their boldness allowed them to more easily walk into the village and to talk with residents there.

This village is a perfect illustration of the idea of the slum, overcrowded, dirty, and full of people in the informal economy.  But it is also a place for new migrants to potentially gain a toehold in the city and to begin to reinvent themselves as modern Chinese city dwellers.

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Why enough dumplings?

We are moving to China this summer.  All three of us — two grown-ups (professors) and our kiddo, who will turn six soon after we arrive.

I don’t think we will be typical expats.  It’s been a long time since we graduated from college, so we’re not traveling the world as young English teachers.  We are not being moved there by our company.  As a family, we haven’t lived out of the country before.  But circumstances conspired to force a choice of what to do, and we decided, after much discussion, to take the opportunity to have an adventure as a family.  We are lucky enough to have been offered the chance to move to Suzhou and teach architecture there to Chinese students (in English, which is a good thing, since we don’t speak Mandarin).  So now we are working on our visas, viciously editing our possessions down to what will fit in our suitcases (and our storage locker), and getting our minds around this big move.

We don’t know how long we will be there.  It could be for the rest of our lives, it could just be for a year or two.  We think that schools in the U.S. will be interested in faculty with China experience if and when we decide to move on.  Meanwhile, kiddo, whose favorite food is steamed dumplings, says that after three years, it will be enough dumplings.

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