“Handshake houses” rooted in ancient villages


air shaft Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Baishizhou is a chengzhongcun, a rural village that was conveniently in the way of Shenzhen’s urban explosion. The landowners in the village sold their houses piecemeal and mid-rise walk-ups rose in their place — turning what were already narrow village footpaths into tenement-like airshafts. Shenzhen residents call these “handshake houses,” since one could ostensibly shake hands with one’s neighbors across the “street.”

The buildings are ultimately temporary, their residents even more so, but the infrastructure and the settlement patterns that it fosters are much more permanent.

The contrast between the small-scale development within Baishizhou and the megablock development that the city government has pursued right outside the old village’s walls is incredibly clear in the satellite view.

Like the expanding cities of the industrialized world at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, Chinese villages are being absorbed into new urban structures. As in the West, the current rapid urbanization in China follows regular geometric patterns. Wide and straight roads form a large-scale grid of city blocks that accommodate sizable building footprints with high land utilization. If villages are encapsulated into the new urban fabric, the new regular urban pattern is interrupted by an obviously older pattern of narrow irregular pathways, small blocks and the occasional historic structure, frequently an ancestor’s hall or a shrine. Literally translated, ‘villages within a city’ can easily be spotted on drives through the recently built city extensions in Guangzhou and Foshan. The reasons why villages have become encapsulated into the expanding cities and why villages were not simply erased is related to historically defined [peasant land] rights [granted to village collectives in the wake of the 1949 revolution]. – P. C. Bosselmann et al, “The Future of a Chinese Water Village.” Journal of Urban Design 15:2 (2010), 248.

Thanks to Chris DeWolf for pointing me in this direction.

More views: approaching this point and the large-scale high-rise complex at the village edge.

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