Qilou: Chinese Arcadia

We are starting a short series of articles looking at housing types in China. First Yu Xinning and Fan Shitao explore Guangzhou’s Qilou housing.

qilou-1The arcade originated in Ancient Greece some 2000 years ago, where it was known as “stoa”; a covered walkway with open columns on one side. It became a popular architectural form in Europe and throughout the world as a simple, accessible, weather-protected pedestrian interstice between the street on one side and residential or commercial buildings on the other.

During the Qing Dynasty, Guangzhou absorbed Western architectural styles partly because it was the only trading port (known at that time as Canton) at that time. Combining the western arcade culture and the Chinese style, the Cantonese arcade came into being. “Qilou” housing gets its name from “you jiao qilou,” meaning buildings on legs. Because of the tendency of families to utilize outdoor space to socialize and to play – and because of the hot weather – the covered area became public space.

qilou-2In terms of structure, an arcade can be divided into three parts.

Looking at the elevation, longitudinally, there are load-bearing pillars at the bottom part, designating the extent of the public corridor. The middle section comprises living units (as the main body of the building). At the top is the pediment and parapet (as well as additional floors behind). Sectionally, at the ground level are two load-bearing pillars at the roadside, the pavement in the middle and then, the shop front. The middle and top floors function as living spaces, which usually takes up 3 to 4 floors.

In the front, is a gate and entranceway linked to a hall with a statue of a local god inside. Behind the hall is the living space. In the centre are living spaces, kitchen and washrooms divided by a courtyard in the east with an inter-connecting gallery to the west. Upstairs, facing the street, a crecent-shaped balcony overlooks the street, providing a sunlit personal space, an amenity in the open air and an ideal place to hang laundry.

qilou-3qilou5The Qilou (Arcade housing) remains relatively cool in summer even though it has few windows, benefiting from the incorporation of a ventilation system quite novel to this house design. Because Qilou is adjacent to other houses on three sides, it can not open windows on each flank wall as traditional Chinese architecture does. Thus the internal corridor/alleyway is the main ventilation space. Another vent is the wall face towards the street. Then Qilou has both intake (the doors towards the street) and outlet (two courtyards). The alleyway can connect rooms with courtyards. Because the alleyway is an indoor space, and it is narrow, it has a passive vent-pipe effect. When air flows from the hall into the narrow alleyway, the pressure difference increases that air speed and encourages more inflow.

Each floor usually contained a separate family, different from traditional houses. The partition walls don’t reach the soffit so that it avoids blocking indoor air circulation (and saves in the cost of materials) but at a cost of lost privacy. But privacy is not a significant factor in this kind of crowded tenement structure.

qilou5Many years ago, about one-third of the arcade buildings were converted into warehouses. Approximately 80 percent of these remaining arcades suffered significant neglect but have been repaired to some extent subsequently. And about 10 percent of the original arcades lie empty, categorized as “Overseas-Chinese” property. Most of them risk criminal damage and fire hazards and people have somewhat different living aspirations these days, which may account for the low occupancy in the neighborhood.

I entered one Qilou arcade property on 4th Zhongshan Road in the early afternoon, it was derelict and dark and hard even to recognize the stairs hidden alongside the corridor. Lacking renovation, the outer wall was covered with street advertisements, the once aired patio was almost blocked with air-conditioning machines, cables and an old awning. The overall condition of the wooden elements clearly suffer from the annual typhoon conditions and because the house is under private ownership, the local authorities are not concerned and do not bother help with repairs or conservation.

The Guangdong Qilou arcade house is a culturally important relic of Chinese architectural history, inherited from long ago. Sadly, their present conditions are quite vulnerable. The value of arcade housing has been proven by history, but the protection of the arcades seems that it still has a long way to go. So, should they be repaired to their original condition, refurbished to modern lifestyle use, or allowed to disappear?