Finding a Model for Urban Living: The Origins of Public Housing in China, 1920s - 1940s

Project: Research

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Although public housing was one of the most important components of China’s socialist urbanism, its creation predated 1949. Curiously, compared to the vast amount of studies on the Socialist era, the development of public housing before the Communist occupation remains a gap in current housing scholarship. In fact, the provision of collective housing to China’s working poor dated to the 1920s, first as a community service of philanthropic organizations and later as a Nationalist state-sponsored program. If housing was regarded as an individual problem everywhere, then why and how did the provision of housing and the removal of substandard dwellings become state responsibilities during the Nationalist era? What form did early public housing take? What were the design references for Nationalist architects and planners at the time?This research project traces the origins of public housing in China to the Nationalist era and examines the state’s efforts to make housing into a domain of the government. During the studied period, living in the city became an increasingly popular choice for Chinese people and posed a new governmental problem for China regarding how to regulate urban spaces and the urban population. The Nationalists embraced extraordinarily radical changes in both attitudes and public policies toward urban living. Prioritizing rational life, sanitary cities, and a moral community, they problematized slums, which emerged extensively in Chinese cities as a result of increasing industrialization and urbanization, as detrimental to hygiene, sanitation, safety, and social morality. These changing biopolitics led to the belief that the removal of private problems was intrinsic to the modernization of China.This research project portrays the built environment of the early public housing as the product of a dynamic process shaped by changing biopolitics, the National reform ideology, and the early urbanization of China. It argues that the Nationalist architects and planners adopted an environmental determinism, believing that the design of the physical environment could shape the behavior of the people. As such, they worked not only toward providing accommodations for the poor but also toward creating a “model village” that represented a sanitary and moral urban environment in the new republic. Their design ideas, such as regular neighborhood planning, uniform building design, sharing of communal facilities, and the integration of the social reform program, remained major features of public housing not only in the Socialist era but also in present-day China.


Project number9041940
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1419/06/18