From the Stretch-A-Leg Blog

Architecture of Red China (Tongzilou)

Tongzilou (筒子楼, also referred to as Heluxiaofu Buildings 赫鲁晓夫楼 Khrushchovka Building) is a type of housing built in Beijing and in many big cities of China in the 50's and 60's. The typical Tongzilou was a 3-6 story apartment building designed with shared kitchen and bath rooms--in short, the idea was to build a "mini-commune" in the city to let the families in the building function as a big (not necessary related) family.

tongzilou1

 (c) Wang Di 王迪

This style of building was originally started in Russia in 1920 and it was endorsed by Khrushchovka in the 1950's as the construction type for the dormitories of factory workers. Mostly based on the fact that the Tongzilou was both very cheap and very fast to build.

China started to copy the style to build buildings like this to host students and single factory workers. Tongzilou emerged in China after 1949. The design lasted for half a century. In the era of the planned economy, living in Tongzilou was an inevitable experience for almost all the people working in a unit. Most of the residents in the building are colleagues, hence the Tongzilou building became the extension of their offices. Life in Tongzilou normally ended when one received an apartment building from the work unit.

Originally, each room in the Tongzilou is occupied by 2 people. As you can imagine privacy was something that was lacking for residents of this type of building and some sort of mutual agreement had to be worked out to use the room. If that wasn't already bad enough, as the population expanded, families started to move in as well. This put further pressure on privacy as several families now crowded the small space for cooking, laundry and storage.

tongzilou2

Tongzilou normally have no elevators but staircases on both ends of the building. In the middle of the building there is a long corridor serving as the passage for residents to get around the building. Rooms are designed on each side of the corridor and the size of most rooms is about 20 square meters. There's normally just one studio-room for each family. Each floor only has access to one shared public toilet (and sometimes public kitchen and shower). As there was no central heating each family had to put a coal-burning stove in their apartment in the winter.

tongzilou3

Tongzilou are an unmistakable aspect of the planned economy of the communist era during the 1950's to 1980's. Few Tongzilou are now left as they were fast to go during the construction boom. While people in Beijing are debating ways to protect the old hutongs in Beijing, the Tongzilou are destined to fade into oblivion as they make way for modern apartment blocks. Who will save the Tongzilou?

To capture this quickly disappearing piece of China's history, join Stretch-a-Leg on one of our historical off the beaten path walking tours. Travel back to the era of Mao, of soviet construction and factory units with our guides who will paint a picture so vivid only traveling back in time can beat.

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