Cody Ellingham is like a reverse archeologist. The photographer and art director documents dying architecture around the world before it’s razed and buried under new layers of civilization, preserving buildings before they vanish forever.
In 2018, Ellingham’s series Danchi Dreams captured Tokyo’s aging public housing. Now, the photographer has published a new project, called Shanghai Streets, that documents the Chinese city’s “lane houses,” which are being demolished at a rapid pace to make space for new developments in the futuristic city. Known locally as the Shikumen lane houses, these humble two-story homes were built from the mid–19th century up until the mid–20th century. Ellingham tells me over email that their architecture, inspired by colonial architecture and art deco, is not legally protected, for the most part: “They are open to buy-outs and development.”
As a result, the buildings are being torn down at the same speed that investors put money down to build the next tower of offices, shops, hotels, or condos. In a city famous for its frenetic construction rate, this means buildings can disappear in a day. Ellingham’s photos, which show crumbling buildings often standing alone on a sea of flattened ruins, perfectly capture this feeling.
According to Ellingham, the change makes it hard to say what is old and new at this point. There’s also the issue that some buildings seem to be respected while others are being torn down: “A lot of the Former French Concession architecture still remains from the 1920s,” he says. “However the communities in the Laoximen from the same period, which was where the Chinese citizens mainly lived, is slowly being transformed.”
Shanghai has been evolving at a rapid clip since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, when China decided to open the city to development and turn it into the hyper-futuristic hub that we know today. Ellingham says that once a building and a street are gone, they are truly gone forever. Gentrification will conjure a shiny new neighborhood that has nothing to do with these old homes in a matter of months.