My earliest memories of hutong come from my first visits to China as a child: Pedicab drivers offering tours of Beijing's arcane labyrinth of largely unmarked alleyways that once demarcated the space between the city's traditional courtyard houses. Aside from the principle that upper class residences were closer to the city center, the actual construction of the homes—and the incidental passageways between them—was an ad hoc approach to urban planning at best, and subsequent divisions of the houses and land has resulted in a dense network of narrow alleys criss-crossing the enduring swaths of Old Beijing that have not been razed and redeveloped... yet. (Fun fact: Since courtyard houses, or siheyuan, traditionally face south for better natural light, the majority of hutong run from east to west.)
With hundreds of years of history embedded in their crumbling walls, many of these neighborhoods remain jam-packed with longtime residents; despite the fact that the original courtyard houses have been either been modified or left to decay beyond recognition, there is a tendency to romanticize the hutongs as a kind of cultural artifact, authentic both for their historic significance and their current conditions. But how do you preserve a dynamic relic—one that is defined by the fact that it is lived-in? One that, like an organism, is subject to both an internal logic and external factors? As Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian (a fellow member of the media tour for Beijing Design Week) reports:... in numerous pockets of the old city over the last 10 years, neighbourhoods have been demolished and rebuilt in the name of heritage preservation... areas designated for historic conservation have been transformed into zombie recreations of themselves. Elsewhere, crumbling courtyard houses have been wrapped in neat jackets but their squalid innards left unchanged, adding a flimsy tourist-friendly veneer to give a picturesque backdrop for lucrative hutong tours.
But in Dashilar, things seem to be going in a different direction... the "nodal" Dashilar pilot strategy, developed by local architect Liang Jingyu from 2011, [facilitates] several model projects in strategic locations across the area—and show existing owners how investing in their properties and businesses could help turn a profit and improve the area.
Thus, although Dashilar has been among the major design districts during previous Beijing Design Weeks, the dense neighborhood saw more exhibitions than ever, including a pilot program that showcased works-in-progress from architects and designers examining the neighborhood itself. Here are a few of our favorites:
Hidden behind a faux-ramshackle façade on the Dashilar's main drag, standardArchitecture's "microHutong" was definitely a crowdpleaser, not so much for its ambitious scope but the fact that it was open for exploration. (The highly regarded Beijing-based practice was founded by Zhang Ke in 2001; although it hasn't been updated since December 2012, the News Feed on their site provides a nice survey of the studio's recent work.)
The installation itself was something like an inside-out treehouse: human-sized plywood boxes arrayed at varying heights and angles around a kind of micro-courtyard. Compelling? Certainly—children took to it as a veritable playground. Inhabitable? Sure—a studio assistant mentioned that some of his fellow architects (visiting for Beijing Design Week) had indeed spent the night in the cubic chambers when their lodging arrangements fell through. Scalable? Not so much—the team demolished an extant edifice in order to build the structure in situ at the rear of the space and essentially rebuilt an ad hoc façade / gallery afterward (credit where due to the tradesmen who made it happen in a week or so).
Meanwhile, the locals seemed skeptical: at one point, an older woman walked in, demanding to know the meaning of the nonsensical construction; the attendant insisted that it was simply a week-long exhibition to allay her confusion.
Yet microHutong is intended to be more than a mere temporary installation: with the help of the government, standardArchitecture has secured the usage rights to several adjacent lots as well (the total area is roughly ten times that of the space they'd built out), and they're hoping to explore various other experimental designs in a kind of microcosmic neighborhood, a small plot of Dashilar that is further subdivided by alleyways. Hence, microHutong.
In keeping with her human-centered approach to experimental yet functional design, Matali Crasset presented "Unlimited Hutong," a proposal for converting a space spanning two parallel hutongs into a kind of community center. The layout suggests that the larger building on Cha'er Hutong—a quasi-defunct police station—annexed the building behind it to the effect that one can also enter via Tiaozhu Hutong; the latter entrance is opposite a school. As an investigation into "creativity in daily life," the French designer's sought to turn the space into a nexus of interaction. "The 'Unlimited Hutong' [is] an open house for the community living in Dashilar, a space for kids and parents to socialize and experiment with creative activities, a residency for young designers invited to interact with the community."
Sporting her signature bowl cut and a polychromatic track jacket with geometric panels, Crasset's personal style echoed both the color-coded presentation and educational materials. I didn't quite understand the concept at first, but she was happy to elaborate on her ambitious project, which features a treehouse-like catwalk, as in a playground, alongside a series of multi-purpose classrooms/studios.
The broad curriculum tentatively includes a workshops on art and design, as well as a hands-on approach to science and ecology, thanks to a rooftop terrace and greenhouse. Noting that the corridors feature a length of elevated roof—lined with windows to let in daylight—Crasset proposes further raising these sections to build a U-shaped greenhouse along three sides of a terrace. A rainwater filtration system could serve to illustrate everything from the water cycle to gravity, not to mention its horticultural application.
An coincidental reprise of standardArchitecture's microHutong?
But as with microHutong, this is more than just a concept: Crasset is actively seeking like-minded partners to make the project a reality. Beyond the renovation itself, she is looking to forge a long-term partnership with a investors who will also support the educational and community-driven mission of the space. With any luck, the Unlimited Hutong may be operational come Beijing Design Week 2014.
Deeper in Dashilar, Andrew Bryant and Wang Shuo presented [META:HUTONGS], an ongoing research project that examines the urban typology on a metaphorical scale of dystopia to utopia. Reality, of course, always lies somewhere in between, and the group exhibition presented a large body of data on the current-day "Hutong Ecology" alongside photographs, renderings and video.
I appreciate that [META:HUTONGS] represents critique turned into a science, but I imagine that the dense language and poster presentations might have been a bit too cerebral for the general public and I must admit that I didn't spend as much time to absorb the exhibition as I could have. Hopefully, they'll post the presentations to their website soon; for now, the project page on the Graham Foundation website offers a succinct summary of their Beijing Design Week exhibition. (Seeing as Rem Koolhaas presented a more radical approach to the preservation of Beijing in Cronocaos, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Wang and Bryant have both previously worked for OMA.)