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Can the hutongs be saved?

Beijing Design Week shines a light on the marginalised hutong population of Dashilar, but in so doing feeds the gentrification machine

For the fifth year in a row, at the end of September, a creative crowd descends on the Dashilar district, one of the oldest hutongs, south-west of Tiananmen Square. Yellow signage populates both commercial streets and residential alleys, providing the outsiders with information on the vast array of exhibitions and projects of Beijing Design Week.

Somewhere between an image of what they once were and an adapted response to today’s reality, the traditional labyrinthine hutong neighbourhoods currently rest in an uncomfortable in-between, unable to remain true to their historical significance yet struggling to redefine themselves and respond to present challenges. The timber frames are ageing and the hygiene infrastructure is crucially lacking - only a third of the families currently have access to a private toilet - but more than just a physical structure, it is the social structure, representing a culture in itself, that is in dire need of attention.

‘To effectively deploy the symbolic values of traditional building elements, they must be given relevant meaning and function’

Since 2011, the Dashilar Project has sought to provide an alternative redevelopment strategy in the historic but decrepit neighbourhood, turning it into a testing ground to carry out in-depth research and implement design-led strategies to revitalise the area while protecting it. After destroying more than 70 per cent of the original structures in the last 20 years to respond to rapid economic development, the days of the bulldozers are over. In opposition to the large-scale regeneration that has been ruling the transformation of the city, Dashilar adopts a policy of soft urban planning, overhauling individual properties with pointillist precision while advocating a series of cultural initiatives for the community.

Due to the compactness and density of the hutongs’ textured fabric, interventions are inevitably micro in scale. Vacant buildings are identified, conditions negotiated with neighbours, pilot projects inserted. Standardarchitecture’s small library, art and play spaces for children in Cha’er Hutong (AR March 2015) were built for the 2014 Design Week. Left unused and empty for several months, the 2015 event prompted the architects to clean the space up and organise children’s workshops. For the project to become viable, they need to find an organisation to take it on and are looking to collaborate with a nearby primary school. The slow pace of progress in this complex urban tissue is a sympathetic condition of the soft urban planning approach.

The aim is to convince residents of the potential gains of investing in the neighbourhood. As the inhabitants lack living and leisure spaces in their own units, rebuilding community spaces is an obvious proposition, but the extremely heterogeneous, shifting group of individuals who inhabit the hutongs aggravates the challenge. With the migration of younger residents to newer districts of the capital, the hutong population has become a concentration of marginalised communities: the elderly and migrants fresh from the countryside. Creating community ties and social culture for the place inevitably becomes very complex.


Vector Architects’ Hybrid Courtyard mixes private and public functions under an oversailing light bamboo structure

Far from treasuring the historical landmarks, the current residents suffer from infrastructural paucity as well as high population density, community conflicts and environmental and architectural degradation. As the population soared in the early ’60s, housing supply was insufficient, and each courtyard lined by sìhéyuàn, originally occupied by a single family, was subdivided to accommodate three or four. This densification led to illegal ad hoc structures, kitchens and storerooms taking over the courtyards. Rather than finding true alternatives to the squalor to which residents are currently condemned, the Dashilar projects attempt to reimagine the neighbourhood’s identity - unavoidably perhaps, as repairing it seems impossible.

Shedding light on Dashilar for Design Week, making it a hub for young creatives to submit proposals and implement ideas, inevitably feeds the gentrification machine. Some of the coffee shops, galleries and designer studios initiated by the Dashilar Project seem aimed at the small proportion of wealthier newcomers, leading the local people to see the event as an opportunity to increase the compensation they would get to move out. 60,000 RMB (£6,200) per square metre at first seems decent recompense, but the average family lives in less than 20m2 - not including the informally constructed structures for which the residents receive no compensation - so the total sum is largely insufficient.

While pop-up stores and exhibition spaces are well suited to the commercial realm of Dashilar, Design Week also spreads its programme of action, for the first time this year, to the west of town and the much more residential Baitasi district. There, the investigation focuses on rethinking courtyard living to meet contemporary needs, aiming to provide comfortable living units in a densely populated area. Here, young Chinese architects have been invited to speculate on the future of hutong living, rethinking the levels of privacy of the residents and the hierarchy of public and private spaces through interventions that can be applied on a larger scale.


Trace Architecture Office’s Split Courtyard House envelops a courtyard converting it into a shared dining room and incorporating patios in the four surrounding studios

Vector Architects’ Hybrid Courtyard proposes mixing residential and public functions by attaching a light laminated-bamboo structure to the existing grey brick, while Trace Architecture Office’s Split Courtyard House effectively covers the courtyard to convert it into a shared dining room and gives the four studios around the communal space very small individual patios. As their proposals show, the aim is to transform the structures to attract a younger, professional demographic working in the next-door business district of Xizhimen.

It’s easy to point fingers at an indifferent government and ruthless developers for the decay and gentrification of the hutongs, but the fate of these neighbourhoods is a complex issue. In many ways, they have already been disfigured by history. When the streets needed to be widened for vehicles, the fronts of the historic sìhéyuàn houses were sliced off, at least a metre or so inwards, forcing inhabitants to patch up new facades with shoddy materials. Once again, it is necessary to redefine their place in the city and Design Week is a valuable step in this.

Venturing down a hutong, the city melts away. There is a little magic in how the blaring hooters stop, allowing a rural silence to take hold. The hutongs are Beijing’s most tangible connection to a long, rich past. Preserving the formal qualities of the buildings is not enough to retain their aura and authenticity. To effectively deploy the symbolic values of traditional building elements, they must be repurposed and given meaning and function relevant to current demands.

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