One of the defining features of any city is its residential architecture. China is no different. While some call them rabbit warrens, and others cringe at the idea of living so close to one’s neighbor, China’s residential complexes are mixed-use developments at their most basic: shops in the front; houses in the back; shrines and temples shoved in between.
They are, in most cases, walled communities with a maze of narrow alleyways that confuse the novice traveller. Most foreigners experience sensory overload as the sounds, smells, and sights converge and overwhelm them. Every conceivable inch of space is used, from overhead racks drying meat, washing, fish, and plastic bags, to crowded bike and motorcycle parking that takes up what little walkway exists. In Shanghai these are called shikemen. In Beijing, these are the city’s historic hutongs.
As with most things classic, the hutong is under threat from China’s development. Many see them as representative of a bygone era in need of demolition, much like the country’s once prevalent bicycle lanes. Developers salivate at the idea of tearing down residential complexes and building new, sleek supermalls in their place. For traditionalists, historians, and (of course) residents, this is a scary prospect to say the least.
There have been efforts to preserve this piece of China’s architectural heritage, but most have unfortunately resulted in bastardizations. The most famous example of this is Shanghai’s Xintiandi development, a Disney-esque picture-perfect version of the architectural style. To get there, developers razed the original structures to build lackluster copies of them in their place. To add insult to injury, where once stood a family home became a bright and shiny Starbucks or Gucci. This is now the de facto model of heritage development throughout China, replicated in varying levels of success. In fact, many now use Xintiandi not as a noun but as a verb, as in “…you better see that area quick before they Xintiandi the whole thing!”
Over the past few years, architects and designers have been exploring ways to keep the Beijing architectural heritage alive and well by focusing less on modern buildings and more on modern use.
The Beijing hutong of Dashilar has been on the front-line of this fight. The Dashilar Project “…is an open platform where parties and stakeholders can collaborate on exploring new methodologies in reaching this goal of a truly indigenous, sustainable and vibrant old city centre. [The] Project’s actions involve small scale experimentation and intervention on not only the physical infrastructure, such as architecture and services, but also the social, cultural and economic aspects of the area, the soft infrastructure.”
In short, the Dashilar Project is looking to develop this particular hutong to meet the unique needs of the modern resident. This includes not only functional space that enables an adequate standard of living, but also public use facilities that can alleviate the pressure from overcrowding and disorganization. My favorite example of this is the mixed-use storefront wall. This compact floating wall’s design provides bicycle racks, washing lines, bench seating, and even places for vendors to sell their small goods.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Dashilar hutong on a recent trip to Beijing. What immediately struck me was its close proximity to a Xintiandi’ed strip of pedestrian mall only one block away. Not only had Dashilar been able to keep itself from the same fate, but was also building up an image of its own. Nestled amongst the old storefronts were modern eateries, bookshops, and cafes. Although a little too hipster for my liking, in a quintessential Chinese way this all seemed to work.
What I didn’t see were the restorations so openly touted by the Dashilar Project. In talking with locals, they noted these restorations were typically inside the courtyards of the hutongs themselves. As such, it’s not possible for the average passerby to see the great things going on here. On one hand, this means that the original integrity and image of the hutong is preserved. On the other, this means the thousands of tourists only a block away may never know the architectural revolution happening here.
As China races towards peak-urbanization in the coming decades, there are going to have to be tough decisions made on where to put everyone. The Dashilar Project has hit on a simple solution that addresses the need while taking the human factor into consideration. Until recently, developers typically ignored this latter part of the equation. It also addresses a third (and for me, most critical) factor in development – sustainability and environmental impact. From the unnecessary destruction and use of materials, to the noxious fumes and cement dust clouding the air, topped off with non-stop noise pollution, reusing existing infrastructure will forego the environmental disaster that is a Chinese build site. All this, while keeping the heart of historic Beijing alive and well.