Beijing Courtyards Then and Now
Under the summer shade of a century-old poplar tree, two elderly people are playing Chinese chess, each holding a traditional cattail-leaf fan in their hand, chatting and laughing over gossip and family news. In the trees, chirping crickets drown out outside noise, making the alleyways feel even more secluded. Towards the end of the narrow lane, a ponytailed little girl is running towards her grandpa after the school day. She greets him and his friend as she runs past them. Accompanied by the clanging sound of the knife sharpener advertising his trade in a neighbouring lane, the girl reaches the gate of her home. Entering the spacious courtyard she runs to greet her mother, who is preparing dinner for the family… When one imagines a typical living scene in Beijing’s hutongs and courtyards this type of pleasant picture often comes to mind. The reality of hutong living nowadays, however, is often not as simple, nor romantic, as this.
Hutongs are narrow alleyways formed by lines of courtyard residences running east to west within the inner areas of Beijing city. The architectural style of the Beijing courtyard is unique and can only be found in the hutongs of the capital city. Some of the earliest hutongs date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and developed at a rapid pace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). By 1949 there were still as many as 3,250 hutongs in the Old City area. However with the passage of time, the cultural and political upheaval of the recent past and the continuous demand for city expansion, the total number of hutongs remaining is believed to have fallen to just over 1,000. According to a recent feature in China Daily “Building a future for ancient neighbourhoods“ the loss of the hutongs between 1990 and 2005 was heavier than the total number destroyed during the 40 years from 1949 to 1989. Siheyuanzhi, a recently published book with a comprehensive overview on Beijing’s courtyards, also indicates that there are only 923 complete courtyard houses remaining among Beijing’s inner city and suburbs. By comparison there were over 3,000 complete courtyards in the 1980s. 80% of Beijing’s courtyard houses have been rapidly disappearing over the last 50 years.
“Anyone with common-sense and a basic understanding of the last 50 years of onslaught of the Beijing hutongs will agree that preservation is a must, but what should we preserve, how and who decides?” – Benjamin Beller, founder of BaO Architects
Taking A Deeper Look
Many complete courtyard houses were turned into dazayuan 大杂院 (ad-hoc structures dividing a single courtyard home into several and filling them with families who had to virtually live on top of one another) during the tumultuous years of the 60s and 70s. This was followed by China’s rapid economic growth and urbanisation over the next 30 years, with a lot of the traditional courtyard houses having to make way for higher buildings and rapid city expansion projects. Those that still served as residences were further built upon (and within) with improvised extensions to house the vast number of migrant workers attracted to the capital by the rapid building development. Due to the continually changing landscape of the city, unclear ownership and vague heritage protection laws, these hutong spaces nowadays are generally in a state of dilapidation and disrepair. Many issues plague the dazayuan, including a lack of comfort, spatial congestion, leaking roofs, a lack of privacy, and a lack of proper infrastructure and basic amenities. In 2005, China’s State Council approved a 15-year “Overall Urban Planning of Beijing 2005-2020” plan; to invest 500 million RMB ($78.3 million USD) annually to renew dilapidated courtyard houses in the inner city, and to improve the living conditions of those households. Included in the plan for the preparation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, 340,000 households were relocated. Once all the renovation projects were completed not many of the original residents could afford to move back, and people with more wealth moved in. Since then a lot of properties have also been converted both for commercial and private use, such as trendy coffee shops and exclusive clubhouses.
With the rapid economic growth, China’s housing market has experienced an unprecedented boom in the last 15 years. Consequently, land within Beijing’s inner city has become astonishingly valuable. The China Research Centre figures show that in 2015 the average courtyard house price within Beijing’s second ring road ranged from 70,000 to 250,000 RMB ($11,000 – $39,288 USD) per square meter, depending on the location and condition of the house. Many parties, including the local government, private investors, urban planners, hutong defenders and architects, all have different theories and approaches when it comes to the subject of restoring the hutongs.
“Currently, different parties including the government, architects and the city planners are carrying out research into hutong renovation projects. It is hard to tell what hutongs will be like in the future, but one thing for sure is that the best way to preserve hutongs is to improve the lives of the people who live in them.” – Matthew Hu from the Courtyard Institute and Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre (CHP).
The courtyard users are also changing. Aside from those locals under pressure to relocate in areas marked for demolition, many residents are choosing to sell their properties in favour for modern apartments equipped with insulation and indoor plumbing. Contrarily, some areas are seeing an increase in young people moving back in to the hutongs. Young workers and artists are attracted to the inexpensive bedsit-type accommodation which can be found in many dazayuan, while entrepreneurs and the occasional expat seek a more authentic lifestyle, set apart from hectic city life. This youthful and dynamic user base in turn is encouraging a more diverse range of modern infrastructure to develop in these historic spaces.
What Should We Preserve, How, And Who Decides?
Over the last two to three decades many attempts have been made towards the redevelopment of Beijing’s hutongs, with varying degrees of success. Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) is one example. The Nanluoguoxiang (NLGX) area is a 786-meter-long street that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368). It was once home to celebrities, officials, artists, and well-off families, and is one of the most ancient hutongs in the city. Over recent years, NLGX has become a popular tourist destination, and is known for its small trinket-selling shops, Western cafes, bars and snack stands that pack the traditional ash-grey lane. While the transformation that NLGX underwent before the 2008 Olympics was not as abrupt as those of some other areas (notably Qianmen), it was also not as sympathetic towards the principles of preservation and restoration as it could have been. The facades and many interiors were renovated, keeping to the traditional courtyard and hutong proportions. The rapidity with which the change came about however meant that corners were cut. Rather than using real grey bricks to restore facades, the more common method of using red brick covered in a cement plaster and scored in a brick-pattern was implemented for many building fronts. As the lane gained popularity, real estate prices soared and previous property owners were moved out, many to be replaced by wealthier outside merchants. Nowadays NLGX is considered a semi-success story… depending on who you talk to. Many visitors, primarily Chinese, enjoy it as a tourist destination, while many locals, include the handful of foreigners who still remember “Nanluo” when it only had its one Mojito corner and its first churro shop, feel it has become over commercialised.
A slightly different approach has been adopted for the inner circle of the Dongsi (东四) area, another Yuan Dynasty residential zone northeast of the Forbidden City. Instead of a rapid systematic restoration strategy spearheaded by government planners and tourism boards, the redevelopment in the Dongsi area is occurring at a slower pace. Although technically under a stricter protection law than other hutong areas, development is still very much visible in Dongsi. Walk down any of the fourteen alley ways which fall under this blanket protection and you’ll be exposed to varying degrees of development. In some areas it seems like every second home is a building site. An increasing number of western style cafe bars and small hotels are also populating these hutong lanes, the beginnings of gentrification. However there is one main difference between the two examples. Where Nanluoguxiang is overrun with commercial activity, the Dongsi area is still largely residential. While the amount of development taking place might in reality be similar to the early days in Nanluo, the fact that there’s still a local pulse in the Dongsi area makes these hutongs feel more authentic. The sights, sounds and smells of hutong life prevail, and it is not hard to imagine what it was like to live in these alleys in days gone by.
Protecting and regenerating these hutong spaces under the context of Beijing’s rapid urbanisation is certainly a complicated and challenging task. The complex drives and varied demands from all directions (government led initiatives, local residents, urban planners, hutong defenders and architects) have inevitably been spurred on by questions such as: What should we preserve? What are the priorities? Is it the improvement of living conditions and public facilities, or the restoration of the architectural physicality? Should we focus more on the protection of the intangible culture and lifestyle of the communities? No matter what the answer one thing is clear: if the demands and living situations within the hutongs are constantly shifting and changing, so then should the renovation and restoration approaches reflect these changes.
“Hutongs do not need regeneration, but guidelines. Guidelines on how to use the hutongs spaces more appropriately and how to take care of them in a sustainable manner. Hutongs are a no-rules world, so better if we embrace the possibilities.” – Li Shuwen
Embrace the Possibilities
In May, Project: China Building Restoration hosted a panel discussion on the topic titled “WHAT IF…Possibilities for urban regeneration” within a traditional courtyard near the Forbidden City. Benjamin Beller (founder of BaO Architects), Julien Masurel (founder of JML ARCHITECTURE LTD) and Li Shuwen (founder of ENTRE_ARCHITECTURE DESIGN), are three independent practitioners who all work and live in the hutongs. They shared with us their perspectives on the topics of regeneration through their design projects and experiences.
As the demands for modern working conveniences in the hutongs become more prevalent, it is important that the community infrastructure and facilities are improved along with it. Julien Masurel shared his experience of refurbishing an original two-storey 1980s building into a mixed use office and exhibition space in Beijing’s Dongsi Shitiao (东四十条) area. In order to generate more space, a glass corridor was integrated on the second floor of the existing building, turning the former brick facade into an interior wall while allowing light to filter through to the ground floor. Julien also added a glazed multi-function third floor which provides 360 degree views of the surrounding area. Wherever possible Julien left walls, windows and other parts of the original building fabric in place. Walking around the building parts of the grey Beijing brick and concrete walls, like layers of the building’s previous iterations, are clearly visible still embedded in the facade.
Benjamin Beller shared his ‘four-scenario solutions’ for the redevelopment of a courtyard located at Tan’Er hutong nª28: the Mini Children Palace, the Tan’Er Movie Theatre, the Tan’Er Bathhouse, and the Hutongs Greening Centre. These four proposals illustrated different user demands and boosted a varied range of community activities. The purpose of this exercise was to raise discussions on the possibilities for reinvigorating the hutong community by providing an array of both traditional and less conventional services.
Baitasi Supercounter was a 170-meter-long installation realized by Benjamin during the 2015 Beijing Design Week. Using a simple piece of furniture in the form of a street bench set up along the street leading to the Lu Xun museum, the effects were astonishing. People made use of the benches in a variety of ways, seeking respite from the heat of the day under the shade of a tree, as a meeting point for friends or simply to sit a while and watch the world go by. One enterprising local even used it as a makeshift shelf on which to display the collection of shoes she was selling on the street. After the initial three-day display some parts were reconfigured in certain locations where they are still evident in the neighbourhood landscape today (although some were also “repurposed” by locals within their own homes). The intention of the super counter was more than a simple design installation, it created outdoor spaces of real value, fostering a new sense of ownership over these shared spaces.
Less is enough. – Benjamin Beller
Unquestionably, it is often not a simple process to regenerate these spaces. The hutongs can transform into fierce battle grounds. Due to insecurities of ownership rights, inhabitants often seek out opportunities to increase their property boundaries by commandeering public space. As for architects, they are torn by the will to engage and the realisation that design can annihilate the ad-hoc qualities of the hutongs. Li Shuwen shared one such example with her ongoing courtyard rehabilitation project. The main structure, a single storey timber frame dwelling, was assembled by local construction workers in just three days. Modern building methods such as the use of steel plates to connect the timber elements were implemented. The overall look of the house maintained a traditional hutong feel, while the new blends in with an adoption of up-to-date practices and materials. However this project is presently on hold due to the neighbours (seemingly overnight) opening three doors from their back walls into the client’s yard (formerly part of an alleyway). Shuwen has been waiting for the landlords to resolve these issues before they can continue with the construction work.
Courtyard houses are generally built horizontally, however as the number of residents to one house increases, so does the demand for more living space. A question that is often associated with the hutongs is: how can we better utilise these spaces while also improving the quality of life? Bejamin shared his first-prize awarding proposal “A room is a building!” during the 2012 Beijing Design Week. “A room with a view” was one of the four different situations he proposed regarding the densely distributed Dashilar properties. The idea was to shift the traditionally horizontal room aggregation into vertical room aggregation, thereby increasing the liveable space while also providing a view. In his proposal a new studio space is elevated 4-5 meters above the existing structure in order to liberate more area from the cramped courtyard below.
Due to the complexities of the issues surrounding Beijing’s hutong regeneration, there does not seem to be a straightforward solution. Based on the variety of projects discussed, one shared strategy is to treat each project independently. Of course this approach requires a more considered process, which is in conflict with the rapid urban redevelopment constantly occurring all around. So the question is, can the city adapt to this slower pace before everything is lost? Concurrently Beijing’s rapid urbanisation has also drawn great attention to the preservation of the community, lifestyle and culture in the hutongs. The younger generation is taking a more active interest in architectural and cultural preservation, and they are also the ones moving back into the hutongs. It is clear that it is not enough simply to preserve the architecture. Nor is it realistic to cling to a romantic impression of the hutongs from bygone eras. The hutongs, like every other area in the city, is constantly changing and this change can not be undone. The only thing to do is guide the change in the right direction. As borrowed from the Resilience Strategy Guide by Storm Cunningham: “A place that isn’t revitalizing is devitalizing, because nature abhors stasis”.
(This article was researched and written by Jiaqi Ma and edited by Amy Mathieson.)