The walk from the Qianmen subway stop in central Beijing to the Dashilar neighborhood, the hub of Beijing Design Week 2013, is a preservationist’s nightmare. One passes a mock Qing Dynasty-era Starbucks, a Haagen Dazs, and a brutalist three-story McDonald’s, plus countless hawkers selling flying neon toys designed mainly to put out eyes. Once the site of Beijing’s most thriving hutongs, or alleyways, which for hundreds of years contained everything from homes to restaurants to tea shops to some less reputable establishments, Qianmen is now a Disney version of its former self, the city’s starkest example of uprooting communities for the sake of modern commerce and replacing them with tacky simulacra. For Design Week attendees, it served as a useful warning.
The slogan for this year’s Design Week, which ran from Sept. 25 to Oct. 3, was “Smart City,” a sunny catchphrase but also a reminder that Beijing has made some dumb mistakes. While the exhibitions ranged from Soviet design to rural development to a documentary about a pig that its viewers then ate, many of them focused on hutong design, proposing ways to modernize the alleys without turning them into movie sets—or transportation hubs, or shopping malls—as occurred in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. During that time, the wholesale destruction of hutong neighborhoods drew international condemnation from preservationists, who argued that the city should do more to safeguard its own architectural heritage, not to mention respect the wishes of many of its life-long residents (while perhaps underplaying the impracticality of a modern city full of dilapidated single-floor houses).
Dashilar has since emerged as a testing ground for a gentler, more organic style of hutong rehabilitation. Once “the cosmopolitan heart of Beijing,” according to one Design Week exhibition, Dashilar has in recent decades sunk into disrepair, plagued by shoddy infrastructure, a patchwork of property rights arrangements, and a community increasingly dominated by migrants who have little incentive to invest in their homes long-term. But instead of simply razing the neighborhood, the grand plan is for designers, city officials, residents, and an SOE-backed developer called Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited to cooperatively implement what they call “nodal” renovation, overhauling individual properties with pointillist precision. What will these hutong-saving overhauls look like? More to the point: Can they actually save the hutongs?
Hong Kong designer Michael Young started by revamping the places that need it most: Beijing’s public toilets. Anyone who has braved these bathrooms—typically small open rooms with a few holes in the floor and, if they're fancy, waist-level dividers—knows the operating word is “public.” As bonding experiences go, squatting beside someone in such a space is a close second to going into battle together. Young’s design removes the social element, aiming instead to give the user “both privacy and stimulation,” the former by erecting stalls around the toilets, the latter I’d rather not know how. The exterior features geometric tiling that would, according to Young, “show respect for history and future application,” while also making the structure look like a giant armadillo.
Another proposal, “Courtyard House Plugin,” would create prefab housing “modules” that slip seamlessly into existing hutong spaces, like shoe trees. That way, you can upgrade a hutong courtyard without tearing it up entirely. Modules could be anything from a kitchen to a bathroom to a Silicon Valley-esque start-up workspace. One artist’s rendering shows an old Chinese woman sitting outside fanning herself while a cute white girl taps away on her Macbook across the yard—a Beijing hipster’s sustainable gentrification fantasy if there ever was one.
The “Micro-Hutong” project by Zhang Ke’s standardarchitecture feels like a variation on Japanese sleeping pods, with Spartan rooms stacked on top of each other at oblique angles like discarded boxes. This may be a sexier use of space than the current tightly-packed hutong courtyards, but it doesn’t seem that efficient. The full-scale model on display left many questions unanswered: Where would I plug in my Macbook? Would there be plumbing? Why would I want to live in a wooden cube with six roommates watching me at all times? Then again, you could say the same about many Chinese college dorms.
Other projects toyed with the hutongs’ unique outdoor space. WAX Architects designed an adjustable spiral parking space holder that can be reshaped to become a chair or a flower pot. Italian designer Luca Nichetto created chunky-legged concrete seats that can serve as a bench or, when flipped over, as two stools. (As one Chinese guy explained to his girlfriend, “You sit like this if your relations are good, like that if your relations are not good.”) Archea made a “Hutong Interaction Wall” out of ceramic blocks that when stacked form “storage spaces, space dividers, planting boxes, benches, tables, and green wall systems,” according to the placard. Or so they say. The only evidence of the exhibition when I got there was the placard itself; it seemed the blocks had all been carried off.
Taken together, these projects make the future of Beijing’s hutongs seem very, very cool. But coolness isn’t the hutongs’ problem. Their problem is crumbling infrastructure, energy inefficiency, awful sanitation, traffic congestion, and an unstable community many of whose residents would rather wait for a government buyout and relocation to a modern high-rise than invest in their old homes. And even if they did want fancy renovations—a second level, say, or a self-contained kitchen module—most Beijingers would have trouble affording them. Any solution to these problems inevitably becomes so complex, it’s no wonder some government officials would rather air drop a Wal-Mart.
To its credit, the Beijing government supports the Dashilar plan. It makes business sense after all to preserve at least some old-style hutongs near the Tiananmen and Qianmen areas, so tourists can see more than just the modern imitations. Plus, they’re taking the unconventional “nodal” approach partly out of necessity: Property rights in Dashilar are so convoluted—some homes belong to their residents, others to their residents’ employers, still others to third parties that sub- or sub-sublet the space—the developer would have trouble knocking down the whole block even if it wanted to. Still, there are forces in the government that would rather go tabula rasa than hash out agreements with each property owner, according to Neill Gaddes, a designer who works as a consultant on the Dashilar Project.
Compared to this legal and economic briar patch, design feels a little beside the point. Tricking out the hutongs with colorful stools and shiny cubicled toilets might make them more yuppy-friendly, but it doesn’t change the fundamental threat to their existence: an appetite for maximizing economic return. “It’s good to have a bit of a show, to get these people in the government thinking that design can really change this,” says Gaddes, “but we know that it can’t.” In the end, the real creativity required will be less aesthetic than political: Bringing together rival parties, negotiating contracts, and upgrading the neighborhood one property at a time. It’s this unsexy work that will decide Dashilar’s future. If the result happens to look like a giant armadillo, all the better.
Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic living in Beijing.
Image via shutterstock.com.