Micro Organism: Hutong infill in Beijing, China
01 March 2015

A deft intervention in one of Beijing's labyrinthine hutongs attempts to improve amenities without destroying heritage or catalysing gentrification

Austin Williams

The rise of China's architectural practices has been as meteoric as the growth of the university architectural departments that churn them out. Aside from a few historic and elite universities in China, architecture teaching programmes did not really exist in mainstream tertiary education until 1992. This was the start of the economic boom and so-called liberalisation under Deng Xiaoping, which, by 1994, had created around 2,000 domestic architects in China (and around 100 foreign architectural design offices registered in Shanghai alone), all eager to get a piece of the action. Such social exuberance and experimentation kick-started the boom in the construction market that continues to this day.

It wasn't long before parents-the people who actually choose the subject that their child will pursue in higher education-began to see architecture as a lucrative possibility. Almost overnight, it became a viable escape for arty students who might otherwise be forced to study on mathematically relentless engineering programmes. (And since engineering had been the qualification of choice of nearly all the members of the Politburo old guard, opting for a liberal arts subject was a real statement of intent: a break with the past). From 5,000 in 1997, there are now more than 35,000 home-grown qualified architects in China.

So, while there is still a lot of dross being designed and built in China, the recent wave of liberated architectural students-especially those who took advantage of the loosening of visa restrictions to gain foreign postgraduate qualifications-are now armed with more imaginative, thoughtful and critical architectural ideas than the previous generation of apparatchiks. At last, the new breed of Chinese architects that had staggered blinking into the light in the new Millennium are beginning to shine.

The founder and principal of Standard Architecture, Zhang Ke, qualified at Tsinghua University and was one of the early pioneers to take up a position in Harvard to complete his Masters. He founded Standard Architecture in 2001 and now has a 40-strong international studio with a growing portfolio of quietly impressive work. Here we take a look at this reasonably unassuming practice before they become too famous.

The translation of ‘standard’ in the company's name refers to ‘definitive’ rather ‘commonplace’; high standards rather than bog standard, and such self-regard is reflected in the claim that the office wishes to ‘remain detached in a time of media frenzy’. Sadly, this meant that they pointedly refused to answer any of my questions, a not uncommon response to journalists in China. Fortunately, a, lot of their work speaks for itself.

The practice has built up a reputation in planning, architecture, landscape and even product design. All of those ideas have been brought to bear in their recurring theme-the redevelopment of the hutongs (lane housing) of Beijing. While the practice has amassed a rich and varied series of projects to their name over the years, from the austere Grand Canyon Art Centre in Tibet to the simplicity of the Urban Backyard gallery in Beijing and the curious Dancing Books Towers in Wuhan, they keep returning to the singular urban dilemma of modernising China: the tension between sanctifying poor housing versus the consequences of cavalier gentrification. For them, the challenge is how to rebuild without requiring residents to move out; upgrading without relinquishing the sense of community; maintaining a sense of continuity and history without parodying heritage; ensuring that it is cost effective and affordable without inflating the housing bubble.

In the last five years or so, the Dashilar area alongside Tiananmen Square has become the focus of a real and symbolic debate about new and old values: public versus private, progress versus conservation, land value versus social value. These hutongs in the very heart of Beijing (where Prince Charles once waxed lyrical about architectural heritage) are slums; run-down shanty houses with no running water and where occupants share communal toilets. Michael Mayer's description of this area in his 2010 book, The Last Days of Old Beijing captures the everyday reality: ‘Inside the public toilet, a placard warns: No Spitting, No Smoking, No Coarse Language, No Missing the Hole. Four slits in the floor face one another, without dividers. A squatting man hacks up a wad of phlegm. ’

Dashilar stretches over 1.25 square kilometres and is prime development land. Eighty per cent of this low-level sprawl is constituted by illegal extensions and many of the buildings are under unknown or multi-party ownership. It is a maze of shops, businesses and residential buildings, many constructed during the Ming Dynasty. Traditionally, municipal and provincial governments would offer sweeteners to residents to move out so that large-scale demolition and rebuilding can occur. But with increasing land values, residents are holding out for more compensation. So with the area getting something of a reputation as a slum-tourist must-see, the government is tending to opt for pragmatic refurbishment (much to the chagrin of many occupants who are less concerned with conservation and more with getting a windfall pay-off for their run-down homes).  

With 55,000 working people living in Dashilar, a population density six times higher than the Beijing average, and more than three times that of Tokyo, there are considerable practical limitations on how much spatial improvement can be created. The question for Standard Architecture and others is: how is it possible to retain people in the area without condemning them to remain in poverty and squalor? Zhang Ke's project is to create, what he calls, a ‘regional revival’ whereby the scale and the density of the area is retained, while providing new facilities that pay homage to the historic setting.

The architectural solution de nos jours usually involves an insertion into one of the many ramshackle courtyards. Unlike Ma Yansong's Beijing Bubble (an alien polished stainless-steel blob containing communal toilets that squats in the rundown alleyways), Standard Architecture's solution is a concept that can be rolled out, not as a prefabricated package, but as an idea. It is a structure that simply slots into the existing fabric, designed to sit under existing roofs, to infill the gaps and even to wrap around trees.

In 2013, Zhang designed a slightly messier prototype to this featured project at Yang Mei Zhu Xie Street. That trial project was an infill to a courtyard area to create u micro-housing solution while retaining the essence of the hutong. Small, playful (30sqm) stacked boxes built of plywood around a timber frame have been fitted in wherever possible. Fully glazed volumes are angled to catch the sun, and overlap to provide shade. The timberwork is cut and pasted on site to accommodate awkward overhangs and level changes of the courtyard.

The concept provides a maze of community interaction possibilities and has now been extended to a second unit in nearby Cha'er Hutong, shown here. This intervention has two forms-a light timber box and a heavy brick staircase. It first appears as volume versus mass-hard and soft-but both have cutaway complexities that create enjoyable unified recreational and working environments.

Whereas the first project was an experiment in squeezing additional housing into the narrow confines of left-over spaces, this project looks at infilling the voids with community functions and social provision a micro art space(8sqm)and library(9sqm)and a play space for local children where none had the possibility of existing before.

Constructed in just two weeks using plywood and recycled grey Beijing brick, Zhang sees this as part of a package of meaningful infrastructural improvements for the area's residents, above and beyond housing. Standard Architecture claims: ‘we intend to recognise the added-on structures as an important historical layer and as a critical embodiment of Beijing's contemporary civilian life in the hutongs that has so often been overlooked’.

It is an attempt to strengthen the links within the community: to provide social space for children to meet and parents to chat. In China, children are still encouraged to climb the(non-handrail protected) stairs, to explore the aged ash tree and to sit in its branches. As such, this is a romantic project in every sense.

Unsurprisingly, many local residents are bemused by the attention. Few wish to stay in this run-down area and are simply waiting for a good deal to get out. In this context, letting Chinese architects or Western artists gentrify the area every year during Design Week is fine by them: after all, it raises the value of their properties and increases their negotiating power with the government and developers. Maybe Standard Architecture's more subtle approach will change minds.
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