Da Mo Chang Street, in the Qianmen East district of central Beijing, Qianmen Road connects to Chao Chan San Tiao, intersecting a series of hutongs, historical urban conglomerates typical of the city. Since 2017, Da Mo Chang also has identified a special regeneration project that intends upon saving and enhancing that very same ancient urban fabric, which has been created over the centuries during the Qing and Ming dynasties, which combined crafts and manufacturing activities with housing.
With the important support of the Beijing municipality, the Dongcheng District Government, and the Beijing Municipal Planning and National Land Resources Management Committee, since 2014 the Beijing Tianjie Corporation and the Beijing Center for the Arts have created a development plan and a renewal platform for the area, not far from Tian’anmen Square, identifying a complex of seven court buildings that would become the ‘prototypes’ of historical-architectural recovery and the activation of new community functions – for cultural, housing and work purposes – for the hutong neighbourhoods.
Seven Chinese and international architecture firms have also been called upon to give their own design interpretation to an ‘endangered’ urban typology, Biad Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, KKAA Kengo Kuma And Associates, MAD, MVRDV, Neri&Hu, Urbanus and FCJZ.
For centuries the hutong has been a form of human settlement that combined work spaces and housing and that transferred the horizontal organisational model of the rural villages in the dense urban fabric. In the rapid and massive transformation of Beijing’s urban landscape, the urbanised areas with hutongs were the first to be sacrificed to a totally new model of vertical settlement. In particular, in view of the 2008 Olympics, many neighbourhoods surrounding the historic city were demolished, leaving only rare ‘islands’ of hutongs.
Already at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, however, the architectural studio MAD supported a ‘conservative’ small-scale approach with the Hutong Bubble 32 project, in which a ‘bubble’ with a reflective finish has been grafted onto the existing buildings to increase their internal and external area, and to give life to a new model of ‘courtyard house’ in symbiosis with tradition but able to attract new users and new functions. The three or four one- or two-storey buildings of the hutong were in fact built around a courtyard and protected by perimeter walls to defend the private sphere in a context of high-density. The addition proposed by MAD evolves the urban model by improving the quality of life without erasing the history of the city.
Ten years later, the potential of the traditional typology was taken advantage of in the project completed by the Kengo Kuma Studio, which recovered the Siheyuan (house with courtyard) to transform it into an office, the Chinese office of the architectural firm, and into a café. If the wooden structures were dismantled, restored and reassembled, the façades and the external walls were instead reinterpreted by combining the existing exposed brick walls with transparent glass curtains and perforated screens in extruded aluminium, thus creating a version of the Siheyuan that opens towards the road and the community. The design’s intent, by Kengo Kuma and all the architectural firms involved in the Da Mo Chang project, was to transform the hutong model into an open community and a ‘rejuvenated’ urban landscape that could harmonise different functions – housing, offices, shops, restaurants, cultural spaces, hotels – able to attract a dynamic community.