An interview by WA/ World Architecture with Martijn de Geus

As a practicing architect I believe that you should create a space for yourself as you would want to create for other, to try to integrate theoretical ideas with contemporary real-life conditions, and so the choice to live and work in this type of space is an embodiment of what we stand for.

Originally published as part of WA/ World Architecture’s special issue on Beijing Hutongs.

WA: Can you please share some overall impression of Beijing’s historical areas?

Martijn de Geus: Ever since moving to Beijing from Holland in 2010, I have been impressed by the juxtaposition of three distinct urban typologies coexisting within the city; the historic Imperial City with its hutong laneways and enclosed courtyards yuanzi (院子), the planned system with its danwei (单位) in their dayuan (大院), and the modern city with its superblocks and isolated towers. I’ve lived in all three typologies; but finally settled in Beijing’s historical area about 6 years ago. To me it feels to be the typology most fit for the local lifestyle and climate, with a strong sense of locality and good social cohesion. First, I lived several years around the West Lake (西海) in the Xicheng district in a shared yard, but three years ago we moved to a private yard around Beixinqiao (北新桥) in Dongcheng district.

As a practicing architect I believe that you should create a space for yourself as you would want to create for other, to try to integrate theoretical ideas with contemporary real-life conditions, and so the choice to live and work in this type of space is an embodiment of what we stand for.

Within the original yard, that can already be seen drawn on the famous Qianlong map of Beijing’s historic laneways, we have created a modern living and working space without altering the historic courtyard structure. Situated at the centre of a sprawling metropolis of over 30 million people, our courtyard is an oasis from modern urban homogeneity. What we are trying to do in this practice might be described as a reflexive regionalism; it is more about identifying original conditions than inventing original forms or objects. It is about combining technology, community, local materials, modern thinking and a traditional sense of identity. A little piece of nature, harmony and tranquillity against the backdrop of modern urban chaos.

Author’s live & work courtyard studio in Beixinqiao

Unfortunately, in recent and contemporary urban development in China, this conception seems to have been lost. Following several rounds of land-reforms and rapid urbanization, the previously harmonious system is now more of a giant cacophony of urban infrastructure and patch work structures, as seen in the state of the current historic city centre of Beijing, where “traditional” hutong alley ways are crammed with illegal buildups, overcrowded living conditions, bad infrastructure and poor hygiene.

WA: What kind of qualities of the Baitasi area attracts your attention? In your opinion, compared with other old historical districts (such as Schichahai, etc), what are the unique identity characteristics of Baitasi?

Martijn de Geus: The aformenetioned juxtaposition of various urban typologies in Beijing happens all within one city-scale block in the Baitasi area, which makes for a dynamic urban environment. You can read the history of Beijing at large within a 10-minute walk through just this area. From the ancient burned down temple that left some atypical road network to the laneways, the White Pagoda Temple, the Lu Xun Museum or the Fusuiqing communist living quarters that towers above it all, while at the same time not even being visible from the main streets surrounding the area. The Baitasi area is also rather independent, it does not rely heavily on outside tourism for its economy for instance. The outer block edges provide a connection with the surrounding larger urban fabric, and leaves a very localized realm on the inside of the area.

WA: How to improve the environmental quality of Hutong’s residential area by micro update design approach? How about long-term and short-term?

Martijn de Geus: It is impossible to say if or how a generalized micro update design approach in itself will be successful. And that should be the approach: there is no standard solution to a hutong residential area redevelopment or “design update”. Each Beijing hutong area has very different characteristics, with a very different build-up of its resident population, local economy, etc.

The right approach should be to change from a one-size-fits-all top-down implementation to a more bottom up, integrated model, in which planners facilitate a process in which local characteristics, local challenges and residents are key.

This process should also not have a static outcome that produces an immediate fixed result, but instead should be based on a model of spatial negotiation through time. Thus, rather than (only) defining the intended outcome, e.g. to produce space for living, there should be a strong emphasis on the participatory design process with various parties involved. We could define this as a move from public to civic space, in which there is no longer a black/white division of tasks between us and them, but instead an emphasis on the collective civic responsibility.

Considering recent hutong residential redevelopment, we can see that the Qianmen-model, an area southeast of Tian’an’men square is a good example of why not to use a general top-down model anymore. For centuries long Qianmen was a very public, lively area just outside the inner-city wall, but still within the lmperial City.
The redevelopment plan however was a top-down implemented standard solution, purely capital driven, privatized and full of prestige, without consideration of the “spatial negotiation through time” nor any “codesign methodologies”.The result was a historic wallpaper facade over a cleaned up series of concrete supposed-to-be shopping facilities. According to leading state-owned newspapers of the time a “substantial improvement in appearance” , at face value. But, unfortunately not lasting and void of any local significance. Behind the glittery facade makeover there was little substance left. And the areaturned out to be a painful embarrassment, right in the centre of the city, under the eyes of the emperor.

In the sub sequential Dashilar development, just adjacent to the Qianmen area, a stop on this top down, demo/rebuild type of historic redevelopment was enforced. Instead the local community was involved, and a curated spatial approach was developed, in which all the acquired dilapidated (public) houses remained untouched regardless their conditions, and were rented to carefully selected new owners, who fit the needs and prospects of the area and were willing to blend into hutong life.

After the successful trial and assessment of the Dashilar efforts, including its integration in the Beijing Design Week and its pilot-projects, this model was also applied in the more central and sensitive Beijing city districts like Baitasi.

Learning from Dashilar, this time a comprehensive formal framework was set up where a developer, and master planner, work together with the local governments, residents, architects, academics and students, “Baitasi Remade”. A big difference with the Dashilar project, is that the main objective for the Baitasi area is not a mere gentrification with new actors, but foremost a social process in which local residents and facilities are intended to be improved first, before new, outside stakeholders are being brought in. The Baitasi Remade project in my understanding aims to take an investigative, participatory approach, working with local residents to assess processes of transformation and the effect they have on individuals’, institutions’, corporate and governmental co-participation larger framework of stakeholders.

WA: What are the two-way influence between BJDW and Baitasi?

Martijn de Geus: First of all the transformation of the entire area is well communicated to the general public, outside of the local residents, through the area being one of the key areas for the Beijing Design Week. And this in turn can spark other self initiated bottom-up initiatives, similar to the Dashilar process. Various examples already exist; local cafes, creative studios moving their offices there, a small magazine LAWAAI , dedicated to showing the diversity of Baitasi local culture, etc.

Secondly, the combination of various academic, market-driven, residential and government parties means a broad process can be facilitated, in which research can be implemented almost real-time.

As such WA for instance facilitated a series of public forums and competitions for young architects to bring in fresh ideas from outside. Project wise, on an architectural, social level, there are two realized pilots worth mentioning that were realized and showcased in past BJDW’s, as examples of the integrated research to implementation strategy.

The renovated ‘model house’, with prefab bathroom unit

The first one is a model house, by a design team lead by prof. ZHANG Yue from Tsinghua Unviersity, aiming to facilitate the retention of local people in close collaboration with the original residents of the plot. First a series of illegal additions were removed, instead a compact, multifunctional storage solution was created inside, a second loft-floor added, and a prefab toilet united located in the yard. The result is two family units and one central “shared room”, that can be used to receive guests or for leisure activities. To assess the practicality and effectiveness of the design intent, one of the units is currently occupied by the project-manager from the developer. The other unit is occupied on a two-week rotational base for families in the area that like to try and see if they would like to have help to adopt this approach in their own homes, a post-occupancy evaluation of a broader scenario that is still to come.

The Baitasi “sharing courtyard”, conceived by students from Tsinghua University

The second example focuses on the improvement of the public environment, and is the result of an 8-week long urban design studio part of the international Master’s Program at Tsinghua University, in which students surveyed and analyzed the local area, including interviews with local residents Again, as part of directly testing the research, the local government allocated a dilapidated courtyard for to regenerate, as a test case for the student’s ideas.

The design was inspired by the opportunity to bring a new perspective to the traditional hutong experience and allow people to explore and utilize the courtyard in three dimensions.

It included quiet corners, a skywalk and small amphitheater, and was implemented as a usable addition to the neighborhood, not as an abstract stand-alone installation. The new structure creates a very direct connection with the renovated courtyard house, and opens up never-before seen perspectives.

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