Reevaluating the Hutong

image: Shawn Balon
image: Shawn Balon

The Beijing Journal’s headline “Bulldozers Meet Historic Chinese Neighborhood,” published on July 20, 2010 in the New York Times, was both a snapshot of a turning point in history, and also representative of an endemic issue of Chinese urbanism. The area specifically discussed in the article is the Gulou neighborhood located directly north of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. This 50+ acre-area hosts a pair of defining brick towers whose drums and bells have helped Beijing’s citizenry keep track of the hour since the early 1700s.

Within this historic city center lies the hutongs. The rich history of the hutongs are magnificent and tangible, filled with active street life, restaurants, music venues, andy most notably, Chinese style courtyard homes. Hutongs are a manifestation of the history of China and an integral component of the culture that is still lived today.

This post takes me back to summer 2011 when I first wrote the preceding paragraphs as I began my initial research towards my Masters Design Study (MDS) at the University of Texas at Austin. My interest in this topic was born out of personal experience with the place, and also the timely nature of the urbanistic issues as I lived and worked in Beijing in 2009.

Model of the Beijing city center on display at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall image: Shawn Balon
Model of the Beijing city center on display at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall
image: Shawn Balon

At the time, I was working at EDSA and gaining an entirely new vision of master planning and design in China, but I also learned a great deal about the dynamic city and gained great insight into the culture. This was also a time when I became extremely interested in urban design, specifically the urban form of the inner city of Beijing. With continued interest in Beijing’s development issues paired with my studies, I began to challenge the question of if and how these dense historical centers should be redeveloped.

My study travel soon took me back to Beijing where I was able to conduct research from July-August within the historical city center. Being back in Beijing was quite surreal and brought back many memories from my time working—but this time, I was hungry for a solution. The urban fabric is an interesting form, but unfortunately continues to be deconstructed through the designs of modern developments around the Forbidden City. In conducting my research, it was not specific buildings or landscapes that consumed most of my time and energy, but rather the evaluation of the street, and the interactions and juxtapositions between architectural elements, pedestrians, vehicles, and the earth (the ‘in-betweens’).

Map of the Ring Roads (red square depicts Gulou site north of the Forbidden City) image: Shawn Balon
Map of the ring roads (red square depicts Gulou site north of the Forbidden City)
image: Shawn Balon
Existing courtyard home with modern plumbing offered a place for relaxation and research image: Shawn Balon
Existing courtyard home with modern plumbing offered a place for relaxation and research
image: Shawn Balon

Situated in the Gulou neighborhood (my selected site), I was also able to discover the life that exists behind the large red gates while staying in a courtyard home owned by an elderly Chinese couple. A simple room with a bed and toilet is all that was offered, and all that was necessary in the courtyard home—though the majority of courtyard homes are still not constructed with the proper plumbing, creating communal bathrooms throughout the hutongs.

I was able to gain insights through site visits and interviews with the Beijing locals. With assistance from past Chinese colleagues, I was able to better understand and access local tradition and perspectives of the future. As an outsider to the community, I recognized that the public voice was extremely important to the validity of my project.

Extensive research was also completed outside of the city center (ring road 3 and beyond) to evaluate commercial and public housing developments that are being implemented. It was critical to travel to the city’s edge to understand the current development patterns and the gentrification and displacement that is occurring within families residing in the historical city center.

Traditional courtyard home interior garden image: Shawn Balon
Traditional courtyard home interior garden
image: Shawn Balon

Of course, research was the main priority of my travels, but where there’s work…there is also a bit of play. It was great to be back in a city that I grew to love years prior. Roaming the hutongs to find my favorite restaurants and bars brought back a sense of excitement and satisfaction. Acting as a “local” in an increasingly rare environment created an intimate experience with its diverse surroundings. A typical summer evening in the hutong consisted of sitting approximately six inches above the ground (I like to call it the “kid’s stool”) with a tall, semi-chilled Tsingdao in one hand, and a plethora of street food, chuan’r, in the other (think savory lamb and chicken wing kabobs over an open flame)—one memory that I look forward to reliving on my next visit.

I felt gratitude toward my past colleagues and their professors from local universities who helped with translations and answered questions during my time in Beijing, as well as the months that followed during my design study. Those who took the time to walk with me around the city, the site, and even inviting me to their homes made an imprint on my analysis and final design study.

Active hutongs throughout the historic city center image: Shawn Balon
Active hutongs throughout the historic city center
image: Shawn Balon
Meeting up with past colleagues to enjoy a little exercise image: Shawn Balon
Meeting up with past colleagues to enjoy a little exercise
image: Shawn Balon

Not only was I able to embrace traveling and cultural interactions, but I was also fortunate to learn a new way of analyzing a site and its people. Living the culture within the hutongs was a great experience—an experience that should be integrated into any design process to truly understand the elements of a project in which we create. I encourage students, professionals, and even the everyday traveler to take a moment and understand and appreciate these opportunities as they are presented to us through our work and studies.

by Shawn M. Balon, ASLA, PLA, Professional Practice Manager at ASLA. Research and travel was completed while receiving his Masters of Science in Urban Design (M.S.U.D.) degree at the University of Texas at Austin. A special thank you to the Boone Powell Family Prize in Urban Design for contributing to the research and travels.

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