The Commerce Wrapped Hutong Block

An entrance to the Hutong that is enveloped by the Wanfujing Snack street in Dongcheng, Beijing.

 

On a walk to one of Beijing's busiest shopping streets, Wanfujing Road, I step into a side lane that hails itself as Wanfujing's "small eats" street. As with any place touted to tourists in China, the street is bustling with commercial activity - shops hawking packaged food items on one side, and stalls selling greasy street food on the other. Walking around the block, I am surprised to find an entrance to a hutong amidst all the stalls and shopfronts. It becomes clear to me that while the entire perimeter of the block I had been walking around serves as a commercial storefront to the countless number of visitors that pass through Wangfujing each day, the interior of the block still contains a network of pathways and dwelling units housing lower-class workers. This specific type of housing, haphazardly planned and informal in comparison to the neatly organized Siheyuan courtyard housing also found in Hutongs, is called "Dazhayuan," literally translated as a courtyard occupied by a mixture of miscellaneous households. In this commerce wrapped Hutong block, people jostle for bowls of fried tofu and vendors hawk candy coated apples while families live their day-to-day lives just a couple of feet away, separated by a single wall that divides the food stalls from the dwelling units.

On the outside periphery of the Hutong, vendors sell everything from scorpians on a stick to fried dumplings to a constant stream of visitors.

 

Inside the Hutong, a haphazard clustering of living units houses many families in close proximity.

 

Anhua Lou Visited

Above, the front of the buliding, framed by two temporary structures used for construction of a new subway line.

 

Like Fusuijing, Anhua Lou ( (安化楼) was a model urban people’s commune constructed in the late 1950’s in Beijing. In addition to Fusuijing, it is the only building of its type still standing in the city. It is also in better use than Fusuijing. While a visit to Fusuijing confirmed its impeding demolition, Anhua Lou is still very much lively and filled with residents. A steady stream of people flow in and out of its prominent front doors. As I follow some residents in, I find myself standing in what was once the large communal dining hall that exemplified the collective lifestyle the building’s designers hoped to foster in its residents. The dining hall has long been transformed – filled with housing units in each wing. The center hall remains a collective space – now occupied in one corner by a convenience store that services both the building’s residents and outsiders.

Above, a view of the building from its rooftop looking towards its backside.

 

Above, inside one of the building's communal kitchens.

 

Other parts of the building have maintained its use since its inception. The center of each level still contains public spaces – now in use as either kitchens or management offices. The two ends of each level where the plan bends at a ninety degree angle also contain kitchens. These kitchens are the most interesting spaces I discover within the building – they proudly display the stains, scars, and modifications accumulated through years of communal use.

Above, a view towards the building's circulation core, with stairs in the rear and elevators to the right.

 

As I walk the building’s dark halls (there is little electricity in the walkways, perhaps of poor maintenance and the residents’ low incomes), I encounter several residents and speak with them on their experiences in the building. Many are elderly who have lived in the building for decades. A large group of them gather in the outdoor courtyard created by the bracket shape of the plan, playing chess or just chatting with each other. Outside one of the public kitchens, I encounter a man sitting on a stool. I stop to chat with him at length. He is in his late 40s or early 50s, a former worker in a chemical factory, now unemployed, supported through welfare, and lives with his parents in a single unit. He claims to enjoy his life in the building, and would rather live in Anhua Lou, where the location is relatively central in the city and amenities and services are close by, than a nicer apartment on the outskirts of the city. He is dreading the day when the government will force him and his parents to move out of the building. Prompted by his questioning, I tell him about my life in America and how my studies have led me to his home. After nearly forty minutes of conversation, he politely excuses himself to prepare dinner for his parents.

For more on Anhua Lou’s design, see the earlier post on the building here.

 

Living in a Courtyard House

Above, entrance to the Fullfun Hostel (北京福丰国际青年旅舍) in Yanyue Hutong in the Dongcheng District of Beijing.

One of the best ways to research residential architecture, is to actually live in it. I spent three days staying in a hostel in Beijing's Dongcheng district. The hostel is tucked away into the side of a long and narrow east-west lane that constitutes the Yanyue Hutong. The building is renovated from an old Siheyuan style courtyard house, a traditional housing form that once dominated Beijing's cityscape, but is now rapidly dwindling in numbers.

Staying in the courtyard house was a pleasant experience. The central courtyard made it very easy to access any other function - as the hostel also included a kitchen, bathroom, shower area, and sleeping areas divided into multiple rooms surrounding the courtyard. The courtyard also gave focus to an added component - a modern looking wood and glass volume that contains the hostel's reception as well as a collective interior gathering space for the young backpackers that frequently pass through.

Because of the openess of this central courtyard space, I was able to meet and interact with several students whom had just graduated college and were travelling throughout China. The excellent locations of Hutong within the city center in general as well as their accessbility to public spaces made it easy to bring the socializing beyond the hostel's doors. Stepping outside the large double swinging doors characteristic of all Siheyuan houses, one is able to encounter a variety of services that are public in nature yet intimiate in setting. There are food stalls, small convenience shops, restaurants tucked neatly into the building fabric, and many many open doors that offer a peak of the more private life occurring inside.

 

Above, the central courtyard space with an added glass volume to the right.

 

Above, an entrance into the sleeping rooms.

 

Above, a view of the courtyard house.

 

Above, a view to the exterior Hutong lane.

 

Above, the street scene outside.

 

The New Rural

Rural Beijing is not what it was before. What was once a community of farmers whom grew crops and raised livestock to sustain their livelihoods is now home to a large elderly population whose children have left to work in the city long ago. New families moving in are not farmers - rather young people with wealth seeking a respite from the city. Many of the housing units were completely reconstructed in the 1980's and 1990's. New construction continues - still in the manner of local building customs and available materials. Due to both regulations and customs, the houses are nearly all built as low-rise courtyard typologies, their large wooden doors opening up into the alleyways, where the collective life of the village occurs, both through informal gathering spots and planned out spaces.


The Li Family

I spoke with members of the Li family in their courtyard home, which they constructed in the 1980's. They were very welcoming and proudly showed me every corner of their house, a spatious courtyard home with both modern amenities (a flat screen tv) as well as traditional features (stove-heated beds).

I asked them about the collective life of the village and the differences between urban and rural life in contemporary China. They tell me that the environment in rural Beijing is undoubtedly better and it is more pleasurable to walk around outside and socialize with neighbors, whereas the city offers no such opportunities because of its density and overwhelming presence of unfamiliar faces. When I ask when and where the collective life of the village most often occurs, the matriarch of the family tells me, "after meals in the evening all the people congregate in the alleyways between houses and socialize with each other."

Fusuijing Visited

Fusuijing was one of four urban people's communes constructed in the late 1950's. Unlike its sister building Anhualou, it is built in a distinctive zig-zag shape. In addition to private dwelling units which each had its own bathroom and balcony, the building featured copious communal space, including kitchens, a dining hall, and activity rooms. Before visiting Fusuijing, the status of the building was unknown to me. I had read in some reports that the building had been demolished and in others that it was still standing. Nevertheless, I found the general location of the building and headed there on a warm weekday afternoon.

The building is located in a dense neighborhood of Hutong, much of which is still occupied and alive with activity. The approach to the building is through a meandering network of pathways, past women washing vegetables, children chasing each other, and many small shops and restaurants all contributing to the vibrant life of the neighborhood.

As I walked towards the entrance, I was relieved to see a group of elderly men playing chess outside in the courtyard. This meant that the building was still occupied. Inside, the building is clearly worn down. Construction materials litter the floor, which I attribute to the natural decay of the building. However, the further up I walk, it becomes clear to me that the building is in an intermediate stage of preparation for demolition. Many of the dwelling units have been sealed up by brick, possibly to prevent residents from moving back in. Still, some residents linger in the building, their suspicions aroused by my presence. I assure them that I am visiting for the building’s architectural value.

On the top floor, I find most of the units completely sealed. I find one that has a void remaining in the center of the partly bricked door, large enough for me to climb through. As I enter the once-occupied dwelling unit, the window in front of me frames a view of Beijing, with a traditional Hutong neighborhood in the foreground and encroaching modern high-rises not so far away, a perfect metaphor for the fate of the building that I am standing within.

 

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