Enter the Hutong

written in July, 2011

The hutongs of Beijing are an architectural phenomenon that is quickly dying. In a heavily populated city like Beijing, land, especially uninterrupted spans of land, are the ultimate natural resource. And while hutongs have existed for centuries in their environment, a new rival for the resource has come about: the urban planner. Beijing's urban planners are making quick work of the hutongs, and by most accounts, they will be gone for good in a short number of years.

The difference between planned urban spaces and unplanned urban spaces, those that are spontaneously created by the total of intangible characteristics we might call "the city itself", is similar to the difference between a nation and its territory. We like to think, as creatures of rational action, that we control our social terrain as if it were a part of our body. It would be easy to consider the relationship between political discourse and physical reality as a monadic, Enlightenment-era style cogito. However, this is not the truth. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and the map makers are even less the terrain, and those who seek to affect the map makers by their will alone a level removed again. The project of planning urban space is fundamentally a colonial one: it seeks to change reality to its benefit by flags and force. While it may succeed, the negative repercussions are legend. Alternatively, there is another urban strategy, that rather than attempting to deliminate the territory into design, finds its method of improvement in a more ecosystemic fashion. Rather than plan the urban space, support the space. In studying "the city itself", we see that many of the issues that urban planning seeks to change have already been solved, albeit in limited and insecure fashion. The city system already trends towards stability, the key is in finding those trends, and supporting and securing them. As can be seen in the hutong, infrastructure is largely already existent. Rather than tearing them down and building new, supporting and solidifying these systems could be much more practical, as it utilizes the naturally occurring solutions that are already attempting to grow. Urban planning might achieve certain milestones and technical guidelines of improvement quickly, but the unnaturalness of these constructions within the city ecosystem is obvious. The natural aesthetic of "the city itself" is one it achieves by a steady, evolutionary praxis of effective use-value in every day life, and it would be unwise to ignore the method behind these urban strategies. To ignore them, in effect, is to cut down a tree to build and install a wooden sun shade in the same place.

The hutong is basically an alleyway. It is the passage between more major streets, lined with doorways that enter into walled private homes. It is the passage that is created when walled properties leave space between their walls, so that others may pass without entering the private space inside. In Beijing, these alleys become such a crucial urban feature because they are not merely an alternate passage around property, as in the "back alley" feature of North American or European architecture that is a supplement to the main road access, but the only means to access the majority of properties. The hutongs form a web of thin yet densely occurring access routes, a sort of capillary bed to the main veins of roads that are often hundreds of meters off from one's front door. These main avenues are then perhaps as much of a kilometer from each other, creating thick blocks in between, which are crisscrossed by hutongs. One doesn't walk through the hutong as an alternative or a short cut across a block, but one must walk through the hutong always, whether one steps out of one's front door, whether one wants to go to the store, or one wants to go all the way across town.

Perhaps because of the simple ubiquity of these passageways in conjunction with the basic neighborhood building style in Beijing, the hutongs are local centers of street life. As a combination of what someone in North America might think of as the sidewalk or the front yard, the street block, and the local corner, almost every conceivable neighborhood activity takes place in the hutong.

While there are many shops and restaurants on the main avenues, these also exist in the hutongs, extending inward as a convenience to the customers coming from the hutongs, and to take advantage of this locality. These hutong businesses are much smaller in size, often run out of the front of the proprietor's homes, and extending out into the alleyway to use the space, if available. Not every variety of business is present in the hutong, but the nature of these shops are characteristic of what one might expect to be local and close to people's physical homes, most catering to home life needs and small, short term purchases. These include restaurants, convenience stores, hardware stores, barbershops, bicycle repair, "dollar" stores (actually, 2 yuan is the price), and even clothing and appliance stores. In some areas, upscale coffee shops, bookstores, and other more luxury goods like electronics are also sold within the hutongs.

Because of the necessity for being out and about in the hutong, either traveling to and from the home or shopping, if not running a business, the hutong becomes a common hangout, and a unique form of public social space, as the overlap between public and private architecture. The proprietors and their friends often have established sitting places outside their businesses, chatting when not serving customers, drinking tea or beer, and smoking cigarettes. It's common for social games to be played in these resting places, either cards or chess. Children play in the hutong as well, where they are supervised loosely by either particular adults or the general community.

In fact, hutongs are crowded places, as they are also thoroughfares for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and more often, cars as well, when their owners drive back into the hutong to park their cars at night. But, because of the crowdedness, the narrowness of the streets and the large number of protruding bits of architecture, parked vehicles, and people, the traffic speed is slow, and most blockages are resolved vocally and amicably—which seems to be in the nature of China, which is itself a crowded place.

The infrastructure of the city extends into the hutongs along with the traffic, as there is no other supply route. Water, food, and anything sold in the shops must be carried in to the hutong, most often by bicycle cart, as this is the most efficient means for ferrying heavy things through the twisting, crowded alleys. Bicycle carts deliver milk, mail, newspapers, drinking water (the tapwater isn't imbibed by locals), beer, dry goods, and even people, occasionally. Telephone, electricity, and now internet extend on wires overhead, and the crowdedness of the hutong is illustrated in some of the creative wiring solutions. Trash and recycling is carted out by bicycle. Security is provided in the hutongs by both local police, whose stations are often placed in the hutongs, and by local security volunteers, who wear a red armband. The ubiquitous closed circuit video cameras of China are also widespread in the hutongs, though in such a number it begs the question who is watching them all, or if their cables even lead anywhere. Public bathrooms are also very common in the hutongs, built by the government and staffed by public employees, to aid in sanitation as indoor plumbing is not always available.

Construction is ongoing in the hutongs. Much of the buildings predate the Chinese Revolution, and were in fact larger homes owned by the rich that were divided up into separate living quarters. In many places, poor repair is obvious. But, along with the walls that are falling down, stacks of new bricks and piles of sand are everywhere. The hutongs are in a rolling state of continual construction it seems, and it is common to be walking down an alley, and enter a construction site without knowing it. In at least one place on every alley, one can see a pile of rubble from walls torn down, a stack of still usable bricks that have been pulled out to be recycled, and a stack of new bricks waiting to join the rebuilt wall. This construction is one reason that very few accurate maps of the hutongs exist. My personal estimate is that Google Maps shows about 70% of the existing hutongs on the closest zoom level. The layout of the hutongs changes, as the walls of the buildings and the property enclosures change. This also gives the hutongs their own character, depending on their location and topology. A more well-known hutong that is very narrow, as close as 40cm wide in some places, was historically used as a banking street—the thought being, if a thief attempted to run with stolen money, they would easily be caught. Conversely, another famous hutong has over fourteen turns in it, and numerous documented muggings have taken place on it, due to its shape. The evolving, changing nature of hutong construction is deeply tied to the ongoing life within it.

However, construction in a larger sense is threatening the hutongs. As Beijing becomes more developed, land is needed for the large construction projects, for the footprint of large skyscrapers and ring roads. I've heard estimates that 50% of the hutongs have already been evacuated, condemned, and bulldozed. Perhaps most infamously, the entire footprint of the sports complex for the Beijing Olympics, including the "Bird's Nest" stadium of which the city is massively proud, such that it has become a symbol of the new Beijing, is built across former hutongs. The people who lived in these areas are moved, most of them to new high-rise apartments, which are growing in number across Beijing. There is not much of an effort to save the hutongs, because the people who live in them are of a lower class, and they normally enjoy a chance to move to a high-rise complex, viewing it as a move up in the social ladder. Some hutongs are considered historical sites, and others have been reformatted into tourist streets rather than actual hutongs. (My personal test is that only "real" hutongs have window repair shops; because tourists don't purchase windows, regardless of the price.) But preservation of hutongs as living neighborhoods is not a priority.

And as charming as the hutongs can be to the outsider or a guest, they are not ultimately sustainable. With population growth in China as it is, hutongs across Beijing would invite even more massive sprawl than is already existent. Clearly, the city must begin building up in places where it is now only horizontal. However, a high-rise complex seems a poor replacement for the hutongs.

If the hutongs are horizontal construction, the high-rise takes its pattern orthogonally, building completely vertical. They are buildings that stretch upwards, only with as much girth as they can have while still providing windows to the apartments within. They multiply, with any number of towers in place on a particular block, and the land left open below as the common property for the development. What this does is solidify the architecture. While it is possible to modify an alley, an elevator shaft cannot be shifted. After the planning of an apartment block is complete, the architecture will stay as is, and not be changed by its inhabitants. It also changes the infrastructure that supports the people living inside. Because there is not an easy access for deliveries in tall apartment towers, consumables are brought to somewhere at the bottom, and the residents must retrieve them. Restaurants are not allowed among the dwelling units, and so the residents must also go down to find them. The density of the living space means that this tends to support large, centralized supermarkets and restaurants. Utilities, security, and other services are also centralized, and are dependent upon the original plan for the development. In the case of security, a common method of centralization is gates, around the building.

This verticalization leads to a very different sort of public space in the high-rise than in the hutong. Public space is very important to any residential area. As Lewis Stackpole writes in his article considering low-income housing in China:

"Diversity of built space and open space creates a rich social setting, and provides recreational, retail/commercial, and cultural opportunities. All of these play a role in creating a community, economic vitality, and continuity that often is the driving force of any city, town or village, and for the purpose of this article, for any residential compound." (Stackpole, 73)

However, in a high-rise complex, there is no public space of this kind. There is isolated, dead space. In apartment complexes throughout Beijing, one can see manicured, park-like land, sports equipment in all manner of repair, walls and pathways. But none of them are being utilized, regardless of their condition. There is no driving force to get the people into the space. They have no reason to be there, no reason to stop and linger there, no reason to make the space social, regardless of what the intended plan for the space is. They only use the pathway that leads from the building door, out to the street. The areas around subway entrances, in parking lots that serve as cut-throughs around city blocks (when unoccupied by cars) and the areas outside of restaurants are used as public spaces. The vertical aspect of apartment blocks keeps the flow of people in and out of the building streamlined, and neglects the space around it. As Stackpole continues:

"In order for public space to be successful people must be able to relate to the space: 'own' it. Once people become users of the space and start identifying to the space, the 'space' slowly becomes a 'place'. Designers can design the space, the 'thoughtfulness' of the design, not design in itself determines the spaces' success. Design must be adjusted to the local needs; such a design requires a thoughtful understanding of the prospective users—the targeted users." (Stackpole, 73)

This is impossible with vertical construction. It is planned at the beginning, and from that point forward, the residents can only be tenants. In a hutong, the ownership is immediate, because the lives of the people living in the space intersect automatically. Their activities form a thick web, that augments and informs the architecture, often literally affecting the continual construction always already underway. There is no need to design the public space, as the space has become public by the very designs of that public. What the hutong is, in its very character, is the state of public space making itself manifest via the horizontal.

But as is quite obvious, the hutongs cannot remain as they are. The goal should be, perhaps, rather than to simply replace them with vertical construction, is to augment them, adding a different dimension of horizontality, heading upwards. Rather than plan a new community from scratch, figure out how to support the current community, and direct it to where it needs to be. In reporting on government projects working to improve favelas, Kelly Shannon suggests:

"The innovative aspect of the projects is the fundamental notion that accepts unplanned and informal housing areas as a new form of urban morphology that should not be destroyed but rather changed, improved, and converted into modest, livable neighborhoods. In these programs, the relation of landscape to urbanization was 'regularized' by improving inner access-ways and providing services through the widening of roads, environmental intiatives, provision of sanitation, schools and clinics, and focusing on pedestrian flows." (Shannon, 61)


"Affordable Housing Programme in China--Opportunity for Landscape Architects to Perfect Public Space Design", by Lewis Stackpole [Principal of AGER Group], in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.

"Landscapes of Poverty & Infrastructures of Improvement", by Kelly Shannon, in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.

Hutongs are not nearly favelas; they are in far much better condition than even the improved infrastructure of such impoverished areas. And therefore, they are much easier to continue to improve to suit the city and the residents needs and betterment. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place to support the hutongs, they simply need to be densified, to support more inhabitants without stressing the living conditions, while continuing to improve standards of living as the occupants see fit. There are already hints of horizontal architecture in Beijing that is building upward, that should be taken as the model or inspiration. The subway system is a perfect example. Across the city, tunnels are being dug at phenomenal pace to increase the number of lines serving the system. By taking transportation infrastructure off the roads and sending it underground, the ability for people to move horizontally is increased. Surprisingly enough, malls are another point of inspiration. While malls in North America require footprints of many square miles for parking, Chinese malls are quite compact, putting the parking underground, and building the retail space upwards. Within the massive floors of a mall, retail is at its most fluid, architecturally. The space is modular, and the necessary infrastructure is collectivized. Hutongs are, in a sense, residential malls, combining residences, necessary commerce, and socializing into one collective, public neighborhood. To stack hutongs on top of each other, and to preserve the way the social space has already integrated itself while streamlining the infrastructural needs to make the neighborhood more efficient and sustainable seems like a design challenge that could bear magnificent fruit. While on the other hand, building high-rises seems to work in the opposite direction, reducing tenants to an isolated, hamlet sort of life.

These are only ideas, from one Westerner's reflections upon being introduced to the architectural phenomenon of the hutong. But thinking differently about urban planning, to approach the problem of density with a more open mind than simply thinking, "up", does not seem so far-fetched. The neighborhoods of Beijing have already organized themselves, and succeeded to create vibrant public spaces in their own way. They are not perfect, and need support to improve themselves further. This support should be provided, so that what already exists can be taken advantage of, and not be thrown away. To build a city, one ought to listen to the city.

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