In the past three decades of rapid urbanization, most of Beijing’s traditional neighborhoods have disappeared. Beatrice Leanza, Overseas Program Director for Beijing Design Week, shows how a new generation is taking the lead in preserving traditional urban communities through small-scale, flexible, bottom-up interventions.

Daily urban life in the Chinese capital historically took place in hutongs: neighborhoods dating back to the 13th century, characterized by narrow alleyways, peaceful courtyards, and small houses with slanting tile roofs. During Beijing’s transformation into a contemporary metropolis, thousands of hutongs were wiped off the map and their inhabitants displaced.

In recent years however, the focus of urban renewal in Beijing has shifted to a more sensitive approach. Consequently, many hutongs have now been designated as protected zones. Younger generations of Chinese architects are at the forefront of helping hutongs stay alive by helping them adapt to modern living standards. Beatrice Leanza from Beijing Design Week highlights a few of her favorite examples of architectural interventions bringing hutongs into the future.

ZAO/standardarchitecture

Chinese architect Zhang Ke and his studio ZAO/standardarchitecture center their hutong projects around courtyard renovations. The project “Micro-Yuan’er” explores how courtyard add-on kitchens could be redesigned, renovated and reused instead of eliminating them.

The Co-Living Courtyard project delves into co-living possibilities in traditional courtyard structures, transforming them into shared spaces for two households.

children playing in a Micro Yuan'er hutong
New life in old courtyards.
Photo: ZAO/standardarchitecture

B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio

With their project Dengshikou Hutong Residence, the team at B.L.U.E. produced a surprisingly livable space within an extremely cramped hutong. The architects managed to transform an L-shaped house sandwiched between an old hutong wall and a two-floor building into a convenient, functional modern living space for a family of six.

outside of a building by Blue architecture studio
Modern lines and warm materials.
Photo: Ruijing Photo
green space inside a hutong redesigned by Blue architecture studio
Creativity knows no boundaries.
Photo: Ruijing Photo

In another project, B.L.U.E. reshaped the interiors of an old hutong tenement house on a tiny 24-square-meter surface. The design features an adaptable architectural plan that aims to retain the feeling of intimacy for a family of three generations. The project explores ways in which space can be adapted for modern, comfortable living.

family bed in a 24 square meter apartment
Life on the top floor.
Photo: Ruijing Photo

People’s Architecture Office (PAO)

Beijing-based People’s Architecture Office (PAO) believe that China’s urban future lies in lightweight, modular buildings rather than massive skyscrapers. Their Courtyard House, for example, is a prefabricated modular system that adds inexpensive modernizing plug-in modules which can be assembled in one day, and require no special skills.

an old facade in Bejing
Old facades are what’s left of the traditional building.
Photo: People’s Architecture Office
convertible flat
Photo: People’s Architecture Office
metallic door
Photo: People’s Architecture Office
minimalist kitchen space
Photo: People’s Architecture Office

Cao Pu Studio

Located in the up-and-coming Dashilar hutong, architect Cao Pu’s Humble Hostel is a particularly clever project, featuring a flexible and responsive architectural plan. Depending on the amount of private space that is needed, the interior of the building responds by moving its walls. After having been available on Airbnb a short time during Beijing Design Week 2015, the hostel is closed by today.

adjustable walls in a hutong
Flexible: The walls can be adjusted.
Photo: Cao Pu Studio
a woman sleeping in the Humble Hostel in Beijing
Photo: Cao Pu Studio
white minimalist room in the Humble Hostel
Photo: Cao Pu Studio
entrance of the Humble Hostel by Cao Pu Studio
Photo: Cao Pu Studio

Vector Architects

Vector Architects’ Hybrid Courtyard is an exemplary case that combines living, working and public space in a traditional urban fabric. Founder Gong Dong managed to smartly mix private and public functions under an oversailing light bamboo structure around a traditional courtyard. The Hybrid Courtyard aims to re-establish a quality living space for residents whilst creating a vibrant and diverse community that attracts different groups of people. In this way, the hutong can remain future-proof and cope with modern day challenges.

glass door with a view into a courtyard
Open community space in a new hutong.
Photo: Vector Architects