Beijing 798 art district

China as factory of the world, and the West as hotspot of creativity and consumption. This and many other stereotypes of the 20th century are dissolving rapidly. The 798 Art District in Beijing may be one of the first witnesses of the new China.

 

After World War 2, Beijing and later also other Chinese cities embarked on massive industrial growth. This brought about interesting collaborations with fellow socialist countries, such as the DDR. German engineers came to the 798 industrial district to build the first electronics factories, using super-light concrete shed structures (involving bamboo!) that form now a unique heritage. From the 1980’s, industries started to move away from (central) Beijing, because of rising labour costs and taxes. The factories of 798 remained vacant until the end of the 1990’s, when Chinese and foreign artist movements started to occupy the industrial spaces, culminating in the 2005 Art Biennale.

From that time, the district has functioned as a magnet for creative companies, art galleries, artists, shops, bars and restaurants, consumers and tourists. The economic succes of 798 is so high, that the first creative companies have already moved out again, in search for cheaper rents and new sites. In other words, incubator sites and gentrification have definitely become part of Chinese urban development in this century. Another example of a creative incubator site is the commercial complex San Li Tun. Both 798 Art District and San Li Tun were analyzed and drawn up in 3 dimensions – using a spectacular parallel projection – by Xu Lei, Li Han and their team.

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Tableau comparatif

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I found this neat historical drawing in the Rotterdam Public Library, as part of a small exhibition on cartography (objects and maps borrowed from Delft University of Technology). The drawing compares the longest rivers, highest mountains and deepest waterfalls on earth by placing them all in the same view. Something we would today call an infographic.

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GFT-avenue at IABR 2014

The project GFT avenue (by Merten Nefs, Janneska Spoelman and Lucia Dossin) was nominated in the multi-disciplinary design competition Designing with Flows (Ontwerpen met Stromen). GFT-avenue proposes to increase local recycling of food and other organic material near centres of consumption in central Rotterdam, hereby cutting transport kilometres and stimulating urban agriculture.
The competition is organized by the Dutch Architect’s Association (BNA) and the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam, where the three nominee projects will be displayed. The winner will be anounced in June 2014, during the Biennale, which carries the theme Urban by Nature.

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Hutong – a new model for Beijing?

When China opened up and became a socialist market economy, it didn’t take long for the real estate sector to emerge and start developing the contemporary Chinese city according to the logic of capital, demand and supply. Even while many companies are still state-owned. For years, the traditional alleyway neighborhoods of central Beijing, called Hutongs, were a playing ground for profitable big scale redevelopment projects, tabula-rasa style. At some point, however, residents and critics became aware of the economic and cultural value of the small-scale homes in the Hutong, leading to long and difficult recompensation processes.

Dashilar Project

During Beijing Design Week 2013 I visited the Dashilar Hutong, and later that week a few other expamples. Professor Wu Chen, also director of the Beijing Institute for Architectural Design (BIAD), presented the transformation process of Dashilar, a very central and traditional hutong, close to Tian´anmen square. Earlier that day, Jia Rong of the Dashilar Project had given us a tour. The neighborhood is to a large extent made up of one and two-storey buildings from the Ming en Qing dynasty era, with the typical structure of courtyards. The complex property situation (leases, land use rights etc.), restrictions to building heights and costly expropriation arrangements have turned Dashilar into an area that is hard to redevelop at a profit by the (state) development companies. At the same time, developments are required, since the infrastructure, sanitation and public space in the area are precarious.

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Dashilar Hutong (left) and Nanluoguxiang Hutong (right), Beijing

Therefore BIAD has been working for years already on an alternative development strategy. Among other measures to make people concious about the cultural value of the area, the Dashilar Phone-App was developed, through which tourists and visitors can easily explore the labyrinthic hutong and constantly receive information about design galleries, restaurants and other features in the streets of Dashilar. In collaboration with local investors, a shopping center with housing on top is being realized, avoiding the standard ‘closed box’ typology. At the same time, the infrastructure is enhanced. A new public toilet is under construction, since many of the small dwellings don’t have their own toilet. Professor Wu summarizes the project as ´Nodal development´ as opposed to the modernistic ´Tabula Rasa´ development.

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Vertical hutong project, by Steven Holl, Beijing

The permeable hutong-model with its narrow alleys was abandoned by the upcoming middle class in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The old and precarious structures – many times without a proper bathroom or connection to water and the sewage system – were easily changed for modern appartments in superblock tower buildings beyond the 3rd ringroads of Beijing. The hutong, however, is making a comeback. The new generation likes going to famous hutongs for leisure. The centrality and function mix of many hutongs have become much appreciated, since Beijing now suffers from massive traffic infarcts and monofunctional suburbanization. Architects like Steven Holl and Riken Yamamoto have realized housing complexes in Beijing, conceived as modern, vertical, hutongs. In their project Meta:Hutongs, architects Wang Shuo and Andrew Bryant organize workshops to explore the possiblities of the hutong model, without taking sides of either the preservationists or the demolitionists. It is one of the projects featured in the Abitare China #34, a special magazine on Hutong Adaptation.

Abitare - Meta:Hutongs

The hutongs in the central area of Beijng (within the 3rd ringroad) can easily be explored in three dimensions using Baidu Maps:

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