Hutong Architecture School

Courtyard houses and hutongs—narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities—not only stand for the long-practiced building methods that had defined urban living in Beijing, it also represented the most intimate neighbourhoods and traditional Chinese culture.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been implementing a housing relocation plan. The goal is to transform traditional Chinese dwellings into high-density neighbourhoods. However, this has led to the dissolution of Beijing’s hutong cultural assets. Not only did this cast a shadow of insecurity to the Hutong residents but it also put the dense social network and intimate culture under serious threat.

Being a Chinese student who shares a great passion for preservation of culture and craftsmanship, and is equally interested in the social opportunity of architecture, I felt the urge to create a proposal that seeks to revitalise current conditions through the introduction of a new organic system, which can evolve and continually balance within the existing hutong fabric; it’s not mere preservation but a new approach to regeneration that assess how new programmes can resurrect society from both architectural and social point of view.

I believe the hutong offers an exceptionally intimate and organic system for learning and experiencing architecture and culture. The shared spaces, porous structure, different spatial and acoustic quality promotes a continuation of space for imagination. I also subscribe to Herman Hertzburger’s view that the vital part of any school is not the enclosed classrooms but the in between spaces where social interactions occur. Therefore, I want to challenge existing designs and create an open school environment that follows tradition yet contrasts with the surroundings.

Devised as an innovative form of urban renewal, the project proposes a revitalisation programme based around a “live” architecture school, where the students engage in the design, manufacture and construction of the various school buildings within the existing architectural fabric of Hutong neighbourhood. The resulting scheme provides a uniquely educational, hands-on design project for the students, as well as a systematic conservation programme that refurbishes the historical architecture and rejuvenates the local area with open courses and cultural activities.

Taking the case study of an existing neighbourhood, the project sets out a proposal for the development of a school infrastructure over a period of seven years—the length of an architectural progamme. The phased design development underpins the school’s philosophy as an institution that gradually integrates itself with the local community that witnesses and supports its growth. The design of each individual school building derives from the traditional hutong courtyard house—and relies on adaptive re-use and extension of exiting structures. The new school facilities serve the needs of both the architecture students, and the local communities, fostering their craft and manufacturing traditions. The resulting school infrastructure is thus informed by—and integrated—into Hutong life. At the end of each seven-year cycle, the Architectural School moves on to a new location, leaving behind a set of refurbished buildings with lasting benefits to the local people.

All images courtesy of Lulu Le Li.