The hutong is to Beijing as the Georgian terrace is to London. And, just as London was once careless enough to allow practical, elegant 18th-century homes to be demolished in droves in the questionable names of progress and property development, so the destruction of Beijing’s ancient courtyard houses continues apace.
But within walking distance of Tiananmen Square, Zhang Ke, an architect trained in Beijing and at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, has been demonstrating how hutongs can be renewed for the modern age. The latest is a tiny 30-square-metre hostel growing out of a timber courtyard house. The new element of this communal home is a tight cluster of pod-like rooms projecting at angles around a tiny courtyard. Made from concrete mixed with Chinese ink, poured against wooden boards to create an attractive grain, the new rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, timber floors, underfloor heating, skylights and air conditioning. A kitchen, dining hall and two crisply modern bathrooms on the ground floor are connected to bedroom, study, teahouse and terrace above by wooden ladders rather than space-stealing stairs. The hostel is a felicitous marriage of ancient and modern design. Zhang Ke hopes that projects like this will encourage new generations of Beijingers to think of living in remodelled hutongs rather than in tower blocks that could belong anywhere.
Last year Zhang Ke was presented with an Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Micro Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre, also created within a hutong. The public library, measuring just 17 square metres and built into an old kitchen, serves the families who still make their homes nearby. Thanks to Zhang Ke’s ingenious designs, hutongs may have a future.