Dwelling in Hutong: the birth of MINOR lab and the rebirth of a courtyard
Hutongs of the old Beijing are deemed as an authentic urban zone. Located within the second ring, this flat and intensive maze of alleyways and courtyards is surrounded by 20-metre-wide elevated expressways, ever-expanding skyscrapers and modern blocks. MINOR lab is situated in north Dongcheng District, close to the bustling Beiluogu Xiang. Quadrangle courtyards (Siheyuan), tenement yards, old residences of 4 to 6 storeys and scattered stores constitute the entire neighborhood. The layout of streets in Beijing are normally upright and square, whereas the width of alleyways reduces to 3 to 5 metres or an even narrower scale. The zigzag of Hutong lanes appears naturally due to human scale and their interactions, as the measurement and vein of the city.
In the morning and on the way to the studio, once turning into the Hutong from the main street, we would be welcome by a quotidian yet lively scene: neighbors with baskets shopping from peddlers and a slow traffic moving through a busy lane. The scent in the air smells familiar too: home cooking in the kitchen, breakfast stalls, public restrooms and seasonal humidity… As for the sound, it is equally vivid: neighbors’ chatting, peddlers’selling stuffs, passengers’ arguing…Different dialects, rustling leaves, singling birds and insects compose an intriguing symphony.
The courtyard that has been transformed to MINOR lab is a 13.5 by 9.5 metres rectangular site. When the wooden door is pushed open, a square space enclosed by grey brick walls presents itself. Two grand ginkgo trees stand in the yard – a unique space is created underneath the trees and on the rooftop, tranquil yet still immersed in the beats of Hutong. We came across this courtyard in the summer of 2017; back then, the landlord was reconstructing the wooden structure, grey brick walls and gray roof tiles. After rounds of communication, we decided to rent, redesign and transform the whole yard so that we could take root and build our own world of making architecture.
Communicate via architecture
Historically speaking, Beijing as an imperial city, has been established on the core basis of imperialization. The axes, Forbidden City and even the red city walls represented the absolute existence of imperial authority. Within such a complex institution of power and functionalities, Hutongs took shape gradually and became venues for the mass. Quadrangle courtyards on both sides of Hutongs were neighbors to each other. Behind the walls, every courtyard stood for a particular family space; and when they were aligned together by walls, all of them started to coexist and co-live on top of Beijing’s unique disposition.
In the course of modernization, the collapse and reconstruction of order has triggered massive changes to Hutongs and quadrangle courtyards in Beijing. As a result, after the upheaval, demographics, population density and the social structure have made it challenging to define quadrangle courtyards. The outline of Hutongs has been retained, however, the scenic substances behind the walls of Hutong courtyards have been fragmented in constant tearing down and reconstruction.
What has not changed for Hutongs, whether it is within or outside the walls, is that the community is still living their lives and sticking to their lifestyle in a timeless manner. Yet for us, we leverage the form of an architectural studio to open up a courtyard, wipe away the boundaries, and create a space for communication in Hutongs.
Flowing life under the roof
Walls on either side of the Hutong prevent direct sunlight from getting inside, which can be seen as a boundary between public and private venues. Within the walls remains an inward and enclosed space, however, the yard resembles a vast container, letting in sky, wind, sunlight, air and sound. The crowns of the two grand ginkgo trees are the flowing roof in the open air, overlapping layers of grey tiles. The exterior space under the trees connects to the interior one underneath the four roofs, floating and exchanging in a continuous way.
The main room in the north of the courtyard is the office space, the biggest indoor space. What connects itself and the yard is a transparent strip of space, instead of a mere façade. This virtual space is made of a metal thin wall, transparent glass and thick acrylic boards. From the entrance of the courtyard, a showcase window, a sliding door and a semi-outdoor and transparent exhibition space appear in proper order. The façade demonstrates reflections and diffused reflections of several processed metal materials, as well as different degrees of transparency relatively by acrylic boards and glass. Not only the façade transmits enough daylight, but also the strip space functions as a carrier of light. It mirrors indoor and outdoor views, blurs the boundary between the two spaces – daylight and views extend horizontally and working indoors feels like sitting under the trees. The semi-outdoor exhibition space is separated from the yard with 13 25-millimetre-thick acrylic boards, placed in an inclined yet parallel manner. Within the 700-millimetre-wide space, one may feel the breeze, the light and shadow, the crystal presence and subtle reflection of the boards. The space is clear and transparent; actually, it is an exhibit itself. Apart from displaying models, it also holds exhibitions from time to time.
The other side of the courtyard houses a guest room (East), a bathroom (Southeast), a kitchen (Southwest), a café/mini-library (West). In the limited courtyard space, we have modestly imbedded a light and translucent interface made of steel frame, glass and polycarbonate panel. It combines the functional spaces and makes the aisle an extension to the courtyard space, which permeates the limited indoor space through the translucent interface or glass sliding door. The polycarbonate panel we have used guarantees proper privacy and thermal insulation, and softens the natural light indoor. It also varies the indoor scene with the changing sunlight and shade.
In terms of usage, it is much more than just a studio for daily work. By hosting weekend public events and exhibition and inviting artist over, we are sharing the courtyard space with the city. During this process, we learn to keep exclusive memories of the courtyard.
The lab of life & an organic city of people, objects and nature
We have chosen some common materials and leveraged simple craftsmanship in Hutongs. In this way, we have tried to harmonize new things and the initial scene and to create some new meanings. The birth of architecture or the evolution of a city is backed by a well-defined infrastructure. Rather than just a workplace, this courtyard serves as a laboratory for us. We treat every object, tool, plant and little animal with curiosity while working, exchanging, cooking, resting and walking around. By doing this, we are discovering how to place and interact with them properly. We are gradually learning how to create our own approach under the roof, and interpret it in our works and even conversations. These nuanced practices and observations are part of the architecture, and also clues depicting the memory of a city.
REVITALIZING THEATRICAL HUTONGSCAPE: PAGEONE OFFICE AND EXHIBITION SPACE
Hutong, timeline of the city prolonging and preserving local memories
Hutong carries the local history that displays historic traces of different times. With the process of modernization, the function of Hutong becomes more dynamic and diversified. One representative example is the particular courtyard house that we explored in this project. It was a typical residence in old town Beijing and was once operated as a hostel since 1998; yet in 2014, under the policy of renewing the old town, it was changed to a small theatre in steel structure. Now it will soon serve as the office and exhibition space of PAGEONE Bookstore, though it cannot be permanent either.
Hutong breeds vitality and inclusiveness. Given that the function of the courtyard might change again, we have adopted a light and flexible approach – we aimed for retaining memories of the site and keeping the dynamics of the city and Hutong while refining the main structure; and we managed to present multiple layers of Hutong experiences on top of a limited spatial and temporal condition.
Based on the existing spatial composition, we have redefined the space and its internal substances, contrasted new materials with old ones, and adjusted the spatial scale and light ambiance. Through these endeavors, we have tried to create a unique and authentic Hutong experience under the initial context.
From Hutong to office space, a redefined theatrical hutong-scape
The sunken theatre space, skylight and the yard are inspiring elements in Hutong. By moderate design, people will experience a series of scenarios while wandering from the hutong street to the layering spaces with gradually changing ambience and scale. People can experience several vivid scenes through shades of light and space if they walk from the Hutong street into this site, just like wandering in a theatre.
The exhibition space at the entrance is bright and lively, whereas the following corridor on the eastern side of the yard is redesigned as a tranquil and dark gallery. The dialogue between itself and the yard is specified as a personal reading space that extends out into the courtyard.
The black gallery connects two spaces of separate functions, namely the exhibition space and the office space, leveraging light in order to deliver a message to visitors at large – there exists a gradual transition from external bustle to internal tranquility.
The initial sunken space is reconstructed as the office space. A layer of metal mesh is installed to suspend above the office area, emphasizing the boundary and taming the direct sunlight. It also meets the needs of office lighting and poster hanging. Additionally, the height of the metal mesh layer rescales the sunken space into a comfortable office space. We keep the initial flooring-the black embossed steel plate from the entrance to the office space. While walking it through, people can get a feeling of walking onto the stage and be reminded of the site’s previous usage, thanks to the texture of the steel plate and the layering space of initial steel plate walls and newly inserted perforated metal cabinets.
The ground floor around the sunken space functions as an annular circulated gallery for visitors. Placed along the two long sides of the space, the two sides of cabinets grow upward and offer ample storage for the office space; as for the gallery, the shelves on the top serve as displaying, reading and writing space for visitors at ground level. Furthermore, it stands as a seeing/seen interface between office users and visitors.
Releasing space by opening up Hutong
The entrance, and the north and south facades of the yard are the three transparent interfaces that link the entire space to Hutong. Visually speaking, all the connected spaces can be seen through, including Hutong, the exhibition space, the yard and the office space. These spaces stand alone and stay associated. After opening the aligned sliding doors of the three facades, a straight path turns the separate spaces into one flowing space.
The entrance space can be used for exhibitions and meetings. Besides, exhibition activities will be held regularly to interact with the community outside and the library on the opposite side. In order to divide spaces flexibly, we have implanted cross-shaped movable walls made of OSB boards and steel rails member under the existing steel structure. With these walls being moved, the two small meeting rooms on the east side can be merged into one large meeting room; or else, they can be used as an extension of the exhibition space on the west side.
In terms of selecting materials for the reconstruction, we have taken the critical requirements of time and budget into account – we used the effective plywood and OSB board, as well as the galvanized steel sheet, metal mesh and polycarbonate sheet which usually appear in illegal additions to Hutong houses. We have tried to take advantage of common and economical materials in Hutong in hope of realizing their quality and value in most appropriate settings.
The composition of hutong becomes complex and even fragmented, in the progress of modernization and urbanization. Comparatively, our attempt can also be a part of the overall social transformation. Therefore, from its design, construction to being in use, the project represents our objective of creating free spaces, so that people can have the opportunity of accumulating the individual Hutong memories and gradually become an urban collective memory of the hutong, a particular Hutongscape.
During instantaneous modernization, the composition of Hutong becomes ambiguous, surreal and congested. We take LangjiaHutong in Beijing as a specific site to discover its potentials under the chaos.
Re-assemble the forsaken land, thus the hidden open space appears.
By introducing five elements on street (hutong), we re-discover the true sharing space. Each element is flexible and applicable, which responds to the uncertainty and new urban possibility. It confronts the physical issues while plays an emancipating role- dragging people out of restricted existence; developing communal spirit and local identification; leading people to the liberation of new life in discovery.