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The Hutong

April 9, 2009

Yes, it has been way too long since I’ve updated this.

But, I do have this…

Meet Thu Huynh… and her camera…


“I am from Hanoi, Vietnam, the neighbor of Beijing, only 3 hours and a half by air from Beijing. It’s not the first time I came to Beijing, actually this is the second time but I have seen and experienced a lot from this second trip. Seeing the Beijing of 2009 is seeing how rapidly a thousand year old city is adapting, developing with the modern world. Seeing the Beijing of 2009 is seeing how the amazing traditional architecture from a thousand years ago is well preserved. Being in the Beijing of 2009 is experiencing the delicious food on the streets and in the restaurants. Being in the Beijing of 2009 is experiencing what the people and life style of a big city in Asia is… If you are an architecture student, Beijing is definitely where you should go and see.”

And Barry Morris…
My names is Barry Morris. Born and raised in Memphis, TN. Got an undergraduate degree in architectural engineering from Murray State University in Murray, KY. . It’s very easy to have preconceived ideas beased on the limited media we receive about China. The city is much bigger and more modern than I ever dreamed. They have a very efficient infrastructure with plans to keep expanding in the next 5 years. The hutong neighborhoods had a wonderful sense of community that you have a hard time finding here in the US. Their lives seem simple, which is a good thing. I was so pleased to see young families everywhere enjoying themselves. The spirit of the neighborhoods certainly gives my project a much more human feel now that I can place it inside a real neighborhood that I experienced.

And this…

The hutong has a history in Beijing going back to the Zhou and Yuan Dynasties. It is an often narrow alley lined with siheyuan, traditional courtyard housing complexes designed to be used by up to three families.

Inside, each home is set across a small courtyard that lies at its center, where a garden is usually made for bamboo, vegetables, tea, and whatever else the residents please. A single kitchen is shared by all three.

Its no surprise then, that as Barry said, community is a big deal here. That was really the most striking difference in the people that I noticed as well. Americans, by comparison, seem to be afraid of each other. This gigantic city full of millions of people is a community that lives, breathes, and moves almost in unison.

What also isn’t surprising is the extremity of the pollution here. Everyone who lives in the hutong neighborhoods uses coal to heat their little homes. And why not? According to Professor Song of Tsinghua University, coal is cheap, easy to get, and easy to store. Plus, coal is what they know. Getting them to give up coal in favor of green power solutions would be like asking us to give up our cable modems in exchange for 56k’s. And as I may have mentioned earlier, there are upwards of eighteen million people living in this city, many of which are living in hutongs due to the low cost of living and the convenience of being located near the epicenter of this massive sprawl.

The high number of occupants certainly has an affect on the old gray brick buildings though. Ancient doors are held up by modern cinderblocks. New storage spaces made for coal jut out into the already narrow streets that a single parked car can (and often does) create an impassable roadblock.

So what’s the solution? That, it turns out, is a very complex question… Professor Stach’s design students went to Beijing to try and figure that out, but it isn’t just a question of form and function. If the hutong dies, so does Beijing’s thousand year old culture, and that, at least in my opinion, is very worth saving.

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