Dwelling Through the Hutongs

Dongcheng, Beijing, China / 20.04.18

Deep in the city of Beijing lies the peculiar urban landscape of the hutongs. The hutongs, a criss-crossing network of narrow alleys lined by courtyard-dwellings which are, today, only a fragment of a once thriving typology in Beijing, compete with the sprawling tall-towered jungle of the built contemporary. Pedestrians, bicycles and cars equally squeeze through the maze of tributaries enclosed by banks of low-lying, grey brick walls that are punctuated by humble stores and more identifiable gateways leading to the inner courtyards. What lies beyond the grey walls? To enter this labyrinth is to step out of one world and into another. In here as outsiders, the identifiable presence of the community bears heavy on us.

Piercing portals here do not demarcate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’ as normal thresholds do. Rather they are bridges, channelling the flow of people away from the alley, through the winding and seemingly unending layers of rooms with no perceivable outline of a ‘dwelling’. On first encounter the experience is disorientating; there is no front or back, no entrance or exit, no clear demarcation of ownership. The multiple folds of the hutong frame uncensored encounters of the inhabitants; a person rests in an open living room, unknowingly watched by two strangers, a man at work over a makeshift work-bench, a woman and child carrying the laundry amongst a tangle of clothes lines. Here, a kitchen remains indistinguishable from a bedroom and from a living space. The path we walk on is equally the inhabitants’ yards or the space to hang their washing. 

To dwell in the hutong is to dwell through the hutong. Like a body dissolved to expose its organs, the inner workings of the community are not so tightly contained and neither concealed. The wandering public intercepts with the private, through daily routines; a midnight bathroom break requires a hop across a gardened mini-piazza; tea is prepared in the kitchen but served across a courtyard in the living room. From the innermost sanctuary-like spaces of intimacy, to the more collective functions of schools, police stations, grocery stores and the like, the spectrum is neatly knitted into this urban fabric to complete a self-sufficient civic organism. The housing typology is completely unravelled and through the seams we’re given a glimpse at the beating heart of community living.