Beijing / Eating up the hutongs

Many Chinese cities have a unique typology of housing. In Beijing, it is the hutong, which has been the mainstay of residential design for about 800 years.  The hutong is formed by a sequence of courtyard houses, where the central open space (or ‘siheyuan’) of each house links with that of the neighbouring residences.  As the buildings around the courtyard are arranged to maximise sunlight access, hutongs generally run east-west, and this pattern of development has defined the inner city of Beijing. 

Originally, hutongs were concentrated on both sides of the Forbidden City, which lies at the core of Beijing.  Their east-west orientation would have facilitated movement to the City, especially for aristrocrats and noblemen who lived closer to the centre (with merchants, other workers and general riffraff housed in more distant, as well as more informal, hutongs).  The term ‘hutong’ is a Mongolian word, meaning ‘water well’, and I guess this relates to the important community role of these spaces.

In modern-day Beijing, hutongs are well and truly under threat – either being demolished for development, or transformed to the extent that their original scale, usage and character are entirely lost.  The drivers for change are numerous and mostly understandable – from a general lack of infrastructure and hygeine in hutongs, to changes in societal structures and the relentless push to create a city of global influence and identity.  But, nonethless, it represents the loss of a significant cultural asset of the city.

At the northern edge of the inner city (as defined by the second of Beijing’s many concentric ring roads), Wudaoying Hutong is a hutong at least by name, and a little by nature.  Several hundred metres long, it houses a mix of retail spaces, cafes and bars, housing blocks and small offices.


While it has obviously undergone extensive rebuilding over time, change has been incremental, meaning that the hutong itself has retained its original scale (and not expanded to allow for a six-lane road or Metro station or something).


And within a relatively consistent scale and proportion, each building has adopted its own personality.


It was also home to a great collection of quirky vehicles.


And, the main reason for our visit … a vegetarian restaurant called Veggie Table (food trumps architectural history any day).  They opened earlier this year and seem to be going great guns, with a yumbo selection of burgers, salads, curries and ‘health’ shakes (I’m a little dubious about the health tag… mine was chocolate).  It was perfect fuel for an afternoon wandering about the city.   And it got me to thinking … if hutongs are being turned over for the sake of food like this (not just mega-malls and apartment towers), I can almost get behind the change.  Almost.


One Response to Beijing / Eating up the hutongs

  1. Pingback: Figuring out the last year … « That Look Crayzy!

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