Micro Hutong


Wu Qingshan © ZAO/standardarchitecture

Micro Hutong represents the aggregation of a series of architectural reiterations, in which ZAO/standardarchitecture’s Zhang Ke has reimagined the hutong for the 21st century.

Af Jason Dibbs

Hutongs form a characteristic part of Beijing’s historic architectural fabric, comprising narrow laneways lined by siheyuan — traditional courtyard dwellings. In recent decades, many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished due to urban infrastructure projects and increased demands for high-density housing. In this light, ZAO/standardarchitecture’s Micro Hutong series of projects legitimizes hutong dwelling as a viable mode of contemporary small-scale, intimate accommodation, whilst also preserving the significant heritage value of these unique cultural artifacts.

ZAO/standardarchitecture was founded by Harvard Graduate School of Design alum Zhang Ke in 2001 and has since developed an international reputation for aesthetically provocative architectural propositions that negotiate the problematics in between urban development and heritage preservation. In the Micro Hutong series, Zhang Ke and ZAO/standardarchitecture have explored complex tensions between social density, cultural heritage, and adaptive re-use in Beijing’s traditional hutongs. Situated in proximity to Tiananmen Square, hutong neighborhoods occupy valuable land assets in China’s capital, yet many have fallen into disuse and dereliction in recent times. ZAO/standardarchitecture’s approach to the hutong has been to reimagine the courtyards, characteristic of these spaces, as ‘generators of program.’

ZAO/standardarchitecture’s design methodology has involved redefining the interface between the hutong buildings and their urban context. New architectural forms, housing the program of the hostel, intersect with the perimeter of the courtyard, improving airflow and daylighting to interior spaces. ZAO/standardarchitecture refer to the re-imagined courtyard as a ‘flexible living room,’ creating a semi-public space that can be used both by the hostel and the neighboring community. The courtyard also allows for a subtle gradation between the private spaces of the hostel and the intensely public spaces of the nearby urban streetscape.

In a recent interview, Zhang Ke has argued that “the subtle complexity of the hutong as an authentic urban space has been overlooked by both developers … and by the defenders of picturesque historic preservation.” ZAO/standardarchitecture’s research-based approach to redefining the hutong for 21st-century Beijing navigates the middle-ground between housing expansion and heritage preservation. The key innovation in their approach has been to consider the archetype of the hutong through its dynamic programmatic potential rather than as a static architectural relic.

ZAO/standardarchitecture’s experimentation in the Micro Hutong series has included earlier iterations of the design that were comprised of stacked plywood ‘boxes’ with large glazed panels situated around a hutong courtyard, as well as the award-winning Micro Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre, inserted into the courtyard space of the Cha’er hutong, just one kilometer from the Forbidden City. The Micro Hutong hostel represents the latest iteration in this series and evidences materiality that is sensitive to the aged fabric of the hutong. A beautifully textured concrete façade houses the intimate spaces of the hostel, with large, timber-framed glazed panels connecting interior spaces to the courtyard.

Zhang Ke has stated that the Micro Hutong project offers the exploration of “co-living possibilities between public and private in the traditional courtyard structure, and it challenges ways of infrastructure integration in limited space to create decent new hutong life.” ZAO/standardarchitecture’s experimentation in hutong renewal has received wide-ranging international acknowledgment, including recognition at Beijing Design Week, the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, and selection as one of six recipients of the prestigious and lucrative 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.