Category Archives: Architecture

Reinventing “lived traditions” on demolished urban villages: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part one).

From courtyards to mallyards: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho building.

One day we (Lu Jian and I) would like to live in a courtyard house that we have “WangLued” (an architectural verb to be explained below). We love the “amateur” architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu. My feeling is that their historically-engaged work is increasingly important in China, where big-bucks developers have denigrated the built heritage, not least by bringing in Western “starchitects” to build computer-generated Cathedrals to new wealth and narcissistic consumption. However, that is just the view of a left-wing “waigouren”. Lu Jian ? my Tianjinese wife with expertise in Chinese construction? similarly loves Wang and Lu’s work but also views the new developments in a more positive light.
An iconic example of the new cathedrals is the late Zaha Hadid’s (1950-2016) Chaoyangmen Soho mall located near Beijing’s 2nd ring road. The mall on Chaoyangmen Lu is the second of “Hadid-Zaha’s” four collaborations with Soho China, a property development company whose CEO Zhang Xin regards their buildings as “forming the fate of the city”. Like the majority of Hadid-Zaha’s later  3D-designed oeuvre, the Chaoyangmen Soho’s design is typically biomorphic and flowing.The futuristic structure provides the sorts of journeys that make one want to glide or roll around its curves, rather than merely walk like a pre-cyborg humanoid.
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Chaoyangmen Soho: Cultural reinvention or socio-cultural death?

Regardless of the plastic-organic beauty, fans and critics have argued over whether the Chaoyangmen Soho provides social, historical and economic value.

Like Beijing’s (also RIBA  award winning) Olympic Birdcage , the Mall was built on land cleared of a historic neighbourhood. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre’s He Shuzdong described the demolished urban villages as “the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and colour scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture.”

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merge_from_ofoct (9)That destruction of public cultural heritage is part of a China-wide trend that ? in the capital ? has seen more than half the historic urban areas destroyed by what Beijing’s preservation watchdog calls “greedy developers” working “hand-in-hand with some corrupted officials”. Soho China’s CEO Zhang Xin agrees that property development (like other business) is generally ruled by “gaunxi” (relationships, or “who you know”), but argues that Soho’s development is free of corruption.

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dezeen_galaxy-soho-by-zaha-hadid_sq1The relationship of the new mall to its urban-historical context was discussed in the English newspaper The Guardian

The paper recorded He Shuzdong’s criticism that the mall had illegally destroyed the city’s built heritage. RIBA, however, praised it for the “rare generosity” of its public spaces.

 

Hadid?Zaha told The Guardian that the mall provides “a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.” These varied public spaces “directly engage with the city … reinterpreting the traditional urban fabric and contemporary living patterns into a seamless urban landscape”.

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Zhang Xin views Hadid-Zaha as one of the architects “who understand what the next generation requires; connecting communities and traditions with new technologies and innovations to embrace the future.”

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Public use of the mall-yards and associated commercial space is one measure of the success or failure of Hadid-Zaha’s reinvention. Micha? Jurgielewicz argues that its current emptiness points to a design failure. Visitor experience of the mall tends to support Jurgielewicz’s argument. There are many photos of the Chaoyangmen Soho building on Tripadvisor, from Chinese and foreign visitors, most of which show it to be sparsely populated.

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One visitor’s review summed the common experience: “Very photogenic place, but an absolute ghost town. Functioned more like a park than a real office building. But worthwhile to visit if one’s interested in modern architecture”.  On the days of our visits, we also found that the mall’s many retail attendants outnumber the shoppers, while the prices of their luxury goods (tai gui le!) exceed the spending power of most urban village dwellers.

If Chaoyangmen Soho has become one of China’s many urban ghost towns, then  Hank Dittmar may have been correct in describing its formal reflection of historic courtyards as “merely writing an obituary, not keeping the culture alive.”

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Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part two).

Part two: The lifeworld of the hutong: “tian peng, yu gang, shi liu shu; lao ye, fei gou, pang ya tou”.

Before comparing the Amateur Architecture Studio’s approach to heritage in their Ningbo History Museum (2008) to that of Chaoyangmen Soho’s reinvented mall-yards, we might pull up a stool under a pomegranate tree, and pause to reflect on the nature of the urban village culture, and what it might mean to “keep it alive”.

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He Shuzhong describes the hutong way of life as the one thing that best represents ancient Chinese culture, and sociologist Qing Qing Yang suggests that “the Hutongs themselves are a live archive of history”. The term ‘hutong’ refers specifically to a laneway, connecting the living compounds of houses (generally belonging to one family) and courtyards (often shared by several families whose houses face onto the courtyard). More broadly, the hutong area refers to all three elements (the lane, houses, courtyards). The use of the term hutong to describe a residential area had become widespread in China by the time of the Yuan dynasty (from 1271 onwards).

Different elements of the hutong’s material structure have particular historical meaning. For example, as Mr Li, a Beijing Hutong Dweller explained to Mr Yang

“If you go and look around these formal courtyards you will find most of them have men dun, which tell the visitors information about the household. For example, a box shaped men dun means that the master of the family is a civil official; while if it is a drum shaped round men dun, then the master of the family is a military officer. If there is a lion on the men dun, then the master of this family must be related to royal kinship. If the lion is in a standing posture, then this family has a higher social status, while if it bends over, then it means it is from a relatively lower social level”.

men dun

Qing Qing Yang explains that when people chose a marriage partner, the traditional standard men dang hu dui (????) applied, which meant the gate of the two families, which shows the family status, should match each other. While men dun and many other features of hutong buildings have become redundant in a literal sense, they are still highly valued by residents, for the histories and memories they evoke.

Yang suggests that the hutong, the courtyard and the house are all experienced as aspects of home, rather than separate spaces. Hutong were originally only wide enough for pedestrians and bicycles, and so provided “a haven for kids to play in without fear of an accident”. Lu Jian, who often stayed in her grandparent’s (Tianjin) courtyard house concurs that the freedom of the hutongs was one of the pleasures of childhood.

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The home-courtyard-hutong space was shared among inter-generational family and neighbours. Yang gives the example of the pomegranate tree grown on a trellis across a hutong. The shade of the tree provides a meeting place where neighbours pull up stools to sit and talk and ? as can often be seen in the Beijing hutong? play mahjong. Shared outside washrooms also provide an opportunity for togetherness, and Yang suggests that the residents wearing of sleeping clothes in the street shows their feeling of home includes the hutong. Lu Jian recalls the sharing of food among the different families who ate together in her grandma’s courtyard; if someone went to the market and got fresh fish, crabs, or shrimp, then they would be shared with the neighbours.

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“Communality” and an extended sense of being at home were and are pleasures of the hutong. On the other hand, conflicts among neighbours could sour things, especially as the home-courtyard-hutong life provides for little privacy and escape. Moreover, as Jonah Kessel suggests, the hutong’s living conditions were often poor: space was cramped, buildings suffered from crumbling bricks and leaking roofs, residents relied on coal for winter warmth and had to venture outside to the communal washrooms.

While preservationists would like to see heritage areas (say, within Beijing’s 2nd ring) authentically maintained and restored, it isn’t clear that residents are adverse to modification (and downright fakery) if it enables the preservation of material memories (everything has a story behind it), and continuity of the positive aspects of the hutong way of life. Many former inhabitants have moved to high rise apartments where they appreciate the better facilities (especially the privacy of one’s own washroom) but still long for the tree-lined hutongs, courtyards, and collective way of life. Often a compromise is preferred; residents would like to stay, but have their facilities improved. That may require difficult choices ? if having a washroom installed means losing a sleeping space, which relation needs to go?

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Much of the compromising done in still existing hutong areas has been with tourism. To the extent that this enables a continuation of a hutong way of life, compromisers may be content to have come part of a “living museum” (as Yang describes it). However, over-commercialisation in some areas has pushed the compromise too far for the maintenance of the social lifeworld of the hutong. In such cases Yang suggests that these hutong have become an “empty shell”.

How then, might displaced hutong residents view the Chaoyangmen Soho mall? Despite RIBA’s claims that it’s public spaces represent a generous democratisation of Hadid-Zaha’s work, and the architect’s own claims of seamless cultural reinvention, its doubtful the displaced compromisers regard the mall-yards as providing for the continuation of “lived traditions”. It seems more likely they share the preservationists’ view that the Soho represents a kind of luxury-brand gravestone for the hutong way of life. If so, we might (in part three) ask, does Amateur Architecture’s more historical approach better support socio-cultural continuity and, if so, for who?

Reinventing “lived traditions” on demolished urban villages: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part three).

The Ningbo History Museum: Re-animating “lived traditions?

When Hadid?Zaha, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu met on the occasion of Wang’s Pritzer prize in 2012, they might have discussed their different ideas of reinvention, heritage and lived traditions. If so, it may have been a tactful conversation as Wang and Lu have rebuked contemporary architecture’s contribution to the large-scale demolition of historic urban villages and their way of life. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (2008) provides a good subject for comparison, not least because it was built on a site cleared of urban villages ? like the Chaoyangmen Soho site ? in order to provide for commercial, residential and public space development.Where Hadid-Zaha claimed to have provided conceptually ‘reinvented courtyards’ within a high-end commercial development, Wang and Lu’s publicly-funded museum seeks to reanimate the beauty of the villages, their built materials, and their lifeworld.

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In a short video for Dezeen, Wang Shu indicates some of the ideas of reinvented heritage he and Lu Wenyu used in the design and process of building the museum. Integral to the design is the use of the villages’ demolition materials, including around 2 million pieces of brick and tiles collected from the rubble.The Dezeen article on the Ningbo Museum describes how these were used in “a traditional technique called wa pan, in which multiple elements of different sizes are packed together “.

The reuse of local historical materials is key to the “amateur” approach and its critique of contemporary Chinese architecture. Wang told the New York Times

Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials …they just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory — many things inside. So I think it’s for an architect to do something about it.”

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The participation of the local artisans in the museum’s wa pan building practice reinvents “lived tradition”, with some artisans re-learning their lost local tradition, while the process involved the artisan’s selection of materials and their placement in the cladding design. Wang differentiates these uses of materials as intrinsic to the lived experience of the building from the idea of historical objects placed within a museum display, whereupon they are positioned as belonging to the non-present past (he says they have become “dead”).

The spatial design of the museum also reanimates the lost lifeworld of the villages. As Evan Chakroff (2012) observes the museum is organised around two courtyards open to the sky is “a familiar form of traditional Chinese residential and temple”, which visitors access through a low gateway. Inside the visitor’s journey proceeds via large staircases and other smaller punctures that reflect “the courtyards, pathways, and captured spaces of traditional Chinese gardens”.

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The museum’s “roofscape” has “the human- scale proportions of a traditional Chinese village”; the “voids slashing through the building intersect at angles that instantly recall the pitched roofs of local vernacular architecture”; while the cuts ‘reflect the width of historic pedestrian lanes’. The walls show the wa pan method mixed with bamboo-molded concrete. Here we can see the manifestation of Wang and Lu’s idea of historical reinvention where materials are used in relation totradition rather than in simple repetition: the structure relates to its history as a “new creation”.

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Wang and Lu’s building invites the visitor to view the urban development from the standpoint of local history as lived tradition. if the museum re-historicizes the urban environment for the Chinese (national) visitor, it is also more specifically intended to re-memorialise for the displaced local villagers. In this it is consistent with the egalitarian public service ethos of the Amateur Architects, who view themselves as fellow artisans, on a continuum with the local craftsmen and women who built the museum’s wa pan cladding. “WangLuing” then ? the Amateur approach ? includes this egalitarian love of craft alongside the trans-historical reanimation of the lifeworld of pagodas, temples, and courtyards.

Conclusion: Reinventing for who? Reinventing towards what?

The question of what audience an architecture performs for seems relevant when comparing the different kinds of reinventions provided by the Ningbo History Museum and the Chaoyangmen Soho mall. Arguably, Hadid-Zaha’s mall speaks to Beijing’s growing middle and elite classes, both the consumers intended to flanuer their way around the mall-yards, and the displaced hutong dwellers whose property compensation may have contributed to their upwards socio-economic mobility. Perhaps the mall’s role in the political economy contributes to that upward movement. Possibly it’s mall-yards and economy are generous democratic contributions.

On the other hand, its emptiness suggests that it has not successfully reinvented the once-thriving lifeworld of the demolished hutongs, not for displaced residents, nor for middle-class and elite consumers. Nor has it yet become the engine of innovation and economic growth envisioned by its developer, merging seamlessly with the surrounding city. Soho China CEO Zhang Xin asserts, Chaoyangmen Soho is one of the buildings “forming the fate of the city”. If so, is it just one of Beijing’s vanity project for the extremely wealthy, one symbolising their power ? and the powerlessness of the displaced villagers? in a form less phallic than that of China’s tallest tower competition? The fate being foretold in Zhang’s hopes for the reinvented mall-yards may just be one of inequality and forgetting unless it’s subject to radical reinvention (for example, cheap public housing, public health facilities, libraries, education). That kind of public spirited transformation would be at odds though, with the anarchic capitalism of Patrick Schumacher, Zaha Hadid’s architectural practice partner and now CEO.

Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum, in contrast, is dedicated to remembering a lost lifeworld for the displaced urban villagers. For the visitor, the museum’s material and form reanimates the presence of the historical villages and their way of life and frames the contemporary city through that experience and view. For the local craftsmen, the building reflects their involvement in the construction of the building and the reanimation of traditional building practices (wa pan) that express the layers of local history. Wang and Lu assert that the building serves the memories of the displaced local villages, it enables their remembering. The structure, form, and experience of the building contrast with the internal exhibition, which is exactly the kind of mimetic reflection that Wang and Lu described as evidencing a lifeworld’s death.

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Who is it useful to, this built lived tradition? Is it visited by the displaced villagers whose memories and history it seeks to honour? What might it mean to the displaced migrant farmer who may not have received any compensation? Would the displaced villager now living in a compensation-purchased high-rise return to visit, like the Beijing villagers tourist-visiting hutongs in order to remember? Does the museum generate economic activity that supports the strata that formerly belonged to the urban village?

Or is it intended as a place for critical reflection, a material standpoint from which a privileged viewer might desire the positive elements of the hutong lifeworld, and condemn its demolition? As such a standpoint, the Ningbo History Museum is, albeit in a conflicting way, as futuristic as the Chaoyangmen Soho. Literally grounded in dialogic history (the wa pan cladding forms the base, and was selected with the local craftsmen), it also speaks of a relationship to nature (the upper-level concrete is molded by bamboo).
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The visitor views the surrounding city through lines of perspective guided by history/memory/nature, and these lines suggest a trajectory for future ‘development’, one that conflicts with the dominant trajectory of buildings like Zhang and Hadid’s mall on Chaoyangmen Lu.