There are cities and then there is Beijing. As one of the world’s largest and oldest urban areas, it is indeed easy to imagine how a city like this—one inhabited continuously for over three thousand years, oneseemingly propelled on a lightspeed course straight into the future on the inertia of its own history—would be well aware of its tradition. Yet Beijing is a city that defies logic, one that has been growing and changing at a mindboggling speed. Blink, and something that was there only seconds ago may have suddenly vanished and forgotten.
We think we know the entire story. Articles upon articles describe how internet-based commerce, improved logistics, flows of transnational goods, and the expansion of service industries on a global scale have all contributed to anextraordinaryamount of growth in urban areas. Speed reigns in the globalized 21st century—people and things move faster across borders than ever. And no matter whether we decide to look at all, some, or none of these kinds of facts and figures, the most compelling evidence for this growth remains visible. Cities like Beijing become known for their congestion and pollution. For every picture of a clogged traffic arterial or overcrowded train, there appears another showing a cloak of brown smog enveloping the city. Such are the visions of our urban future, and no matter whether we live in New York, London, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, or Mumbai, it is one that we share with Beijing.
The reality of the situation does not fit neatly into any of the above narratives we read in the world’s newspapers or through websites. It is true that urban growth of such unprecedented scale and rate can alter the physical makeup of a city rather drastically. Again, Beijingis different. Consider the narrow alleyway connecting courtyard residences, or Hutong [胡同], which has been the exemplar of Beijing’s urbanism since the city became the capital during the Yuan dynasty. Hutongs have provided legions of critics and writers with the necessary fuel to decry the rapid pace of urban growth and its destructive effects on traditional urban fabrics. We often hear how Hutongs have been demolished in the maw of modernization and construction. The truth of the matter is that Beijing is a city that has remained in a state of suspended animation, one that has been weathering massive political and social upheavals in ways others could not. It was not until the 1990s, a period marked by a massive influx of global capital, that Beijing began to truly changein its physical form. Hutongs, however, continued to play a constant and important role in the organization of urban spacethroughout this time.They not only defined administrative areas, but also became the nexus of socio-cultural life. And as urban demolition slowed in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, Hutongs proved to be more resilient than ever. Many would remain for use by government or other “danwei”- state or local administrative or military owned organization. In all, Hutongs are here to stay. They remind us that the reality of Beijing’s urban situation is too rich and too complex and resist any attempt to classify it in terms of tradition versus modernization. Today Hutongs not only provide a glimpse into Beijing’s long and heralded history, but they are a cultural and physical reality providing a key to a prosperous urban life in the future.
[META:HUTONGS] recognizes that as Beijing changes so do Hutongs. We recognize that discussions are deadlocked between opposing views concerning the city. Public discussions here have revolved around the utopia idea of PRESERVATION and have celebrated the value of Beijing’s architecture for historical preservationists as well as for advocates of commercial redevelopment. Yet some developers have embraced the dystopian ideal of DEMOLITION as necessary to accommodate new growth. A different voice is needed, one that mediates between these utopian and dystopian realities! An alternative model of regeneration is in order, one that looks at the CURRENT REALITY from the point of view of one on the ground, so to speak. This alternative model must consider the Hutong as a laboratory that experiments with the current Beijing, a city teeming with energy and passion. This model does not want to take sides. It seeks allegiance with neither preservationists nor with demolitionists. It does not want to resuscitate a utopian fantasy, and it certainly does not want to condemn the dystopian impulse. [META:HUTONGS] is this alternative model. It is a cross-disciplinary investigation whose purpose is to create an exploratory atmosphere with the goal of creating a new understanding that celebrates the unique quality of Hutong culture, and which creates PROJECTIVE FUTURE possibilities.
Paradoxical as it may seem, even the most celebrated and emergent urban researchers of the past decade have presented a mode of thinking that has been an impediment to the approach which our discipline has spent over a century trying to construct. Architects and urbanists traffic in the business of the contemporary. We seek techniques, instruments, and theories that allow us to intervene effectively in the “terrain vague” that is contemporary urban space. From an urbanistic point of view, high modernist planning has not created an ideal model of urbanism. It has done the opposite, to the point that today, the urban condition can be anything but a defined one.
At this moment, the Hutongs in the center of Beijing are an laboratory where new knowledge can be produced that will allow for interventions to tap into the potential of the urban present—a present in which the Hutong’s interior spaces, its narrow paths, serendipitous encounters, observations, experiences have coalesced to create a new, living organism. In short, the Hutong has become another creature, a new “urban vernacular” living and thriving inside the megacity.
Urban emergences in America, Europe, and above all, in Asia are all characterized by wild mutations. Obstructions, congestions and violent eruptions appear, disappear, and reappear through the multiple layers of everyday life. For us, these urban emergences are metaphorical. They suggest and represent the mechanisms of order (or of non-order) that are the engines for urban growth.
Field of Actions
In order to test the capacity of this evolutionary model to explain and confront the physical mutations and processes of the city—as a basis for understanding the new relationship between architecture and the metropolises of today—we propose that the “urban” is in reality a Field of Actions: juxtapositions, intersections, ruptures, and eruptions; in short, a series of dynamic layers working together toward a new hyperactive situation.
To speak of evolution is to speak of a multi-layered feedback system. In this recursive process, certain tendenciesaccelerate evolution into new levels of complexity, and the production of its evolution in turn retroacts in its evolutional trajectory. This is “Meta-Evolution,” the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms in the ongoing process of life.
[META:HUTONGS]is comprised of 4 phases over a 2-year period, all instigated by Shuo Wang and Andy Bryant:
Phase One (MAPPING) consists of creating graphic representations of visible/invisible data as layers of information. Through a series of on-site documentation, the project will construct a comprehensive mapping of Hutong areas, visualizing the physical and social characteristics of space and the quotidian activities within those environments. The objective is to understand the interactions between these different layers.
For Phase Two (COLLABRATIVE PLATFORM), the project will create a portal website as a research platform. This is a depository of previous research/ideas on the Hutongs and a medium for furthering dialog.
During Phase Three (SIMULATION), the project will extend to multi-disciplinary workshops utilizing the support of universities. During these workshops, dynamic modeling for understanding the processes of urban emergence will be generated and allow to test simulations.
Phase Four (PROJECTION) will deploy the knowledge accumulated from previous stages. The project will work with key participants to develop concept scenarios for projection of what the future of Hutongs could be. Following this, active interventions within select Hutong areas will be realized including use of multi-media installations, and artistic interventions.
Project Objective (Deliverables)
As an alternative to one-off or simplified proposals and strategies, [META:HUTONGS] is a polydisciplinary initiative that will bring together researchers, media artists, curators, historians, social anthropologists and universities resulting in a series of workshops, publications and events centered around key sets of issues related to the reality of Hutongs. The outcomes of these investigations will be tested through active engagement within select Hutong areas and include interactive installations, socially minded interventions and projective urban models. The goal of these interventions is to raise an awareness and dialogue in regards to the local situation to reveal unique potentials of this urban situation.
During this two-year period, the project will produce specific, original research concepts and actions. This includes photo-text publications, website content and video documentation of the interactive installations, workshops, online dialogue/provocations and exhibitions. These will be presented as part of other public events/exhibitions including the Beijing Design Week, Architectural Biennial Beijing, Get it Louder, and other festivals in China and abroad.
The project maneuvers between indefiniteness and specificity in search of types of emergence that are “local indexes.” We intend to decipher and decode the meta-evolution behind the Hutongs, in which the “dirty realism” of present urban culture gives way to a different reality. Our ambition is to expose new approaches for understanding and dissemination of these urban emergences and projections. Through active interventions into these locales, a meaningful engagement with its constituents can be explored, generating dialoguein order to rethink the future of these urban areas and to actively explore new possibilities.
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