Friday, 20 December 2013

Tiny Houses That Will Make You Want To Live A Simpler Life

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Sublime Sci-Fi Buildings That Communism Built

The House of Soviets in Kaliningrad.
Photo by Frédéric Chaubin, from "CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed."
The architecture of the Eastern Bloc—a conundrum of impossible complexity, or at least that's what it looks like judging from the daily view of my collection of coffee table books. Yes, that's right, coffee table books. The recent glut of art volumes devoted to Soviet architecture may be surprising to anyone who previously thought "Soviet architecture" had about as much to do with "art" as "Soviet leaders" had to do with "glamour." Yet here is a whole bookshelf to contradict that view. There's Taschen's CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Hatje Cantz's Socialist Modernism, Monacelli's The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932, Roma's Spomenik (not, in fact, a sequel to Rango) and, the most euphoniously titled of them all, Jovis's Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia.
These are not your parents' dour architecture monographs, complete with such entries as "On the problems of developing the center of Kishinev" or "Approaches to using the vernacular in Tashkent and Navoi" (real items from a 70s-era release) but are lavish, glossy, and handsome. One of these volumes was released in 2007, the rest date from within the last two years. What does this all mean? What have we learned from this publishing spree? Well, either quite a lot, or possibly nothing, but bear with me.
The 1975 Soviet film The Irony of Fate, a Russian favorite for Christmas season viewing to this day, boasts a Twelfth Night-like plot that turns on the anodyne similarity of Soviet housing. The narrator opens, mordantly, "In the past when people found themselves in a strange city they felt lost and lonely. Everything around was different: streets and buildings, even life. But now it has changed. A person comes to another city and feels at home there." In a landscape of bland uniformity, "can you name a city that hasn't got First Garden Street, Second Suburban Street, Third Factory Street, First Park Street? Second Industrial Street, Third Builders Street?" This similarity in design, not to mention the standardization of furniture and locks, results in our drunken protagonist deposited in the right apartment on "Third Builders Street", but in the wrong city, and romantic comedy misadventures follow. (In fairness, It's a Wonderful Life must look like a pretty odd holiday ritual to the average resident of Novosibirsk as well.) In any case, there's no denying that most Soviet construction was oppressively dull and derivative; in this case, Soviet censors didn't even seem to bother to try.
Milan Kundera wrote, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "in the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Questions, as we have seen, such as "am I in the wrong city?" and "are you my wife?" but this is immaterial. Totalitarian kitsch, in the realm of architecture, poses innumerable questions once the core of the totalitarian has passed. Architecture in totalitarian societies unquestionably constitutes an exercise of power; the question stands how effective this exercise remains once that rule has passed, and whether the nature of a given totalitarianism is indissolubly bound up in the stone, concrete, and steel to which it gave form. Some particularly egregious symbols are demolished, but far more often, buildings are simply repurposed and assume some new identity. The Reich Chancellery was demolished, with excellent cause; but the Luftwaffe headquarters now houses the German Finance Ministry. Few today, outside of perhaps any especially melodramatic Greek circles, would think that this amounts to any sort of continuity of purpose.
Some wish to expunge the physical memory of totalitarian rule as fully as possible; others believe in retaining some memory of the humane strivings of these former socialist states, that would design and build a puppet theater, or a "children's health resort basin" or countless other facilities for public recreation. These debates continue. There are, of course, far more buildings that many would like to see demolished, and this not because of the buildings' latent symbolic power, but simply because they are godawful monstrosities. But, as you may have heard, money is not something in which the former Eastern bloc is generally much awash, and so they stand.
Up till now, though, we've been talking about the miserable mean of Eastern bloc architecture. The picture looks quite different when you shift your attention to the shining peaks of the style. Author Frédéric Chaubin, who wrote the Taschen volume, calls these buildings "aesthetic outsiders in an ocean of gray." And it becomes far simpler to conclude that, all questions of the historio-political, post-syncretic mediatory, and polythechnic-institutional aside, that this cream of Eastern Bloc construction is simply awesome.
Let's start with the most otherworldly. As Chaubin notes in his introduction to Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, "Anyone's first trip to New York always comes with a feeling of déjà vu, as if one were walking onto the set of a movie seen a hundred times. In contrast, there are vestiges of the Soviet Union that seem like backdrops to movies that never hit the screen, because they were never made." This, if it seems possible, decidedly understates the visual impact of the architectural legacy of the later decades of the Soviet Union and associated states. Eastern Sci-Fi cinema, as superb as its product and settings often were, clearly neglected the treasures in its own backyard.

The architecture facility at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.

The Druzhba sanatorium. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
There's the architecture facility at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk, a mass whose composition is so kinetic that it's easy to suspect that its treads are simply below your line of sight. There's the Druzhba Sanatorium, where hillside columns support a cog-like rounded center, teethed with oversailing balcony pods. The CIA and Turkish Military suspected it to be a rocket launcher; I suspect it to be fun. Or the Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development, for which there's really no description other than it looks like a flying saucer landed square on top of a Kiev building and that the scientists rejoiced in the convenient extra lab space.

The Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
The Yugoslavian monuments known as "Spomenik" are another incomparable Eastern entry.

Two photos from Jan Kempenaers' Spomenik.

Then there's the Chemnitz Stadthalle in the former East Germany, which boasts a honeycomb-esque latticework that seems designed for the easy ingress of DDR winged supermen.

The Chemnitz Stadhalle. Photo courtesy of Andreas Praefcke.
I once described the former Georgian Ministry of Highways as most resembling an abandoned game of Jenga, and I still can't think of any other means to remotely hint at its wonderful frame. Or, turning somewhat back to earth, there's the Soviet Embassy in Havana, a tropical campanile for the Brezhnev era.

The Soviet embassy in Cuba. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
Much earlier construction bears a closer relation to recognized international vernaculars, which is to say that it still often stands at the crisp edge of innovation in the 1920s and 1930s. The early Soviet state recruited from the cream of modernist architects; there's Le Corbusier's Centrosoyuz Building in Moscow and Erich Mendelsohn's Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg, which are each striking.
The Centrosoyuz Building, in Moscow. Photo by Richard Pare, from The Lost Vanguard.

The Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg. Photo by Richard Pare.
Even more interesting is a similar realm of domestically designed constructivist architecture such as Ivan Fomin's NKPS Building, a columnar block given raw energy through a sleek window-banded corner tower. Or the Gosprom building in Kharkov, a majestic multi-tiered wonder balanced vertically by glazed stairwell window columns and horizontally by a series of walkways staggered across intervening streets (also to be found in the decidedly non-sci-fi cinema of Eisenstein's The General Line).

The Gosprom Building, in Kharkov, Ukraine. Photo by Richard Pare.
Or the Narkomfin building in Moscow, which resembles a more rough-hewn version of Erich Mendelsohn's Rudolf Mosse Publishing Company building in Berlin, in which a modern-styled turret complete with ribbon windows is balanced by an opposite rounded corner—only without any windows, and giving way three stories from the top of the structure to the rectilinearity of the rest of the building.
Given the sheer size of the former Eastern bloc, it might seem not surprising that the area would have generated at least some architecture of consequence and yet you'll find notably small sections on the Warsaw Pact or non-affiliated communist states in most architectural atlases or surveys released at a point when C.C.C.P. was more than a Taschen title pun. There's little question that the planned economy was good at little, and still less, in the aggregate, at architecture, but recent publishing has made clear that it too hit breathtaking heights of experiment and form. No matter which airport you're in, or how much Stolichnaya you've had, you'll never mistake any of these fantastically distinctive structures for Third Builders Street.

Full story here

The Ugly-Beauty Of Brutalism

Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago
Updating a cultural canon, in any form, is an endless battlefield due to our persistent tendencies, 1. to create ever more art and 2. to fail, just as rapidly, to agree on its value. Witness debates about revised editions of any literary anthology, or, say, the National Film Registry. At times worthy works receive just recognition; other times, age seems all that’s required to give mediocre works the gloss of historical grandeur. But let’s not get off track discussing Sex, Lies and Videotape vs. Forrest Gump. Rarely is the navigation of this question of aesthetic value more difficult and commercially charged than in architecture. After all, one needn’t tear down The Thin Man in order to add Silence of the Lambs, nor did the Wizard of Oz’s landmarking entail that Taxi Driver couldn’t be built. Architecture sometimes involves exactly these either/or choices, though, and the increasing debates over the aesthetic merits of Brutalism have found multiple flashpoints in recent months, from Chicago to Baltimore to Minneapolis to Oklahoma City to Goshen, New York.
Brutalism. It doesn’t exactly skip off of the tongue, does it? I know plenty of educated people for whom “Brutalism” is simply shorthand for any recent architecture that they happen to dislike. Here "Brutalism" fulfills the same role as "jam bands" as a shorthand category for sweeping disdain. It's be tempting to attribute the misfortunes of Brutalist architecture to semantics; after all, no other 20th-century form of architecture—the International style, Constructivism, Postmodernism—directly conjours images of violence and force, unless you have a particularly paranoiac attitude towards any sort of contemporary theory. And yet this doesn’t quite explain away the recent difficulties of Brutalist architecture. There are, of course, accurate aesthetic objections—bare concrete, however improperly labeled, doesn’t inspire much popular enthusiasm. Look to any list of “ugliest buildings” or “buildings to demolish now” and you’re sure to find multiple Brutalist structures represented. The Trellick Tower in London was said to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, in which society breaks into conflict, chaos, and dog-eating amidst in a self-contained concrete tower mass. Ian Fleming titled a villain after that building’s architect, Erno Goldfinger. That doesn’t happen to Frank Gehry.

Trellick Tower in London
Despite a pronounced lack of public enthusiasm for Brutalism, it's financial and planning concerns, not aesthetic ones, that have temporarily saved or at least postponed the destruction of several recently threatened structures. In April, Paul Rudolph’s water-damaged Orange County Government Center, which is located on Main Street in Goshen, New York, was preserved in an 11-10 vote of the Orange County Legislature. And the votes for saving the building seemed significantly inspired by doubts as to whether demolishing the building and constructing a replacement would actually prove cheaper than repairing the facility. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been cagey about preserving the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Prentice Women’s Hospital, but seems unwilling to approve Northwestern University’s plans to demolish the facility until there’s a concrete indication of what might replace it. In Minneapolis, the city is currently conducting fundraising for a thorough redesign of the Peavey Plaza in downtown, which the American Society of Landscape Architects recognized, in 1999, as one of the most significant examples of landscape architecture in the U.S. The John Johansen-designed Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, for which there is an extant replacement proposal, has drawn criticism from the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel for its proposal to locate a three-story retail building, and not a tower, along a principal street. In each case, renovation seems to have been dismissed peremptorily as impossible. Not helping, in the case of the Orange County Government Center, was the seeming inflated costs of the renovation: The cost estimates for refurnishing the building, some observers pointed out, were some $24 million higher than the actual costs of renovating the structurally quite similar (the architect was the same) University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth library.

The Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore
Financial questions aside, the question of what would replace these structures is vital. Though it's difficult to deny that Brutalism has its flaws. The term, derived from the French word for raw concrete "Béton brut," came, via some gradual tweakings of meaning, to encompass a range of 50s to 70s architecture granting a central role, obviously, to unfinished concrete, but also to abstract geometries, and the frank exposure of functional architectural elements. After sleek International-style modernism, Brutalism represented a turn towards a very different sort of functionalism, often dripping with overhangs, podiums, and articulations designed to enhance its physical immensity (for more on this, check out this recent article). These plans often achieved a sure monumentalism, but also often left humans in the literal dust, in lifeless plazas from Boston City Hall to Dallas City Hall to L’Enfant Plaza that made no attempt to accommodate the pedestrian. And, as with any genre of building, some Brutalist buildings have been well consigned to the wrecking ball—few would argue that cities haven't benefited from some necessary pruning of the Brutalist past.

The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York

Its proposed replacement
In these current disputes, however, the briefest look at replacement plans confirms that demolition proposals would scrap truly intriguing buildings in favor of thoroughly anodyne replacements. The projected replacement for the Orange County Government Center resembled nothing so much as a collegiate neo-Georgian physical sciences building. The proposed residential tower replacement for Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theater looks like any dozen recent American mid-sized glass towers, its mild articulation of façade about as distinctive as the idea of, well… living in a condo in a glass tower downtown. Not to mention countless cases of demolition in which no replacement has yet materialized. The former New Haven Coliseum site sits still vacant. The Leeds International Pool site is now occupied by a parking lot. As Paul Goldberger recently pointed out in Vanity Fair, Northwestern University owns a vacant plot of land across the street from the Prentice Women’s Hospital, and yet, without an extant plan for either site, it insists on demolition.
The principal frustration in all of these recent cases is that the architecture of each of these buildings is unquestionably more inventive and even fanciful than most architecture that directly preceded them, let alone other Brutalist peers. Brutalism enabled plenty of bare walls; but it also birthed some structures that, if you can get beyond the ready wince at the idea of scraping a knee on them, are unquestionably playful. Naturally, there are blank concrete walls; there are also countless intriguing geometries; the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma is a riot of catwalk-linked cubes at varying orientations and elevation; the Orange County Government Center is a lively spilling-forth of windows and canopies, and the Prentice Women’s Hospital is a space-age cloverleaf whose lower portion accordingly looks more like a launch pad than a podium. In all of these cases the argument for preservation is clearly strong, having more to do with the worth of the buildings than any rote hostility to progress or an eggheaded taste for retaining every drop of Brutalist ugliness.

Boston's South End

1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza
There’s little doubt that the preservationist community, as valiant and lonely as its efforts to save Brutalism have been, has made its case in ways that often seem rather hard to swallow. Frequent comparisons to Victorian architecture, and the fact that it too was once regarded with broad distaste, seem justly out-of-touch. No one, in fifty years, or ever, is going to stand in Boston City Hall Plaza and gain the feeling of cozy preservationist joy that they find in Boston’s Victorian South End—any more than, to go back to our beginning, audiences are ever going to find a historical moment at which the now 70-year-old Moses und Aron sounds about as fun as Aida does—nor should they. Brutalism should be addressed, and preserved on its own terms, which are unquestionably more difficult than earlier examples of preservation, although arguably just as worthy.
These terms, for forthrightly evaluating the legacy of Brutalism, are almost invariably civic; nearly all of the structures at present risk are public in purpose and function. The residential legacy of Brutalism has weathered time most poorly for obvious reasons. In the realm of public architecture, however, whether one cares for Brutalism or not, it’s difficult to assert that since its demise we’ve devised much better molds for civic architecture. Occasional commissions might result in a distinctive product, but for the most part we’ve arrived at an age, as Nathan Glazer has convincingly argued, when the scale of necessary public construction, and its attendant cost, has foreclosed on any older, more universally admired models for building. Given the clear mediocrity of likely replacements, to discard wholesale the legacy of a distinctive moment in architectural history out of a feeling of spite seems capricious.
I’m personally very fond of much Brutalist architecture, and find in its mass and geometry an unmistakable majesty, but I recognize that this is hardly a popular proposition, save on some awesome Tumblr accounts. There’s no doubt that Brutalism remains associated with the very worst of top-down mass-planning tendencies in American cities, of the sort that bulldozed vibrant neighborhoods into arid plazas. We’ve happily discarded the notion that anyone wants to live in a Brutalist city, but to then efface any trace of Brutalism is no sort of urban progress. Proposals for intriguing adaptive reuse are in no short supply; let’s not throw away a physical era that seems mildly at odds with our own. Remember, the alternative isn’t likely to be something interesting: it’s likely to be something strenuously banal.

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, historic preservation, cinema, literature, board wargaming, and comparably brutal topics. Photo of Prentice Women's Hospital by Jim Kuhn; Trellick Tower by Jim Linwood; the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre by Andrew Bossi; the Orange County Government Center by Daniel Case; the Dallas City Hall Plaza by Kent Wang; Boston South End by Tim Sackton; 1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza by Ernst Halberstadt

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Friday, 15 November 2013

Design visualisation for architects

Specialists have long used design visualisation to create beautiful presentations at the end of the design process. Now architects, designers, and engineers can also use visualisation to make informed decisions throughout the building information modelling (BIM) process.

Visualisation plays a role at every stage of the architectural design process, including exploring complex organic forms, studying how light interacts with a design, validating a design for planning and public outreach, and marketing a building before breaking ground. As an Autodesk Platinum Partner and experts in visualisation, Man and Machine offer outstanding support and advice.

Man and Machine’s aim is to improve the productivity and efficiency of its customers by providing a combination of software solutions, industry capabilities and optimisation services to ensure they are achieving a better return from their IT investment and their people. Autodesk provides state-of-the-art 3D design visualisation tools that help you get a deeper understanding of how a project works before it’s built. You can detect certain errors in the beginning stages of the design process—the earlier you find them, the easier they are to fix. Design visualisation helps you create better designs, while gaining a competitive edge.

If you need help:
• Creating better buildings with BIM software and intelligent 3D models
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Man and Machine's consultative approach will help you to gain a competitive advantage and leverage your own expertise to increase productivity and innovation. A high-impact visualisation can make the difference between winning a big or walking away empty handed.

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Thursday, 24 October 2013

London's 'Walkie Talkie' skyscraper reflects light hot enough to fry an egg

A new building on London's skyline nicknamed the Walkie Talkie has been blamed for melted car parts due to the intense sunlight reflected from its glass exterior. In a broadcast for Sky News one reporter proves that it is possible to fry an egg in the reflected sunlight. Developers say they are working to rectify the problem.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Printing architecture

Two ETH researchers from the Institute for Technology in Architecture have created an immersive space from artificial sandstone with a 3D printer. The work is currently on display in Orléans,France
Franziska Schmid

A visitor to the space created with the 3D printer. (Image: Hansmeyer / Dillenburger / ETH Zurich)

The immersive space created by the two ETH researchers covers a surface of 16 m2 and is more than three metres high, and its organic, decorative design gives it the semblance of a gothic cathedral’s façade. So it is no coincidence then that the developers decided to call their project Digital Grotesque. “Anyone printing architectural elements does not want to merely copy an existing idea; with these delicate structures, we show that the scope for designing a digitally developed wall is almost limitless,” explains Dillenburger. Digital Grotesque combines technology and nature in a very novel way: first, the project shows how computational design and additive manufacturing can work together, and, second, it draws on nature when it comes to material and form. This means that the project fits perfectly into the Archilab 2013 exhibition currently running at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, which is dedicated to the “Naturaliser l’architecture” theme.


Complex geometry with millions of facets

The project appears playful and weightless, but is neither on closer inspection. The design, which cannot be drawn by hand or generated by computer software such as CAD, was created from highly complex customised algorithms developed by the ETH researchers behind Digital Grotesque. A simple starting shape was mathematically refined and geometrically enhanced until a complex geometry with more than 260 million facets emerged. The surface details push the boundaries of human perception as the intricate shapes evolved organically with micrometric precision.
Whereas assembly took only a day and printing just a month, the development of the design required more than a year. “The difficult part was keeping track of the emerging shapes by using the algorithms, and designing creative and surprising effects,” says Dillenburger.
Furthermore, Digital Grotesque is not light by any means – the special large-scale 3D printer produced more than 11 tonnes of artificial sandstone for the work. The printer is normally used to manufacture casting moulds for large, complex metal parts such as engine blocks, which are then grouted with metal. The ETH architects came up with the idea of using this technology to build architectonic parts. The printer applies a layer of sand which is subsequently fixed in the places where the shape should emerge. Thus, the printer applies the sand layer by layer until the entire printing space is filled with sand. Any excess sand is then vacuumed off and the finished sandstone element cleaned.


Countering standardisation

The ETH architects used the process to produce 64 individual blocks that they then joined together to form the space. Although this – yet experimental – production process still requires quite some effort and expenses, Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger believe strongly in its future. Dillenburger is convinced that it has crucial advantages over the industrial mass production that is the norm today: “The project counters standardisation in modern architecture with a new architectural language that is very specific. 3D printing is very precise and efficient, but it also enables building parts to be individually designed.”
Digital Grotesque can be seen at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, until 2 February 2014.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Spain's economic crash brings architecture dreams back to earth

With the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona that turned the world's attention to Spain, famed buildings throughout the country gave an architectural degree cachet and allure. Norman Foster’s Torre de Collserola and I.M. Pei's World Trade Center, both in Barcelona, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao gave aspiring architects hope for lucrative salaries and the potential for rock-star status.

But alongside dreams came a glut of architects, and a country that went on a building spending spree – both on iconic public works and private apartment complexes.
As the country remains mired in economic crisis, in no small part because of a popped housing bubble, Spain faces an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. It’s not a bright job market for any Spaniard, but perhaps no one has been more impacted than the nation's architects, who have scrambled for Plan B or left the country all together.

Read the full story here

Monday, 14 October 2013

Beijing Design Week

Sees architects launch 'micro-interventions' in one of the capital's oldest neighbourhoods. But are their good intentions having the right effect?
Mobile logos … an itinerant graphic design service is one of the projects launched in Beijing's historic Dashilar neighbourhood this week.
Mobile logos … an itinerant graphic design service is one of the projects launched in Beijing's historic Dashilar neighbourhood this week. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright/Guardian
A plastic fan whirrs above a mountain of tripe, keeping hungry flies away, while pancakes sizzle on a hotplate across the street. A tricycle cart laden with coal careers around a corner, narrowly missing an elderly resident taking his caged songbird out for a stroll, while a construction worker sits on the corner, slurping noodles from a bag. It could be any other day in the hutongs of Beijing's Dashilar neighbourhood, but this week something is different.
Down the lane, a cloud of golden discs erupts from the rooftop of one courtyard house, spilling out to form a canopy above the street. Coloured concrete stools dot the roadside, while giant cushions shaped like roast duck and fresh sushi fill a shop window. A taxi trike trundles down the road, providing not transport but a mobile logo-design service. Beijing Design Week (BJDW) has arrived, and it's brought the “pop-up” concept to one of the Chinese capital's oldest communities.
“We see these projects as a kind of urban acupuncture,” says Beatrice Leanza, the Italian director of this year's festival, who has worked in Beijing's contemporary art world for the last 10 years. “We are proposing micro-interventions in the area's empty buildings as tests for what could happen here.”
As part of the Dashilar programme – one of BJDW's three hubs across the city – two derelict courtyard houses have been taken over by Zhang Ke of Standard Architecture, who has built a clustered treehouse structure of glass-fronted rooms in the open courts, accessed by a series of ladders and ledges, that poke up above the rooftops. With crisp planes of plywood limboing between century-old beams, it is a prototype for how the site could be developed. Zhang describes it as “ultra-small scale social housing within the limitations of super-tight traditional hutong spaces,” which would be part of a mixed-use scheme with restaurants, bookstores and bars.
Parasitic pods … Micro-Hutong prototype by Standard Architecture.
Parasitic pods … Micro-Hutong prototype by Standard Architecture. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright/Guardian
A few doors down, the golden fabric discs signal a proposal by the young Beijing studio, People's Architecture Office, for a “courtyard plug-in” – a plan to insert prefabricated living units into existing houses, leaving the original structures intact. With plumbing, heating, insulation and wiring built-in, the modules would require minimal excavation to bring the leaky, draughty buildings up to habitable standards. The trial project on this site will see these pods bring a library for the local community and a startup business incubator.
In any other context, such installations might not be remarkable, part of the current trend for “meanwhile” uses on vacant sites. But what comes as a surprise is to learn that these projects have been initiated and endorsed by the municipal government – which only a few years ago had the entire district in the sights of its bulldozers.
“There has been a radical shift in the perception of how this neighbourhood should be developed,” says Neill Gaddes, a New Zealand architect who for the last three years has worked for Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited (BDI), a subsidiary of the state-owned Guang An Holding, tasked with upgrading the area. “There is a real push towards improvements and adaptive reuse, rather than wholesale demolition and rebuild.”
Plug-in hutong … a display of a proposal by the People's Architecture Office.
Plug-in hutong … a display of a proposal by the People's Architecture Office. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright/Guardian
The shift has been spurred in part by the disaster that is all too visible just a few blocks east. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, a vast swathe of Qianmen, a thriving commercial district for the last 500 years, was razed and replaced by an inflated Disneyfied version of itself, a process that saw local businesses forcibly displaced by big-name brands dressed in pastiche facades.
Extending outside the old city walls, south of Qianmen gate, in a knotted delta of diagonal lanes, the area had been a lively centre of trade and illicit pleasures for centuries. From the 1500s, brothels clustered between restaurants and theatres, opium parlours lurked beneath lodging houses – a thrilling underworld that lured even incognito emperors here.
If party officials come today, it would be to stock up on Rolex and Zara, or maybe guzzle a Happy Meal. Extending south in a monumental ceremonial axis, just below Tiananmen Square, now stretches a polished open-air mall, where outlets of Nike and Starbucks, Costa and McDonalds, stand behind pantomime costumes of swooping roofs encrusted with gilded signs and lurid mouldings.
Billboards declare the project is “respecting the city texture and recasting the historical view,” as well as “restoring history's cultural pulse”. But walking the street today, it feels a vapid gauntlet through which replica trams now ferry tourists back and forth from H&M to Häagen-Dazs.
Beijing brandalism … The Rolex store towers above the remade Qianmen shopping street.
Beijingbrandalism … The Rolex store towers above the remade Qianmen shopping street. Photograph: Will Clayton/flickr
It is the most visible example of what has happened in numerous pockets of the old city over the last 10 years, as neighbourhoods have been demolished and rebuilt in the name of heritage preservation. From the shopping street of Nanluoguxiang near the Drum and Bell Tower in the north, to the alleys around the Sichahai lakes, the areas designated for historic conservation have been transformed into zombie recreations of themselves. Elsewhere, crumbling courtyard houses have been wrapped in neat jackets but their squalid innards left unchanged, adding a flimsy tourist-friendly veneer to give a picturesque backdrop for lucrative hutong tours.
But in Dashilar, things seem to be going in a different direction. Home to around 55,000 people over a square kilometre, it is one of the most densely populated parts of Beijing – six times the average density. It is also one of the most convoluted in terms of property ownership, with only around 10% of buildings in the possession of the state-owned developer, with the rest split between work units and private owners – a situation further confused by multiple sub-letting and the proliferation of illegally built structures within and on top of courtyard houses. This has seen the built fabric of the area rapidly decline, with little maintenance and upkeep of the properties due to both unclear ownership and ongoing uncertainty about demolition.
“I'm longing to move out,” one elderly resident who has lived here since the 1950s tells me. “But the amount of compensation they are offering is far too little for me to find anywhere else to go.” It sounds a familiar story, one that in the past would have ended with forced eviction. But changes to property laws since 2008 have made it harder for developers to expel residents, putting more power in the individual owners' hands to demand higher prices. As a result, residents now compete with their neighbours to be bought out at higher rates, which is making Dashilar an increasingly divided place. But the deadlock has a unexpected upside.
“This stalemate is providing an opportunity for the area to develop in a slower, more beneficial way,” says Gaddes. The initial failure of the Qianmen redevelopment – which was plagued with vacant units due to inflated rents – gave the government cold feet about rolling the same plan out across Dashilar. This hiatus gave BDI time to commission the “nodal” Dashilar pilot strategy, developed by local architect Liang Jingyu from 2011, which would facilitate several model projects in strategic locations across the area – and show existing owners how investing in their properties and businesses could help turn a profit and improve the area. “We're trying to change the conversation from people holding out for compensation, to wanting to invest and stay in their own community,” says Gaddes. As the leader of the local Xicheng municipality puts it, these pilot projects should be “like twinkling stars that grow by themselves”.
Beijing Design Week introduces the Dashilar neighbourhood
One such twinkling star comes in the form of Lin Lin, the director of Jellymon, a creative agency based in the neighbourhood, who recently sold her flat in London to buy a 10-year lease on an art deco factory across the street from her studio in Dashilar.
“I'm planning a holistic up-cycling experience,” she beams as she leads me through her building site and up a ladder, in sequin-studded platform heels, to the first floor, which she wants to transform into a cocktail bar. Down below will be an organic supermarket and restaurant themed around re-use. She is presenting the concept at BJDW by hosting a performance banquet, in which every piece of a pig is used in what she calls a “fusion of fine dining, taxidermy and product design."
Many locals turn up to watch the surreal occasion, happily stuffing chunks of the pig into bags to take back home. It is hard, however, to imagine how many of them will frequent Lin Lin's organic food shop when there is a heaving farmer's market around the corner selling food for a fraction of the price.
A project that looks a little more sensitively calibrated to the needs of locals is proposed by French designer Matali Crasset a few streets away. Dressed in a red harlequin outfit and sharp bowl haircut that gives her the look of a children's entertainer, she has taken over a factory building for the week to run workshops with local schoolchildren to imagine what the space might become.
French designer Matali Crasset plans to transform a disused factory building into a community play space.
French designer Matali Crasset plans to transform a disused factory building into a community play space. Photograph: Matali Crasset
“I was attracted to this building because it has the potential to act as a public route, linking the two streets either side,” she says as we walk through the building where she plans to install a “forest crossing playground,” an undulating ramp dotted with cabins and greenhouse spaces. For now, she has daubed bright graphic patterns on the walls and built some temporary furniture, but if the plans go ahead, it could be a useful social space for parents to bring their children in an area that lacks such community facilities.
While well-meaning, many of the projects in the area seem to have mis-fired. Italian designer Luca Nichetto has installed a number of coloured benches, designed to be moved and flipped to act as stools or tables, inspired by watching locals move their stools into shady spots along the streets. Yet their heavy concrete construction means they can barely be lifted – instead, some clever residents have taken them apart and are using their cylindrical legs as plant pots.
Hong Kong-based designer Michael Young has been commissioned to design a new public toilet, with a curvaceous white-tiled shell that will arch over the new loos like a space-age pod. It looks nice enough, but inside it will house four conventional western cubicles, negating the fact that the current open squat-toilets serve a key social role, where people chat between knee-high partitions.
A Dashilar resident looks on at Luca Nichetto's concrete stools from the comfort of her own chair.
A Dashilar resident looks on at Luca Nichetto's concrete stools from the comfort of her own chair. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright/Guardian
Speaking to residents who have witnessed the Dashilar project evolve over the last three years, there remains an understandable suspicion about the developer's motives – with the precedent of Qianmen all too fresh in the memory. Some question why they would be seeding designers and new businesses in the area, if not as a form of cultural-led gentrification, with the ultimate aim of attracting a more upmarket resident. Others are more hard-nosed: the incremental improvement of the neighbourhood makes demolition less likely, and thus threatens their chances of being bought out. Many would happily see the place razed if given the means to move on to better conditions – and they are not blind to the fact that these crumbling lanes represent some of the most expensive real-estate in Beijing.
He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre – which recently wrote a furious letter to the RIBA condemning Zaha Hadid's Galaxy Soho mega-mall for destroying an area of hutongs – has little time for the Dashilar plans, seeing the nodal strategy as no different to what happens elsewhere, only disguised in more palatable rhetoric.
"The developers want to be seen as gentlemen who understand the local history very well," he says. "But at the same time, they are trying to make Dashilar high-end, with new, bigger, brighter buildings. They despise local residents and the non-wealthy and want to move them all out."
"It is also difficult to distinguish who is the development businessman and who the local government officer," he adds. "They are almost a compound body – they are developers when they need to make money, and they are government officials when they need the power."
Out in the cold … Taiwanese architects Open Union Studio are camping on the rooftop after local residents refused them access.
Out in the cold … Taiwanese architects Open Union Studio are camping on the rooftop after local residents refused them access. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright/Guardian
The conflict between the project's ambition and the reality on the ground is brought into no sharper focus than at No 30 Yaowu Hutong, where Taiwanese practice Open Union Studio has set up camp.
“We wanted to create a social space that the community could share,” says architect Hai Teng, showing me around a series of wooden house-like frames he has erected on the rooftop, overlooking a courtyard filled with a jumble of jerry-built out-buildings, where six families totalling 15 people currently live. “The neighbours here are not so friendly to each other, so we wanted to make a space that they could use together.”
The architects were originally intended to occupy the empty first floor level of the building, which extends along the streetfront in a long glazed gallery, for up to two years. But when the downstairs residents caught wind of the fact this space was going to be unlocked, they said they would move in themselves and stop the practice from taking up residence. As a result, the designers are now on the rooftop in two temporary tents. “If we stay here and get to know them, we hope they will change their minds,” says Hai. “Most architecture and design exhibitions waste so much money, so we wanted to do something useful.”
Bert de Muynck, a Belgian architect who has carried out extensive research on the Dashilar initiative with Mónica Carriço at the Moving Cities think-tank, has mixed feelings about the outcome so far. “It is a brave attempt to do something different after the failures of places like Qianmen,” he says. “People criticise those developments for creating twee stage-sets for tourists – but we have to be careful Dashilar is not just creating another kind of 'authentic' stage set for designers.”
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