HUTONGism: Learning from the Existing

Feb 25 · 7 min read

“We don’t want to be architects who look down on people, dictating the spaces they live in. We want to be at the same level — to be not someone who designs their life, but someone who understands their life.”

Baolin Shen, a Yale School of Architecture student, makes this comment as we walk through HUTONGism, an exhibit he created with fellow student Jingqiu Zhang. I’m there to learn more about the project, which was produced with support from Tsai CITY’s Student Innovation Fund, as well as the School of Architecture, Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Yale-China Association, and Asian American Cultural Center. Funding from CITY and elsewhere helped Shen and Zhang realize their ideas for the exhibit, and I’m curious to see where these ideas have taken them: what is HUTONGism, and what can it tell us about innovation?

Shen and Zhang describe HUTONGism as “ongoing research that collectively explores the potential of hutong, a type of urban vernacular in Beijing, as a living condition in highly dense environment.” Hutongs are characterized by narrow alleyways and mixed-use areas, with living spaces and informal commercial spaces existing in close proximity. As part of their project, Shen and Zhang explored these urban neighborhoods during a research trip to Beijing, documenting the vibrant communal spaces they saw through photos and videos — and their exhibit at the School of Architecture, which closed in mid-February, shared their insights from this experience with audiences in New Haven.

Visitors to the exhibit can first enter two narrow “alleyways” that border a central tent. Lining the alleys are Shen and Zhang’s photos, which capture the hutongs’ lively environments and the ad hoc innovations that residents have created in their neighborhoods: sidewalks host portable markets, DIY extensions transform buildings into multi-unit homes, small patches of space turn into gathering points. In one of the gallery’s “alleys,” visitors can sit down in a lightweight plastic chair — another echo of the hutongs, in which residents frequently move lightweight furniture between their homes and the street — and watch video footage of a Beijing street. This serves as a key introduction to the hutong atmosphere, says Zhang: “Before entering the major exhibition space itself, people can actually get a glimpse of what it looks like.”

The main space of the exhibition — the tent between the alleys — represents the next stage of engagement: having begun to explore the hutong, visitors are now prompted to see patterns within this environment. In their research, Shen and Zhang noticed that hutong residents often treated the street as an extension of their living spaces, a practice made possible by communities’ unspoken agreements around the porous boundaries between private and public space. Reflecting this, the exhibit conceptualizes elements of these neighborhoods as different components of a home, presenting three projects under the HUTONGism theme: the hutong pantry, the hutong attic, and the hutong living room.

The hutong pantry, for example, encompasses a neighborhood’s grocery shops, which are often adjacent to homes or adapted to small spaces. “The shops have become a place of congregation for the residents — getting groceries is a daily activity. It’s almost like their own pantry,” says Shen, noting the difference between this informal experience and that of making a weekly, planned trip to a supermarket. “This opens opportunities for people to meet each other, for conversations.”

Perhaps the core element of the hutong is what Shen and Zhang see as its “living room” — the in-between spaces where homes meet the street. Again and again, their observations captured glimpses of this interaction, from the ways in which residents drew their street-facing blinds to the movement of furniture, cooking equipment, and other household items between private and public spaces. “We found that these elements are really important for the vitality of the street, even though they’re very small,” says Zhang.

Having made these observations, Shen and Zhang began to translate them to architectural drawings, studying the photos and videos they had taken as they put pencil to paper. They discovered that capturing what they termed “the in-between” required particular approaches to drawing — for example, they needed to draw with a sense of translucence in order to simultaneously capture activity within homes and on the street. As they drew, this process of depicting the vibrant hutong context on paper yielded fresh insights into the architectural innovations already happening in the neighborhoods’ homes, shops, and alleys. We start out with a blank sheet,” says Shen. “Along the way, surprises appear.”

Shen and Zhang see this experience as a signal of broader potential for an approach to architecture that starts with contextual research and uses drawing as a key interpretive tool for moving from observation to new ideas. “Usually, when we do design we start with conceptualized speculation before we go to the site,” explains Zhang, who is writing a thesis on this subject. “We want to reverse that, to really look at what’s happening in the city, document this through photos and videos, and then later go into drawing. Drawing, as part of an architect’s specialty, really gives us abilities to notice what’s happening, the small details, how people use the space.”

Left: In-Between (Baolin Shen & Jingqiu Zhang); center: Hutong Pantry — Informal Encounter (Facundo Fernández, Flora Oficina de arquitectura); right: Hutong Attic — Roofscape (Jiang Chang, Atelier CHANG)

Within the exhibit’s tent, visitors can explore various experiments with this process. The living room concept, for example, is explored through photos and videos, drawings, architectural models, and ultimately a series of original ideas for small urban innovations that build on what hutong residents are already doing. Throughout the tent, photos are paired with drawings or models, allowing visitors to toggle between ways of seeing and understanding urban spaces.

Ultimately, Shen and Zhang see HUTONGism as a test ground for a “learning from the existing” method of urban research. “We’re thinking of this exhibition as the starting point, for both the research and the conversation,” notes Zhang. Already, they’re in conversation with groups at Yale and elsewhere about bringing the exhibit to different spaces, including a potential installation in the Beijing hutongs that inspired the project. They’re also now working on building a platform, which they’ve called Reflex-Arc, for connecting people from multiple disciplines around urban research and design.

It’s these kinds of connections — across disciplines, as well as across geographies and life experiences — that Shen and Zhang have been particularly excited to see develop over the exhibit’s run at the School of Architecture. Near the end of our conversation, I ask Shen and Zhang what’s surprised them most about the project, and they both mention unexpected interactions with visitors. A security guard, for example, was struck by the exhibit’s images of makeshift building extensions; he had previously worked in the construction industry and was intrigued by how residents had made use of found materials. Another visitor pointed out parallels between the hutongs and his immigrant community in Flushing, Queens. Inspired by this conversation, Shen and Zhang recently took a field trip to Flushing, considering this context and opportunities for urban research and engagement there.

Ultimately, they hope that HUTONGism, and their broader approach to “learning from the existing,” will continue to spark these kinds of connections between architects and people from a wide range of fields and backgrounds. Understanding the interactions and relationships that compose the fabric of urban life is vitally important to designing for urban environments, they point out — and even the smallest gesture, like moving a chair to the sidewalk, can be a powerful innovation. As we wrap up the gallery visit, Zhang sums up this intention, pointing to the images around her: “The everydayness is what we want to explore.”

By Laura Mitchell Tully

All images courtesy of Baolin Shen and Jingqiu Zhang | Exhibit graphic design by Wenwen Zhang

Additional image credits:

Hutong Pantry — Informal Encounter: Facundo Fernández, Flora Oficina de arquitectura

Hutong Attic — Roofscape: Jiang Chang, Atelier CHANG



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Ideas, perspectives, and works in progress from the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale.

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