Dashilar’s dilemma

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-27 18:43:01

Can Beijing's designers revitalize old neighborhood without eradicating its past?

Local residents in one of the hutong in the old Dashilar neighborhood near Tiananmen Square. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Customers enjoying the afternoon sunshine on the terrace of one of Dashilar's recently refurbished cafes. Photo:Li Hao/GT

In a squalid hutong less than a kilometer from Tiananmen Square, among dingy convenience stores and derelict courtyard homes long since fallen into disrepair, is a chicly refurbished cafe-furniture shop.

This is by no means an uncommon sight in Beijing, where widespread gentrification has displaced countless poor and working class people of their homes and usurped their way of life. But take a closer look at this cafe-shop, and one notices some crucial differences.

The exterior facade of the two-storey concrete-and-brick structure still bears the hand-painted logo of its former identity - a factory that produced electrical relay devices. All of the furniture being sold is "upcycled" - objects discarded or considered waste that have been lovingly transformed. Inside, some of the produce that is served is sourced from their rooftop aquaponic farm, a process of food production that sustains its own mini-ecology so as not to produce waste.

The name of the hybrid space, Re-Up, neatly sums up its operating philosophy, as well as its broader attitude towards change in the historical Dashilar neighborhood where it is situated.

"Re-Up is a restoration project that is upcycle-conscious and sustainability-conscious. Re-Up means rejuvenating and reusing the materials we have," said Lin Lin, the British-Chinese designer and founder of the space.

Featured in this year's Beijing Design Week (September 26 - October 3), it can be seen as part of a wider, deliberate effort on the part of a small community of designers, architects and artists to revitalize the old Dashilar neighborhood without eradicating its past.

Re-Up, the former electrical relay device factory that has been redesigned and refurbished by designer Lin Lin. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Restoration proclamation

In 2007, the nearby Qianmen Dajie was entirely demolished and reconstructed into something that has widely been criticized as a film set caricature of an ancient Chinese street. Although on the surface, it resembles a historical Chinese street, its actual history - the events that those old buildings had witnessed and the local residents who had witnessed them - have been displaced and erased.

For a time, it was feared that the Dashilar area would befall the same fate. A flourishing commercial hub that during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) boasted tea shops and stock exchanges, opera houses and brothels, the neighborhood had fallen into ruin and disrepair.

Due for a complete overhaul, a group of conscientious architects persuaded local developers to go in another direction.   

In 2011, the organizers of the Beijing Design Week got involved, dedicating a number of their events to the space, in the hopes of finding an alternative way of reinvigorating the area. Projects like Re-Up have gradually taken root as a result of these initiatives.

These projects are aimed at preserving the integrity of the neighborhood. They seek to involve locals so they will be active participants in the process of change, rather than passive victims displaced from their homes. 

Not only did Lin spend 11 months on redesigning and refurbishing the old factory space, but everything in the space is based on the principle of regeneration - from the old light bulbs (drinking glasses) to the chairs for patrons to sit on (converted rice container covers).

She has also made a conscious effort to involve local residents in her project, by inviting them to use the old factory as a communal gathering space. Former workers at the electrical relay device factory have visited as well, to share their stories with her. For this year's Beijing Design Week, Re-Up is launching "a series of prototype public facilities for the neighborhood community."

"If you respect your neighbors, not only by talking to them, but also listening to them, sincerely, then you can help them to understand your project," said Lin. "I don't try to emphasize the differences. I try to bridge. And they've been really kind." 

So committed is Lin to Re-Up that she sold her London home to fund the project. "Restorations always take a longer period of time, and it is more expensive than tearing everything down and rebuilding," said Lin. "I hope people to find a little bit more about the building, how it was built, its history and everything."

Cao Pu, a Beijing architect, with a model of his planned courtyard hostel. Photo: Li Hao/GT


The aquaponic farm on the rooftop of Re-Up. Photo:Li Ying/GT

Newcomers not welcome

The municipal government have partnered with the Beijing Design Week to support the efforts of conscientious architects and designers to reinvigorate the old Dashilar neighborhoods. There are no plans at present to demolish and rebuild the entire neighborhood, and residents are not being forcibly evicted to make way for reconstruction.

Some might see this as victory for the local residents. But nothing is being done to give local residents an incentive to stay. 

"[The government] has been refurbishing the outsides of houses in the hutong," said a local resident in his 50s who declined to give his name. "But in the winter, we still have no heating."

Over the past year, a number of new shops and businesses have popped up on vacant properties in Dashilar. Although many of these projects have tried to involve local residents and to cause as little intrusion or disruption to their way of life, some of the residents have met the changes with suspicion and hostility.

One month ago, 33-year-old architect Cao Pu, also the guitarist for Beijing-based indie band Queen Sea Big Shark, tried to open a hostel in a siheyuan (traditional courtyard) in the neighborhood.

Such courtyards usually house several families, each family with their own subdivided rooms facing a communal courtyard. Cao wanted to preserve this arrangement, using just one of the rooms in the courtyard space for his hostel.

As someone who was born and raised in Beijing, he was sensitive to the possible disruptions this might cause to the lives of residents who shared the space.

"The hostel would be an intrusion for the neighbors, so I thought about how I could minimize this," said Cao.

His solution was to make the entrance facade into a sliding wall, that would move forwards and backwards to adjust to the number of guests in the hostel.  "So if we only had two guests, we could move the wall back to give more space to the courtyard," he explained.

But Cao's plan was met with such strong opposition from one of the residents that he was locked out of the courtyard. He remains optimistic however, and is currently working on implementing his idea in another space, which he intends to present during the Beijing Design Week.

"One of my friends runs a bar in a courtyard. In the beginning, he was not welcome either, but gradually he managed to get on good terms with his neighbors," he said.

Cao sees his project as a way of preserving a disappearing way of life in Beijing. "If the derelict old houses are all demolished, the hutong will disappear," he said.

Newspaper headline: Can Beijing's designers revitalize old neighborhood without eradicating its past?

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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