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These Young Chinese Architects Are Helping Save Old Beijing

“We’re not here to just make things look pretty, or to make spaces comfortable, but to actually engage in larger issues.”

In recent years, Beijing has undergone what some have called a “Brooklynization.” The narrow streets at the center of the city–commonly called hutong and often centuries old–are rapidly disappearing as the urban core is gentrified. But while some architects might be helping as the government tears down entire neighborhoods in order to modernize the city, one local firm is doing the opposite.

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Mrs. Fan’s Plugin House [Photo: PAO/Gao Tianxia]
The People’s Architecture Office is attempting to provide an architectural antidote to the sweeping gentrification while prototyping a business model that puts neighborhoods and communities–rather than the individual client–at its center. Founded in 2010 in Beijing by the Chinese architects He Zhe and Zang Feng and the Los Angeles-born Chinese-American product designer and architect James Shen, the office is based in the historic center of Beijing, near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

“We felt that design has been left to the side in terms of its relevance to our environment, our social, and cultural issues that we’re concerned about,” Shen says. “We wanted to build a practice that would deal with these kinds of issues in very direct ways. We’re not here to just make things look pretty, or to make spaces comfortable, but to actually engage in larger issues.”

While Beijing might be famous for its contemporary architecture, it is the humble backstreets of its historic neighborhoods that have driven PAO’s three partners to reimagine the relationship between the architect and the city.

Courtyard House Plugin [Photo: PAO]

Defending Historic Beijing With Prefab And Hex Wrenches

PAO is taking a different approach to local redevelopment problems, which include the demolition of older, degrading houses and the displacement of people to make room for new new buildings.

When the government invited designers to design new ways to redevelop historic neighborhoods, the studio proposed the Plugin House. Rather than demolishing old, traditional courtyard houses, they asked, why not keep the historic bones of the building while constructing an entirely new one inside it?

The Plugin Houses do just that, through prefabrication. The panels are manufactured in a factory, hand-carried into each home, and then assembled using only a hex wrench. “With a house designed like this, who wouldn’t want to come back and live in Hutong neighborhoods?” narrates one Plugin House owner in a video about her choice to stay in the neighborhood she grew up in.

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The project was originally subsidized by the government, but Shen says that three years after the initial prototype was completed, PAO has continued selling the prefab houses to locals because the demand was high. He claims that the system costs less than half of a conventional renovation.

But besides saving people from displacement and providing a cheaper option for the renovation of old homes, the Plugin project is a means of preserving the historic center of Beijing. “A lot of times you see preservation done where old houses are rebuilt to look like they’re old,” Shen says. “In these spaces, you get all the layers of history that is kind of written across all these old buildings. On the walls, you see kind of scars from all the things that happened. You can actually read the history from looking at the buildings.”

River Heights Residences [Photo: PAO]
The firm also does more traditional projects, but they continue to invoke their principles of designing for the masses. Take the River Heights Residences, an apartment complex in Taiyuan, China. Each tower is a different height, which gives them a slightly different appearance when viewed from afar.

“If you look at it as a whole you can understand it as a cohesive group of buildings,” Shen says. “That’s kind of our way of thinking about society, that individually it’s not so important. In the States, we really make that the primary, most vital aspect of society. But we wanted to try to communicate that the cohesiveness of the community is also something that needs to be emphasized.”

Shen says that each building is actually a cluster of towers that were designed to be different heights specifically to maximize density while also meeting government requirements for light and ventilation. While it might look like high-end luxury apartments on the outside, he says the cost of the units is lower than the average in Taiyuan.

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People’s Canopy [Photo: PAO]

Urban Spaces On Wheels

Many of PAO’s other projects are temporary structures that are meant to be moved around. “I think you can also see in our work that we incorporate a lot of things that we see in your everyday experience of Beijing, a lot of things that would be identified with the informal aspects of the city–mobile shops, tricycle shops, street vendors, temporary structures that can collapse and expand, creative ways that people have found to go on with their businesses and to improve their living standards in this very dense, very congested urban environment,” Shen says.

One example of that is the People’s Canopy, a two-story collapsible canopy on wheels that was designed specifically to activate public spaces. The canopy is built on bicycle wheels, and can be pedaled from one location to another; when it’s set up, it can stretch to nearly 40 feet by 33 feet and cover an entire street. Though it was originally commissioned by Preston, a city in the U.K., and an urban nonprofit called In Certain Spaces, PAO has now created People’s Canopies for Leuven, Belgium; Hong Kong; and Shenzhen, China. The firm is in talks to make one for Seoul and to install one permanently in Beijing and another Chinese city, Yantai.

Shen says that the temporary structure is designed to help cities test out initiatives, like turning a street into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare or starting a farmers’ market in a certain location (though it’s also used for big events like festivals). Another project from the firm, a series of tricycle vehicles that pop open into usable spaces, play on the same idea of deliberately temporary structures that can be moved when needed.

Shen calls this idea “urban prototyping”–and it’s close to the heart of PAO’s design philosophy. “We’ll be using [the People’s Canopy] in Yantai to distribute resources from the library into different communities,” Shen says. “It all has to do with this idea of being able to distribute resources and infrastructure to places that don’t have it. The mobility, this flexibility, just makes it a little bit easier to execute.”

Mrs. Fan’s Plugin House [Photo: PAO/Gao Tianxia]

The Incubator Model Comes To Architecture

The People’s Canopy and the Plugin project have been so successful that PAO has continued to iterate on each. And after prompting by a nonprofit investor, Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation, the firm has decided to move away from the project-based model for architecture and toward what Shen calls an “incubation model,” where the firm invests in and launches products that can then be spun off into their own businesses. He will be developing this new business model over the course of the next year as part of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard.

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“That’s not something architects have typically been able to do. Most buildings are built as one-offs. It’s an extremely conservative industry,” Shen says. “So we’d like to take advantage of being in China and having these resources, working with factories to give people more access to high-quality design.”

One product the firm is hoping to turn into its own company is a line of furniture it just completed for a client. But there’s the challenge of turning their firm’s identity into a true brand. “In China, you don’t have any brands. You don’t have Hermann Millers, or Steelcase, you don’t have brands like that,” Shen says. “They’re in China but incredibly unaffordable.”

But Shen says PAO is the first Asian architecture firm that’s registered as a benefit corporation, another differentiating factor for them. “We feel that our office, our position, in China currently, is a good place to be,” he says. “I think it’s a good time for pushing design.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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