Beijing Design Week 2015: Baitasi ReMade

Beijing

6 October 2015

The sheer scale of Beijing makes easy definitions of the city near impossible. Districts of skyscrapers and shopping malls, coupled with a pernicious, lingering curtain of smog, speak of the city's booming economy and unrelenting pace, yet China's capital also houses serene temples, luscious gardens and traditional hutong communities. It is these latter communities that provided one of the most interesting backdrops to this year’s Beijing Design Week.

Beijing Design Week (BJDW) launched in 2011 and across its two-week duration it now attracts five million visitors (by comparison Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile trade fair attracts 300,000). Curated by Beatrice Leanza, the event is co-organised by the Chinese State Council and the Beijing Municipal People’s Government, and it stretches across the city in the form of three broad categories: Design Service, Design Exhibition and Design Trade.

This year’s event sees the launch of Baitasi ReMade, a showcase of speculative installations, exhibitions and events that are interspersed throughout the traditional hutongs (narrow alleys formed of rows of low-rise, courtyard residences native to northern China) of Baitasi. Sandwiched between Beijing's commercial and financial districts, Baitasi (meaning "The White Stupa Temple") is a largely residential area that is populated with temples and ancient buildings. It was founded during the Yuan dynasty (1271AD-1368AD), preserved itself during the Ming and Qing periods, and survived Beijing's almost city-wide urban redevelopment that partnered China’s opening up to the world in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sixty-seven per cent of the traditional courtyard houses that make up Baitasi (known locally as Siheyuan) are owned by the Chinese state. They stand in various states of disrepair, renovation and modernisation, with just 31.9 per cent of homes in Baitasi having a private toilet. In 2009, Baitasi was declared one of 25 protected sites in Beijing and Beijing Hurong Jinying Investment & Development Co Ltd – “the same developer that operates in Financial Street,” says Leanza – was appointed by the Chinese government to address the ongoing preservation and revitalisation of the area.

Baitasi is not BJDW’s first affiliation with the city's hutong districts. When BJDW launched in 2011, Dashilar Design Community, a programme based in the hutongs of Dashilar, south west of Tiananmen Square, launched alongside it. Yet Dashilar and Baitasi differ significantly. Dashilar is now adorned with many signs of modernisation and gentrification. Cafes, shops, architecture studios, and exhibition spaces are regular fixtures on its narrow streets, and the district is regularly flagged as a tourist attraction (TripAdvisor puts it as 76th of the 1,439 recommended things to do in Beijing).

Baitasi, by comparison, is predominantly residential. Seventy-one per cent of its residents come from Beijing and the cafes and shops that populate Dashilar are few and far between in Baitasi. “Baitasi is really the place that stays in the first-hand memories of Beijingers,” says Leanza. “It is mostly a residential area so a lot of people in Beijing were born there or went to school there. They have memories of Baitasi; there is almost this melancholic attachment to the place.”

Despite the relative sanctuary of Baitasi compared to its surrounds – the Bank of China and many other state institutions sit just outside its boundaries – the area fails to attract a young, professional demographic. Baitasi ReMade seeks solutions to this problem. “The issue is how do we keep it alive as an area? How do you go about putting energies there to make it desirable for people to still go back and live in the hutongs?" says Leanza. "Services and infrastructures are lacking in Baitasi, but these are typical problems of any hutong area. The difference is that Dashilar has a community that is feeding itself [commercially]. Baitasi does not. Baitasi is an enclave.”

The Baitasi ReMade programme has four main hubs located at various points around the district: Info Hub, Making Hub, Reading Hub and Sales Hub. Each hub has been designed as a means to promote the history and culture of Baitasi, encouraging visitors to the design week and local residents to engage with the ongoing revitalisation of the area. The hubs form part of the organisers’ efforts to work directly with the community on the project. “It is a moderate programme, it is not this grand thing. It cannot be an invasion,” says Leanza. “The residents will end up disliking you and you will end up creating the wrong relationship with them.”

The projects that feature in Baitasi ReMade are predominantly bottom-up programmes run by the community, rather than schemes proposed by star designers. Split Courtyard House by Beijing-based architectural practice Trace Architecture Office (TAO), for instance, presents a model for communal, hutong living designed to appeal to young professionals. TAO has reconfigured the conventional plan of a traditional courtyard house to accommodate four private living and sleeping spaces, each with a secluded courtyard, that share a central living area and kitchen. Presented as affordable accommodation, the residence would be rented for 4000-5000 Chinese yuan (£415-£520) per month.

Community clinic project DRINK’N HOPe, designed by Geraldine Lo, is a free clinic run by volunteer doctors that offers Chinese medicine to retirees and community workers. The project is funded by the sale of necklaces that give their wearers discounted drinks from various bars across Beijing. The clinic is to be short-lived, open for just two weeks during BJDW, but represents an encouraging step towards fulfilling the needs of the community within the local confines.

Alongside the traditional medicinal practices embraced by Lo’s project, Jianzi Box by international architecture practice Spark also references a premodern Chinese tradition that is integrated within hutong living. The project is a temporary, mesh pavilion cloaked with 15,000 jianzi, a heavily-weighted, shuttlecock-like object that dates back to the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) and is used in a traditional game still commonly played on the streets of China today. The temporary pavilion provides a new, communal space on a previously disused site in Baitasi.

One notable exception to the hutong-specific projects that dominate Baitasi ReMade is ZaoZuo, an online Chinese furniture design brand that launched a selection of products in Baitasi during BJDW. Although based in China, the brand collaborates with designers from all over the world. Included in the display are projects by Italian designer Luca Nichetto and Stockholm-based design studio Form Us With Love. Despite ZaoZuo’s international focus, the brand has attempted to localise itself with a project that allows Baitasi residents to trade in pieces of old furniture for Freelancer chairs, a new product designed by Beijing-based Swedish designer Max Gerthel.

“People love the chairs very much,” says Wang Fu, of ZaoZuo. “It is an experiment for us and for the people here. They have never touched or had any channel to experience international design so this is the first time that they can have it in their homes.” Yet although the brand has potential, the project itself seems superficial. The old furniture will not be recycled or exhibited, but rather just “stored in our warehouse,” says Fu. “We will not recycle them, they are just a memory of this place.”

A more sustainable furniture project lines the leafy, main street of Baitasi that leads to the Lu Xun literary museum. Supercounter by BaO Architects, a practice run by Beijing-based French architect Benjamin Beller, is a series of angular wooden benches designed to be “the most simple of gestures, implemented in the right way, so that they aren't received as invasive but instead as objects that the community can appropriate,” says Leanza. Following BJDW the benches will be redistributed throughout Baitasi. “As soon as we installed the project, it was filled with people,” says Leanza.

It is projects like this that make evident BJDW's impressive commitment to long-term, socially-led engagement. It is a festival that focused on projects that aim to still have a presence in the community once the spotlight of the design week has passed.

“It can easily be a double-edged sword where you have the design week, a two-week event, because what happens at the end of that?" says Leanza. "That is the greatest challenge: keeping up with the approach. From day one we were very clear that we want this project to continue. We have a chance to bring professionals to Baitasi, people who have in-depth knowledge of their subject. They aren’t just coming in to set something up for the sake of self-promotion. The aim is to keep being involved on a long-term basis.”