The Source


Left: Hutong next to a modern apartment complex, tianjin, China. Middle, right: Hutong in Beijing. Photos; RM

Chinese urban planning has often been criticized for its ruthless demolishing of older areas in favor of new monotonous blocks. China is not respecting its own heritage, is often suggested. This phenomenon, however, to the contrary can be seen as the result of China’s persistence in maintaining its traditional way of thinking about planning, for too long.

The origin of Hutong

A Hutong is a walled area consisting of narrow streets of up to 9 meters wide. The houses of which it is made up are usually only 1 level high. This type of community existed for 700 years and arose after the arrival of Genghis Khan.The word Hutong originally means “source” or “water well”. In the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals.

Courthouse to urban fabric

Traditional Chinede urban structure: From courtyard house to urban fabric.

As the capital of imperial China, the layout of Beijing could be seen as a holistic work. Its urban logic was of a concentric structure formed around a center that reigned supreme. This schema of an ideal city was described in the traditional engineering book Kaogongji, which dictated that the imperial palace should be placed in this center, becoming the point of origin from which the space of the city is generated. Beijing was an exemplar in this regard with the Forbidden City bounded by the Imperial City, the Inner City, and the Outer City, each with its own wall one after another. Citizens of higher social status were permitted to live closer to the center of the circles.

The city was organized in a so-called Paifang-system. In this, a hutong, consisting of several traditional courtyard residences, was lowest level of administrative geographical divisions within the city. Several Hutongs formed a Pai (neighborhood), Several Pai made up a Fang (precinct). Historical Beijing consisted of 36 Fang.

Urban Planning under Mao

The urban space that was rapidly produced after 1949 struggled to obey this historical logic. An urban planning committee, led by Prof. Liang was established to discuss the Beijing plan; it was argued that the wall and the historic city be preserved as a whole. ‘Its top can be planted with grass, flowers and trees, and be placed with some chairs and seats. Along with the moat, the wall would be a unique three-dimensional park. It would serve the city with an outstanding urban space. But by the 1950s, automobiles had begun reshaping cities around the world.

Liang proposed that the Central Government be placed west of the old city on a new site. In this way, the historic center would be preserved while the new city could better fulfil its modern functions. Mao criticized Liang for respecting the ‘old’ too much, and the wall was torn down.

The Chairman wanted to hold on to a more traditional, concentric kind of planning and indicated that the Central Government should be inside the old city while some subordinate institutions could be placed outside. The traditional small-scale hutong simply could not cater to the needs of modern institutions, nor support automobile traffic and were largely demolished.

Beijing urban growth

Development of the city of Beijing: urban growth 1951-2000

The reconstruction of this concentric system took place simultaneously with the demolition of the wall. The Second Ring Road was built largely on the original site of the inner city and outer city wall, with the Third, Fourth, Fifth and even the Sixth Ring Roads (built in 1994, 2001, 2003 and 2009 respectively) intensifying the concentric structure of the city ever since. These ring roads cause terrible congestion in the radial roads of the city. Only by the turn of the century, a shift in thinking about urban planning occurred and the fact was recognized that the  monocentric structure does not function for the kind of mega-city that Beijing had become, and the realization of a secondary business center along the eastern third ring road was started, not unlike cities like London and Paris had inaugurated plans to set up secondary centers to reduce overcrowding in older areas already.

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