Reviving White Pagoda Temple
Baitasi Remade is a programme for renovating the Baitasi (White Pagoda Temple) Community, combining traditional and creative ideas to explore possibilities for developing Beijing’s old urban areas.
After the concluding of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October in 2017, residents in Beijing expressed their ideas about the event, which achieved fruitful results in many ways, one of which was a poster featuring red paper cuttings of Chinese characters—民泰安康
( mintaiankang, “may the country be prosperous and the people be at peace”) pasted on a wall for publicity in a hutong ( a traditional alley) in Beijing’s Baitasi Community. Baitasi, White Pagoda Temple was first built during the Yuan Dynasty ( 1271– 1368).
Highlighting Beijing Heritage
The Baitasi Historic and Cultural Preservation Area in Xicheng District, one of 33 historic and cultural preservation areas in Beijing’s old urban area, has a prime location. On its south, north, east and west sides are Beijing Financial Street, Xizhimen Business District, Xidan and Xisi business area and Fuchengmen business area, respectively. Baitasi covers an area of 37 hectares, best described as a tranquil oasis among bustling business areas.
The area dates to the Yuan Dynasty and now covers land from Zhaodengyulu in the east, the West 2nd Ring Road in the west, Fuchengmenneidajie in the south and Shoubijie in the north.
Built about 800 years ago, the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple was once a landmark of Dadu (Beijing) of the Yuan Dynasty and is now considered an ancient building within the 2nd Ring Road. Luxun Museum opened in the 1950s in the area, and is also a highlight. The museum was established based on the former residences of China’s great writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) when he stayed in Beijing in the 1920s.
Siheyuan, a quadrangle courtyard and a traditional Beijing dwelling, markets of pet fish and birds, flowers and throngs of people present a vivid scene of Beijing’s old urban area in Baitasi. The neighbourhood, with its authentic layout of old Beijing, has many historic and cultural sites.
The area has more than 5,600 households, with a population of 16,000 residents. Over the years, Baitasi has faced a range of problems, including run- down infrastructure, maintaining traditional Chinese dwellings and dense population. In 2015, a plan entitled Baitasi Remade was proposed to preserve historic and cultural resources and improve its residents’ quality of life by upgrading its infrastructure.
Renovating a Traditional Beijing Neighbourhood
An official with Huarongjinying Investment and Development
Co., Ltd. explained, “Most of the infrastructure in the area’s courtyards is weak.” Huarongjinying, a state- owned enterprise authorised by the People’s Government of Xicheng District, is responsible for carrying out the plan of Baitasi Remade. Large- scale demolition used in previous years isn’t suitable for Beijing’s present- day needs in the old urban areas, which need gradual improvement.
After the plan was proposed, Baitasi began to relocate its residents. The plan adopts the principle of voluntary resettlement, but it’s difficult to carry out.
According to Tian Na, vicemanager of a department responsible for community projects from Huarongjinying, only after resettlement of all the residents of each courtyard is completed, can the courtyard be renovated and developed according to a plan to preserve hutong culture.
For example, no. 50 on Fusuijing, a small courtyard, became a highlight after its renovation. In the courtyard, rooms facing the south are clean and bright, and it has a simple yet fashionable
style. The rooms’ upper spaces are fully utilised, increasing habitable areas to offer comfortable and safe conditions. The individual units are divided into sitting rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms.
Going to the toilet— a headache for people who live in a hutong is resolved in this courtyard. In the past residents had to walk out of the courtyard to go to a public toilet in the hot summer or freezing winter. Toilets are now built inside the courtyard, which is much better. According to Tian Na, improper structures which caused small courtyards to become crowded have been removed to prevent potential risks.
Courtyard renovation follows the “Micro ++: Expansion of Courtyard Functions and Upgrading of Dwellings” plan designed by Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture.
The courtyard is a sample of the project, exploring new designs for renovating courtyards in historic and cultural preservation areas. More functions are added for the traditional courtyard and its space is also expanded, enhancing quality of life.
After renovation, each room is about 15 square metres, but can contain three or four people. Tian Na said, “We’ll invite residents to visit and they can cooperate with us if they like it.” The government expects that this design should be accepted by most residents. It was awarded the 2017 Lafargeholcim Award.
Tian Na said, “Three families have entered into agreements with us and we are still working on the project. Residents’ demands are different and their diverse needs bring greater difficulties for the resettlement.” After sorting out the area’s housing resources, each project will be designed and renovated by architects according to Beijing’s traditional architecture.
“In Qingta Hutong, residents of five courtyards have resettled. Two septic tanks have been equipped for nearby courtyards,” said a manager of Huarongjinying. “We plan to arrange eight courtyards nearby, where residents haven’t yet resettled, into a joint renovation. First, improper structures should be removed and toilets, kitchens and other public spaces and infrastructure will be built and renovated. We can also provide design support for residents if they want to customise. Public spaces, including toilets and kitchens, don’t
require a payment but residents need to pay for maintaining these facilities, and the renovation of their private spaces.”
In Baitasi, 323 families in 99 courtyards have resettled. By 2020, 15 percent of the area’s population comprising 15 percent of the courtyards will resettle. Aside from the courtyards, public spaces in hutongs also need to be upgraded for improving quality of life. Huarongjinying solicits designs from around the globe for public spaces in eight hutongs, including Gongmenkouertiao and Qingta Hutong in Baitasi based on demands of residents.
This is a rare opportunity for the public. People who know Baitasi’s background, including its current infrastructure conditions and residents’ needs, can make suggestions for improving its environment and life in the hutongs.
Designers’ have to think about creating a better community. People need parking lots for motor vehicles and bike- sharing bikes, places for hanging clothes, beautification of walls, pipes and window guardrails, waste sorting stations and green spaces along roads. In 2018, new programmes will be implemented.
There were long-term problems such as motor vehicles that encroached on non-motor vehicle lanes, narrow sidewalks that were difficult to use or were occupied, and lack of distinctive cultural elements in three major streets in Baitasi: Shoubijie, Funeidajie and Funeibeijie.
Upgrading these major roads is under way, where the environment is improving by adding landscaping, renovating public service facilities and buildings, dividing sidewalks and motor vehicle lanes, protecting traditional buildings and acacia trees on both sides of the streets and installing energy- saving lighting.
Renovation: Beijing Meets West
No. 41 on Qingta Hutong, a community museum, organises a variety of activities from Monday to Saturday. They include painting, music, tea ceremonies, handmade craft making and reading activities, attracting residents.
The community museum was a courtyard, where three families once lived and various clutter piled everywhere. After the residents were resettled and the courtyard was renovated, it became a community museum, equipped with classrooms and toilets. “We have great facilities for activities and we can learn a lot,” said Zhao, a woman who lives in the hutong.
One room contains tall bookshelves with various books, watercolour paintings by handicapped children on the walls and traditional crafts made by residents that are on display in showcases. A green map on the wall is noticeable. If you scan a QR code on the map, you can see videos of residents enthusiastically introducing their hutong.
In Baitasi, four communities exist: Gongmenkou, Anpingxiang, Beishun and Fuguoli. Residents in Beishun have made videos to introduce Xilangxia, Yingmenkou and Donggongjiang. The videos, themed on showcasing hutong culture in Beijing.
“This place is still a residential community after its renovation. Aside from some courtyards that offer cultural services after the residents resettled, we’ll also introduce cultural and creative enterprises, including artist studios, design studios and inns in the courtyards. We must ensure a better combination of enterprises and residents,” Tian Na said. “These businesses aren’t meant to attract new residents, but enhace traditional hutong culture.” For example, located next door to the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple, Bazuo Architecture Studio, which was responsible for Qingta Community Museum’s renovation, Bear Brew (a coffee shop) and Isvara (an inn) inject new energy to Baitasi.
Many international designers took
an interest in Baitasi Remade. The aim of Italian architect Nicola Saladino in participating in Beijing Design Week 2017 was only in promoting his company’s ideas. But Saladino said,
“I didn’t think the place I designed would begin to serve as a public space in this hutong.”
At a small, tranquil courtyard in Baitasi, one can see his design, entitled “One Day at the Sea.” Four traditional Chinese structures built in different years enclose a quaint space, with a background of the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple nearby.
Starting from the site’s limited area, the intervention aims at creating a sense of spatial depth, offering visitors a chance to explore. With two small structures, Saladino transformed the existing symmetry of the courtyard into a more dynamic setting within historical buildings.
The sunset bathes the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple; a flock of pigeons flies overhead, producing the sounds of old Beijing with whistles attached to their tails; sparrows chirp on telegraph poles; part of the small courtyard is covered with white sand symbolising the seaside, where Saladino presents the beauty of nature with the tranquility of a hutong.
Saladino is pleased about the many nearby residents who visit the courtyard for concerts and lectures and children keen on playing games on the “beach,” as his project becomes a leisure venue of the hutong. Participants of Baitasi Remade clearly understand that their common purpose is to transform community life.
The Paradise of Hutong, designed by Polytechnic University of Turin and Swiss federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne turns a hutong into a “paradise” by transforming its existing spaces into new venues based on a variety of changes including combining European and Chinese styles, which redefines the boundaries of private and public places.
Launched during the Beijing Design Week in 2015, Baitasi Remade aimed to attract public participation from around the globe. The plan has now attracted the embassies of Switzerland and France in Beijing, Tsinghua University, Peking University, China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Architecture, Architectural Association School of Architecture and many outstanding designers to participate in the study of Baitasi and its renovation through exhibitions, events and forums.
A gallery in a hutong in Baitasi organises permanent and irregularly scheduled exhibitions on contemporary arts, enriching cultural life in the area. For example, from mid-november to mid-december 2017, Deconstructing Buyology: Remaking to Resist in an Age of Consumption gathered a group of artists to present their exhibits to enlighten visitors about rational consumption. Banknote-shaped balloons that float in the air, black and white photos on the walls, a variety of colourful packages and a pegasus figurine showcased the relationship between man and materials in the consumption era.
Fast food boxes and discarded paper were used as raw materials for the exhibits and artists’ performances were played on old TV sets, which represented a force to resist against overconsumption and promote healthy communities. Baitasi has an interactive platform for artists and the public, where more artistic projects will be produced to improve communities. It is hard to imagine that this gallery was transformed from a traditional Beijing dwelling.
Baitasi: Towards a New Neighbourhood, one of the themes presented on Baitasi Remade during the 2017 Beijing Design Week, was described as a combination of “renovating courtyards plus improving hutong plus developing communities” to reproduce life in hutong from old Beijing.
One of the traditional courtyards has been transformed into the Reception Room of Baitasi, which serves as a community centre. When neighbours get together at the centre offering
homely comforts, they watch old films and communicate with each other about cooking and handcrafts. Residents and businesses work together to revive Baitasi’s traditional culture and humanistic sensibilities with the community’s services based on cooperation.
In one room, you can see bright flowers on enamel pots and flasks from another era; plastic yellow ducks on an enamel scale and small TV sets and sewing machines in the corner offer a feeling of nostalgia. “Maybe it’s a supply and marketing co- op?” asked Zhang, a woman who’s lived in the hutong since the 1950s. But the hutong is now different from what it used to be. “When I look at those old things I often used, I feel transported back to those years.”
Several elderly residents sit, chatting, eating melon seeds and drinking tea. A garden pot of yellow chrysanthemum on a table nearby adds colour and warmth to the room. Small collections of items and cotton bags produced by nearby residents are on display in a showcase. Buying one or two supports hutong culture.
There is a kitchen in the centre where residents can make dumplings, cook homestyle dishes and share delicious food, creating a warm and harmonious relation between neighbours. A stairway leads to the “Cinema for Old Films” on the first floor.
Baitasi Remade’s goal is to improve living conditions, strengthen and revive its hutong culture—the return of a traditional community by developing its economy and upgrading its infrastructure. Tian Na stated, “The aim of Baitasi Remade is that residents can achieve selfmanagement and maintain their own public spaces.”
Baitasi Remade is a plan to explore and open up the upgrade and revival of urban communities. According to the plan, by 2020, 200 courtyards will be renovated, the infrastructure of 28 alleys will be upgraded and 600 parking spots will been completed.
Beijing’s old urban area shoulders a mission of preserving and developing the city’s history and culture. Changes to Beijing’s urban planning and development pattern show a respect for the city’s history.
According to renowned architect Wu Liangyong, “When we think about the entire world, we must realise that preserving and developing Beijing— China’s famous historic and cultural city plays a very significant role and is an incomparable project for Chinese culture, which doesn’t only mean that historic buildings should be restored, but also that the environment should be redesigned.”
In recent years, Beijing has focused on renovation of its old city and increased fiscal subsidies for its preservation. Furthering the preservation and development of Beijing’s old urban area is a key measure to meet the requirements of the city’s strategic positioning as China’s capital: functioning as the country’s political centre, cultural centre, centre for international exchange and centre for scientific and technological innovation; removing functions that don’t belong to the positioning; developing Beijing into a liveable capital; advancing Beijing-tianjinHebei coordinated development and making a metropolitan agglomeration centring on Beijing.
Baitasi Historic and Cultural Preservation Area can be viewed as a microcosm of the old urban areas of China’s cities. Baitasi Remade has insisted on the protection of its traditional layout and the reviving of traditional culture. The plan combines traditional, creative and fashionable ideas to explore possibilities for the development of Beijing’s old urban areas based on government-led implementation and public participation. An ancient yet stylish Baitasi is advancing with the times.
Residents view models of a design programme for renovating Baitasi Community.
Part of a renovated traditional Beijing courtyard in Baitasi Community
A renovated room in Baitasi Community
An inn rennovated from a traditional courtyard in Baitasi Community
Products at the Reception Room of Baitasi