Integrating the old with the new
reign professionals will bring in new perspectives and fresh ideas,” ZHU XIAODI CHAIRMAN OF THE BEIJING INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN.
K/R, a US-based architectural studio, was looking for an answer to the question of how to renovate Beijing’s historic neighborhoods and improve the standard of living for local residents, while still preserving their traditional architecture, a key part of Beijing’s cultural heritage.
The studio, well-known for its designs for art museums and galleries, including the master planning of the 100 acre-site of the Museum of Art, Design and the Environment in Murcia, Spain, recently proposed its master plan to renovate and preserve the Qianmen East area, one of Beijing’s few remaining historical neighborhoods, to the southwest of Tiananmen Square.
Jointly organized by the Tianjie Group, a government-backed real estate developer, the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and the Beijing Center for the Arts, the Qianmen East area renovation project has invited dozens of architects from home and abroad to make contributions to the renovation project and help find a sustainable way to maintain the old city while embracing its modernization.
The Qianmen East area, located at the east end of Qianmen Dajie, is a relic of China’s imperial history and an irreplaceable part of the country’s heritage.
“It’s such a unique situation. We are fascinated and happy to be asked to be involved in,” said John Keenen, the founding partner and design director of the firm, founded in 1984 with offices in New York and Miami.
K/R’s idea is to keep intact the centuriesold hutong and maze-like alleyways of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, and create new three-story housing along the edge, including 2,000-plus units for accommodations, services and health care and the other building, in the likeness of the Great Wall, with hotels and recreation facilities in between to generate income for the community.
“The units will bring more people to the area, a way also to support and encourage the continuation of life in hutong,” said Terence Riley, co-founder of K/R. “The Great Wall structure is like an armature for the community, which is designed as high as the southern gate of Tiananmen Gate Tower.”
“To preserve the land, I do encourage people to (build a) contemporary one rather than replicate that would make the historic one more special,” Keenen said, “We don’t want to make it like a new hutong with international brand, expensive restaurants but no residents. The only reason to save hutong is for the residents. ”
After Keenen and Riley got the invitation earlier this year, they visited the area in August. They then reviewed materials from the Dongcheng district planning department and from others who have done previous research. “Just like any other projects, we spent some time in the area before we began the process,” Riley said.
It took them about eight weeks to work out the proposal. “It is a short period, and the idea here is a schematic mass plan, a lot based on initial research,” Keenen said.
They have not done any neighborhood renovation project, “but many of the principles about urban planning are universal, not so much western and eastern. There are the opportunities for western planners to work in China’s old town renovations,” Riley said.
However, it is hard to imagine that the three-story building and the structure in the neighborhood will be as high as the outer wall of the Forbidden City, as Beijing adopts very rigid building height restrictions, particularly in central areas.
For more than three decades, Chinese cities often have been called the testing field for international architects, with some buildings becoming towering landmarks and some lasting eyesores. However, few foreign architects have been involved in the renovations of historic areas in the country.
“Foreign professionals will bring in new perspectives and fresh ideas,” said Zhu Xiaodi, chairman of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. “But if they don’t think in our shoes, they will find it hard to beat their Chinese counterparts with experiences and foreign perspectives.”
Zhu is a Beijing-born and -reared architect, who understands the emotional connection with the hutong that residents of the Qianmen East have with area. He was also invited to offer proposals and his idea might have sounded futuristic, that is to build an underground city below the neighborhood, with homes, parking lots and sports fields.
Zhu’s vision of an underground city would at least have had two subterranean levels; one would be zoned for private use and have direct access to the area’s courtyards and could expand the living space of local residents, while the other would have been used as a public space with areas for entertainment, parking and sports.
The master planning of the renovation project by K/R.