An Ethnographic Walk in Hutong
“This city can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it, not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience; here every discovery is intense and fragile, it can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you.”
– Roland Barthes (Empire of Signs, 1982)
“Vernacular” does not only refer to physical building forms, but also the human actions that animate them. The dynamic interrelationships between daily spatial practices of people and forms of space differentiate the “vernacular” from dull authoritarian master planning. When forms, behaviors, and meaning collapse in those unique spaces, as Roland Barthes says, the rich experience can only be captured through fully immersing oneself. Sounds, smells, textures, movements, and rhythms imprint exquisite traces on both the physical landscape as well as the visitors’ psychological landscape.
The hutong, narrow alleyways formed between lines of traditional courtyard houses, are an urban vernacular in Beijing that have indelibly imprinted their traces on my mind. The seemly chaotic and ugly environment they create captures my attention not because of its nostalgic atmosphere but because of its humane quality. To depict it, neither objective descriptions nor critical discussion is enough. However, a walk through the hutong is probably a good place to begin.
Noon, August Eighth, 2018.
Harsh sun, the air is dry with no wind, typical summer day in Beijing.
At this moment, I am stuck in the modernists’ “dead street”, an almost 50-meter-wide road with six automobile lanes. Empty is a suitable word to describe the place. Besides several cars passing by, there are only a few people struggling to hail taxis. Robert Venturi once said “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.” I ask myself: as an architect, can I learn from this particular “landscape” or is there something that can be revolutionary? The freshly-painted white fences divide the street into isolated parcels to stop pedestrians from crossing the road for “safety reasons.” Faint smells of paint and exhaust mix together in my lungs. Across the road, a bulldozer is rumbling. The place used to be a quite dense hutong neighborhood. Now the life here is gone. Only two houses remain. “Quite lonely,” I say to myself. Among this vast land of ruin in the city center, both the bulldozer and the houses it intends to demolish seem miserably tiny. After only 15 minutes of walking, I feel that my physical efforts and attentions have been consumed by the “landscape.”
I turn right and accelerate a little bit to escape from the imposed scale and the joyless atmosphere. I turn right again and finally dive into the hutong neighborhood that I was searching for. In contrast to the enormous road, this intimate space is perfect for walking. It’s around five meters wide, a dimension that puts a car at risk of getting stuck in certain corners. If Learning from Las Vegas suggests “big spaces, high speeds” and “an architecture of bold communication rather than subtle expression,” the space here is about narrowness and enclosure, moving slowly with speeds of 30-meters-per-minute. A walk in a hutong reveals subtle textures that can only be discerned if one reads with enough proximity and attention.
I look around. Two walls of grey brick frame the space. Windows punctuate the “frame” with a constant rhythm. They are the expressions of life behind the wall, the life within those subdivided and high-density siheyuan. Standing on tiptoes, one might accidentally get a glimpse of people’s living rooms or kitchens. Sometimes, windows are covered with translucent curtains or carefully decorated with lace, to prevent accidental visual intrusions while allowing light to enter the interior. Noises and voices are leaking from individual households’ window, and doorways. A television broadcasts news about the stock market on my left, the bubbling sound of a cooking pot on my right …I hear murmurs between children and parents, and sometimes tweets of the birds raised by the residents.
As architects, when designing a building, we always talk about the boundaries between private and public, solid and void, figure and ground, building and environment. So what are the differentiations between them here? The fact is that in the hutong, building forms and walls do not set the definition for space, as the edges are easily blurred by apertures, sounds, smells, and the individuals’ modifications on details. Multiple dimensions of spatial practices aggregate in this single alleyway. As I am walking, I find the lines between them are rather difficult to draw. They vary all the time, just like the ever-changing zone between riverbank and riverbed.
Perhaps, in hutong, due to the density and the relative freedom from strict building regulations, I begin to understand space differently. It is the residents’ behavioral patterns that overpower the building forms here. The brick courtyard walls, gables, and tiled roofs sink into the background, becoming the invisible stage for the dramas of daily life. During my short walk, the framed alley has already changed its functions as its users and their “props” change.
As the journey continues, I realize the hutong is not merely the space for ventilation or circulation as it was originally planned in Yuan Dynasty, nor is it a commercial space like the other streets nearby. I observe how residents treat the place as their living room, laundry room, and nursery, instinctively extending their private lives to the street. In one corner, wires and climbing plants extend from individual households. They organically cover the mottled pilasters of the wall. Consequently, they become the essential infrastructure and texture of the hutong. Clothes and bedding are hung on the wire, with its one end tied to the wall and the other tied to a pole. The dimensions fit within the environment perfectly, almost as if it was carefully measured and designed beforehand. In the next corner, when there is a pocket space and shade, several old people pull out their in-house chairs and even sofas, sitting comfortably in the street. They are having a nostalgic conversation about the diminution of the old part of Beijing. Meanwhile, their grandchildren are running around in this historic framework.
As I keep walking, I start to understand the diverse communal life that might be borne out of necessity instead of intentional design. A lack of indoor space urges residents to figure out ways to utilize places outside their houses. Their repetitive daily spatial practices form distinct patterns that we might call “vernacular.”
I hear the whistling sound of cars, and realize I am approaching the end of the hutong neighborhood. What just happened was like drifting in a river of life. I passed by nine conversations, four gatherings and five individuals contemplating their cigarettes and their lives. Each corner and pocket contains interventions quietly done by the residents. Sometimes a tiny garden of vegetables, sometimes a careful extension of the eaves. I can easily understand the reason and aesthetics behind those details. When I read and think about them, I shall either call them the wisdom of life or perhaps “design.” But the term given to such spatial practices doesn’t matter. What matters is the authentic experience this urban vernacular condition creates and the process of learning from the existing but threatened hutong “landscape.”
 Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: M.I.T press, 1986), 8.