Patterns for Next Cities

Nightfall in the Qianmen hutong, Beijing. Image by Ruth Fremson, New York Times.

I was reminded again the other day of the muddle-headed New York Times article I have complained about here on several occasions. In that piece (the June 8th NYT Magazine), “The New, New City,” writer Nicolai Ouroussoff says, of exploding city development in China or the Middle East: “Yet the notion of finding “authenticity” in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old seems absurd. How do you breathe life into a project at such scale? How do you instill the fine-grained texture of a healthy community into one that rose overnight?” Could there be a more wrong-headed statement about making/remaking cities, especially great cities like Beijing?

I hope that someone will give Mr. Ouroussoff a copy of the July issue of Architectural Record. In it, Michael Sorkin, a contributing editor of the magazine and Professor of Architecture and Director of the graduate urban design program at New York’s City College (CUNY), has written a truly wonderful essay about learning from the hutong (traditional alleys and streets, lined with siheyuan, one story courtyard houses) of Beijing, and what they might teach those who are remaking that city, badly, at the speed of light. Here are some excerpts. Access the full article below.

“The Chinese have a longstanding genius for domestic architecture, and a visit to the hutong of Beijing – the fast disappearing neighborhoods of courtyard houses, laced with small lanes and commerce, sanctuaries of both intimacy and variety in the midst of a city too rapidly doing away with the best of its public character – affirms the singularity and brilliance of their historic achievement. Such places offer an alternative to the Modernist constructs that shape the city today and provide an irreplaceable element in the urban repertoire that demands not simply to be conserved but extended.”

“Although the architectural types that make up the hutong of Beijing differ from the lilong of Shanghai, the genius of their organization is similar. Low, tight, and intimate, they are wonderful neighborhoods, tractable on foot, intimate, and diverse. Indeed, so singular, delightful, and increasingly rare are these places, that many are enjoying (or suffering) the fate of gentrification. On my recent visit, I went house shopping with a Chinese colleague who hoped to find a congenial situation in one of the better hutong, but the prices were at Manhattan levels. The market may be cruel, but it’s not stupid.”

A siheyuan in Beijing. Image from Flickr.

“To lament the disappearance of these tight-grained communities has become something of a bromide, and the issue of saving such endangered places is hardly foreign to the Chinese. The mistake, however, is to reduce the question simply to one of preservation, to see these forms as an unrepeatable historic condition. As we all confront the need to create radically more sustainable forms of urbanism and restore the morphological basis for communities worldwide, we have a lot to learn from the lilong and hutong of China.”

Excellently said. For the whole article, go to:

2 thoughts on “Patterns for Next Cities

  1. Great post! I particularly enjoy (well, I enjoy everything, but particularly) examples of what could be – real or imagined. If there were a lot more examples around of what could be, it would be much easier for us make better choices.

    The AR article was an excellent reference too.

  2. Thanks, GG. BTW, good articles today in the NYT about the Beijing hutong, if you’re interested. About renovating and restoring some of the wonderful siheyuan. Some are quite beautiful, and real.

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