Back Alleys Fit for a Prince: Charles Crusades For Beijing's Hutong

Prince Charles may be the last person you'd expect to find in Beijing's hutong. The alleys are Beijing's version of Venice's canal-crossed calli, Cairo's qasaba and Rio's favelas: a lively, inscrutably charming network of streets that better accomodate the chit-chat of neighbors than the honk of cars. Their Medieval roots, rich history and distinct character notwithstanding, the hutong's old-fashioned and resource-minimal courtyard-home lifestyles are increasingly the target of Beijing's eager high-rise estate developers. They're abetted by a government eager to rid the city of what it sees as slums. For those of us who like to feel human in the city, not cogs in a smoggy machine, the hutong is far and away the best part of Beijing. And it's estimated that one entire lane disappears every week.

Enter the green Prince. His Foundation for Architecture and Urbanism has proposed a plan to preserve Da Shi Lan, or Da Zha Lan, one of Beijing's famous remaining hutong neighborhoods, located just south of Tiananmen Square. Charles's planners say that by renovating and rebuilding the courtyard homes that make up the hutong, they can preserve heritage while building Beijing's environmental credentials. "China is being sold the hi-tech model of development and we think there is a model which works with the local character of Chinese planning to achieve sustainability," Hank Dittmar, the chief executive of the prince's foundation, told the Guardian. The foundation recently got the green light to develop an eco village in Devonshire.

Beijing's courtyard homes (siheyuan), which date as far back as the ancient Western Zhou period, prove that green building began centuries ago. South-facing rooms located under eaves around a central courtyard allows for ample ventilation, natural light and shade, and a patch of green space within the city. While their high walls keep nosy neighbors out, the density of the hutong also encourages rich social interaction--something sorely lacking in the city's forests of high-rises.

But as comfortable as they can be, courtyard homes are increasingly considered dilaphitated, dirty and backward when compared with the shiny apartment houses springing up outside the second ring road. Bathrooms are often communal, and sanitation can be rudimentary. Summers can be hot, winters very cold. "My home is poor quality as you can see for yourself, but I am used to it," an elderly woman told the Guardian. "If I had to move, it would be inconvenient. But I know the young people all want to go."

Though they once housed the elite, Beijing's courtyard homes were turned over to commoners during the Cultural Revolution, transforming one-family homes into houses for four families or more. In proposing to upgrade the courtyard homes and thin out their tenant populations, the Prince's Foundation may be picking up an idea that's been floated many times before, in Beijing and elsewhere: gentrification.

But that may be one of the best hopes the hutong has for survival in real estate-frenzied Beijing. Even if the idea remains on paper, given the area's encroaching development, making Da Shi Lan a model of modern eco-living could help to demonstrate to city officials and developers the role that the hutong could play in future Beijing. And it could give skeptical residents another reason to be proud of their endangered neighborhoods, encouraging citizens to pursue preservation.

Despite the Prince's low opinion of China's leaders -- he once called them "a group of appalling old waxworks" and is not attending the Olympics opening ceremony -- the Foundation is reaching out its hand to China. Hopefully, Beijing will take it.

For more on the hutong preservation, check out the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. For an excellent overview of the disappearance of Da Shi Lan, see Mike Meyer's upcoming book, The Last Days of Old Beijing.

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Prince Charles Sets Up Shop

Tags: Beijing | China | Preservation

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