Why you should care
Because figuring out rising Asia means figuring out the future of cities.
Snaking through the narrow hutongs of old Beijing is like navigating a giant maze. Here in Dashilar, the epicenter of old Beijing, a merry cacophony reigns: Delivery guys zoom past; old people chat with neighbors; food vendors chop, fry and grill in tiny storefronts.
That sensory mix is exactly why 30-something James Shen, Zang Feng and He Zhe built their headquarters here in 2015, to house People’s Architecture Office and its sister company, People’s Industrial Design Office. The founders take old Beijing as their muse.
Located south of Tiananmen Square, the 600-plus-year-old Dashilar occupies just over three-quarters of a square mile. Its labyrinthine paths connect residences that house multigenerational families. The average home is less than 65 square feet, the size of a small college dorm room; 25,000 families jockey for space. Makeshift tarps shield doorways to keep out dirt and dust; bricks hold rickety tin roofs in place. In Beijing, as in so many other Asian cities, sprawl competes with centuries-old neighborhoods splitting at the seams.
The dilemmas of hutong life give PAO its raison d’être. In 2013, one of PAO’s practical ideas became the darling of a Dashilar revitalization project, receiving the endorsement of Beijing’s vice mayor. The idea: a courtyard “plug-in.” Shen and his colleagues came up with the idea after finding that families couldn’t renovate their homes without impinging on their neighbors’ lives, since the houses in these tangled communities remain interconnected. PAO architects describe the plug-in as a “house within a house” — a sleek, modern prefabricated structure that sits right in the middle of the old home, a renovation that doesn’t require the tearing down of any walls. It’s creative and affordable (a few thousand dollars, manageable for many families in this area, says Liang Ying, an employee of the government-funded project) and it can go up in six weeks.
Shen and company seem positioned to remake much of Beijing, old and new alike.
Italian curator and critic Beatrice Leanza, former creative director of Beijing Design Week, says designs like the plug-in are examples of “making design matter for the city and its citizens [by] filling the gaps between people and the spaces they inhabit.” If the plug-in was PAO’s breakthrough moment, the 6-year-old firm has continued to occupy the spotlight: It has exhibited at the Venice Biennale — a who’s who of architects — and is attracting new clients like Chinese fashion and design maven Hung Huang, who wants PAO to design her new store in Dashilar, and the young developers of Testbed2, who want an installation that will unify the massive compound of the factory turned creative hub in Chongqing. Shen and company seem positioned to remake much of Beijing, old and new alike. And the money and prestige keep coming; Social Venture Partners China and Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation signed recently as new investors.
Leanza discovered PAO in 2012 through their “tricycle house” — a pop-up house that can be transported by bike, inspired by Chinese migrant workers who don’t have their own space to live in. It’s like a mini, motorless RV. She introduced them to Dashilar and commissioned them to do a “beautiful, iconic” installation for the 2015 Beijing Design Week: The architects used large HVAC tubing to spell the name of the neighborhood — Baitasi — in Chinese characters; the tubes doubled as seating and exhibition platforms at the visitors center. Perhaps their least subtly named project is the “People’s Canopy.” Designed to unite people with the town they live in, it consists of large retractable canopies that can be transported by bicycles, replacing the plastic tenting typically used to house an event.
Zang, He and Shen met while working at the prestigious firm FCJZ, located on the grounds of the historic Old Summer Palace. Over a meal cooked from the bounty of a local garden, He and Zang, Chinese natives, pitched LA-raised Shen on partnering up. None had the mega-connected networks architects usually boast, but they self-describe as hungry to move on to something socially conscious.
Their desire to change things up came at a good time, as centuries of Chinese architectural principles encountered new challenges. For thousands of years, Chinese architecture reinforced the relationship between man and nature, relying on elements of the Earth — like dirt and wood — and the physical positioning of homes for feng shui. The hutong courtyard home is a perfect example. But in the late 1970s, as Deng Xiaoping opened China up, combining communist ideology with market economy practices, government-facilitated construction companies hammered away to make the skyscrapers, high-rises and megamalls that dominate the city today. Large-scale migration brought half the country to cities to work in factories. Today, China is facing an aging population, a tenuous social security system, insufficient public services, a huge income gap and pollution.
PAO’s designs, from the courtyard plug-in to a composting in-house toilet, are built in response to the environmental and social pressures Beijing is facing and to the challenges older residents encounter — it’s hardly ideal for elders to trudge to a nearby communal toilet, or for that toilet to pollute. Other designs tackle the millennial market, like the sustainable mobile office space PAO is making for young entrepreneurs. It’s a small covered house that has openings at both ends, ideal for a little privacy or as a small meeting place. It’s made of steel, upholstered with fabric, has electricity and is transported by a custom-built bicycle. It might sound hipster-esque, but this is pure practicality.