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Tiny Living Ideas Bloom in Beijing's Historic Courtyard Housing

At this year's Beijing Design Week, a two-week event that draws an estimated 5 million people (Milan Design Week, for comparison, pulls in 300,000), the star attractions weren't sleek new products, but the vast assortment of urban planning and renewal projects springing up around the city. Beijing, of course, is a study of sharp contrasts. On one side is the endless parade of gargantuan skyscrapers lining main streets, creating a soulless landscape where people seem almost invisible. But on the other are the historic hutongs, small enclaves lined with meandering alleys—bustling pathways filled with rickety two- and three-wheel vehicles and shanty-like structures surrounding courtyard residences.

While hutongs have defined a lifestyle that dates as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), many of them have been obliterated in the path of Beijing's explosive growth. There were originally around 3,000; today, less than 1,000 remain. In recent years—somewhat belatedly—the city finally decided to do something to save its heritage. To its credit, the government didn't set off to build Disney-like historical theme parks—instead, it's heading straight to some of the most important hutongs in the city.

Dashilar, a hutong near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and therefore a popular one among tourists, became the first district to go under the planners' knife. The undertaking began in 2011—the same year that the state-organized Beijing Design Week event launched—and has since become the poster child for urban renewal and revitalization in the city.

This year, a number of the 79 design week exhibits in Dashilar tackled the hutong's traditional courtyard housing. Here are two fascinating examples (both of which are available for rent on Airbnb!):

The Humble Hostel (↑) designed by Chinese architect Cao Pu is a 130-square-foot home that accommodates 3 guests and rents on Airbnb for $53 a night for the first guest and $16 a night for every person thereafter. The all-white intervention features movable walls—a widely-explored idea as urban dwellers grapple with increasingly micro-sized housing units—that can slide their embedded fixtures (bed, desk, or door) closer to or farther away from the communal exterior courtyard as desired (see GIF below.)

Plug In Courtyards (↑) by local firm People Architecture Office is a 236-square-foot apartment sporting nine prefab "plug in" solutions that create new spaces and amenities for the home. These "transforming" features—also a popular concept for small-space design around the world— include an accordion-style collapsible shower and various doors that can slide open or lift up for enhanced indoor-outdoor experiences. This place is going for $69 a night on Airbnb and accommodates two people. Watch a video demoing the plug-in features below.

The designers who presented at Dashilar were not Chinese only. Nurturing House, an exhibit from the Netherlands' Next City Living Lab research organization, for example, showcased work from various Dutch teams, including MVRDV, the provocative high-profile architectural office the city had hired to develop a master plan for Dashilar.

The success of the long-term Dashilar revitalization program has also convinced the government to go ahead with similar interventions in a second hutong, Baitasi, located in Beijing's financial district. Beatrice Leanza, Beijing Design Week's creative director, is planning a series of design-led research projects in Baitasi using Dashilar as a role model. Already launched during this year's event were three prototypes of reimagined hutong housing, designed to appeal to young workers in the financial district.

The Baitasi interventions also included Drink'n Hope, a free community medical clinic that provides free medicines, as well as a community garden on wheels and a bicycle shop. It all suggests things are just getting started.

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