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Could giant bubbles make Beijing’s historic courtyard housing more livable?

Architect Ma Yansong thinks so

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, Beijing’s Ma Yansong of MAD Architects wants to bring new life to traditional courtyard homes.

A shimmering, stainless steel bubble is hardly an unobtrusive object. In few historic contexts would it seem the most respectful architectural addition to a building. But for Beijing’s hutongs, the city’s traditional courtyard homes, this is just what architect Ma Yansong envisions as a vessel for much-needed home facilities, like toilets. To Ma, who opened MAD Architects in Beijing in 2004 after studying under Zaha Hadid, the bubbles preserve what’s most essential about the hutongs. He may not be at all wrong.

Beijing’s hutongs were constructed in the 13th century and remained generally intact through the first half of the 20th. A single family often occupied a sole courtyard house, composed of a series of slim, low living areas oriented around a rectangular central open courtyard. Kitchens and bathrooms were often communal, and while family life took place behind alley walls, community life extended into the streets. In the 1950s and 1960s, though, as the Chinese rushed to cities, causing an acute shortage of housing in Beijing, the homes became overcrowded. Not only multiple generations, but now also multiple families, jammed into a hutong. Facilities in the houses, old as they were—particularly toilets and kitchens—proved inadequate to the demand, and many neighborhoods deteriorated into little more than slums.

In the last three decades, Beijing has transformed from a low-slung city of urban courtyards and warren-like streets to a new, high metropolis. In the 1990s, some estimate that 600 hutong were destroyed yearly to make way for change. Shortly thereafter, their preservation became a cause both locally and internationally. Chinese and expat artists and intelligentsia took up residence in the wealthier neighborhoods, even as middle-class residents preferred high-rise apartment blocks. NGOs sought to protect the hutong, rickshaw and walking tours of older neighborhoods proliferated, and even much of 2013’s Beijing Design Week focused on their rehabilitation.

As poorer residents are bought out of their homes by developers or government entities, the wealthy install state-of-the-art kitchens and bathrooms (or, say, an underground swimming pool). In the process, Ma points out, many hutong residences have become symbolic. Tourists, not residents, trawl the quiet alleyways between sparsely populated homes. Once-vibrant neighborhoods and communities risk erasure. The historic preservation of these neighborhoods, Ma argues, involves more than just protecting the homes from razing—though that, too, is essential.

The community contained within the courtyard homes, he says—multi-generational, rooted, economically diverse—is of equal if not greater importance than the buildings themselves. "Without real life, without real people living there, I don’t think the architecture has value," he explains. "I don’t think that keeping the same architecture is more important than keeping the community there. My reaction was adding the function they don’t have."

"What’s most important is this typology of the courtyard," he continues, "which is the empty space in the middle. Construction is around the void in the middle. Trees, family, and life is happening in this empty space."

And thus the bubbles. Modular, adaptable, cheap, and useful within a family home or adaptable for public use. Rather than constructing a new restroom within a given home, an owner could install a bubble in the corner. Its flexibility ensures that it could be dropped anywhere.

Rather than aping traditional architecture to make homes more appealing for the fleeing middle class, he proposes a futuristic injection. "I think it’s important, adding some new language to the old neighborhood so that the residents not only get more functions and better conditions, but also a new blood or a new spirit can coexist with the traditional architecture. [Residents] still feel they’re part of the city, they’re not living in the past, they still live in contemporary society."

The interior of the bubbles contains a bathroom and a set of stairs leading to a flat roof, a bonus space: a vantage point from which to view the neighborhood. Traditional hutong contain sloped roofs; "you cannot use them," says Ma. His additions would contain small, discreet outdoor space from a different vantage point than the hutong’s existing outdoor areas; the roof is a continuation of the private space of the toilet. Going upstairs, he says, "that’s from my childhood. I often want to climb to the roof. I think the roofs are beautiful. You see the surroundings, the texture of the city, the color, the trees."

Within the context of Beijing’s rapid and sometimes rapacious modernization, the appeal of this sort of intervention is clear. Functionally, it offers a modular, cost-effective way to update hutong facilities. It preserves the essential character of the hutong architecturally while offering solutions to some of the challenges faced by its original communities. "It’s an object that somehow disappears," Ma says. "I like the mirrored surface because you can see the trees, old buildings, sky, everything. They mirror the reality but not in a copy of reality, because of the organic shape. They dramatically twist it." Aesthetically and functionally, his bubbles offer an infusion of the new to a very old context.