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Hutongs-transformation : a battle between memories

Anna Pagani

Hutongs-transformation : a battle between memories.

Rel. Michele Bonino, Anna Barbara. Politecnico di Torino, Corso di laurea magistrale in Architettura Costruzione Città, 2015

This is the latest version of this item.



all roads start from Rome

"When one looks at something that has existed for more than two thousand years and has been altered so diversely and thoroughly by the changing times, yet is still the same soil He same hill, indeed often the same column and wall, and in the people still some vestiges of their ancient character, one becomes a participant in the decisions of fate. And such conditions make it difficult from the outset for the observer to decipher how Rome follows on Rome, and not only the new on the old. but also the various epochs within the old and new Rome on one another." (Goethe. November 1786).

My research project Sited the 18th of February, 2015 in Rome, the Caput Mundi.

Having not established topic yet, but looking for an empty box in which history of architecture, sociology, anthropology and heritage protection could finally meet and cooperate, I participated to the kick-off meeting of the SNIS Project: "Mapping controversial memories in the historic urban landscape", organizediy two EPFL professors -Florence Graezer Bideau and Yves Pedrazzini-, their PhD students -Lucia Bordone and Lesslie Astrid Herrera Quiroz-, as well as two professors from the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland -Rafael Matos-Wasem and Jen-Christophe Loubier. Anthropologists, sociologists, architects and geographers: what might be their common denominator if not the city's current challenges? The current metropolis’ issues are long tentacles that affect a wide range of fields: from the politics and economy to the society with its inhabitants and traditions. Moving from the foot to the top of the mountain, the increasing proportion of the world urban population seems to be one of the phenomena that are trigging this chain reaction. In effect, the evolution or progress of humanity strongly opposes to the sustainability principles, giving birth to a clear oxymoron4: the dream of unlimited growth seems to prevent the protection of the planet's resources, the satisfaction of needs and comforts to oppose to sufficiency, the spreading of new trendy lifestyle to take over the traditions and habits that are entrenched into our culture since centuries.

It is exactly in this zero-sum game that the heritage management acquires a fundamental role: the UNESCO's trial to foster policies aimed at balancing the urban development and the conservation of its fabric is materialized by the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (RHUL) formulated in 2011. The definition given to this new concept is the following:

"The historic urban landscape is the urban area understood as the result of a historic layering of cultural and natural values and attributes, extending beyond the notion of 'historic centre' or 'ensemble' to include the broader urban context and its geographical setting.

This wider context includes notably the site's topography, geomorphology, hydrology and natural features, its built environment, both historic and contemporary, its infrastructures above and below ground, its open spaces and gardens, its land use patterns and spatial organization, perceptions and visual relationships, as well as all otter elements of the urban structure. It also includes social and cultural practices and values, economic processes and the intangible dimensions of heritage as related to diversity and identity."

Starting from this new stimulating topic to investigate and with the cooperation of localoordinators, associated members and associad international organizations and networks,

"This search projectssesses the potential and limits of the emeing approach of 'historic urban landscape' (HUL) by alyzinghe socio-spatial effects of its implementatn at the local level in Beijing. Mexico City and Re. It ll bring together new spatial modeling techques, socio-anthropological and ethnographic methods in oer to map colleive perceptions of space. The research aimso identify different types of memorial territories inhe three cities and the emerging controversies withiand between them."

The objects of the kickff meeting in Rome were firstly to explore the theoretical framework, focusing on the two concepts of "historic urban landscape” and ''collective memory", secondly to address the methodology to adopt for the mapping process by presenting different experiences, finally to define and discuss the policy relevance of the project with the international partners.

These target were supported by three authors' work on collective memory and space: the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who defined collective memory as the link between humans and the urban form; the social psychologist Denise Jodelet, whose mental mapping could be used as a tool to represent this relationship and the historian Pierre Nora, who explored the concrete form of collective memory within urban contexts'.

Challenged by this innovative research and backed up by the work experience of both Professor Bonino and Professor Bideau, I chose, at the end of the Roman stay, to deal with the Beijing case study. In the SNIS project three sites were identified for each city in order to compare the old city centre with both a popular non-branded site and a new urban spread location. For what concerns Beijing, the areas selected were the Shijia Hutong -a historical protected neighborhood-, Gulou -the Drum and Bell tower district- and the Huilongguan -a new relocation area, located 25 km to the north of the city centre". We agreed to focus my project on the hutongs of Gulou, which urban structure has faced and is stilt facing high-impact transformations.

The destruction or protection of Beijing historic fabric is not merely the direct effect of an explicit cause, but rather the issue of a complex decision process resulting from the fight between different arrays: on the hutongs' battlefield each community have given in time subjective values to its collective memory and the urban fabric that materializes it. These communities are the anonymous players that this research is intended to meet. Their values are the messages it is intended to decode.

The objects of the kick-off meeting in Rome were firstly to explore the theoretical framework, focusing on the two concepts of "historic urban landscape'' and "collective memory”, secondly to address the methodology to adopt for the mapping process by presenting different experiences, finally to define and discuss the policy relevance of the project with the international partners.

The tales of Gulou: a magic secret collective world

Zhongguò means "country in the middle land" in mandarin. Composed by two characters, the first one refers to the middle (Zhong) whilst t he second (guo) to the country. The middle fertile land where people used to work in ancient times was considered as the centre of the universe: every lord with ambition would be eager to rule over such territory. This beautiful nation was China.

Many stories hide behind every single character. During a guided tour on the hutongs, it was explained how the first character (the middle) takes shape from a rectangle that represents the country's boundaries, and a perpendicular line, which cuts it in two: literature and culture were a way to "stay on this line" within the confines of the empire. But this drawing also recalls the Beijing plan, with the rectangular Forbidden city and its north- south axis. This perfect geometrical shape has been the keeper of many secrets for centuries Since an entire part of the city was inaccessible, Beijing was a world build on fantasies. The further people moved from the rectangle Forbidden City the more they reached the urban reality, where a smaller-scale popular "imperial city" was enlivened by traditional lifestyles. The chiming of the Drum and Bell tower, alerting the inhabitants about the opening and closing of the Inner City's doors as well as ringing once per hour in the night, used to mark the everyday life. Spirits were turned away by the high city walls as well as the lowest ones that used to shape the narrow alleys, protecting the courtyard h. It is said that when the Drum and Bell tower stopped working a growing sense of insecurity started preventing the inhabitants' sleep.

Although today it might have lost its roots, the need of protection became part of Beijing architectural culture, handing down a precious immaterial heritage that has been kept alive through centuries. From the hutongs' walls and doors, to the danweis' gates and the brand new compounds' entrance guards, each building is strictly kept under watch. It seems obvious that taking advantage of these memories by turning the need of protection into a way of controlling the population (through the danweis before and the gated communities then) has been an easy step to make.

Today's people phantoms are still alive: quite different from the ancient spirits, it's the society fast transformation and its consequent feeling of uncertainty that haunts the Beijingers' sleep.

Non-hukou inhabitants, demolitions, threats, controversies and battles surround the hutongs walls. From the eyes of a tourist it might look just a beautiful tale hidden behind interesting written characters, but Beijing entrance stones, big or small gates, brick or wood are part of a much bigger world that opposes beauty to fights and resistance; a world that can't be read or just partly imagines by who doesn't share this collective memory.

Relators: Michele Bonino, Anna Barbara
Publication type: Printed
Subjects: U Urbanistica > UK Pianificazione urbana
U Urbanistica > UL PVS Paesi in via di sviluppo
Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in Architettura Costruzione Città
Classe di laurea: UNSPECIFIED
Aziende collaboratrici: UNSPECIFIED
URI: http://webthesis.biblio.polito.it/id/eprint/4266





once upon a time


the case studies


digging under the objectivity

an engineered collective heritage

the rising of scholars' awareness

the silent voices of the subalterns



get ready to fight

I prefer, you prefer: the inhabitants' votes

the power of knowledge: the scholars' controverses

everybody against the top






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All the pictures have been taken by Anna Pagani from May 20.2015 to June 18,2015.

Ail the graphs and schemes as well as all the graphic revisitations have been designed by Anna Pagani.

The cover picture has been taken in Gulou on May 3.2015.

The icons have been downloaded from The Noun Project: https://thenounproject.com.

The maps used to represent my case study have been taken from Google Maps and Apple Maps, and then revisited.

The source of the pictures that have been downloaded online or scanned from specific books has been specified in the captions.


My experience in Beijing has been documented in a VideoBlog: http://nina-in-beijing.tumblr.com.

*in order to have access to the Blog a password is required. Contact me at my e-mail address.

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