Conference held for "Regeneration Strategy. New Xisi Bei Project International Invitation Exhibition"
Beijing, 16/06/2007
 
 

Over the last ten years, under pressure from patterns of growth that are unparalleled in terms of speed and size, Beijing has literally transfigured its appearance, typical of an imperial capital of a millenarian nation that extends closely over its territory. Today Beijing is a complex collection of micro and macro urban elements that confer on the city the metallic icon and vertical layout of a modern global metropolis – the major architectural works of contemporary China are in fact mostly built to western designs and are in a western style, constructions that are a long way from traditional architectural history. The theme of the project that we have the opportunity to develop in such a stimulating context as the city of Beijing today, is linked to the rehabilitation of a very particular piece of urban fabric in which groups of buildings that belong to quite different architectural styles sit alongside one another, some have a traditional character, others belong to quite a different story. These built elements find themselves in a relationship of contrast that is in some ways problematic, that deserves to be resolved and developed in an appropriate manner.The intervention required by the masterplan on this urban space is strongly orientated towards the restoration and conversion of the existing architectural fabric, rather than the construction of new buildings that starts with the annihilation of the old, as often used to be the case. This decision is an evident symptom of the desire to operate an important change of trend in the planning of urban transformations, a decision that emphasises the radical rethinking of the relationships of force between the vectors of innovation and those of tradition. From this point of view, this project is clearly directed towards the conversion of urban space and in this sense matches perfectly with a guiding idea that we feel is very up-to-date with regards to the management and construction of urban identity in the contemporary city: the idea that it is no longer possible, in any social, political, ethical or artistic context to just imagine that the role of the past, of inheritance, of cultural ‘heritage’, is irrelevant or even an obstacle to designing for the future. Even when the need for development in a city or geopolitical area is currently more urgent and preponderant than the need for maintenance, it is important, perhaps essential, to at least attempt to establish a dialogue, however fleeting and subtle it may be, between what has been and what is to be. What has instead frequently happened in the East, in this age of great acceleration, is something that can be compared with what happened in Europe following World War II. We are witnessing a definite prevarication of the logics of economic development with respect to the need for a community to describe itself in a continuous narrative. The continuity of the historic narrative is brusquely interrupted when priorities for growth demand the permanent removal of the past. Is it possible to subtract oneself from the alternative between permanence and modernisation? Yes, if we see experimenting and building as an activity that seeks to soften the traumas, that produces innovations for “concretion”, that builds new spaces on previous stratifications, integrating settlements. In reality it is an idea that is both old and new, from the Schlegel-esque idea of the fragment that has a more dominating presence than the overall. From this point of view, the fragment is the elementary form of meaning that is the starting point for updating the overall, without however experiencing its presence as a mortgage for the future. The fragment announces and refers back  to all that is existing but at the same time realises a different totality: the fragment instigates, by revising and rewriting the broken narrative, the founding of a new story. The violation of the past therefore becomes an action that retains fragments of this past: these fragments assume the significance of an irrepressible witness. The new therefore alternates, insinuates, superimposes, but never substitutes the past. This attempt to create the conditions for a dialogue, that certainly involves balancing and compromising on account of one demand prevailing above another, allows us to continue to talk about the history of the city, the building or the manufactured element. The conversion of this fragment of urban fabric in Beijing that has been entrusted to us, truly represents an extraordinary opportunity to work on existing buildings, allowing us to weigh up our ideas in an articulated context, setting us a series of very precise questions. Here we find ourselves faced with a place, a few steps from the forbidden city, in an area where distinct functions, diverse activities, different social figures coexist and interact, set in a tight and well established grid of hutong that clashes with the presence of two out-of-scale industrial buildings, multi-storey constructions from the 1970s. Our intention has been mainly to seek to safeguard a kind of identity of place, that is not to be considered a formal identity, rather a kind of underlying identity. This formula for identity does not define, in other words does not restrict,  possibilities for development and the creation of new models. It is a working concept of identity as a suggestion for seeking out new models, like a weave that is predisposed but can be used to develop a pattern that can be changed when necessary, transformed. Attempting to set up a dialogue between the out-of-scale buildings, that appear extraneous to the context, and the surrounding buildings within this context, here means making the space fluid, attempting to harmonise the layout of the elevations of the urban fabric through non-violent redefinition. We have acted by imagining that the conversion of the two multi-storey buildings into hotels could be linked with a multiple series of connected activities: gyms, swimming pool, spa, shops etc. bringing with it the possibility of generating new and different urban dynamics in the surrounding area. These dynamics, are currently unbalanced in the direction of the street front, where there is a presence of heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but are almost absent or lacking in vivacity further inside the grid. Many of the more secluded areas of the hutong, dried of social and economic functions, emptied of human relationships have now become just simple containers and custodians of lifeless objects. The strategy of restoring to the block its original function of diffused dwelling system, made up of the hutong, is based on the idea of reactivating the movement of people from the edge of the neighbourhood towards the inside. This kind of model aims to break up the unilateral direction in which the overall flow and activity is conveyed, all orientated towards the main street. Of course nobody thinks of “channelling” these flows via arterial conditions, instead we always imagine a capillary condition, where small but continuous passages activate these fragile pieces of urban fabric with much more effectiveness. We are therefore a long way off from the kind of approach that involves completely gutting out, thought to be able to give rise to positive dynamics only through the transit of great masses. On the contrary we think of a highly diffused capillarity that sprinkles activities, in a homogenous and effective way, on the areas of the city under consideration; small numbers but very, very diffused. We are thinking then of a condition of dissemination and dispersion that goes deeper into human paths, whose orientation does not coagulate around a pole that acts as centre. In reality we know only too well how the idea of a centre in the way we westerners intend, becomes a working concept that is rather difficult to manage if referred to traditional Chinese culture. If one considers for example the calligraphic arts or Chan Chinese paintings, which inspired us with the overall vision of our proposal, the elements placed on paper or on silk are distributed on the surface in such a way that there is no hierarchical relationship between base and form, between subject and background. One cannot really say that in a Chinese Chan landscape there is a subject, a centre around which the overall structure of the painting is organised, instead each element, each point, each relationship carries the same weight in the internal coherence of the composition. The whole painting is simultaneously centred in every point, the horizontal axis of the relationships substitutes what in the west is the vertical axis of random relationships and it is this diffusive philosophy of the dynamics of transition that we are thinking of when we refer to the rehabilitation and safeguarding of the identity of this urban fabric. In terms of the design in the stricter sense, we have imagined the matrix of the hutong overlaid on a different matrix. The superimposition and the coincidence of these two matrices has defined the final form of the design, that as was stated earlier, has to take account of existing built elements. The greatest difficulty was in articulating the horizontal stylistic line characterised by the hutong with the vertical and isolated one of the two multi-storey buildings in a typical western style, that stand out from their context as they are so different from it. Intervening on these two buildings, we have attempted to convert extraneous objects into something else, with the aim of bringing them closer, through a kind of assonance, to the collection of buildings that make up the hutong. It should be noted that our intention is certainly not one of homologating the forms, flattening them onto a given model, but it has been our aim to place these forms in communication, in harmony, in a kind of musical accord. The design therefore does not impose or superimpose onto the existing but aims to place in resonance existing built elements, softening the strident oppositions, conserving certain aspects in some cases, radically transforming them in others. The transformation of the existing building into something else, is the fruit of a very simple operation, that is that of covering it, dressing it in some way in a garment that declares it to be transformed. The built element that previously housed the offices of a workshop for industrial manufacturing and that in our case is to become a hotel, finds itself covered on the surface of its volumetric structure by a dress, a film, a second mask, that exhibits simultaneously the intention of both conserving and transforming. The grid, the pattern that re-dresses and cloaks the volumes of the buildings and constitutes the garment of  mutation, transfiguration, masking, has been developed based on the revisitation of three ideograms, garden, one of the principal elements in the design that reconfigures the relationships, as an intrusion and mixture of nature and artifice both inside and outside the buildings. Drape, as an element that superimposed onto existing facades, guarantees for these two buildings the possibility of forming a new dialogue with the surrounding fabric, and politeness that summarises the overall approach of the masterplan, as well as the intrinsic meaning of the destined use of the buildings as a hotel. With this strongly characterised action of “dressing” the anonymous solidity of the two industrial buildings, there has been an explicit desire to evoke the relationship between naked and dressed body that for the oriental culture and in particular the Chinese one, has a totally different function with respect to westerners. In Chinese tradition, the human body is entirely absorbed by the landscape, of which it is just one of the elements, and communicates with the rest of the environment in a relationship of reciprocal referrals. Position, expression but above all clothing manifest the way with which the person connives with the landscape, it actualises them, makes them concrete. On the contrary the nude, depriving the person of their distinctive traits, extracts – abstracts – them from the conditions and the epoch, immobilises them in a form separate from the background: to the Chinese eye this form does not hold any attraction or sensuality because China does not have, like the west, the compulsive and metaphysical necessity to capture the idea sacrificing the flow. In the same way these naked and isolated volumetric blocks of urban space have been redressed and thus repaired in terms of coherence with the formal and social surrounding devices, through a garment that introduces them and places them in a position of assonance and not extraneousness, with the overall area. The outer cladding also refers to the image that we westerners have of the Chinese Box, the boxes that hide and contain other boxes but in which, as opposed to the matrioska where the first declares the last, the first box does not reveal the second and the second in turn does not reveal the third, in a characteristic game that is famous to us, a game that is typically theatrical, of show and in a pejorative sense, of politics, the economy. The game of the Chinese boxes, in the sense of the formula of the mise en abyme,  is also the oneiric or literary tool that generates the magic immersion of the dream within the dream, or the story within the story and that leads us to a distancing in which all the sharp contrasts are attenuated by reverberation. Playing with this idea of the Chinese Box, we have superimposed the boxes, in this case perforated, permeated by air and light, coloured gold and black, that conceal but do not hide completely the surfaces beneath that are coloured a deep red. The result is a kind of summation of objects that become, when lit up at night, enormous lanterns in the landscape. The evocation of the red lantern further underlines the process of dialectics and reciprocal interaction that it was hoped to stimulate between the new built elements and the traditional dwellings. Even the out-of-scale nature of the buildings is translated in a kind of diffused light, not cutting but welcoming, that reduces the volumetric impact but at the same time gives them a look of magic, magic and enchantment, where the enchantment is not shown right to the end, it does not declare itself totally but always leaves a margin to the incapacity of imagining it that is typical of invention.So with these words I conclude our presentation that I hope has been able to illustrate our designs without excessively boring the audience.

thank you