Hutong Vs Highrise: A Photo Essay On China’s Radical Urban Chrysalis

Hutong Vs Highrise: A Photo Essay On China’s Radical Urban Chrysalis

Beijing is one of the earliest still-existent cities planned around a grid: Its old city is organised around a chessboard-like grid of alleys, known as hutong, that date back at least a millenium. But, as developers in Beijing scramble to built modern towers in the urban core, hutong are disappearing.

German photographer Christopher Domakis has made it his business to document them. Domakis spent three months in China earlier this year, and during his stay, he ended up photographing dozens of hutong, documenting the narrow, centuries-old alleys and corridors as he ran across them. He also travelled widely throughout other Chinese cities, documenting the construction of hundreds of new towers.

According to a report from The Atlantic, over 600 hutong were razed every year during Beijing’s boom in the 1990s:

Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways… Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason — they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

After an international outcry — precipitated by the destruction of hundreds of hutong to make way for the 2008 Olympic village — preservation groups are seeking to protect what remains — though it’s unclear how successful they’ll be.

Domakis’ images throw this radical urban transformation into relief. In the 1200s, Marco Polo described Beijing as “laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it.” In a way, he probably would’ve enjoyed the modern-day Beijing: there’s still plenty of masterly precision at work here — but unfortunately, it’s to the detriment of the old city. [Christopher Domakis]

Hutong in central Beijing from the air.