In China, Reviving an Ancient City and Its Craft Traditions
By ALICE RAWSTHORN
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…….A different strategy is being deployed to similar ends in Dashilar. Like Cicheng, it has a rich history, albeit a younger one, rooted in the 1300s. Located in the heart of Beijing, near the Forbidden City, Dashilar was a bustling commercial center for centuries, when its narrow hutongs were filled with opera houses, silk shops, opium dens, tea houses and brothels, as well as the city’s first cinema and stock exchange. But in recent years, when other areas of Beijing have been transformed by redevelopment, Dashilar has been neglected. “When we first started telling people we were doing projects in Dashilar, the common response was: ‘You’re crazy, no one wants to go there,”’ Mr. Chen recalled.
Dashilar narrowly avoided the wholesale redevelopment of other areas of Beijing. By the time the development process was due to start, the cost of relocating and compensating local residents had become prohibitively expensive. Beijing Dashilar Investment, the government-owned real estate developer for the neighborhood, decided to make the most of its shabby, but charming hutongs.
Working with the Beijing-based architectural group, Approach Architecture, it formed a project team, Dashila(b), which has implemented a conventional urban regeneration strategy of renovating the historic buildings and persuading designers, architects and artists to occupy them. Less conventionally, Dashila(b) has also tried to rekindle the local craft heritage by bringing new artisans into the area and nurturing existing businesses, which include historic shops like Nei Lian Sheng, a shoe store founded in 1853 to make cloth boots for the imperial court.
Dashila(b) began by inviting Beijing Design Week to organize temporary exhibitions and workshops in Dashilar for each of the past two years, and by opening pop-up shops. It now plans to convert a disused factory commandeered by Beijing Design Week into a permanent gallery, and to run a regular program of debates and workshops on design, craftsmanship and architectural restoration.
Some of the designers and artisans that have rediscovered Dashilar through such projects have been persuaded to open studios there, as they have in Cicheng. That should make it easier to persuade others to follow, and to sustain the once-imperiled craft traditions of, at least, two parts of China.