Beijing Design Week might be a youthful three years old but it has already found a distinctive voice. And in a city transforming at the hurtling rate of the Chinese capital, it's no surprise to hear it talking about urban planning. Maps and architectural drawings cropped up everywhere in the myriad of events - whether they were lining the walls of the hutongs of Dashilar or the carriages of a train in the design district - symbols of the designers' attempts to reshape, restore and make sense of Beijing's complex cityscape.
Unlike at many a design week, visitors weren't greeted by endless exhibition halls lined with gleaming new furniture. 'Beijing Design Week is less of a temporary showcase of finished products than [an exploration] into contextualised perspectives for design in a 21st century city,' said creative director Beatrice Leanza. 'It's about bringing together makers, thinkers and government planners to 'challenge what design can do for a living urban ecosystem in contemporary times'.
Nowhere are these challenges more complex than in the lively but crumbling neighbourhood of Dashilar, where the centuries-old hutongs - once home to the city's first teahouses, opera theatres and opium dens - are facing an uncertain future. Here, the ongoing regeneration efforts of Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited (part of the state-owned Guang An Holding) have been given a kick forward by the launch of a collaborative project with Beijing Design Week. 'Dashilar Pilot' saw leading local and international designers and architects corralled together to contribute ideas for raising the living standards in these narrow streets.
One of the big hits among the proposals peppering Dashilar was the 'Micro Hutong', by Zhang Ke of Chinese practice Standard Architecture. Fashioned from plywood and glass, his artfully stacked cube rooms might not offer much in the way of privacy, but they are a thoughtful idea for small-scale housing in cramped spaces.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based British designer Michael Young unveiled a model for a new public toilet; French designer Matali Crasset showed her dynamic proposal to connect two peculiar hutongs; and Japanese designer Kenya Hara has conjured a graphic identity, map and app for the area, bringing coherence to its maze of streets.
Dashilar Pilot is helping drive forward the concept of 'nodal' regeneration in the area. 'It is not about gentrification, but about giving local residents examples of how to restore and reuse the buildings,' says Neill Mclean Gaddes, who works as a consultant for the cultural arm of Guang An Holding. The ideas might not be radically new, but the project is unique in the way it brings together those that plan and those that dwell.
The Dashilar neighbourhood was just one stop on Beijing Design Week's 'Design Hop' series of exhibitions across the city, which also took visitors to the former factory districts of 798 and 751 D-Park. In the fledgling design district of 751 D-Park, the power plants have been refashioned into design studios, while industrial tanks are now exhibition spaces. One of the most compelling events, however, took place in the carriages of a train stationed inside the power plant. Here, beautiful illustrations from books published by the Tongji University Press lined the walls, exploring urban metropolises through drawings, illustrations and photographs.
Beijing Design Week's flagship event was the 'Smart Cities' exhibition at the Chinese Millennium Monument. Here again, remapping and reconfiguring cities was top of the agenda in the designs put forward by studios and universities from ten different countries.
As a stage for exploring ideas for urban regeneration, there are few places as apt as the sprawling city of Beijing. Its own design community's idiosyncratic way of rethinking neglected spaces - be it power plants or crumbling hutongs - is awe-inspiring in itself. Add international designers to the mix and the dialogue gets even more fascinating.