Michele Bonino + Filippo De Pieri: The Danweis of Beijing and the Notion of “Industrial Heritage” in Contemporary China

by Waishan Qiu, MCP Candidate and STL Fellow

On Tuesday, April 11, 2017, Michele Bonino and Filippo De Pieri, both associate professors of architectural and urban design at Politecnico di Torino, gave a lunch talk titled The Danweis of Beijing and the Notion of “Industrial Heritage” in Contemporary China. This lecture was part of 2017 Spring China Talk Series. The lecture was a unique observation, poetic illustration, and critical reflection on the composition and transformation of danwei (单位) as an urban form in China. It tries to answer the question: is the ubiquity of ‘culture’ in the conservation and reuse of former industrial danwei related to a desire to conceal historical traumas and the political dimension of urban change? Prof. Bonino and Prof. De Pieri spoke to an audience of approximately 20 students, faculty, professional practitioners, and guests. Prof. Liu Jiang, a previous China Talk Series lecturer also joined as discussant. Before the lecture, Prof. Bonino and Prof. De Pieri shared their recent publication Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City (2015) with the audience. The book resulted from a collaboration between Politecnico di Torino and Tsinghua University.


Prof. Bonino and Prof. De Pieri began their talk by looking at the history and future of former danwei. They also discussed strategies for danwei in the context of dealing with industrial heritage. Work units--the so-called danwei--were everywhere in Mao and post-Mao China. The danwei system served as a blueprint for the reorganization and expansion of Chinese cities after 1949: it presented the double advantage of controlling the movements of the urban population while organizing the access to goods and resources in the context of a planned economy. They were recognizable for their Modernist architectural language and for a spatial arrangement that isolated them as true cities within the city, complete with everything from workplaces to housing, from schools to other public infrastructure. Danwei are interesting because of their hybrid spatial qualities. These were a mixed, impure affair from the very beginning: made up in equal parts of imported Soviet formulas, international circulation of neighborhood planning ideas, post-CIAM housing experiences, and Taylorism filtered through collectivist ideology.

Prof. Bonino and Prof. De Pieri also used many beautiful maps and illustrations to visually represent the spatial characteristics of danwei. Through detailed illustration of its unique urban fabric, architecture typology, and the observation of current status, they gradually exposed the audience to the lively contexts of danwei. As a unique production in urban sectors back to the Mao and post-Mao eras, the urban fabric characterized by close links between work, residence, and social facilities was impressively planned. They are the material product of socialist city planning. Therefore, it provides an urban experience that forms a stepping stone between the hutongs of the imperial capital and the superblocks of the present-day metropolis. Contrary to disused industrial sites in Western cities that often disrupt the continuity and scale of the urban fabric, the danwei have a much closer relationship to the historical as well as the contemporary city. In contemporary urban China, the danwei represent a unique experimental field of urban design.

The talk was followed by a lively discussion led by Prof. Liu Jian from Tsinghua Univeristy. Prof. Liu agreed with the notion that danwei is a hybridization of social, political, and economic activities. It is a mixed form of working and living. It is inclusive if you are an insider, however it is also very exclusive if you are outsider. The discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Michele Bonino, architect, is Associate Professor of architectural and urban design at Politecnico di Torino, where he is the Rector’s Delegate for relations with China and the Program Director of the Master of Science in Architecture. He has been a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing (China, 2013 and 2014) and a Visiting Scholar at MIT (USA, 2016). In 2015 he directed, with Zhang L., the international research “Memory, Regeneration” dedicated to the reuse of industrial heritage in contemporary China. Presently is the Principal Investigator of the research “Chinese New Towns: Negotiating Citizenship and Physical Form”, in partnership with EPFL and Tsinghua. He was invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Milan Triennale, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture. He’s the author of three books and several articles for international magazines.

Filippo De Pieri is Associate Professor of architectural and urban history at Politecnico di Torino. His research focuses on the history of contemporary European, North American, and East Asian cities. His publications include the books Il controllo improbabile: progetti urbani, burocrazie, decisioni in una città capitale dell’Ottocento (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2005), Storie di case: abitare l’Italia del boom (Rome: Donzelli, 2013, as a co-editor), Explorations in the Middle-Class City (Siracusa: Lettera 22, 2015, as a co-author) and Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City (Berlin: Jovis, 2015, as a co-editor), as well as several articles and guest-edited issues for international journals. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University (USA) and Tsinghua University (China) and is presently a visiting scholar at the EPFL (Switzerland) where he is leading the international research project “Memory and the city: assessing tools for interdisciplinary research and teaching.”