Fading Hutongs

Photographs by Júlio de Matos

Photographs by Portuguese architect Júlio de Matos captures the ambience of a rapidly vanishing landscape and way of life in the ancient hutong neighborhoods of Beijing – communities that are threatened today by the city's building boom.

Shaped by joining one traditional courtyard residence to another to create a hutong, then joining one hutong to another, the ancient form dates from the 14th Century. But in the last decade, rapid urban development has displaced many hutong populations and obliterated much of the centuries-old fabric. Even though in 2002 the city designated 25 hutong zones as protected areas, the traditional districts have faded to near extinction – except, perhaps, in the minds of those who have lived there.

Included in Fading Hutongs is a quotation from Yung Ho Chang, former head of MIT's Department of Architecture:

"Fifty years ago I was born in a hutong on the east side of Beijing and grew up in another. Throughout my childhood, my universe was a courtyard enclosed by sky, earth and architecture and completed with trees, flowers, bicycles and other children. It was an introverted space that was filled with domestic activities and a sense of tranquility at the same time. I have long since left the courtyard house, and the Beijing with that kind of houses and hutongs has been on its way to disappearance, but as an architect I find courtyards and hutongs in almost all the buildings I have built."

Fading Hutongs, like much of de Matos' photographic work, demonstrates a concern with the survival and extinction of ancestral cultures. Stemming from his multiple trips to Asia, recent photographic projects include Ta Prahom – A Memoria do Mundo (The Memory of the World) (Cambodia, 2001, Photographic Exhibition) and Porta do Paraíso (Heaven's Door) – Manikarnika Ghat (India, 2003, Exhibition and Photographic Album). His latest photographic series Flat Water, carried out in the North of Portugal, deals with digital interventions as a way to question the apparent three-dimensionality of a landscape on a photographic print.

Born in Braga, Portugal, in 1951, de Matos trained in industrial design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn NY. In 1976, he completed the Higher Education Architecture Course at the Porto School of Fine Arts, and from 1979 to 1981, with a Fullbright Scholarship, he studied for an MFA in Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His photographs are in the collections of museums in Portugal, the US and China. In his architectural practice, he is currently involved in the design of a new Lisbon museum dedicated to Portuguese navigation and the Portuguese language.

Curated by Gary Van Zante