Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Excellence Award
798 Arts District
Sasaki — Beijing, China
Historically, China's state-owned factories were identified by a number. Once a facility that manufactured weapons components, the 798 factory and surrounding industrial district is now the epicenter of an emerging arts community, formally recognized by the City of Beijing in 2006 as an arts district.
The 798 Arts District Vision Plan was the brainchild of an unlikely partnership between a government-led consortium that oversees the pension fund for former factory workers and a Belgian philanthropist with a passion for contemporary Chinese art. Together, they sought to repurpose the district as a stable source of revenue while solidifying its place as an influential force in China's arts scene.
Over the course of a decade, the factory buildings have been transformed into new museums, galleries, and cafes. Previously hidden courtyards and vacant lots are now settings for outdoor sculptures, fashion shows, and other cultural events. What began as a small collection of studios and work spaces has evolved to become the third most visited destination in Beijing, behind the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
The 798 Vision Plan outlined how the community might evolve over time — from a series of derelict factory buildings to a cultural destination and, eventually, to a thriving mixed-use community.
In 2004, the district faced demolition due to obsolescence. Public outcry and the intervention of several prominent cultural organizations helped spare the area from the wrecking ball. An initiative led by the owners of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art helped the land holder, Seven Star Group, reimagine the space. Planners sought consensus by proving that an adaptive reuse strategy was a better option to demolition, and that the area could still attract jobs, increase land values, and evolve.
The plan follows four guiding principles:
- Emphasize the arts as the district's main theme.
- Retain the industrial aesthetic by preserving the district's unique architectural features and landscapes.
- Make the district more visible and accessible.
- Encourage additional development of arts-related uses that complement the district's theme.
A subway station is under construction at the periphery of the district, which will enhance access and connect the district to other parts of the city. Several public plazas and landscapes are used for large-scale art installations, fashion shows, and other outdoor activities. Meanwhile, industrial elements, such as the steam pipe network and smokestacks remain as landmarks which recall the site's early uses.
An arts school will infuse the district with fresh talent and provide an alternative educational facility unlike others in Beijing, while artist-in-residence housing is aimed to temper forces of gentrification.
From the beginning, the plan needed to inspire multiple stakeholders with different motivations.
The city government of Beijing wanted the district to become a highly visible and acclaimed visitor destination. The landholder, SevenStar Group, wanted to generate a reliable and sustainable source of revenue and increase land values. Nonprofit cultural institutions investing in 798 wanted a focus on culture and the arts, and to protect the district's distinctive character and history. Finally, the residents in neighboring communities wanted public parks, recreation, and job opportunities.
Planners were able to create a plan that addressed each of these needs.
The 798 Arts District has become one of the most important cultural destinations in the world. The 798 Plan was successful in creating a long-term strategy for creating jobs, generating revenue from district businesses, and increasing land values, and its economic model is followed by other arts districts.
The 798 Plan also shows how adaptive reuse of architecturally distinct buildings can transform an entire area and save it from the wrecking ball.