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The Sweet Potato Community, Renovated Basements in Beijing
Beijing, China
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Renovate Beijing's basements into better living and social space

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in use
13 July 2016

Beijing, China--The Sweet Potato Community is just like any other common compact community, composed of hair salon, a gym, a cafe, a library, and units of living space, except they are all underground. Renovated collectively by a group of designers and the actual tenants, these basement rooms are just the sweet potatoes, grown underground, connected to each other, probably with unappealing appearances yet highly nourishing content.

Basement before renovation.

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A room slightly wider than a single bed, is home to a hairdresser for the past year. The rent is 350 yuan—about $50—is one tenth of her salary.

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A 27-year-old insurance seller lives in this 28-square-meter with nine other roommates.

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cultural and social context

In Beijing, over a million people live in these basement rooms originally designed as bomb shelters to withstand a potential nuclear war. Dysfunctional after the Cold War, some bunkers were handed over to local authorities, some turned into shops or offices, most were converted into living spaces and rented out to migrant workers or residents trying to withstand Beijing's unaffordable living expenses.

As the demand for rental space continued to soar in Beijing, basement rentals peaked in 2004. But the overcrowding, fast turnover and poor management also brought safety and security worries to many aboveground communities. Calls to regulate basement tenants grew. In 2008, the government closed all of the city’s basement dwellings for five months in preparation for the Olympic games. In 2009, ahead of the 60-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, these basements were closed again for three months. In 2010, Beijing announced that the residential use of underground spaces would be illegal by the end of 2012. Though the deadline was extended to 2017, the plan was met with fierce resistance from landlords and tenants.

Those who live in them, often low-income migrant laborers, street traders, the unemployed and also recently more and more university graduates, have been called by the news media as “rat tribe”--a vagrant, scuttling population. Estimates of their numbers range from 150,000 to a million. Most of the basement rooms are rented out for 500 to 900 yuan a month, or roughly $77 to $138--about one-third of the cost renting aboveground.

A room has been changed to serve as public space.

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Basement changed into a social space for both the underground and aboveground community. Here, an amateur senior choir is rehearsing at one of such rooms.

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Basement changed into a social space for both the underground and aboveground community. Here, an amateur senior choir is rehearsing at one of such rooms.

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materials and building techniques

The basements were renovated to suit the living needs and with a simple artistic touch. For one room, the walls and floor were painted white leaving the ceiling and part of the walls untouched. The white paint symbolizing a new start connects and exchanges with the original faded wall. With several white stools in the shape of twisted triangles, the décor looks modern and artistic, while the untouched concrete preserves a taste of its unglamorous past. In another, the room was furnished with a wooden bed and tables that could be folded into the walls to save space.

The hallway leading into the underground world is also painted new. The wall facing the exit is painted blue—“when leaving in the morning, people will be accompanied by the blue color symbolizing hope.” The wall opposite the entrance is painted yellow—“so when coming home in the evening, tenants will be welcomed by a warm color.”

The colorful number on the floor alleviates the fear of moving around underground and also helps the underground tenants better orients their location.

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