Breaking the Wall


An idealistic star architect, assertive low-income residents, and control-minded bureaucrats are shaping the outcome of a social housing experiment in Beijing that could redefine urban China for decades to come.


In an era of skyrocketing housing prices, the Chinese government has committed itself to providing everyone a home and started reforms that prioritize building social housing. Baiwan homes is the crown jewel of this grand scheme. It is designed by world-renowned architect Ma Yansong, built in 2020, and by now 2,600 low-income households have moved in. Our film observes this one-of-a-kind community as it takes shape.
What kind of homes do China’s urban poor deserve? For Ma Yansong, Baiwan Homes is an experiment of his ideals for the low-income group. In his design, he emphasizes the openness of the space to let the vitality of the city flow into the community, so as to resist the fate of it becoming an urban slum. But it has encountered strong resistance, especially while China struggles to get a grip on COVID-19. For the government, Baiwan Homes is a manifestation of the superiority of socialism. The grassroots officials who work here see the residents as both whom they provide support to every day and those to be controlled under certain circumstances. Despite their low-income status, the residents are people in various trades and share little in common. There are retired textile factory workers from the city’s outskirts, businessmen who lost their fortunes, former inmates who have gone in and out of prison, and young families who cannot afford to buy their own apartments. In the new community they’ve formed, constant disputes have become their everyday reality, but they also find a network of support and sense of belonging that allow them to settle their unstable lives. Our camera follows them when they are united in their protest against a nearby asphalt plant, and documents how they care for each other during the lockdown. Though they pay well below market rates rent and have no property rights, they strive for becoming the real masters of the community. They don’t shy away from having their humble but tenacious voices heard in community events, such as the election of the community neighborhood committee. Through their actions and emotions, they are shaping the reality of Baiwan Homes.
Our film is an intimate study and rare portrayal of a unique experiment in contemporary urban China. We believe the complexity and uncertainty of the experiment will reflect the hopes and difficulties of China's social transformation, and its results are bound to determine the future of Chinese urban housing.

Director:  Weichao Xu
Producer: Yiqian Zhang
Executive producer: Ken-ichi IMAMURA
Production status: Production
Completion schedule: End of 2024

PW: btw2022