Why City Architects Are Hightailing It to the Countryside
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2016-10-19 05:46:08

These days, we all know someone who has traded the pressures of city life for the calm of the countryside. It could be a friend who gives up banking to open a village B&B, a relative who grows organic produce on the old family estate, or an ex-colleague who now works with “left-behind” children as a volunteer teacher.

China’s countryside has become the stage on which these dreams play out. Once overshadowed by sweeping urbanization, previously sleepy villages now fuel many forms of social entrepreneurship.

While these ventures take shape in different ways, a constant theme is structural renovation. One cannot, after all, establish anything without first constructing a suitable place to accommodate it. Today, a new “down to the countryside” movement is being driven by architects eager to embrace rural opportunities, from guesthouses to pigpens.

Why are remote villages the new Shangri-La for architects? One reason is that for professionals at design institutes or large firms, the countryside screams freedom. Instead of pandering to the demands of government officials or large-scale developers, architects can communicate with actual residents and focus on realizing their dreams in the existing space. Small-scale projects also allow the architect to create a stronger sense of integrity and artistry rarely found in larger urban developments.

As early as 2010, The New York Times announced “a renewal of architecture’s onetime commitment to elevating the lives of ordinary people.” Recent laureates of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the industry’s foremost international awards, have brought innovative and affordable design solutions to low-income communities and disaster-struck areas.

Chinese architect Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker recipient, acknowledged the rural building tradition as “the only hope we have to reconnect with our culture” after completing building plans in Wen Village, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Wang’s modernist interpretation of local stone and clay has transformed the village into a spot so appealing that it even attracted an internet firm from Beijing to relocate there.

Instead of pandering to the demands of government officials or large-scale developers, architects can communicate with actual residents and focus on realizing their dreams in the existing space.

Similarly, Zhang Lei’s eye-catching Librairie Avant-Garde bookshop in Zhejiang’s Tonglu County — housed in a historic structure that the Nanjing-based architect renovated — has caught the eye of many other townships. His team has already signed an agreement with nearby Songyang County to open another branch in 2017.

For villagers, the strongest incentive for accepting architectural intervention is financial gain. In Songyang County several guesthouses are reporting a significant surge in visitors from cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou, Zhejiang’s capital, after the introduction of works by high-profile architects Xu Tiantian and He Wei.

Moreover, many villages appreciate the resurrection of vernacular detailing, as architects work rustic materials into novel compositions and layer new fabrics that highlight the original structures. Efforts to combine these approaches with more comfortable living conditions for residents have added to the appeal.

China’s rural communities have been gradually deprived of local craftspeople and laborers in the last decade, as migrants flock to the cities in search of employment. Those who remain tend to resort to “guerrilla-style” construction crews who simply tear down old houses and build identikit new ones out of concrete and cement. This has alienated many residents, who mourn the loss of connection with the place they live. Architects present them with new possibilities to preserve their past while simultaneously looking to the future.

However, it is probably too soon to announce the arrival of the “design for good” movement in the Chinese countryside. While people have experimented with design aimed at effecting positive social change in eastern China’s wealthier rural areas, providing affordable and durable housing remains the central issue in provinces like Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. In those areas, isolated examples of “starchitecture” seem to have had little impact on residents’ overall living conditions.

In spite of this, it is clear that architecture as a visual construct can herald the start of something bigger. In an era of media saturation, the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” certainly rings true. Successfully blending the old with the new may yet put previously unknown areas on the map.

In Shijia Village, about 210 kilometers from Xian in northwestern Shaanxi province, Hong Kong architect John Lin built a women’s community center in 2012, financed by an endowment from the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust. The house adapted local techniques and materials to produce a work aimed at resolving the lack of public recreational spaces in the village. Upon completion, positive press helped the village secure long-term support from the provincial arm of the All-China Women’s Federation, which chose it as a training station for recently graduated officials.

Back on the more affluent eastern coast, the main issue is population loss to the cities. Against this background, a compelling solution is to use architecture to transform the image of rural population centers. Three years ago, Songkou, a small town near Fuzhou in eastern Fujian province, saw the arrival of Taiwanese architects from the Open Union Cultural & Creative Company. One by one, this young team redesigned old houses that had previously been marked for demolition.

Their work has drawn a number of millennials back home, and some have even repurposed the traditional houses as creative boutiques and cafes. Alongside the architects, these residents have begun to found new opportunities in Songkou, which have come without sacrificing the town’s visual continuity with its past.

At their heart, architecture and economic development are both about people. If the former is able to create inspirational spaces in China’s rural areas, it will also have a positive effect on the latter. New design projects can appeal to those who assume that getting away from the countryside is the only way to build a better life. If these groups are able to rediscover an affinity for their hometowns, they could make a real difference to China’s rural development.

(Header image: A night view of Lijiang’s old town, Dali, Yunnan province,  Feb. 9, 2015. VCG)