Writer Junyuan Feng on how the Chinese countryside is being revitalized with markets, libraries, and hotels
For decades, China’s modernization emphasized the growth of urban centers, the mass movement of people meant the countryside played second fiddle to the country's new age of cities. But a new movement is rethinking rural areas to be a sustainable and serene contrast to the metropolises.
In early February 2020, just before COVID-19 took New York City by storm, an exhibition titled 'Countryside: The Future' opened at the Guggenheim Museum. Organized in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal from AMO—the think tank of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)—the center-wide exhibition sought to put rural areas around the world at the center of discussions about the global future in the face of urban decay and accelerating climate change. A considerable proportion of the exhibition focused on the Chinese countryside.
Koolhaas is certainly not alone when it comes to being interested in rural China. The early stages of the modernization project following the reform and opening-up policies of 1978 largely focused on urbanization, but a marked shift in emphasis toward the potential of the country’s rural heartlands has been underway for the past few years. However, this state-led rural reconstruction isn't aimed at transforming rural villages into analogs of their urban counterparts along the coast. If anything, it is a response to the myriad consequences of urban acceleration over the past decades, which range from regional inequalities and soaring real estate prices in cities to environmental pollution and cultural homogenization, and aims to promote a more sustainable way of life as well as a more equitable relationship with nature. As part of this movement, a wave of Chinese architects has enthusiastically brought new projects to the hinterland.
For architect Xu Tiantian of the Beijing-based practice DnA (Design and Architecture), innovative rural architecture has the power to help restore rural heritage and activate local economies. In January 2014, DnA began collaborating with Songyang County in southwest Zhejiang Province on what eventually developed redevelopment. These buildings serve as catalysts that rejuvenate different sectors of the local economy. Like acupuncture, which is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, DnA’s projects in Songyang involve various time-honored methods. Take the Bamboo Pavilion: built in the middle of the Damushan green tea field, a group of four pavilions, constructed entirely from locally sourced bamboo, provides tea plantation workers and visitors with a pit stop to rest and take in serene views of their surroundings. The pitched roofs provide shade from the intense sunlight while creating the impression of a floating village from a distance.
More recently, DnA built three new factories in Songyang to revitalize the surrounding rural economy. Among them, the Tofu Factory, a 1,200-square-meter (13,000 square-foot) wooden structure designed to bring Caizhai Village’s famous tofu-making culture to a wider audience. The building, located on a slope along the river close to the village entrance, is divided into six sections according to function. Visitors ascending the stairs can observe the production process, step-by-step, before finally arriving in the tasting hall to dig in. The factory’s design celebrates the village’s cultural heritage by transforming the previously behind-the-scenes manufacturing process into the theater, putting the villagers’ craftsmanship center stage. DnA’s Songyang initiatives have helped inject the region with vital energy while also restoring its residents’ confidence in their future.
As the breadbasket of China’s enormous population, the countryside plays an extraordinarily important role in the nation’s agricultural supply chain. However, decades of rural-to-urban migration—due to the higher quality of life in cities compared to the precarious working conditions for farmers—have drained the countryside of talent in the agricultural sector. These factors have improved agricultural infrastructure, one of the most crucial goals of rural reconstruction, and architects have made considerable strides in recent years. Completed in 2016, ARCHSTUDIO’s Tangshan Organic Farm is located in Tangshan’s Guye District. Serving as a processing facility, it collects, processes, and packs raw materials from organic farms across the country before shipping them out as finished products.
The 6,000-square-meter (65,000-square-foot) facility resembles a supersized traditional courtyard composed of four volumes that serve as the storage depot, mill, oil pressing facility, and packing area, leaving an empty field in the middle where produce can be sun-dried. The use of timber for the roof, frame, and flooring, and PVC board for the walls reduces construction costs and gives the site a luminous and welcoming atmosphere. By improving rural farmers’ working conditions, innovative industrial architecture like ARCHSTUDIO’s organic farm hopes to attract urban migrants back to the countryside, anticipating a revitalized agrarian culture.
Meanwhile, other initiatives have focused on improving housing conditions in rural villages. Located between the world’s two largest seismic belts, many parts of China are at high risk of earthquakes. These areas with heightened seismic activity largely overlap with the most remote and mountainous regions of China, where the prevalence of low-quality buildings—many constructed in violation of building codes—makes them even more vulnerable. In 2014, an earthquake of magnitude 6.1 on the Richter scale shattered tens of thousands of homes in Ludian County in Yunnan, a province in southwest China.
Post-earthquake, the residents of Guangming Village realized they needed to rebuild their homes with more structural resilience, but they could not afford the higher-quality materials they required. In response, the Chinese University of Hong Kong collaborated with Kunming University of Science and Technology to develop an improved, affordable rammed earth building system and constructed a prototype house for an elderly couple to demonstrate its validity. It features steel bars and concrete belts built into walls composed of a new formula using clay, sand, grass, and other local, cost-effective materials, thereby improving seismic performance. Double-paned windows and insulated roofs are incorporated into the design to enhance insulation. The low cost and relatively simple procedures also guarantee that local villagers can learn the technologies themselves, acquiring skills that qualify them to find work in future rural reconstruction projects.
A growing number of urban dwellers are beginning to see the countryside in a new light, thanks to the many boutique hotels and guesthouses that have opened in rural villages in recent years. The Heduli Paddy Hotel by C & C Design in Hedu Village in Huizhou is a case in point. Transforming an abandoned primary school and employing locally sourced materials such as bamboo and tiles throughout, the eco-friendly hotel offers visitors the opportunity to relax and enjoy the tranquil setting while developing a deeper appreciation for the rural way of life on a weekend retreat.
With the development of a stronger rural economy in some parts of China, newly affluent villagers are also eager to bring home modern, cutting edge design—once an exclusively urban luxury—to which architects have responded enthusiastically. The renovation of a sea captain’s house on the southeastern end of Huangqi Peninsula in Fujian Province by Beijing-based practice Vector Architects exemplifies this trend. Twenty years of standing beside the sea had left the original structure suffering from severe water damage. After assessing the building’s condition, Dong Gong of Vector Architects added concrete reinforcement to the original brick masonry walls and reconfigured the internal layout. The bedrooms were moved to the side facing the sea, welcoming in more natural light and fresh air. Protruding window frames set into the outside wall create extra space while functioning as a desk and viewing station. An extra floor was added on top of the building, providing space for exercise and family gatherings, topped with a barrel vault to channel rain. The elegant and functional design has transformed a once-ordinary village house into a deluxe villa, nothing short of a resort getaway, adding an exquisite landmark to the Huangqi coastline.
With top-down and bottom-up initiatives supported by homegrown architects, the countryside—once dismissed as backward and uninspiring—is experiencing a much-deserved renaissance. As novel architecture emerges across rural China, we may not be all that far from a time when everyone dreams of moving out of tired cities to the countryside, especially in a post-pandemic world.
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