Can Architecture Save China’s Rural Villages? DnA’s Xu Tiantian Thinks So
Travel seven hours by car in a Southwest direction from Shanghai and you will arrive in Songyang County. The name is unfamiliar to many Chinese people, and even more foreign to those living abroad. The county consists of about 400 villages, from Shicang to Damushan.
Here, undulating lush green terraces hug the sides of Songyin river valley, itself the one serpentine movement uniting the lands. Follow the river and you will see: here, a Brown Sugar Factory; there, a Bamboo Theatre; and on the other side, a stone Hakka Museum built recently but laid by methods so old, even the town masons had to learn these ways for the first time, as if they were modern methods, as if they were revolutionary.
And maybe they are. Songyang County, otherwise known as the “Last Hidden Land in Jiangnan,” may look like a traditional Chinese painting with craggy rock faces, rice fields and tea plantations, but it has also become a model example of rural renaissance. Beijing architect Xu Tiantian, of the firm DnA_Design and Architecture, has spent years surveying the villages of Songyang, talking to local County officials and residents, and coming up with what she calls “architectural acupunctures.”
Xu Tiantian’s story is an interesting one about inspiring rural self-confidence and turning provincial attitudes towards outsiders into welcoming, open arms through her architecture. She explains how she did it, and why this is important to China, in the exhibition “Rural Moves—The Songyang Story.”
“The real China is in the countryside.” Aric Chen of M+, Hong Kong, remarked in his opening piece for Rural Moves—The Songyang Story. For thousands of years, the core tenets of Chinese design were built upon feng shui and the use of natural elements such as clay and wood to encourage positive flow through the built space. But when Deng Xiaoping opened China up to the world in the 1970s, he also spurred the migration of more than half of China’s 1.4 billion people to cities for work. In Shanghai and Beijing, construction companies were frantically building skyscrapers with bright signboards and big names a-dangling, to the fascination of the Chinese people. At the same time, there was a sense that the “real” China was fast disappearing and must be saved without being “Disneyfied,” as so many of China’s towns and villages have in the name of tourism.
This is what gave Xu Tiantian her raison d’être to bring her architectural practice to Songyang. Yet when Xu first arrived a few years ago, she had some difficulty mediating between what people see in cities and what should be developed in the rural areas. She said, “They [the residents] always come up with 2 different impressions of architecture. One is the ancient buildings, like you know, the local Min, Qin Dynasty style, and the other type is something modern looking, just like Beijing, Shanghai, or like Hangzhou.”
But Xu was headstrong in her design process. The history of how structures were built in each village was too unique to be erased and plastered over with modern designs. So, she insisted. “With this individual acupuncture… we try to convince them it should be a language addressed to their own traditions,” she said in an interview, “All these buildings are not about a form or about a iconic image, it’s rather becoming a media or a translator of this history and heritage of the village”
The countryside has long been the origin and conduit for human civilization. As Aric Chen of M+ explains:
Xu Tiantian has approached this rural revitalization by [bringing] the de rigeur notion of architectural acupuncture—which rejects sweeping redevelopment in favor of smaller interventions as catalysts for more organic processes—to rural China.
HAKKA INDENTURE MUSEUM
Take the Hakka Indenture Museum in Shicang village for example, a sublime museum of fieldstone walls bracketing an existing irrigation channel, constructed with local stones through traditional techniques. This museum building also became an opportunity to restore the traditional methods of building: three masonry experts have trained a dozen young workers into skilled masons. “This kind of work was done in the ancient times and the technology gets lost since decades” says Lin Mingsheng, Mason of Shantou, Shiken Village. “Now for carrying on this project, we have to learn it again by doing.”
“The biggest challenge was the stone building itself. At present, no such houses are being build in Shicang” said Chen Zhongwu of the Construction Office. “I have not studied and didn’t know this job very well. Now I have the inspiration and knowledge to appreciate this kind of art.”
Xu designed a linear opening in the roof so that sunlight would fall on the water curtain and form a rainbow. This temporary phenomenon has attracted endless curious visitors, who then travel to neighboring villages. As a result, the cultural museum and scenic village landscape have attracted investments to renovate the adjacent village houses as new tourism programs.
BROWN SUGAR FACTORY
On the central level of the Songyin River, Xing Village is a key spot for the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of brown sugar, which is also the village’s primary source of income. Xu Tiantian designed a Brown Sugar Factory with an open-plan ground floor so that the work zones can be connected to the fields and the neighboring village. As sugar production only takes place between October and December, the building can also be used for daytime tea meetings, film showings and local puppet theatre performances.
TEAHOUSE AT DAMUSHAN TEA VALLEY
In Damushan, Xu Tiantian designed a black-dyed concrete teahouse around five Sycamore trees that would offer visitors views of the pool and the planted bushes that extend over the ridges. Xu nested the teahouse between the edge of the pool and the tree canopy so that it would disappear in the natural topography. Inside, the pool reflects sunlight and enlivens the interior space, which has small courtyards and private rooms for tea ceremonies.
Of the teahouse, Meng Xuefen, Manager of Songyang Damushan Tea House, commented in a video interview: “2015, when the building of Professor Xu was completed, I came over here to this teahouse and liked it very much. By walking around here, I realized that this is the atmosphere and way of life I want. Looking at the building you feel relaxed, happy and comfortable.”
To get between the tea fields in the Damushan area, visitors can glide through paved paths with electric vehicles and bicycles. Along the path, Xu developed a system of bamboo pavilions, each resembling historical hamlets, and designed to be transparent to provide an expansive view of the tea fields around. Xu’s pavilions amplify the figure of the tea plantation as an ambassador for the appreciation and renewal of the area. Watch a video here.
BRIDGE AT SHIMEN VILLAGE
Xu’s bridge in Shimen Village was even more necessary: it links two villages, Shimen and Shimenyu, which were previously separated by the Songyin River.
Not only did she provide a link between two communities, the wooden bridge features a square in the middle that is planted with trees to encourage the pedestrians to linger and share a cultural space together. A villager laughs as she stands with her friends and recalls:
At first we were worried about this project. We were afraid that people from all places will come here and create chaos… but now, it’s ok for them to do business here… set up a homestay.”
PINGTIAN VILLAGE CENTRE
Xu’s Pingtian Village Centre is situated on a mountain ridge. The outside looks like an agglomeration of rammed earth structures, while the inside reveals traditional wood construction. To turn this into a village center for handicrafts, Xu Tiantian installed a new skylight, which not only served as a bridge between two older, more traditional houses, it expanded the space and provided the perfect lighting for crafts.
Her influence was not only limited to the built environment; her design and aesthetics also inspire others in the local community. “Her concept and aesthetics are totally different from us normal people,“ said Wu BingSong, a local craftsman.
“After finishing the work the whole town talked about this kind of concept and the people appreciate it very much. I learnt a lot about aesthetics by studying her designs. In fact I am now working with the style of Professor Xu.”
Some of her other work include Wang Jing Memorial Hall, Pine Park Pavilion, and Bamboo Theatre, a mountainside “theater” made by interlocking living stalks of bamboo.
WANG JING MEMORIAL HALL
The old building was made of rammed earth and had an internal wood structure, but was in poor condition. Xu Tiantian renovated the building with open concrete elements at the seventeen corners of the layout and the life of Wang Jing is presented on seventeen scenes, with natural light illuminating each one.
PINE PARK PAVILION
The pavilion stands along the Songyin river to accommodate cyclists and hikers who have come from the village of Huangyu. The structure is made of prefabricated elements and was assembled on site. It hosts an art installation that presents how pine resin was historically produced in the village of Huangyu.
Once installed, the growing dome requires little regular maintenance: younger bamboo sprouts are woven into the existing dome and old poles are removed. This bioorganic architecture in natural surroundings facilitates activities ranging from village opera performances to individual meditation in nature.
Xu Tiantian’s pieces respect the natural ecology of the villages by making logical use of local building materials and using traditional methods to extend the use of these materials to present-day demands. These subtle interventions can extract and elevate the cultural characteristics of each village and provide a space for residents and visitors to enjoy the “new countryside.”
In his closing remarks, Wang Jun had nothing but praise for Xu and what she has accomplished. He said:
From this perspective, Xu Tiantian has worked as a social worker—while she devoted her efforts in building these architectural pieces, her engagement in these rather difficult yet extremely meaningful social constructions has been critical to her approach in architecture. Perhaps this is the mission and responsibility an excellent architecture and its designer should embody.
Rural Moves—The Songyang Story presents nine projects that have been realized and elucidates them with models, plans, and photographs as well as by means of a film installation. The exhibition shows that changes in society, the economy, and ecology are possible by means of many small steps and active engagement, and that architecture and committed architects play an important role in the process. More Information at www.aedes-arc.de.