Future Perfect Between rice fields and golf courses

Shijia House: prototype for contemporary house based on traditional Chinese courtyard house design
Shijia House: prototype for contemporary house based on traditional Chinese courtyard house design | Photo: Rufwork.

A new generation of architects are coming out against mass development projects and the predominance of international star architecture in China. Through their work in and together with the Chinese countryside, they are boosting sustainable modern-day approaches to the urbanization and revalorization of China’s built cultural landscape.

Mass housing estates trimmed with French-style plastic windowsills and Greek-style concrete pillars, cities sprouting up overnight, some still half empty, in addition to a considerable hotchpotch of international star architecture, a Frank Gehry here and a Zaha Hadid there: the building boom remains unabated in China.

Landscape and reform

The far-reaching reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) in the late 1970s and early 1980s jump-started China’s economic growth and successful development, but the subsequent waves of urbanization caused drastic social upheavals in Chinese society and encroachments on the environment.

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms uprooted a predominantly rural population living in collectively run villages and drove them into the cities. 50 per cent of China’s population now live in urban areas (as per 2011), and the central government aims to increase its urban population to 70 per cent by the year 2030. Under the 12th Five-Year-Plan from 2012, about 350 million Chinese are to be urbanized by 2025, equalling 40 million more than the entire population of the United States as per 2012.

In this frenzy of economic growth and modernization, rural villages are being built over, displaced, or wholly replaced by entire cities. Efforts to preserve and promote local architectural culture and traditions generally take a back seat to the objectives of rampant modernization.

Landscape and urbanization

And yet both the rural population and rural areas are drivers of Chinese urbanization. At present, though to a lesser degree than in the past few years, the Hukou Act (户口) still largely facilitates the urbanization of rural China.

Among other things, this law separates the country’s urban from its rural populations. As a result, the traditional relationship between the city and countryside in China is increasingly undermined in the wake of growth, leaving behind a landscape in which urban and rural prerogatives clash.

So there’s no clear-cut distinction between city and country anymore: on the contrary, international factories have been built right next to fishponds, villages have been built over by infrastructure projects, and outsize residential highrises and fenced-in golf courses are now located next to rice paddies, while half-finished five-storey one-family houses in the middle of abandoned rice paddies lie waiting for their owners to return from the city.

Landscape und architecture

More and more young architects in China are taking a critical look at the urbanization of the countryside and what has become of China’s architectural culture. They call for a responsive development approach adapted to the local context. In their quest for contemporary alternatives, they are actually returning to traditional construction techniques and materials whilst getting residents involved in the building process, and thereby expanding and enriching conventional architecture practice.

Under the auspices of the University of Hong Kong, the Rural Urban Framework, or Rufwork for short, was formed in 2006, a group of architects committed to addressing these urbanization issues. Founded by John Lin (林君翰) and Joshua Bolchover, this non-profit organization works mainly with or community associations and with the authorities in rural areas of China.

The university is making possible these endeavours at the interface between research and praxis, in which architecture students along with young architects develop theoretical and practical ideas and projects for the Chinese countryside, unconstrained by profitmaking considerations.

What triggered the formation of Rufwork was an eight-hour trip to the village of Qinmo (琴模) in Guangdong Province. A bunch of architects drove from Hong Kong through Shenzhen and then into the Pearl River Delta, all the way out to some very remote villages on the border between Guangdong and Guangxi. As they travelled from urban to rural agglomerations and saw landscapes in the throes of urbanization, they wondered how they might get have some impact on the process, which is proceeding by and large without architects and architecture.

For six years now Rufwork has been involved in the development of over 18 villages. Depending on their location, China’s villages have been variously affected by the rampant urbanization. Some are now completely enclosed in a dense urban fabric; in the wake of the city’s growth, they’ve given their fields up to developers or simply found themselves cut off from the fields by large-scale infrastructure projects. Other villages are falling apart, their apartment buildings deserted, traditional ancestral shrines crumbling from neglect. In some cases, the young generation have fled to the cities, leaving children and old people behind in the village, which has eroded the social and family structure of the traditional Chinese village.

Rufwork undertake small-scale architectural interventions in response to each village’s specific needs. In Qinmo, for example, a village in Guangdong, Rufwork built a new school and renovated a traditional courtyard house. The latter has now become the social centre of the village and, together with Kadoori Farm in Hong Kong, villagers are developing alternative farming methods in the courtyard of the building. Over in Shijia (石家), Rufwork built a modern village house, fitting a traditional mud-walled courtyard house out with a modern sustainable water and biogas supply. In Tongjiang (桐江) and Mulan (木兰) new schools have been built out of recycled construction waste, and in Lingzidi (岭子底) and Taiping (太平), villages have regained access to their fields by renovating old bridges and building new ones.

In each of these projects, Rufwork strive to develop a contemporary architectural idiom using the limited means at their disposable whilst adapting the architecture to the needs of each village struggling to cope with unbridled urbanization. In addition to boosting appreciation for local building traditions, their efforts are fostering sustainable approaches to rural development in China. Rufwork are, in a word, blazing trails and setting a good example of alternative approaches to the urbanization of China’s cultural landscape.

This article was written in connection with the 2013 publication Homecoming, Contextualizing, Materializing the Rural in China. Published by Gestalten Verlag for the Goethe-Institut, the book gives examples of other inspiring approaches taken by the architects Huang ShengYuan, Hsieh Ying-chun, Hua Li, Liu Jiakun, John Lin, Meng Yan, Tong Ming, Wang Weijen, and Zhang Ke. Homecoming includes prefatory remarks and historical background provided by Joshua Bolchover, Frank Dikötter, Juan Du, Yung Ho Chan, Cole Roskam, Philip Tinari, Robin Visser and Zhu Tao.