Rethinking The Collective

Department: Architecture
Designer: John Lin
Co-Designer: Joshua Bolchover

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This project addresses the activation of abandoned tulou in Fujian Province, by implementing new collective programs into the historic buildings.

Tulou, large introverted earthen buildings of the Hakka culture, emerged over a 1000 years ago. In southern China, in a fiercely combative culture, extended families built thick earthen walls for collective defence, while maintaining a shared open space for farming activities in the centre. Each family in the traditional tulou lived in a vertical section of rooms, accessed through a shared corridor and balcony. Thus, the building establishes a specific relationship between a number of individual spaces and a collective space.

Over time, as more and more tulou dotted across the landscape, new relationships started to form between them. Although the tulou has emerged as a traditional form of collective housing in the rural, people began to introduce different functions : religious activities, marketplaces or schools.

As the tulou do not correspond with contemporary desires of dwelling anymore, more and more people have abandoned their traditional houses and built up the surrounding landscape with a dense clutter of concrete and brick structures. As a result, in this new urban context the tulou would often preserve the only available open space behind their protective walls.

However, not all have dismissed the tulou’s notion. Over a period of two years, the GRF Research Vernacular Toolbox has revealed the villagers surprising renovation strategies for traditional houses throughout China. We discovered that it was the residents themselves who made intelligent changes to their vernacular dwellings in order to accommodate new forms of living. Where the tulou’s confined perimeter makes it difficult to expand individual living spaces, residents have found radical ways to overcome these limitations: by plugging in a modern house from the outside of the tulou wall, or rebuilding the tulou section by section each with individual style and layout, but retaining the collective footprint.

In addition to this underpinning research, tulou case studies in the region around Longyan were documented in cooperation with the local government. The documentation was done through site visits, architectural survey, photographs and interviews. Strategies for the implementation of public programs  into these tulou were developed. In accordance with the local government and the villagers, two of these were selected to test two different prototypes. These two structures were built from June-August 2019: the Plug-in on the outside of a tulou and the Tower on the inner courtyard of another one.

Enlarge Photo: Rethinking The Collective 1