Rethinking The Collective

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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.

Jintai Village Prototype

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In 2008 the great Sichuan earthquake struck China resulting in damage to over 30 million houses. 46 million people were affected. The total reconstruction effort was immense and involved rebuilding 47,789 villages. The Jintai Village Prototype was unique among all these villages. From October 19th -20th, 2018, as part of the ten-year anniversary of the earthquake, over 100 provincial leaders and other government officials participated in the The Sichuan Provincial Rural Culture Conference – an official tour of key reconstruction projects in which the design and planning of Jintai was highlighted.

The research, design and process of rebuilding this village went beyond reconstruction of generic village houses to address the rural to urban transformation of housing in China by combining rural elements (e.g., a rooftop farm), and sustainability features in a dense layout reminiscent of urban environments. Having won many architectural awards and been widely visited, published and discussed by the general public in China and the world, the project has had wide impact beyond the issue of earthquake reconstruction. It has influenced government planning and policy at the provincial and county levels, changed the overall public’s perception of rural housing and improved the living standards of the village inhabitants. The design has become a prime example of efficient, sustainable and economical housing suitable for rural areas throughout China.

A total of twenty-two houses were rebuilt including a community center. The design strategy provides four different types of houses, differing in their roof sections. These demonstrate new use of local materials, a green stepped-roof, biogas technologies, and accommodation for pigs and chickens. A vertical courtyard increases light and ventilation and channels rainwater for collection. The design also invests in reed bed waste-water treatment and collective animal rearing. By relating various programs of the village to an ecological cycle, environment responsiveness is heightened, transforming the village into a model for nearby areas.

As design-related research involving a consultative process with multiple feedback loops, it is also changing design approaches in China. The use of various scale models enable active participation in the design process including creating a platform for exchange and negotiation between government and villagers – unlike the usual top-down and government led processes.