Hong Kong architecture professors help Yunnan rebuild post-quake

In wake of 2012 earthquake that devastated China's southwest, University of Hong Kong academics give one village new civic focus by designing a graceful community centre

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 2:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 10:03am

It's easy to see why so many governments detest libraries: they give their subjects dangerous political ideas; as pointless sinkholes of public money they must be obliterated; they encourage a sense of community within a Big Brother-free cocoon.

But some administrations are more forward thinking. The earthquakes of September 2012 in China left shattered villages and tattered infrastructure across Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. The most severely affected areas were agricultural, where the hope of receiving much in the way of disaster relief is usually forlorn.

The local government responsible for Shuanghe Village, Yunnan, had its own ideas, however. As well as despatching tents, clothing and food, its aid and reconstruction efforts extended to a partnership with the University of Hong Kong.

Re-homing villagers in new concrete and brick houses was a slow process, and in the meantime, a community centre and village meeting place was required.

The result was the Pinch, a public building that went beyond its stated purpose to give the villagers a civic focus as they emerged from crisis. So named because its roof is pinched at its peak, echoing the landscape of mountains and valleys, it was designed by HKU colleagues Olivier Ottevaere and John Lin, respectively an assistant professor and an associate professor in the architecture department.

"We went there not knowing what we were going to design," says Belgian native Ottevaere. "Architecture for Humanity, the NGO, asked if we'd contribute to a small centre to galvanise the community - there wasn't much left standing. We applied for a Knowledge Exchange Impact Award from the university and got some funds, and the local government contributed foundation work."

Ottevaere says that in disaster-hit areas such as Shuanghe - two-and-a-half hours' drive on treacherous roads from Kunming - the authorities "try to sanitise the rural to make it feel secure and healthy. The new houses they build are generic, three-storey and concrete, whereas the originals are mud houses with timber roofs. We found that timber was considered an old, dirty material, but we thought we could use it to build something contemporary but also earthquake resistant".

The result was a graceful village centrepiece that sweeps and soars, despite its small size and small, 130,000 yuan budget. And notwithstanding the building's contents, its curved roof made it an immediate hit with the village children - as a playground with a ready-made slide.

"We had no preconceived ideas but we did involve the villagers in discussions about the project because we didn't want to import something that would have no function and be useless," says Ottevaere. "We didn't want to do something that would be private, but something that would bring the community back together. And the moment you bring a bit of money to help with rebuilding, people are of course very welcoming, especially when they've been so hard hit and have been living in tents for a year."

Beyond some type of community centre, not only did Ottevaere and Lin not know what they were going to design, they did not know where to put it. "We had no idea where to place it," says Ottevaere. "But they had already rebuilt this austere, concrete plaza with a three-metre retaining wall between the road above and the plaza below and there was no access; there was no connection between the two. So we decided to create one."

The 80-square-metre Pinch bridges plaza and road with the help of its 17 evolving trusses, starting with a simple door truss at one end and progressing towards a larger, pitched-roof truss at the other. As well as being "taken over by the local kids as a playground when it opened in March last year, the library roof also became an expanse of bleachers where villagers can sit", says Ottevaere.

"When people saw the structure they were pretty excited. Later they built a little monument next to it in recognition of the university."

The Pinch was stocked with books, mostly for children, donated or saved from the village's destroyed library and although it is separate "from the main school, the children do have some classes there", says Ottevaere. Fashioned from Mongolian Scots pine from Russia ("it was cheaper to import the wood"), the building is projected to last for 10 to 15 years.

"At first we were struggling to find someone to build it, but we eventually established a good working relationship with a young carpenter," he adds. "It turned out really well and it was very satisfying to do something so simple and lo-tech."