Villages given urban look through design

Architects from University of Hong Kong establish a foundation with the goal of transforming China's poor rural areas through innovative design

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 4:55am

It takes a village to raise a child, says the Yale Book of Quotations. In this day and age, can architecture raise a village?

In some of the poorest areas of China, two assistant professors from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) are demonstrating that it can. Through projects spanning the gamut of vital public infrastructure - schools, health centres, bridges - their work is not only elevating communities through design, it does so on the leanest of budgets.

It happens under the umbrella of Rural Urban Framework (RUF), a not-for-profit research and design collaborative set up by Joshua Bolchover and John Lin in 2005, after the central government announced plans to urbanise half of the mainland's remaining 700 million rural citizens by 2030.

We're trying to help rural villages evolve as meaningful and viable places
Joshua Bolchover, architect

The HKU department of architecture colleagues wondered how architecture could respond to the transformation of land from rural to urban. Their interest was piqued on a shared car journey to Huaiji County, Guangdong, where Lin was designing a new village school as part of a design workshop to rethink the ubiquitous, three-storey concrete buildings denoted as standard for schools in rural areas. During the eight-hour road trip, the passing "landscape in transition" sowed the seeds as to how, as architects and researchers, they could "begin to engage in the conditions we were seeing".

"We wanted to bring design into the context of this change," Bolchover explains. "There is not much design in these parts of rural China, so we introduce what's not being offered - by creating architecture projects which are robust, and can begin to respond to the volatility around them through community programmes, public spaces and environmental sustainability concepts."

Most of their projects - 15 completed to date - were undertaken in collaboration with charities, other NGOs, local governments and private donors, Bolchover says.

Though they are not paid for their RUF work, Bolchover insists altruism is not the only motivation. "We're architects, so we want to design stuff," he says, adding that it is design in a holistic sense, which brings people together as part of the village system, and relates to the environment as well.

"In the Qinmo new school which John [Lin) was designing, the question was, what happens to the old school that no longer had a use," Bolchover says. "The village was full of old people and small children - everyone of working age had left." In a solution aimed at re-introducing economic drivers, the old school was renovated as a community centre and demonstration eco-household - a project incorporating a meeting room, dormitory, dining area, communal kitchen and office space.

"Together with the commissioning donor, Lucy Tsai of the Chinese Culture Promotion Society, we looked at what else could trigger small differences in the economy," Bolchover says. "The school grounds were used to raise pigs and black chickens, which command a premium at markets, and to propagate tea-tree, a high-income crop. So in a way the architecture became a setting for these [economic] experiments, not all of which worked." The Qinmo village community centre project cost US$22,500.

Among the RUF projects, there are various examples of how China's rapid progress has cut a swathe through rural society. In Shaanxi, construction of a major highway disconnected villagers of a riverside community from their local market. The architects' response was to build them a bridge - a singular loop linking two levels of the riverbank, with an additional arm across the river - providing not only access, but a place for community engagement. With shaded areas for relaxation, and activities like washing and fishing, the Lingzidi Bridge, which cost US$27,000, has become a social hub for the village.

Another project, the Tongjiang Recycled Brick School in Jiangxi, was inspired by the prevalence of demolition in rural areas. Bolchover and Lin noted piles of bricks and rubble on the roadside on an inspection tour. Rather than see them go into landfill, they re-used the debris as roofing material, where it provided the added benefit of insulation. This project, which cost US$170,000, "demonstrated a way to recycle old material into a new, sustainable school building". A rammed earth village house in Shaanxi province, incorporating biogas energy, rain water storage and plant-based effluent treatment, is another of RUF's sustainability prototypes.

In Mulan village, Guangdong, a high-speed rail project carved up the earth behind the site of a new primary school. The architects used landscaping as a buffer, including a reed garden linked to the school toilets - a natural system that removes pollution from human waste and grey water before it is discharged into the river. To further alleviate the railway's visual impact, they created a series of open spaces around the school courtyard, and a raked public space for village meetings, with the new classrooms underneath. The project cost US$90,000.

For their innovative architecture in China's rural areas, Bolchover and Lin have won a number of international awards, the latest being the 2014 Ralph Erskine Award from the Swedish Association of Architects. According to the jury, their solutions "give proof to an innovative ability to use local techniques, materials and recycling, as well as a robust approach to climate adaptation, for the architectural design of important new functions in the villages".

However, the colleagues see themselves more as enablers than problem-solvers. "When a village becomes completely reliant on the city for its income, it becomes stuck in a rut somehow," Bolchover says.

"We're trying to help rural villages evolve as meaningful and viable places to live in China, rather than just become another urban situation, engorged by the city. Through architecture, we can enable certain things that previously weren't possible in a village."