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As this global pandemic broke out, the infection accelerated at an alarming rate ushering the world into a pending depression, and mounting people’s level of anxiety out of fear and uncertainty. I was inadvertently reminded of an influential Chinese poet, Tao Yuanming, known for his famous prose Peach Blossom Spring. Written around 400A.D. at a time of instability and unrest, the fable depicts an ethereal utopia where the people lead an idyllic existence in harmony with nature. The imagination of an ideal world, rooted in man’s relationship with nature, takes place in a bucolic rural area. Ultimately, this imagery has laid the foundations for Chinese intellectuals over the ensuing centuries, forming many of the philosophical and religious tenets which continue to influence Chinese cultures today.

What can we draw from this utopian imagination given many of the similar circumstances between the time it was written and in our present realities? Is returning to the rural area only a tactile move in the wake of a world-wide crisis, an escape strategy, or could such return present feasible alternatives? With the rural reconsidered, could we look beyond the dichotomy of urban and rural in conceiving a balanced equilibrium between these two ways of living? In such a case, what would be the role of architecture? Would our current architectural practice, based on neoliberal values, still be viable? And if we were to respect nature and revert the impact of global warming, how would our future practice address ecological and economic sustainability issues?

Is returning to the rural area only a tactile move in the wake of a world-wide crisis, an escape strategy, or could such return present feasible alternatives?

The advent of this pandemic highlighted the culprits of the megacities. As of 2019, seven out of the world’s top ten megacities are found in Asia. Despite the level of technology in monitoring the viral outbreak, its sophisticated GPS tracking system and centralized algorithmic calculations, to a certain degree, may have been effective measures in containing a global pandemic at this scale. At the same time, no one would want to imagine the devastation this viral outbreak could have done to any of these urban monstrosities, where populations exceed a few dozen million, and the toll it might have on the health care system, if not completely collapsing it.

The uncertainty of this world-wide pause due to the pandemic has not only undermined the benefits of globalization, i.e., the facility to travel, the availability of goods and services powered by neoliberal values, but also on what Karl Marx in Das Capital referred to as the “fluidity of production.” A few months into this pandemic, when the West went into lockdown, and the stock market went into circuit-breaker halt multiple times within one week, what also came to a stop globally was the supply and demand chain. Since the economic reforms, China had been gearing towards becoming “the factory of the world.” As a result, since the 1990s, its bourgeoning economy accelerated its urbanization process, which led to the formation of megacities. Its labor force consists of mostly young people from the countryside and rushed to the coastal areas such as Shenzhen and Dongguan to find better job opportunities, earn better incomes, and seek out better ways of living. Consequently, they have left arable land to the elderly and their children. This moths-to-a-flame effect tipped off China’s rural and urban balance, and by 2018, China’s urban and rural ratio was roughly 8:5 (1). The pandemic put a pause on travel, internationally and domestically. Such phenomena translated in economic terms mean diminished international orders from overseas, which may lead to a drastic drop in employment for these migrant workers. Such challenges would certainly have an immediate impact on their livelihood and that of their families’.

What made us look at China’s rural area in our architectural practice? We certainly did not foresee the advent of this global pandemic, nor would we have predicted its immediate and future impacts. What was prevalent at the time we began to look into the Chinese countryside six years ago, was a realization of this urban/rural unbalance, or even an inkling for the kind of entropic consequence this unbalance might lead us. With the intention to re-calibrate the relationship between the urban and the countryside, our engagement was not only to address the economic and ecological impacts of urbanization but on a conceptual level, offer a new vision through architectural practices. Architecture is not an end or a final product, but rather the means to transform and to instigate change.

Songyang, a county considered at an intermediate scale, consists of an urban center and a satellite system of towns and villages, with a total population of 240,000. The revitalization projects in the rural area of Songyang County explored its dormant potentials, in collaboration with the Songyang Municipal government and local communities over the last six years. The approaches we adopted are grounded on two principles: one is an understanding and respect for the local conditions, including its traditional values, cultural characteristics, and its natural resources; two is to be adaptive to these conditions, in which we have learned from the locals and drew values from the traditional ways of building and restoration, adopting vernacular materials, either in terms of techniques, or the philosophy behind them. Such approach not only reduces unnecessary construction waste but also integrates nature back to the villages and vice versa.

From these projects, or what we could refer to as architectural interventions on a micro-level, we derived the notion of architectural acupuncture, a systematic and sustainable rural strategy to generate a new “rural self-confidence”. As acupuncture does to the human body – stimulating points of circulation and releases trapped energy for better flow of energy, our minimal interventions and multi-functional public programs, introduced to different villages, tailor to the complexity of respective cultural heritage and context. In other words, one facet of the multi-dimensional expressions of architecture is its ability to re-generate a social structure. Likewise, this holistic approach is also effective in re-activating the economic circulation of this rural area, may provide an alternative to the economic models of globalization. Over these years, we have seen the formation of a local economic circuitry within the broader national or international level, particularly with the assistance of online platforms. Moreover, the locals’ engagements in these projects helped them develop an economic system that is relevant and beneficial to their interests. For example, unionized administration ran by villagers at some of the local factories, the introduction of a co-op system where village shareholders could collectively benefit from the proceeds.

This holistic approach is also effective in re-activating the economic circulation of this rural area, and may provide an alternative to the economic models of globalization

In the wake of this pandemic, it seems that Songyang County was able to recuperate quickly from its immediate impact. Since the completion of these projects, there has been reflux of population to Songyang, where more and more young people are willing to be engaged in these re-generated local businesses, so they don’t have to leave the elderly and children behind for factory jobs in the coastal cities. Moreover, Songyang’s recently developed cultural tourism also allows the area to accommodate visitors from adjacent urban areas that may have alleviated the viral spread.

For all the practice-based architects like myself, shouldn’t we revisit the essential goals of this discipline – built for the people? In another word, the Songyang rural revitalization offers an anthropological approach to architecture in documenting, editing, and reactivating the local tradition and heritage, while be accommodating and flexible to the multi-functional demands of rural life routine. This process is neither to isolate the rural areas against its urban counterparts nor convert it into an urban expression. Rather, it is to activate interactions and create a flow among them by restoring a rural identity. And with the availability of the Internet and modern infrastructure, the rural can provide an alternative mode of living from the urban. Evidently, the Songyang rural revitalization has proven that there are great potentials in exploring the rural areas, where alternative economic models may be a possible substitute for the global one driven by neoliberal values.

09.Jul.2020 804 views
TRANSFER NEXT Xu Tiantian Xu Tiantian

Xu Tiantian is the founding principal of DnA _Design and Architecture. She received her masters in architecture and urban design from Harvard GSD, and her baccalaureate in architecture from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Xu Tiantian has received numerous awards such as the WA China Architecture Award in 2006 and 2008, the Architectural League New York’s Young Architects Award in 2008, the Design Vanguard Award in 2009 by Architecture Record and the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architect in 2019. She has built a number of projects, such as Songzhuang Art Center and Ordos Art Museum. In the past years, she has been engaged extensively in the rural revitalising process in Songyang County, China. Her groundbreaking “architectural acupuncture” is a holistic approach to the social and economic revitalization of rural China and has been selected by UN Habitat as the case study of Inspiring Practice on Urban-Rural Linkages.

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