New faces in the Chinese countryside

– by Yu Xiaole

This curious-looking dwellinghouse is located in the countryside around Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. It looks like a toy building… or the result of an accident with a crane. main photo

Actually, this single family home is a recently completed architect-designed building that contains three floors with a total floor area of 180m2.  A living room, kitchen and car parking are located on the first floor, while the upper floors contain bathrooms and bedrooms. The owners are a couple who also have a home in downtown Ningbo but who like to go back to this property for holidays.

over roofsWang Hao, the architect, who graduated from Tongji University in Shanghai has said that he wanted to express the personality of the client in the house, rather than simply designing for everyday practical functions. In addition, he said that rural residential buildings like this can be – should be –  personalized. Why, he asks, must it always be a simple structure considering that there are so many different functions inside?

staircaseIn fact, the rural residential construction is experiencing a transformation in Chinese modern architecture at the moment. Given that, in China, it is the developers who are usually the leaders of the construction process they tend to care much more about commercial issues, and as a result, houses in the city have very few differences, repeated time and again for maximum profitability. However, in the countryside, occupants effectively own the land, and as a result small rural private houses have the possibility of providing more variation and more character. This is becoming more possible because many young people are living away from the villages and becoming relatively well-off, and considering their erstwhile rural residences as a space to take friends and relatives during festivals periods. As a result, architects can take some more architectural, functional and aesthetic risks.

This Ningbo project is a very interesting attempt to change the appearance of the countryside and to consider the changing needs of a new generation of people. From the images shown, it is clear that some vernacular elements have been incorporated; like using brick and featuring the gable wall. The inside elements fit the concept, integrating the inner with the outer spaces. However, when compared to the surrounding, the shape tends to looks abrupt in its context In fact, the most important problem concerns the short distance between each building where there is too little space to really contemplate the building in its totality. Locals seem to enjoy it, but maybe this is because of its novelty.

If there are different personalities in each building across the whole countryside, will this make the urban experience better? Might it result in confusion – an unplanned mess of diverse houses making the countryside look like an experiment in architectural folly? Although it’s an interesting first attempt, it is not really appropriate for the whole area lose its architectural cohesion. Another problem is about the typical rural construction standards and the importance of keeping the warmth inside, reducing energy use as well as preventing noise and conserving water. All these need to be considered in detail in parallel to design advances.

This building undoubtedly allows one the young couple to have a relaxing holiday period in relative luxury but in most cases, the situation of China for old people and children – who are the main inhabitants of the countryside (due to parents leaving for better income) – is not so rosy. For them, practical functions are still the primary factors to consider. Instead of adding spaces for pleasurable spare time, these houses simply require improvements. Better kitchen facilities, improved water supplies, crop storage and even raising chicken or pigs are more useful.

John Lin -outsideThere is another example, which is located in Shijia village, near Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Designed by architect John Lin, it aims to improve the standard of local people by the principle of self-reliance and sustainability. After finishing his research in the area, Lin and his team tried to evolve a traditional vernacular architecture rather than reshape the area in a modern way. Lin has said that he wanted to be “hands-off’ in this process – a framework for local self-expression.

John LinThe scheme in more detail: To maintain a sense of the vernacular, the structure combines concrete with mud bricks due. The roof works as water collector and the lower areas are designed to dry crops. The sitting area also doubles as a staircase linked to the roof terrace. The manure of the animals can produce bio-gas for cooking as self-sufficiency is the key concept in this project. This scheme is a pragmatic design method for the low-density residents who living in countryside compared to the city.

So these two cases represent two very living solutions for contemporary housing in the Chinese countryside. Although both of these designs are controversial in the sense of concentrating on leisure… or lack-of-leisure, but both practices try to understand and reflect the chosen lifestyle of their clients, and also to improve the living conditions of local residents under as best they can. Which is best? That is a Chinese dilemma.