Urbanizing the Rural
In 2005 the Chinese government announced its plan to urbanize half or approximately 350 million of the 700 million rural citizens by 2030. At the same time, Joshua Bolchover and John Lin set up Rural Urban Framework (RUF), a research and design collaborative based at The University of Hong Kong. Conducted as a non-profit organization providing design services to charities and NGOs working in China, RUF has built or is currently engaged in over 15 projects in various villages in China. The projects include schools, community centers, hospitals, village houses, bridges, and incremental planning strategies. As a result of this active engagement, RUF has been able to document the transformation and issues of contestation which occur in these often remote locations. The research uncovers the links between social, economic and political processes and the physical transformation of each village. Through understanding this context we aim to intervene within these processes through architectural projects that respond to these specific conditions. As this context is evolving it will unquestionably face new unforeseen problems. The projects are designed to be robust and are embedded with spaces that can adapt to future needs and changes in program requirements as they arise. As rural sites become urbanised they tend to adopt very generic building types. Houses are concrete frame structures with brick infill clad in tiles and schools are 3 story concrete slab blocks with single-loaded corridors. Whether you are in Jiangxi or Guangdong these buildings are the dominant model for construction. In this process the locality of a place is eroded as buildings no longer respond to local climatic conditions, material constraints, or traditional craft. Our approach is not a return of the vernacular but rather a desire for difference; to offer an alternative to generic building that prioritises local specificity. To this end, and as we work with local education authorities and local design institutions, it may be possible to gradually influence key policy makers in how they approach the design of schools, community facilities and other public buildings.
An underpinning and urgent issue is if the government intends to solve the problem of rural poverty through urbanisation what form should this take? The urbanization of Guangdong Province exemplifies the emergent problems that occur in this transformation. As urbanization linked to industrial production took root in the province in line with radical economic reforms, the resultant urban form is a scrambled patchwork of urban substance. Factories, paddy fields, dormitories, village clusters, farmland and residential compounds all exist in abrupt adjacencies to each other. As development proceeds there is increased conflict between the different actors as land rights are disputed, compensation is negotiated and villagers are re-housed. Guangdong also exhibits the effect of this urbanization in more remote rural villages. In these villages the populations have been greatly reduced as the working population has migrated to the factory cities. Only the very young and the very old remain. Yet construction still takes place: the working population sends money back to the village which is used to construct new 3-4 story tile clad concrete villas. A family demonstrates its financial status through the height and lavish decoration of the exterior of the house. In this process the village has shifted from being economically independent to being economically reliant on the city. The village economy is no longer a result of agricultural production and so farming becomes mainly about subsistence rather than trade. Although this model currently facilitates the maintenance of the village the concern is what will happen to the next generation? A dependency on urban factory production will ultimately lead to villages becoming obsolete as populations will simply set up more permanent homes within the city. In addition it is unclear whether the economic model of production for the export market is a sustainable one for China as it is predisposed and vulnerable to fluctuations in global financial markets. To this extent it seems imperative that rural areas need to find alternative models of development that do not leave them susceptible to a position of urban dependency. Is it possible to find new models of sustainable rural development that enables the social, economic and spatial evolution of villages that resists the overwhelming process of urbanization.
Tongjiang Primary School in Jiangxi Province aims to address these issues and embodies our approach to working in rural areas in China. Although Jiangxi presents a less evolved urbanization process than Guangdong many of the overarching issues are the same; namely how to create sustainable architectural projects that respond to a context in transition that indicate possible mechanisms to facilitate the adaptation of the rural rather than its obliteration.
Designing architecture where there is no architecture
Tongjiang Primary School is located in Jiangxi Province, south-east China. We were asked by the charity World Vision to expand an existing school from 220 children to 450 through the creation of a new building with 11 classrooms to provide a learning hub for a network of rural villages that currently do not have access to education. The school is situated in a rural village of approximately 5000 farmers growing crops of lotus seed and tobacco with yearly incomes of about 1700RMB, ($260 US). The village is part of Xiaosong Town which contains 14 villages with a total population of 35,093 which in turn is part of Shicheng County having a population of 302,000, with the majority of the population (84.76%) having rural hukou, (citizen status).
The government plans for the area were not made accessible to us however regulations stipulated that all buildings had to be set back from the road. This indicated that it is likely that the road will be expanded in the near future. The consolidation of the primary schools also could signify that Tongjiang, rather than the other surrounding villages, has been designated for further development. Around the village there are indicators of this potential change: old houses are being replaced by new modernized concrete dwellings; and stacks of old materials of brick and tiles line the roadside.
World Vision asked us to challenge the design of a typical school building in China - generic two story buildings with open balconies -without incurring major additional costs. As part of their initial research they organised a workshop with the local school children and asked them to draw their ideal school building. Surprisingly the majority of the students drew buildings that resembled these generic school buildings. This demonstrated that these children simply have not witnessed other possibilities for school design and that their cultural imagination for other possibilities is limited by knowledge, education and what they see in their everyday environment. This is not a critique, more a realisation that in order to offer any alternative and not be faced with resistance of the unknown, each project has to engage with cultural and knowledge exchange and not just the production of the building itself. With these factors the project aimed to work within these constraints to produce a building that responded to the site context and could create unique spatial experiences for learning and social interaction and in turn could demonstrate that school buildings do not all have to look the same.
The site is at a crossroads between the main road and a road that leads to the village. Strategically the building is positioned along the road’s edge to create an open public space between the new building and the existing school. The building acts as a buffer - a thickened edge - that frames the open space of the playground. The naturally sloped site was terraced into two levels with a height difference of around 2 metres. This topography was manipulated to create a series of outdoor steps that stretch from the main entrance across the building and through to the courtyard beyond. This creates a protected open-air meeting room that is directly accessible from the street that can be used for local village meetings or events. The level change advantageously produces a large assembly hall at ground level that also functions as a community learning space or library. At the entry to the building a stair leads up to the first floor which stretches across the site’s entire edge. Roof-lights puncture this space providing direct light that animates the corridor and classroom spaces throughout the day.
The site had a small building on it that required demolition to make way for the new school building. We gathered this material and also collected waste materials from nearby demolition sites. As the urbanization process commences more and more buildings are erased to make way for larger infrastructure or redevelopment plots. Some of these buildings were constructed from local blue or green bricks that are grey in colour. Today these bricks are no longer produced, or only produced at a very high cost, and are substituted by inferior quality bricks that are always hidden behind tiles or concrete render. The intention is to make use of this abandoned material through re-deploying it in innovative ways.
The roof is formed from low quality recycled brick fragments and rubble that thickens the roof to provide additional thermal mass. This cools the building in summer and helps the classrooms retain heat during the winter. The rubble acts as a substrate for natural greening from wind-blown plants, mosses and lichens. The roof steps down to join the wall which was intended to gradually become more open through perforations in the brick patterning. This external skin protects the internal classrooms from excessive solar gain yet allows for natural ventilation throughout the teaching spaces. This wall was to be constructed from a mixture of recycled grey and red bricks depending on what we were able to collect. Unfortunately the local design institute did not approve the design, citing structural reasons as new legislation for earthquake resistant structures was brought in after the 2008 Sichuan tragedy. In order to maintain the performance of the wall we swapped the bricks for concrete blocks which we turned on their side to allow the wall to maintain its porosity. The left over bricks were used to make up the stepped topography of the seats and the outdoor classroom.
The initial design was to have a more solid brick facade on the outside with a more transparent interior facade wall made of vertical concrete fins and glazing to the courtyard side. As the exterior wall was now made of concrete blocks we exchanged the materials to use brick fins on the interior facade. The fins vary in size for different functions: thin strips prevent solar glare and wider C-sections contain bookshelves within the classrooms. The rhythm of the façade oscillates between going from thin to thick and is differentiated between the first and ground floors to create a visually dynamic composition.
Innovation with limited resources Through an emphasis on the potential of waste material, simple environmental strategies and the creation of a diversity of learning spaces, both indoor and outdoor, the school is robust and adaptable enough to withstand the potential transformation of the surrounding context. The library or meeting room exemplifies this approach. The room is to some extent over-scaled – it is a double-height and around the length of two classrooms. Rather than prioritise a singular function such as a library, art room or assembly hall we decided to allow the functioning of the school to determine its program. The space can be easily subdivided and can accommodate a mezzanine level that connects back to the external stair. This way through providing an infrastructure for possible uses the school and the village can adapt the space according to their future needs.
Through innovating within limited resources of budget, craft and technology in terms of program, material and environmental strategies, the objective is to create a school that is a prototype for sustainable rural development. It responds to the specific forces of transformation within its context yet stakes a claim to an architecture that is not overly nostalgic or vernacular in nature. New models and approaches must be continually sought to challenge the status quo of generic building construction. It is not simply a question of a future that is rural or urban, rather there need to be mechanisms that allow for the rural to evolve, rather than be completely subsumed by urban territory.