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Global studio designs for China's return to the countryside

Shannon Bassett, assistant professor of architecture (left), with her students and renowned Chinese filmmaker and artist Ou Ning (right) in China’s Bishan village, one of several sites visited by the studio this past summer.

Marius Laurinkus, one of 11 students participating in a nine-week studio in China this past summer with architecture professor Shannon Bassett, paints an accurate picture of the development environment across much of China.

“It’s the most dynamic environment in the world right now,” said Laurinkus, who spoke with us via Skype from the studio’s home base in Beijing. “If you look around the landscape over here, there are cranes on just about every single block, and something new is happening non-stop.”

While the architecture and urban fabric of megalopolises like Beijing and Shanghai were key aspects of the trip, the design charge for Laurinkus and his classmates was on the tiny village of Xixinan in the bucolic countryside of China’s Anhui province, where the ripple effect of China’s hyper-development is at play. 

“There has been a recent movement back to the countryside and a reconnecting with the agricultural landscape for food and clean air,” says Bassett, whose research at the intersection of architecture, urban design and ecology is particularly salient here in the changing landscapes of China. “Intellectuals, artists and the elite are seeking retreat from the ills of the industrialized Chinese cities.”

A traditional Chinese village set in the Huangshan Mountains, Xixinan has seen the erosion of much of its vernacular architecture since China’s economic reform in 1978. Its water system, developed for irrigation during the Song dynasty nearly 1,000 years ago, has been polluted by industry. Yet, its ancient infrastructure, traditional culture and lush mountainous terrain remains a draw, with repatriated residents fixing up homes and opening small businesses. A new high-speed rail line under construction just outside the village will link the Anhui province to Beijing and change the dynamic of development in the area. 

Village residents pause from their daily chores – washing clothes and preparing that evening’s dinner – for a conversation and photograph with Kamillah Ramos, a student in the undergraduate architecture program. “It is really interesting to begin to build a relationship with the village and the villagers…I’m looking forward to designing for and around these people,” she says. 

Based in Beijing at Peking University, Bassett and her students were invited to propose development and design interventions that would sustainably position Xixinan’s architecture and natural beauty as ecological, social, cultural and economic assets. Their clients-collaborators were Xixinan village leaders and the internationally regarded landscape architect Kongjian Yu, dean of Peking University’s architecture school, as well as Yu’s firm, Turenscape. The plan would be comprehensive in scope, offering design strategies to integrate vernacular and new typologies, remediate the village’s waterways and canals and reprogram public spaces. 

As they shifted from Beijing to in situ study in Xixinan, students mapped the region, met with and observed local residents and visited nearby tourism meccas, including the rapidly growing Huangshan City. Students spent a day exploring Bishan with Ou Ning, a renowned Chinese filmmaker and artist who moved to Bishan from Beijing and has since led its transformation into an agricultural and artistic commune.

For several weeks, students were immersed in the local culture and landscape of the village, sharing all meals together, befriending the local villagers and walking among the terraced rice paddies in the Huangshan valley. The rest of the program included studying architecture and urbanism in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as visiting Hangzhou and the architecture there by Chinese Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu.

Undergraduate architecture student Gary Chung was moved by the symbolism of a wooden ornament bathed in light, found while exploring a building under renovation in Xixinan: “Like a rose growing from concrete, it’s as if a spot of hope is being erected within this small village. Much has already occurred as we speak, but having faith in instances such as this gives hope and a sense of assurance to the good people of Xixinan.”

Bassett first became interested in China as an architecture and urban design student in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period of dynamic growth and cultural tension in China. She says she was awestruck by the scale of design projects in China, but somewhat critical and questioning of what she perceived to be unsustainable development practices.

Those questions remain central to her work and the future of China. For China, “it is going to be critical, especially for architects and urban designers, to develop design strategies which integrate sustainable systems across scales,” she says. “This includes energy, water, social equity and food.”

Alan Chan, a graduate architecture student, eloquently captures the essence of Bassett’s point as he reflects on the importance of the Huangshan Mountains to the people of Xixinan and the surrounding Anhui region:

Student Eliana Drier on the beauty of China’s terraced rice fields: “It is incredible when humans work with the landscape how beautiful the product can be...I was so moved by the beauty of the sculptured mountainsides. I have started my proposal towards a solution for the destruction caused by China’s rapid urban development. I think it’s important for the Chinese to go back to their ancient beliefs of living with the land.”

“Aside from their beauty, [the mountains] are also the source of water,” he says, noting that manmade canals divert the waters into and throughout the village. “It is almost poetic to be able to see the source of such an important element of daily life. From the beauty of the mountains, to the river, to the canals, into the house…The realization that this sort of culture has existed for thousands of years…humbles you into a deeper appreciation for nature and all that it offers. The mountains bring life and sustenance to the Hui people. It evokes a feeling that is very difficult to explain.”

The team’s final proposal, “Village Acupunctures,” will be released in a joint publication with Turenscape and Peking University and presented as a symposium at the Buffalo School next fall. The work was also recently exhibited at both Beijing Design Week and the 2015 Busan International Architectural Cultural Festival in Busan, South Korea.

Students’ encounters with the people and landscape of China were often sources of inspiration, as reflected in photographic journals they maintained as part of the studio.