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Summer 2015

Urban Landscape and Architectural Interventions in Xixinan Village: A Study Abroad Experience in China

Follow our students as they blog about the culture, landscape and people of China

The team explores China’s changing landscape in a tour of Bishan Village with filmmaker and artist Ou Ning (right).

This summer, 12 School of Architecture and Planning students are on a nine-week study abroad experience in China, where they will develop a strategic plan for sustainable agriculture and ecological tourism for a rural village outside the rapidly growing Huangshan City, in China's Anhui province.

Under the leadership of architecture and urban design professor Shannon Bassett, the team is based at Peking University in Beijing and working closely with internationally regarded architect Kongjian Yu and his firm Turenscape.

Currently, China is undergoing a massive movement of people from the overcrowded cities back into the rural countryside. Through close engagement with the landscape, government officials and residents of the village of Xixinan, Bassett and her students will create a proposal to help the community and others like it handle the influx of tourists, while being mindful of the ecological impact and current infrastructure. 

After a two-week stay in Beijing, the team will be in Xixinan until June 29, studying and analyzing the changing landscape, developing design schemes, and presenting them to the local officials as well as Turenscape. From June 29 to July 12, the team will be in Shanghai to study Hangzhou’s West Lake. Finally, the students will return to Beijing for the last two weeks, where they will deliver their final presentation to local government officials.

Student Blog

Follow Lisa, Dan, Alan, Quincy, Greg, Carl, Marius, Nahshon, Eliana, Gary, Kamilah and Crystal right here as they blog about their experiences as architects and as students in the beautiful, fascinating and rapidly changing country of China.

Entry #1: Beijing and surrounding areas

Lisa Kuhn – Commune by the Wall

When embarking on this study abroad, I knew I would encounter the Great Wall at some point; what I didn't foresee was the magnificent "Commune by the Wall" adjacent to the historical phenomenon. The Commune was designed by 12 highly regarded architects, and because of their beauty many of the Villa's designs were copied and scattered about the landscape of this community.

The western definition of “commune” does not accurately describe these Villas. The properties are very similar to homes in Santa Monica, California, which embrace a modernist touch with a view of the mountains or other incredible landscapes. The Kengo Kuma Property pictured above was special to me because of the way the guests were able to enjoy the home. The children are on an elevated platform surrounded by a shallow pool that reflects the bamboo shading devices, giving a very warm and natural feel.

After we visited each of the properties, we were able to hike up to a private section of the Great Wall which was barricaded off from the public portion of the wall. The hike was short, but a bit challenging and I was impressed to notice that many elderly make the effort to get up to see the view of the wall. I don't think I've witnessed any photos which give the steepness of the Great Wall any justice, as I felt a constant deep calf stretch with every step I took. 

Daniel Kleeschulte - Commune by the Wall

The Commune at the Wall is a small resort tucked into the mountainside below a section of the Great Wall of China. Here, many of Asia’s top architects were commissioned to design modern villas that can be rented out to families for a pleasant night in the mountains. This resort offers a great juxtaposition between the ancient structure of the Great Wall of China and this catalog of modern structures filling the valley. The image above shows a father and his son enjoying the outdoor terraces of the Commune at the Wall’s main resort facility, which was designed by Chinese architect Gary Chang. This facility is an amazing piece of architecture that frames its exterior terraces towards views of the Great Wall.

While some may argue against the model of modern architecture as a destination for travelers pursuing a trip to the Great Wall, I believe that the gesture made by Gary Chang in his design of the resort’s main building is one that shows great respect and care for the surrounding environment. The use of wood, rusted steel paneling, glass, and concrete draws the colors from the mountains and forests surrounding the complex while contrasting the organic lines of the landscape with the sharp, linear lines of a modern design. 

Alan Chan - Social Infrastructure at the Temple of Heaven

What piques my interest are the ways in which people use public spaces and their responses to the built environment. As a result, my first blog post about China is regarding the people’s social welfare.

The Temple of Heaven, where the picture above was taken, is a major tourist attraction located just south of the Forbidden City. Although many tourists do come to this park, it is amazing to see how many locals come here as well. As soon as you walk off axis of the park, where the Temples are located, you will find many elders congregating. They play card games and strategic board games (as seen in the picture above), sing together, and even dance. Seating spans the entire length of the structure and you will find many playing card games along the seats.

One game that stood out to me was similar to hackeysack, but there was a shuttlecock attached to the back. There were usually four or more people playing, and they were excited to see that a classmate and I wanted to jump into the game.

Collectively, this entire experience is significant to me because of the strong communal aspect and the friendly attitude shown to others. It is also very common to see crowds gather around a display of any skill, such as sketching or playing board games.

One question that comes to mind is the causality of this social phenomena. Could the response to their built environment be a factor in this particular interaction? Using a broader inquiry, how can one understand how to design happy spaces? I believe social welfare is very important across all age groups, so it was nice to see elders coming to the park to sing and play with others.

Marius Laurinkus - Beijing

The city of Beijing, while intimidating with its sheer size and exotic culture, surprised me most by how quickly it absorbed us into its fabric. From the very first day, with an open and adventurous spirit, we have found everything one could want from a sophisticated urban landscape. The area of Wudokau was teeming with student life, and there many westerners welcomed new friends and enjoyed long nights after studying. The streets of Beijing felt incredibly safe and the masses of people moved along peacefully, only interrupted by honking and the shouting of street vendors serving up late night delicacies (which have now reached an addiction status amongst us).

Just a ride away on a very modern subway system (an essential form of transport here), are the historic districts of Forbidden City and the Hutongs, which contain many temples and nationalistic pride squares. Here, the ancient culture and the political atmosphere are very charged, leading to confusion about what traditional China is, what has happened since the People’s Revolution, and how one is expected to behave here. During their lectures, Peking University professors seem to feel this constant contrast between their nostalgia and longing for real Chinese tradition, the destructive processes of the revolution, and now the influence of modern western culture. How to deal with all of it, and move forward seems to be the pervading question of designers working in China. This is just a scratch on the surface of Beijing…. The incredible amount of experiences and absorption of life here is truly rich, and overwhelming at times. Every story, neighborhood, or encounter can be expanded into a novel-sized discussion. So I guess, this a start...

Carl Stanboro - Olympic Park

Since the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, much of the Olympic Park has turned into a desolate area, with no use other than as a tourist destination. This has not only happened in Beijing, but also in other host cities for the Olympics. Granted, we visited on a rainy day, which contributed to the sadness and emptiness of the place, but even when we were inside the iconic Birds Nest and Water Cube, the disrepair and vacancy of the place was obvious. Examples of these include browning of the translucent roof of the Birds Nest, water runoff/leaking issues (only able to be noticed on this particular rainy day), and patch work in the ETFE of the Water Cube. We learned that although these two structures were designed by firms outside of China, it was required that a Chinese firm complete the construction documents, and that construction be done by a Chinese contractor. The techniques and buildings codes in China are not up to other countries standards, and that was apparent in the final buildings.

Despite the overall aura of the place, visiting these two structures was extremely interesting, especially because I have used the Water Cube as a case study in a previous class. Being able to go right up next to the building and actually touch the ETFE skin strengthened my understanding of the building. Being inside the Birds Nest looking up at the innovative weaving structure was amazing, something that you can’t get from pictures. Definitely worth visiting.

Nahshon Jagroop - Beijing’s Earth Temple

My time in Beijing has been an unforgettable, eye-opening, and life changing experience for sure. We have only been here for two weeks now, but I feel so in touch and comfortable in this city’s urban fabric. I have gotten so familiar with the landscape it seems I have been here for more than a month. We have gone on so many tours, visiting landmarks such as The Great Wall, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube at Beijing’s Olympic Park and more. For the short duration of our time in Beijing, we have only explored about ten percent of this metropolis, and there is still so much to do and see. I have enjoyed the city life here for sure, and the biggest difficulty for me as a foreigner is not being about to speak the language. Yet the people are very friendly, always wanting to know where I am from as they try really hard to communicate in English. So, I have enjoyed meeting new friends from around the world like France, Iran, Britain, Spain, Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile, Peru and more. The food here is so delicious it does not matter what I eat, it is always tasty. I enjoy eating healthy for once in my life.

My best experience of the people and culture of China happened on June 6 when I visited the Earth Temple. This holy public park is surrounded by a very tall perimeter wall. Inside, nature reveals itself and I felt like I wasn’t in the city anymore, but connected with the Earth and Water in a spiritual sense. As I walked around exploring the vibrant green and social spaces, I ran into two little kids, Jasun and Sujin (seen above). They started speaking English to me, and were very curious to know where I was from and what I was doing as I took photos and sketched in my book. I told them I was studying and wanted to explore the park. What happened next was a shock for me because I didn’t expect it. These two took my hand and said, “come with us, we show you the best places.” They told me this is their favorite park in all of Beijing because it is filled with sports activities, food and sensational music to “channel energy and relax mind.” They knew and practiced Tai-Chi also and showed me some moves. They said I was really bad and I laughed out so hard. My tour with them ended at their favorite spot (seen in the right photo). They said all their friends come here to play and catch the fishes, and then release them back into the water.

Overall, I never expected the people here to be so kind and heartwarming. Everyone is so down to earth and it seems social standing doesn’t exist. Whether poor or wealthy, people are equals in this park, setting aside their differences to enjoy each other’s company. I love Beijing for this and it makes me want to stay and live here for a while.

Eliana Drier - The Great Wall of China

One of the best parts of the trip so far was visiting and walking on the Great Wall of China, which is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone. However, what made our experience even better was “VIP” access to a part of the wall owned by a nearby development company SOHO, who runs the Communes by the Wall. Since this part of the wall is limited to individuals renting units or its visitors, the wall was completely empty, occupied by just us and maybe four other people. To get to this point of the wall, we had to hike through a steep forested hillside that brought us up to the level of the wall. From there, we then had to walk up a steep ramped crossway to get to the next point of the wall. It was an incredible opportunity to the see the wall in a very quiet and serene state, with no overcrowding of tourists. As the group of us climbed the wall, there was a point on the stairs where we all decided to sit and take in the views, overlooking the rest of the wall and the mountains in the distance. We sat for about an hour, taking photos, sketching, and observing. It was later, when we went to the regular tourist part of the wall, when we realized how fortunate we were to have the chance to see the wall in a rare perspective. 

Kamillah Ramos - Parks

On June 3, our class took a bus ride out of Beijing to investigate some of the conditions at two parks where the firm called Turenscape had made landscape interventions. One of these parks was extremely beautiful with vast greenscapes, lawns with decorative animal sculptures, waterfalls, and waterways running through the park. Although it was a Wednesday afternoon, the park was filled with locals biking or strolling through the park. The value of the park was apparent, surrounded by developed land. There are many non-porous, hard surfaces that collect pollution, and that pollution enters the waterways that serve the area. The greenery has a major impact on air quality, and on filtering the run off from the city.

It was amazing to see how the park brought the locals together. One man was catching conches, another setting a fishing line. Families were coming together here and teaching their children about fishing. The park serves as a tool for education, as well as a social area for the people to enjoy. It also has the ability to ecologically mitigate the harsh results of the city. The plants provide for fresh air and oxygen as well as filtration from the ground pollution.

One thing that I noticed from the visit was a lack of places to gather and sit. The firm did not employ any benches, so it seemed like a place to move through and not stay a while. It is likely that this is coming from an American point of view, because it may be a reflection on the Chinese in general. They are very health conscious, and they were biking and walking through the area, constantly keeping active. Instead of implementing more seating area, the designers may be right in having the only seating be the rocks by the water.

Entry #2: Xixinan and Bishan

Gregory Dubin - Huangshan Mountains

We recently took a day trip to a nearby commune village called Bishan, which was about an hour and a half bus ride away. This bus ride, though very bumpy and rough, provided amazing landscape views of the mountains and the farming land that surrounds them. It was interesting to see so many terraced fields growing rice and tea in the steepest parts of the mountain side. It’s incredible to think that the terracing is produced by humans who have to move large quantities of earth around to create the terraced effect, and these terraces have clean, sharp edges which would make you believe they were mechanically made.

Arriving at the final destination, the Bishan village acts as a commune with everyone working together and providing their goods for each other. The village is also unique because of the program interventions that were developed within the old infrastructure of the streets. These included an Avant-Garde library with café on the second floor, a school for tillers community center with a tea room, café, and exhibit hall, and lastly a bed and breakfast hotel placed within the farming landscape. These are all part of an artist’s idea of improving the village and trying to create a type of Utopian village, which would give residents their own passport for the commune and its own type of currency set on hours worked each day. 

Gary Chung - Xixinan

The more that I look at it, the more I begin to appreciate how well-captured the composition of this moment is. By a large river, I stumbled upon a building which was still under construction. Fortunately and unfortunately, it wasn’t heavily regulated, so I was able to go into the building and find this. What appears to be a simple ornament randomly placed on the higher end of a column was actually strategically planned to work well with the daylight that penetrates through the building from the opened atrium space. The figured ornament is in honor of one of the past emperors, featuring traditional Chinese decoration around it. In Chinese tradition, having someone or something of higher power represents good will and blessing into a family’s home or space.

As the light shines directly on it, a stronger focal point is created within this photo. Some would say that the hierarchy of the design alone would be enough, but the source of light enhances it further, as if a blessing from the heavens. As if the moment that was captured is a sign that good fortune is coming along its direction. 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, Anhui, China.

Crystal Schmoger - Bishan Village

After visiting the Bishan village very close to Xixinan village, where we have been staying, it seems like a very interesting take on the way people are using spaces differently than before.  It seems that now China is gaining some interests in the arts and creative industry in which had not been such a large part of the Chinese culture. It seems the government has started to see the positive effects of the creative industry. Bishan was an interesting place that combined the old vernacular architecture in an interesting way. This village had a new and interesting program that had not been prominent in villages before; the photo to the right is the Bishan village art gallery. It seems that they have started to create their own creative industry within a village in the country side. This village also has a large library and a café as well as a shop to buy some of the works of the man running and implementing these new programs. The most interesting part of this visit was the old traditional homes that have been rebuilt with minor changes to create a place for the new creative industry to take place. Also, the gallery space they have created was a large room with nothing in it but photos on the walls. I believe this says something about the architecture that is being created in China to support their new interest in the creative industry.

Kamillah Ramos - Xixinan Village

Historically China has kept foreigners out, so the villagers of Xixinan were shocked upon our arrival. It has been interesting having a studio based out of the village. On our walks to school, we pass all sorts of different people. The group in the photograph above shows two main uses of the river. First, many people use the river for cleaning tasks such as mopping or washing laundry. Second, the villagers also use the water to wash and prepare their food. The woman to the left in the picture is washing pig’s stomach for tonight’s dinner. The woman on the right surprised me in how well she spoke English. She told me that American’s don’t like things like this, and I told her that the villagers really know how to cook the local food here.

It is really interesting to begin to build a relationship with the village and the villagers. Some are friendly, others laugh on our walk to the studio. Maybe they are not sure why we are here. The men at the local store also laugh at my Chinese. It is difficult to learn the language, but I think it is important in starting to become a part of the village for our three week stay, since many of the people don’t speak a word of English. I’m looking forward to designing for and around these people. 

Local Media Coverage in Xixinan

During our weekly review/pinup (where the students presented their initial site analysis and plan concepts for the Village of Xixinan), the local television station showed up to film us. Reporters asked the students how is it different studying here (in China and the village) compared to the U.S., and how the project supports the students' studies.