Exacerbated Differences and Shared Goals in China’s Cities and Villages

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Exacerbated Differences and Shared Goals in China’s Cities and Villages

September 01, 2016

Architects, educators, and thinkers discussed a range of strategies for dealing with China’s expanding cities and declining villages at a symposium organized by USC’s American Academy in China on July 30 in Shenzhen. Entitled “Rural-Urban Re-inventions: Bridging the Gap Between China’s Cities and Countryside,” the event looked at projects in places such as rural Zhejiang Province, post-industrial Shenzhen, and super-dense Hong Kong. Although the speakers presented a variety of tactics and expressions, they shared a willingness to challenge accepted approaches to planning and development. 


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Thomas Daniell, head of architecture at the University of Saint Joseph in Macau, used Rem Koolhaas’s phrase “exacerbated difference” to describe Macau, a city that combines a Portuguese colonial core with super-sized casinos built on ever-growing parcels of reclaimed land. He also quoted William Vollmann, who proposed a “Galapagos Maxim,” which says, “Diversity is best served by local homogeneity and global heterogeneity.”


Mary Ann O’Donnell, an anthropologist who has lived in Shenzhen for more than 20 years, discussed her research on the city’s “urban villages,” places that began as rural communities but are now surrounded by the modern, planned metropolis. She extolled the virtues of vernacular, bottom-up development, which, she said, is better adapted to the needs of residents and provides connections to the area’s history. She questioned the role of architects and planners, stating, “Architecture doesn’t create diversity. Borders create diversity.” This comment generated a lively debate on the ways architects can contribute to the public realm. Aric Chen, curator for architecture and design at M+, a museum in Hong Kong, said, “New, alternative forms of architecture can act in guerrilla fashion, enabling a range of scenarios.” Marisa Yiu, a partner in the Hong Kong firm ESKYIU and director of the nonprofit organization Design Trust, stated, “Architecture does matter. It can create connections with communities and advance cultural agency.”


“Architecture is not just about expressing form. It is about establishing social relationships and shaping public space to create a sense of community,” said Ole Bouman, director of Design Society, a design museum under construction in the Shekou district of Shenzhen. Bouman talked about his work as the director of the 2013-14 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, which included converting an old glass factory in Shekou into a cultural center and creating an urban farm. “There’s an urgent need to create new rural-urban hybrids” that combine aspects of the city and the countryside.


Many of the speakers had participated in biennales in recent years, so some of the discussion revolved around the value of these massive efforts. Eric Schuldenfrei, who worked with his ESKYIU partner Yiu on the Hong Kong portion of the 2009-10 biennale said these events “can help architects reach out to different audiences and engage communities.” Doreen Liu, the founding partner of NODE Architects who helped renovate a flour mill complex in Shenzhen for the 2015-16 biennale, explained that her approach was to create “a city in a building” with an integrated program. He Jianxiang and Jiang Ying, principals at the Guangzhou-based firm O-Office Architects, contributed to the 2013-14 biennale and used that experience to convert an abandoned dyeing and printing mill in Shenzhen into a mixed-use, creative arts complex called iD Town. According to He, the architects tried to imbue the project with a sense of “the everyday,” inspired by the ideas of philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre.


A similar approach to reusing and repurposing existing parts of the city can be found in urban villages around the world, said Stefan Al, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote the book Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements. Al noted that Greenwich Village in New York is an urban village that has maintained its idiosyncratic pattern of streets and its own identity, while evolving with the times. He also said some developers in China are trying to imitate urban villages in new projects, such as the Sanlitun complex in Beijing. 


In recent years, a growing number of big-city architects have been working in rural China, hoping to inject new life in small villages. Xu Tiantian, principal of the Beijing firm DnA, has completed a series of small projects in Songyang in Zejiang Province where historic villages and tea plantations are starting to attract tourists looking for relief from urban life. She described her projects—which include a bamboo pavilion, an outdoor stage, a teahouse, and an agriculture museum—as architectural acupuncture that aim to heal rural problems.


Gary Paige, who teaches at USC and runs gp/s architects in Los Angeles, talked about the design studio he ran in China this summer. The studio of nine USC students documented a village in Jiangxi Province and developed ideas for converting it into an agri-tourism destination. Integrating culture, agriculture, and nature—C.A.N.—the project proposed a series of “guiding principles” and specific design strategies to revive the village. “We need to re-think, re-envision, re-purpose, re-imagine, re-structure, and re-invent” rural China, said Paige.


The symposium and an accompanying exhibition were supported by contributions from Chinese developer AVIC Legend and the U.S. architecture firms Robert A.M. Stern Architects, KPF, and NBBJ.