USC AAC Rethinks the Village for the 21st Century

School News

USC AAC Rethinks the Village for the 21st Century

September 21, 2017



A dozen speakers from the Pearl River Delta and the United States discussed critical issues of Chinese development at a symposium in Shenzhen organized by USC’s American Academy in China (AAC). Entitled “Rethinking the Village: Rural/Urban/Industrial,” the event on July 22 brought together architects, educators, and writers to present a range of approaches to the on-going transformation of China’s cities and countryside.


Held at the offices of the architecture and planning firm Urbanus, the symposium coincided with the opening of an exhibition on the same topic and in the same location. The exhibition presented work by 18 schools of architecture and research-focused design firms from around the world. “Even as hundreds of millions of people move from China’s countryside to its cities, the village remains a key organizing element in terms of social, economic, and spatial structures,” said AAC director Clifford Pearson, in introducing the topic. This remains true whether the setting is rural, urban, or industrial, he added.


Defining boundaries can be an important strategy to strengthen villages in China, said Thomas Daniell, head of the department of architecture and design at the University of Saint Joseph, Macau. Just as the shores of the Galapagos archipelago allow the individual islands to develop their own ecosystems, boundaries can help villages retain their identities in the face of rapid change, explained Daniell. Looking at the Pearl River Delta, which is increasingly becoming one conglomeration of urban sprawl, he described how borders can encourage diversity in terms of architecture, economics, and culture. At the same time, new types of transnational thinking are needed to add vitality to these communities.


Aric Chen, a curator at M+, a museum of visual culture in Hong Kong, picked up the notion of boundaries, saying, “The Kowloon Walled City was the granddaddy of all urban villages.” A notorious place of unregulated activities, the Walled City was separated from the rest of Hong Kong by its odd status as a legal no-man’s-land and its remarkably dense physical development.  Although denigrated by government officials as a dangerous enclave and eventually demolished by official decree in 1993 and 1994, it was seen by many people as a vibrant community and hub for inexpensive commercial transactions.


Travis Bunt, who teaches at Columbia University and is the director of the Dutch firm One Architecture in New York, spoke about his students work examining both rural and urban villages. Last year, the school’s Rural China Lab looked at four rural villages at different stages of development, mapping resources there and interviewing hundreds of residents. The goal is to go back to these places periodically to update the information. This year, his studio is doing data mining in urban villages in Shenzhen.


Presenting a pavilion he designed in the countryside in Shaanxi Province, Geoffrey von Oeyen, a professor at USC who also runs his own architecture practice in Los Angeles, talked about the way his small wood building registers the landscape and invites local residents to use it. Students from USC and Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology had finished constructing the pavilion just days before the symposium.


Xiaodu Liu, a founding partner of Urbanus and a co-director of the 2017 Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, which will open in December, discussed some of the curatorial ideas behind this year’s iteration of the event. For the first time, the Biennale will be based in one of Shenzhen’s urban villages and will propose a new model of urbanism—one that respects a diversified ecosystem of social, economic, and architectural development. “We need to encourage bottom-up, as well as top-down, planning and development,” he stated.


One of the biggest challenges facing architects and planners is properly engaging residents of urban villages, said Jason Hilgefort, director of Future+, a new design academy in Shenzhen. To do this and overcome initial suspicions of outsiders, Future+ has held workshops in urban villages that get children to play with physical models and imagine improvements to their communities. The children then help get their parents involved. Hilgefort also discussed strategies for retaining Shenzhen’s industrial roots, instead of erasing them in favor of development aimed at office and creative-service enterprises. “We need to link high-tech thinking and low-tech making,” he said.


Creating a “new collectivism” was the aim of He Jianxiang and Jiang Ying, who run O-Office Architects, in a series of recent projects in Guangzhou. Two of the projects are for the developer Vanke and rethink the notion of housing to provide more shared spaces and establish a sense of community. The firm is also completing a new phase of its iD Town project in eastern Shenzhen, transforming old industrial buildings into the campus for a new private school—in the process creating a type of residential/educational village.


Jie Liu, a partner at WallaceLiu, discussed the ideas behind her firm’s conversion of an old steel works into the 80,000-square-foot Chongqing Industrial Museum. The project, which is currently in construction, preserves most of the abandoned factory as a way of establishing a strong architectural presence based on the place’s original industrial identity.


Just as Liu and her partner James Wallace have found ways of bringing the public to what had been an exclusively industrial facility, Doreen Heng Liu has explored the “publicness” of infrastructure. In work by her firm NODE and in a studio she ran at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she and her students have investigated strategies for engaging people with structures normally considered from just an engineering perspective. For example, her Yong-Chong River Water Infrastructure project incorporates a pedestrian bridge into a water control facility, allowing residents of the area to walk atop the massive concrete structure and use it as an urban connector.


The schools and firms participating in the exhibition accompanying the symposium were: the Architectural Association, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Columbia, Cornell/Tongji, École Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Saint-Etienne, Future+, Syracuse, Turenscape Academy, the University of Saint Joseph, Macau, the University of Southern California, Stefan Al, DnA, Contemporary Architecture Practice, NODE, O-Office Architects, Rural-Urban Framework, Urbanus, Geoffrey von Oeyen Design, and WallaceLiu.