BY Beatrice Leanza in Opinion | 18 FEB 15
Featured in
Issue 169

Green Shoots

Ecological innovation in Chinese architecture

BY Beatrice Leanza in Opinion | 18 FEB 15

Li Xiaodong, Liyuan Library, Jiaojiehe Village, 2011; 1 courtesy: Li Xiaodong

‘As to myself, I can tell you that, like every architect – no, like almost everyone in China today – I have been very, very busy for the last eight years. In 1949, architects were transformed overnight from mere social ornament to the post vanguard of the country’s reconstruction.’
Liang Sicheng (from a letter to Wilma Fairbank, 30 December 1956)

The tribulations of China’s modernization and the rise of its global cities have long been framed by issues of political and social change. The macro-narrative of the country’s urban and architectural growth over recent decades has often shifted between unease at the social effects of too-fast development and an aseptic appreciation of a ‘creative China’ geared towards export. Yet a closer look at the recent achievements of architects and designers from different generations points to wider ambitions and a diversity of readings. Late in 2014, the inaugural Moriyama RAIC International Prize – a Canadian architecture award – went to a project by the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong, the Liyuan Library (2011). Worth CAD $100,000 (GBP £55,000), the prize is one of the most substantial in the field and is awarded to a project judged to be ‘emblematic of the human values of respect and inclusiveness’. Inaugurated in May 2012 and located in the hillside village of Jiaojiehe, about two hours outside Beijing, Li’s modest library was designed to encourage tourism in the area and was realized with a grant of CNY ¥1,000,000 (GBP £100,000). The 175m² building incorporates materials sourced from the surrounding areas, such as tree branches, and is engineered to make use of local climatic conditions for natural cooling and heating. It is maintained by the locals as a communal space and, true to its aim, is regularly visited by tourists.

A professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Li builds relatively little. When he does, it is often in remote areas and on tight budgets. (He once warned his students: ‘You won’t make money doing the architecture I do.’) Li is an advocate of what he calls ‘reflexive regionalism’, which he defines as a spiritual as much as a rational concern: one that incorporates found natural resources, technologies and know-how. Like his compatriot Wang Shu – the 2012 recipient of the Pritzker Prize and dean of the architecture school at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou – Li is more the humble scholar than the international starchitect, and his research as well as his built projects connect new materials and concepts with traditional Chinese building practices and aesthetics. As he put it in a 2012 lecture at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning in New York: ‘For me, identity is not formal or iconic. Identity is how we interpret the issue, the problems. It is a condition.’

Like Wang, whose civic-minded architecture deploys the vernacular intelligence of the craftsman, Li and other architects – such as Liu Jiakun and URBANUS from an older generation, and Hua Li, Zhang Ke and Zhang Lei from a younger one – are more interested in the pragmatic recentring of human concerns than a building’s aesthetics. By addressing specific social and economic issues, younger cross-disciplinary design practices strive to adapt to local challenges and constraints.

The Beijing-based studio People’s Architecture Office (PAO) has established itself in a ‘grey area’, says James Shen, one of its founders, attempting to bring qualities of controlled craftsmanship and mass reproducibility typical of industrial design to an architectural scale. Tricycle House (2012) is an experiment with folded plastic made using a CNC router – a computer-controlled cutting machine. It is a portable man- or battery-powered house comprising an accordion-like unit, which can contract to fit on the back of a custom-made tricycle or expand and connect to other units. Responding to contentious Chinese issues of land ownership and urban overpopulation, the mobile house offers remedial inspiration, bringing a functional solution to problems of space, cost and impermanence. Stemming from similar concerns, PAO’s more recent series of designs, Pop-Up (2012–ongoing) and Plug-In (2013–ongoing), are based on readymade, modular, multi-purpose structures. Courtyard Plug-In (2013–14) was conceived to address the infrastructural problems of traditional low-rise housing in the 600-year-old district of Dashilar, Beijing, a neighbourhood long afflicted by overcrowding and neglect. Comprised of prefabricated, easily transported and quickly assembled walls – incorporating wiring, plumbing, windows and doors – the Plug-In system avoids invasive and messy demolition by injecting cost-effective modern functions and facilities into otherwise rapidly degrading living quarters. Importantly, it allows residents both control and involvement in the process. The first completed Courtyard Plug-In was presented during the 2014 Beijing Design Week (BJDW) (of which I was creative director) as one of the Dashilar Pilot projects, an incubator for private and public schemes that is part of a larger plan for community regeneration initiated by BJDW together with a local government developer.

People’s Architecture Office, Tricyle House, 2012; courtesy: People’s Architecture Office

Dashilar is just one of many examples responding to China’s contentious phenomenon of ‘rurbanization’ – the urbanization of rural landscapes – which implies a rethinking of the relationships between centres and peripheries both within and outside of the city. Acting as a consultant for some of the country’s largest developers, META-Project, a young Beijing-based design firm, devotes the rest of its time to cross-disciplinary research, from investigating the legacy of typical Beijing alleys or ‘hutongs’ (META:HUTONGS, 2012–14), to residential designs for young urbanites of lower-income and flexible lifestyles – a demographic currently unaccounted for by developers. One of their projects, RESET Apartment (2011–12), is a boxed interior system for a 60m² apartment which is adaptive to the needs for various usages and configurations of space by including movable household features – from beds and bathtubs to mounted shelving units and partitions on sliding ceiling tracks.

Changing forms of domestic and social habitation depend upon shifting environmental and economic factors, and the Chinese countryside offers a desirable alternative to increasingly unaffordable, congested, polluted metropolises. For more than a year, Chen Haoru from Hangzhou has been working on an eco-farming project in the southern city of Lin’an, Zhejiang province. Made of locally sourced bamboo, grass and stones, Chen’s Pig Barn (2014) was assembled and finished with the assistance of local farmers and craftsmen as part of the Taiyuan Commune project (2014–ongoing). The product of research into rural reconstruction, it combines grassroots empowerment with architectural thinking. Providing design and business support, from landscaping to product packaging and financial planning, the Taiyuan Commune aims to enhance local agricultural productivity (aided by the recently introduced ‘Farmer Families’ policy) by employing a cooperative model. The aim is that local farmers, considered as business partners, all benefit financially. Long-term, the hope is that this will encourage both eco-tourism and the controlled repopulation of such areas. Chen, like Li Xiaodong and others, believes in the relational benefits between the built environment and socio-cultural spaces. A true philosophical embracing of nature, Chen told me, ‘is not just about reducing material consumption – sooner or later resources will run out. It is only from a moral standpoint that we can achieve sustainability as development.’ At the time of writing, Chen and his Taiyuan Commune partners await the first harvest.

Beatrice Leanza is a cultural strategist and design critic based in Beijing. She is the former creative director of Beijing Design Week (2013–16), chief curator of the ongoing research project ‘Across Chinese Cities’, featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2014, 2016 and 2018 editions) and co-founder of The Global School, China’s first independent institute for design and creative research.