AR House 2012 Winner: Reworking existing vernacular models, John Lin’s prototypical house in a Chinese village aims to improve living conditions by re-connecting rural communities with the principles of sustainability and self-sufficiency
China’s decree that 350 million of its remaining rural population will be urbanized by 2030 seems to sum up the forceful socio- economic dynamics of the modern Chinese state. With 50 per cent of the total population already living in cities, the authorities have promised to build a further 20 cities a year until around 2025.
Admittedly, as author James Palmer points out, Chinese statistics are questionable (or, in some instances, downright wrong) but even so, it is reasonably understandable that China’s long march to an urban future is carrying on apace.
The flow of people and the concomitant growth of urban conurbations are reminiscent − although on a much bigger scale – of Victorian Britain. Equally redolent of 19th-century London, are the living conditions for some of the less well off in 21st-century Beijing and Shanghai. Meagre floor areas, mean workhouses and airborne miasma. as the country urbanises, there are definitely winners and losers. The question: ‘where will the people go?’ still exercises the mind as much today as it did for Ebenezer Howard. In Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, the lone liberal voice arguing for better planning symbolised a society in transition.
Admittedly, Howard’s Victorian/Edwardian millenarianism (tinged with a dose of Social Darwinism) is thankfully absent from the contemporary Chinese condition, but there is a growing recognition that the success story of development should be tempered with expressions of concern for those less fortunate. Philanthropy (ironically by the wealthy rather than the Chinese state) is central to the latest Five-year Plan, for example. It is also undeniable that, like Howard, a fear of rural instability underlies much of the official debate in China.
Step forward John Lin, one person who has turned his attention to this dilemma. Lin is the winner of this year’s AR House award for his contemporary take on a vernacular village house. Educated in New york, he is now assistant professor at the university of Hong Kong where he and his students are involved in an ‘experiential learning workshop’ that focuses on Chinese ‘lifestyles in transition’.
By examining, measuring and documenting traditional village courtyard house typologies − specifically in Shijia Village near Xi’an in Shaanxi Province − Lin and his team have sought to give a new twist to an old and successful vernacular format. This, he says, is an evolution of an existing form, rather than an architectural imposition. It is a particular design intervention that recognises the absence of a skilled construction workforce, the lack of a defined client and the fact that historically, such buildings have been created without an architect.
Currently, says Lin, there are only two types of building: traditional mud brick or ‘generic concrete and brick with ceramic tiles … there is nothing in between’. Attempting to provide a notional organic development of this typology, Lin now proposes a conscious design transformation that attempts to be as hands-off as possible. It is a prototype only: a generic solution that can be adapted by real users. This way, he says, it is an ‘efficient framework for the simulacrum of self-expression’.
All the houses in Shijia are 10m x 30m and constructed of mud and brick with the courtyard as the dominant feature. Lin’s new variant has four courtyards which are ‘inserted throughout the house’ and connect the main internal spaces with the external livestock areas. The project was funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust and the costs were kept down with the help of the Shaanxi Women’s Federation who helped coordinate much of the work and managed to navigate what Lin calls ‘the political complexities’ of the project.
The roof profile is designed to collect water. The stepped cross-section provides access from the ground floor to a large area used to dry crops (corn, seeds, etc). The steps can also act as high-level seating area set against a spectacular backdrop of mountains. Lin describes the roof as an alternative to the pitched roofs of the traditional mud housing and the completely flat roofs of new concrete buildings. The structure is a combination of concrete columns (earthquake resistant) and mud brick (thermal insulation). ‘We hope,’ he says, ‘to modernise the mud brick building rather than completely abandoning it.’
As well as water collection (during the small number of rainy days in the region), the finished building contains a pig-effluent biogas pit that feeds the methane cooker; a Trombe wall; a bed warmed by flue gases; and a bog-standard solar thermal collector.
Self-sufficiency is key to the design and, by implication, is a fundamental aspect of the rural lifestyle that Lin wants to maintain. For him self-sufficiency is merely a pragmatic way of resisting the decline that would confront these villages if left to their own devices.
‘The reliance on a migrant economy,’ he tells me, ‘is not creating a livable environment. Ironically, as villagers leave to work in cities they continue to send money back home, and floor areas will dramatically increase. What they are building begins to look like a ghetto. Most of these villages have become garbage dumps and there is a slow breakdown of the economy, social and community relationships, politics and the environment.’
Rather than self-sufficiency accentuating isolation, Lin suggests that it works the other way around. He describes self-sufficiency as ‘villages reducing their dependency on outside goods and services’. By ‘evolving’ rather than ‘preserving’, he says, ‘we’re actually working to prevent a rural ghetto.’