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Breathing new life: Tulou tower and plug-in, Lantian village, China by Rural Urban Framework + University of Hong Kong

New into Old 2019 Highly Commended: with their tulou renovation projects, Rural Urban Framework alongside students at the University of Hong Kong are transforming ideas about urbanising the rural

Formerly useful for its mines and outsized importance in the short-lived Chinese Soviet Republic (CSR), Lantian village is home to 1,500 inhabitants around 30km south of Longyan, a fourth-tier city in Fujian province. At the start of the winding road that leads to the village from the highway is a concrete factory with a mural of blue sky and green fields on its outer wall that tries to conceal, or at least distract from, the harshness of the enterprise. The rural is full of this kind of earnest exercise that is hard both to joke about and to take seriously. 

As well as factories, the mountainous province is peppered with 3,000-odd tulous, of which a group of 46 is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First widely built in the region as defensive forts by Hakka clans during the Ming and Qing dynasties, tulous are large-scale, enclosed residential buildings. Tu refers to a mix of local and natural fire-resistant building materials such as clay, stone, bamboo and wood; lou is the multi-storey, circular or rectangular building comprising thick, load-bearing, rammed-earth walls and interior compartments that encircle a central, open courtyard. Each vertical unit has a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, while storage and bedrooms on the upper floors are connected by shared corridors and stairways.

The largest tulous used to house entire clans of several hundred members – a site of wonder that symbolises a link to China’s agricultural heritage and embodies the Confucian ideal of collective living.

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 02

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 02

Source: Rural Urban Framework

Today, most of the region’s tulous are defenceless against erosion from the passage of time and China’s modernisation, which is draining the urbanised generation away from the countryside and into the cities for work. When earnings from those who have moved away allow families to construct new-money, Western-style concrete houses, residents move out of the tulous rather than continuing with repairs and modifications. Low occupancy quickens their deterioration, traditional construction becomes obsolete, conditions become too destitute for living and too challenging to upkeep and, as a result, many are abandoned or on their last legs.

By creating a set of contextually specific renovation strategies to repurpose decaying or abandoned tulous for future use, Rural Urban Framework (RUF) – a non-profit research and design laboratory at Hong Kong University (HKU), led by assistant professors John Lin and Joshua Bolchover – and their research assistants put these endangered heritage buildings on ‘life support’ while they await their development ‘transplant’. Together, they renovated two sites: Zhenchunlou and Yudelou. 

The rectangular Zhenchunlou is the first tulou you see on entering Lantian village. Seat of the provisional CSR government in the 1930s, it lay abandoned for decades until RUF intervened. Deeper into the village is Yudelou. Combining traditional carpentry with modern woodworking techniques, RUF and team created two structures, the Plug-in at Yudelou and the Tower at Zhenchunlou, built with contributions made by HKU’s undergraduate volunteers during the summer. In November, returning to Lantian village, the team invited locals for snacks and drinks at the Yudelou creation – dubbed ‘trumpet mouth’ by the locals due to the shape of the wooden structure that extends from the first-floor window. As they arrived – some former inhabitants of the building, others seeing it for the first time – older villagers and their grandchildren lined up chairs to face its wide, rectangular mouth. They were expecting a dance performance. 

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review drawings

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review drawings

Click to download

At Zhenchunlou tulou, RUF’s other built intervention encourages play in another way. The Tower, a hexadecagonal wooden staircase in the courtyard that winds up to roof level, has three bridges, each of which connects to one of the three upper storeys. The steps are of such height and width that they inspire sitting and lounging, rather than continuous climbing – although athletic ambitions will be rewarded by open access to the sky on the top deck. It doesn’t take long to visualise small coffee tables, corner rendezvous and sun-lit group selfies on the stairs: a recipe for an influencer destination if you ask a branding consultant. 

On paper, and in view of the clusters of concrete boxes in Lantian village flushed in fresh paint, the transformation of the rural landscape appears to be engineered in line with the Chinese government’s five-year plan for rural revitalisation, announced in 2018. This transformation reaffirms tulous’ inherent value as organs of rural life and a continuous expression of the livelihood of their inhabitants. In turn, tulous’ pragmatic nature as a type sidesteps a common conflict between organic preservation and contemporary renovation, romanticised restoration and functional modernisation. Informal building that adapts to residents’ needs by, for example, providing additional bedrooms and toilets, characterises the tulou in the urbanising rural fabric.

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 04

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 04

Source: Rural Urban Framework

‘They don’t have a lot of money, so they don’t do anything without a good reason’, Lin states, explaining how vernacular architecture became an entry point for his approach to the rural. ‘There are all kinds of weird, disfiguring things that you don’t normally look for in architecture, and yet are rich with architectural ideas.’ The Plug-in is a nod to the concrete back units ‘plugged in’ to the exterior wall of some of the tulous spotted by RUF during the research process.

As Lin observes, ‘Every tulou is different because the nature of humanity is creative and innovative’. RUF’s strategies inherit the spirit of rural builders that prioritises the functional needs of the community they serve. In the case of Lantian village, the transformation of the tulous preserves their original structure, while stimulating possibilities for new use appropriate t the urbanising present. Since their inception in 2005, RUF have built a socially minded portfolio of more than 15 reconstruction or regeneration projects in rural China and Mongolia that actively engage with the value of design in the local ecosystem. These are realised through the practice’s almost anthropological approach to the process and emphasis on prototypes that provide sustainable alternatives for local adaptation and evolution. But, unlike the reconstruction of post-earthquake Jintai village in Sichuan or the reconfiguration of Angdong Hospital in Hunan (AR November 2016), the tulou renovation strategies are conceived without an explicit end. The interventions were designed and built in response to the two sites’ individual conditions, based on case studies of numerous vernacular renovation strategies. RUF hope their design strategies will become a catalogue of tools to help local builders rethink collective living in their own context and in future renovations.

The sites for the Plug-in and the Tower were chosen – in collaboration with the Shizhong government, which funded the interventions alongside the Hong Kong Jockey Club – to kick-start a greater plan to develop Lantian village and vicinity into a destination for tulou heritage and agricultural tourism. In the shadow of the cinematic, rotund tulous in nearby Yongding county, a long-standing tulou tourism destination, Shizhong welcomes the opportunity to stand out. Qiu Xiaoling, deputy district mayor of Longyan Xinluo District Committee, was an early advocate of RUF’s experimental engagement with the historical structures, which ultimately adds value to the revitalisation project. ‘Yongding focused on preserving the tulou’s original appearance. We wanted to inject new elements into Lantian village to give it a more creative vibe, while protecting the old in the development’, says Qiu.

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review drawings 2

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review drawings 2

Click to download

Since the completion of the two structures in the summer, Lantian village has seen an increase in visitors – it had around 7,500 more tourists during October’s National Day Golden Week than in the same period last year. There are early talks of investor bids to develop Zhenchunlou into a hospitality project based on tulou living. While tourists come and go in waves, the development of tourism infrastructures could be the boost of opportunities Lantian village needs to retain its youth population – one of the rural’s biggest problems. A rare twenty-something resident, Xie Pingyue, thinks more tourists through modernising the tulous will be good for the local economy, despite preferring the peace and quiet of village life. Xie lived in Yudelou as a child before dangerous building conditions forced the residents to move out. She now goes to cookery school in Longyan and dreams of opening a restaurant in the village – it would be its first. 

While Zhenchunlou is now a primed canvas, Yudelou has been a part of Lantian village’s Shanfu Ecological Agriculture Science Base, a venue for experiential education programmes, and the interior has been renovated as modest dormitories to accommodate primary- and secondary-school camps. Reminiscent of the theatre (a typical communal feature of the tulous) and the modern appended concrete toilet units at this and other sites, the Plug-in cleverly dares to transgress into new domains: whereas existing tulou staircases lead to private quarters and the defensive exterior wall keeps out non-residents, in Yudelou it is now reconfigured as a passage leading to a library space for public use. 

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 13

Tulou tower and plug in rural urban framework architectural review 13

Source: Rural Urban Framework

The potential for reimagining former collective housing for new co-operative programmes attracted an education group scouting for tulous to host its international student programmes. ‘We are always interested in what RUF are doing because the mission of our organisation is about how can we use education as a tool to revive communities and, now, how that can integrate with architecture,’ explains Wei Wei, its founder and chairman. ‘We are here to explore the possibilities of what’s out there: how can we develop a programme that will sustain these projects?’

Modest in scale but significant in legacy, the renovation strategies might be better measured as architectural ‘Helens that launch a thousand ships’: building for what will be rather than what is, not only in terms of physical constructions, but also in their thinking about urbanising the rural, which resists top-down decrees via architectural decisions. Lin says RUF are providing a bridge, but it’s closer to a pivot: it changes course without passing over a void.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to purchase your copy today