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Mulan Village School in China by Rural Urban Framework

AR School Commended: RUF’s expansion of a school in a backwater in north Guangdong, makes it a focus for the rural community

The High Speed Train speeds from the Guiyang plateau in Guizhou, alongside the dramatic rock formations and sweet osmanthus of Guilin in Guangxi, slicing through the mountain ranges of northern Guangdong, across the villages and rice paddies of the Pearl River Delta to the sprawling density of Guangzhou, one of  China’s leading commercial and manufacturing regions. This destination city is one of the most densely urbanised areas in the world and yet, the route takes the traveller through vast tracts of national parks, plains and thickly forested mountains.

Since the liberalisation of the economy in the 1970s, the emerging middle classes from cities like Shenzhen, Foshan and Guangzhou are now starting to take weekend leisure breaks in these newly accessible inland beauty spots made possible by the car, of course, but also by the incredible growth of the rail network. Concrete railway viaducts, sometimes just one or two metres above the ground, now criss-cross this vast country. But the earthworks; the cut and fill; the disruption on the ground; the unresolved scar on the local landscape - are something that locals are often left to deal with after the 300km/hr tourists have whizzed by.

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Site plan - click to expand

Another by-product of the expansion of rail across China has been the mass labour migration from rural villages to factories. In many ways a positive force for self-improvement, the downside is that many areas often merely comprise the elderly and children, with able-bodied parents away in the big city. The remote Mulan Village is a case in point. A rural backwater in north Guangdong incongruously sitting alongside the new High Speed Rail track, it has lived with the problems of outward migration, of land despoliation, and is now at risk of being swallowed up by local urban sprawl. There are many such cases in China of rural life being extinguished by the onward march of progress.

These kinds of ethical dilemma are the lifeblood of the Hong Kong-based architectural practice Rural Urban Framework (RUF) which, as the name suggests, tries to repair some of the physical infrastructure but also the social tensions that proliferate as a result of China’s meteoric rise: mediating between rapid urbanisation and its effect on the everyday lives of non-urban dwellers.

‘The key design element is the roof, that rises in steps from the entrance and extends the playground and wraps the courtyard’

In this project, RUF was commissioned by an educational charity to upgrade and expand the local school (to prepare the school to absorb the influx of students from an ever-expanding geographical area).

The railway line, completed last year, created a huge incision into the landscape with cut-and-fill earth simply dumped at the back of the existing primary school. This slope was dangerously unstable and also led to flood damage of the old school building.

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Section AA - click to expand

The architects say that they ‘revel in low budgets and minimal resources’ so fortunately the budget was tiny, at just £57,300, and they resolved to beg and borrow local materials and to expand the brief to provide facilities for the community. With no meaningful sewage system and no money to install one, for example, the architects devised a ventilation system, a septic tank and a reed-bed filtration system. This, they say, ‘was our first real attempt to create low-cost infrastructural architecture. A prototype for rural school hygiene facilities with the possibility that the strategy could be deployed in other scenarios.’ RUF’s Joshua Bolchover adds, ‘The slope was made more gradual to make it safe and less liable to collapse. We used the concrete wall of the reed-bed as a retaining wall that framed the basketball court and contains the slope.’

Working with a local design institute and contractor, they decided to retain and upgrade the existing school building and to link it into a new contained courtyard with spaces under and over. The idea, says Bolchover, was ‘to create a range of open spaces: from pocket gardens to interlinking courtyards to play-spaces and outdoor educational rooms’. Using mirrored tiles in the internal spaces to catch the sun and amuse the children, the interior quality contrasts with the somewhat unrefined materials on the external elevations. But unrefined could be defined as contextual in this rural setting.

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Ground floor plan - click to expand

This was the first project in China where RUF has been able to work with the landscape to strategically shape the spaces between the buildings. As a result, there is also a warren of notionally underground rooms, well lit by unglazed sidelights and lightwells. Shaded spaces open into enclosed, covered courtyards and a so-called garden with a mix of bamboo and river stones adds interest to the space under the stairs.

The key design element is the roof, that rises in steps from the entrance and extends the playground and wraps the courtyard. The design accentuates the tiered land of the surrounding area and is clearly designed as a fun place for the students, but also as terraced seating for local community meetings. In this way, the building is designed as a focus, a courtyard agora. It is more than a school. It is a restitution.

Mulan Primary School

Architect: Rural Urban Framework (RUF)
Project team (architecture): John Lin, Joshua Bolchover, Yau Ching Kit, Kwan Kwok Ying, Huang Zhiyun, Jessica Lumley, Ho King Hei
Project team (landscape): Cathy Ka Kee Hang, Mandy Siu Man Kwok, Qian Zhang
Landscape design: Dorothy Tang, The University of Hong Kong
Project manager: Maggie KY Ma
Photographs: Courtesy of the architect

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