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Can architects bring hope to abandoned villages?


05-23-2016 04:02 BJT

An architecture design movement is booming in China's rural areas. Beautiful architecture is bringing fame and tourists to many unknown rural places. Amid the rapid urbanization in China, many villages are on the brink of being abandoned. Can architects bring hope to these places?

A delicate, modern work of art, hidden in one of the poorest villages in China.

We were moved as soon as we saw the barn. The space inside is pretty shocking.12 meters wide, over 40 meters long. A perfectly preserved wooden framework.

He Wei, an architect from Beijing, marveled at this abandoned 1950s warehouse complex when he first came to Xihe village three years ago.

In the following months, He Wei redesigned the warehouse… Tearing down worn walls, inserting more windows, connecting the buildings with corridor. The old, crumbling warehouse was transformed into a café, an activity center for villagers, as well as a museum for the local tea tree oil.

"The scale of architecture is much smaller in the rural village than in the city. There are less constrains," He said.

Government-promoted urbanization and an unbalanced development between rural areas and the city have made many farmers leave their land. This has threatened thousands of traditional villages with extinction.

Now these villages are a new paradise for Chinese architects. They have built primary schools, libraries, museums, and even pigsties… all to realize avant-garde ideas which were hardly allowed in the city. And thanks to the Internet, their work has drawn public attention to the villages, even if they are located far from the city.

Their eye-catching and beautiful architecture in the rural areas coincidently match the need of the forgotten villages: a revival in spirit.

He Wei’s project attracted many fans online. Firstly from the architects and then from urban residents who wish to spend a weekend in the countryside. The boom in tourism has brought profit and vitality back to this unknown village.

Such a successful case in China involves a complex interplay of factors -- historic buildings and scenic landscapes, supportive local officials and residents, and the proximity of nearby cities.

Just a few kilometers away from Xihe village, you can see more abandoned buildings, collapsed houses and wastelands. This raises the question of whether the success of Xihe village can be copied in other rural areas. After all, not all villages have the potential to become a tourist destination.

"I think projects like Xihe can serve as a powerful signal to villagers and officials that these communities are worth investing in," Luo Deyin, architecture professor wity Tsinghua University, said.

Luo Deyin leads the overall planning of Xihe village. He has been doing the same preservation experiments in many other rural villages. What encourages him most is the changing policy environment.

"Three years ago, urbanization was one of the measures to assess the pormenace of a local official. But now, it turns out that if you can preserve a traditional village like this, it can also be a political legacy," Luo said.

But given the vanishing speed of these villages, the preservation work will have to race against time.

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