INTERVIEW: Xu Tiantian Is Revitalizing China’s Countryside Through Architectural Acupuncture
Ongoing for six years now, her mission has concentrated on Songyang, a bucolic county 250 miles southeast of Shanghai that counts over 400 villages and is dominated by rolling green mountains and the Songyin River. There she has built and developed a series of thoughtful projects that promote the region’s idiosyncratic cultural heritage, such as a brown-sugar factory in the village of Xing (2016) that theatrically displays the artisanal process for visitors, or a memorial hall in Wang (2017), which tells the story of a legendary 14th-century scholar, Wang Jing, a native of the village. Through these interventions, Xu and her team have not only helped slow down the rural exodus but have even attracted city dwellers, both as tourists and new residents. Xu herself was born in Fujian Province, coming of age during the 80s and 90s, a time of great change in Chinese society. She first studied architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing before going on to complete a master’s degree in urban design at Harvard GSD, afterwards working for three years in Boston and then briefly for OMA in Rotterdam. In 2004 — at the peak of China’s rush to urbanize — Xu returned home to start her own firm, DnA (Design and Architecture). Since then she has been at the forefront of a new approach to developing the nation’s vast countryside, which, unlike the blanket solution applied at breakneck speed during China’s more recent urban growth, sees her carefully selecting the pressure points, employing local materials and construction processes, with an attentiveness to collectivity and communal space — a rural revolution achieved through architectural acupuncture. Curator Beatrice Galilee discussed with Xu her connective practice and finding ways the past can be valued in the future.
Beatrice Galilee: The first time I encountered your work was as part of Ordos 100, Ai Weiwei’s 2008 project with Herzog & de Meuron in the Mongolian desert, which envisioned 100 villas by 100 international architects. When I visited, in 2009, your building was the only one that had actually been built.
Xu Tiantian: I think maybe one of the few buildings. It’s pretty much still the same now. (Laughs.)
Can you describe some of your first projects? And how do these experiences feed into your practice today?
Our first project was a pavilion for the Jinhua Architecture Park, a collaboration with the artist Wang Xingwei (another Ai Weiwei initiative, the park was begun in 2002 and completed in 2012. Xu and Wang’s structure houses the park’s bathrooms). After, we were commissioned by the Songzhuang Art Museum. Songzhuang is an artists’ village outside of Beijing. This was during a phase when the Chinese art and auction markets were booming, and it was also the beginning of development for the Songzhuang art colony. Later on, there were more and more art facilities, galleries, and artist studios built in that area. The Songzhuang Art Museum was pretty much the first public facility built there — we completed it in 2006. And that’s how we were introduced to the developer who was in charge of Ordos. The new district in Ordos was planned to be an arts and cultural complex, and later a real-estate development. They wanted to build an arts district to introduce all the artists in Beijing to Ordos and to bring cultural events to the area. That was how we received the commission in the beginning. When we started to visit the area, it was really very raw. In the beginning, there was this very ambitious and also very positive vision for the future of Ordos. Ordos was definitely undergoing an economic boom at that time.
There was a very public celebration of Chinese culture at that time. The Olympics had just happened and the Chinese art market was also booming. At that point, was it considered subversive to be working with artists?
At that moment, there was a very positive, generally optimistic feeling in arts and culture circles. There were many art facilities being built, not only in Beijing but also in other cities, in Chengdu, and even in Ordos. Real-estate developers were also using arts and cultural facilities to attract a community and an audience and then also buyers in the long run. The idea was to lead regeneration through culture.
The Bilbao effect!
What did your family think about your becoming an architect?
Their work was not related to architecture, so they didn’t really understand much about it. But, when I think back, I believe my interest in architecture has something to do with how I grew up in Fujian. My family’s house was a really large compound — there were over 100 people living there. It was a big family and also a very traditional arrangement with layers of courtyards and corridors. Whenever I go back now, I think how very beautiful the space is. I think it had some influence on how I understood architecture back then.
It was just one very large family that lived there?
A very large family. It was the siblings of my great-grandfather with the last name X-U. We do the last name first. So it was the Xu family living there with hundreds of offspring. Many of the people are not living there anymore, they’ve moved to other areas or overseas. We do go back from time to time. This is a very typical concept of the family in China, which I also discovered in Songyang — in rural areas a village is sometimes only one family with hundreds of people.
Was your family’s home in a rural area?
No. It became an urban district decades ago, so it wasn’t a rural village like in the mountains or the flatlands. Now it’s become an urban center, and there are many developments around it.
You grew up right around the time when Deng Xiaoping began to establish his vision for opening China up to the world. How did that feel during your childhood?
It definitely had a huge impact on my generation. When I was growing up, it was the beginning of the opening up, and it was also just after the one-child policy was implemented. I think everybody in my generation was witnessing developments in many areas, not just in rural areas but in cities as well. Starting in early 90s, there was so much construction going on and new buildings. The environment I grew up in, and also in other cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, was a transformation from a more traditional scale into a very modern high-rise, high-density situation.
And the enormous building boom that followed in cities like Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Chengdu was also a huge moment for architecture. Suddenly, architecture was a force behind China in a way, of China’s presentation to the world.
I think at that moment it was more about construction, not architecture.
That’s a good distinction. How did that influence your own thinking about architecture? You were just starting school at the time.
Yes, I was in college in the early 90s, at Tsinghua University. It was a more engineering-oriented education — architecture and design weren’t the priority at that moment. It was very good training to understand the technical side of architecture. But when I started at Harvard GSD, it was a very big transition for me. It was almost like jumping into another field. My program was architecture in urban design. I was in new territory. It was just totally mind-opening to learn about architects and architecture. Rem Koolhaas was already a big name at the time, but during my entire college education in China we didn’t have any resources or information about Rem, about his architecture, or his research.
Were people at Harvard already talking about what was happening in China?
No. I don’t think China was a subject being discussed. It wasn’t until a few years later. But when I was at the GSD, there were already a lot of things starting to happen in China. Yung Ho Chang went back to China in the 90s. His was the first generation of modern or contemporary Chinese architects, along with Ai Weiwei and all these people — I don’t know if you would call them first generation, but they were definitely the very beginning phase.
How did your work developing rural communities in Songyang begin?
It was really a coincidence. When we started, no one was really interested in doing something in a rural context. But we received a commission for a hotel project on a tea plantation, which is still currently under construction after six years. It was really the first time that I’d been to the truly rural side of China, these villages on a mountain in Songyang. It was really an impressive trip for all of us who went. So our first engagement in Songyang was this hotel, it was about the county wanting to promote rural tourism. Songyang County is an agricultural county and they planned to use this character as its main selling point to attract tourism and economic development. Once we started working on the hotel project, we were constantly asked by local villages to be consultants for their village’s development. At the same time there was also the concept of nostalgia as part of this idea of national rejuvenation. Xi Jinping came up with the idea of developing cultural self-confidence and also to promote rural areas in order to achieve a balance between the urban and rural.
Was there already broadband and high-speed rail in those areas, or did that come later?
Yes, and there were roads connecting every village. I think it had already been achieved for a decade, especially in Zhejiang Province, which is wealthier than other areas. (E-commerce giant) Alibaba is based in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, so the government had long been promoting tech infrastructure in the province. Later it became the policy in the whole country.
I know that you’ve done a lot of economic work in the region trying to generate ways for people to sell their local crafts and artisanal products. At the tofu factory in Lishui (2018), for example, you helped to make sure the tofu met existing standards for export or to be sold online. Could you talk a little bit about these processes and how you’ve intervened not just on an architectural level but also on an economic and community level?
With the Songyang project, our work wasn’t about very specific architectural design. It was more about architecture as a medium to integrate different disciplines or aspects. The ultimate goal is to revitalize the village or the rural area. Yes, infrastructure is a very important foundation for the whole process because on top of that we’re able to use digital tools like an e-commerce platform so that villagers can sell their products online, and also attract tourism through WeChat or Internet promotion. In this area, even in the village, a lot of people have smartphones. Villagers connect with people in cities, and tourists also broadcast whatever they’ve seen here in the village online. So technology is really integrated into all the facilities.
You’ve also worked with minority communities such as the Hakka, for whom you designed a museum.
Right. It’s the Hakka Indenture Museum in Shicang (2017). In this area, each village has its own specific history or story to tell. In Shicang Village, there’s a local legend about how the village got its name, which means stone storage. To commemorate this story, we made a structure that has these massive stone walls that trace out a sort of wild-lattice plan. In Wang Village, we made a memorial hall dedicated to the scholar Wang Jing, one of the historical figures in the area. In other villages, it’s a local product that’s highlighted. Each intervention starts with the village’s own unique story or content and, at the end, each project’s goal is to achieve not only cultural but also economic and social balance or integration. For example, the goal for the Hakka village with this cultural Indenture Museum is for it to act as a strategy to attract investments to the home-stay business next door and to integrate the museum into cultural activities and tourism. The brown-sugar factory, for example, is for production, but at the same time it’s also a space to introduce village heritage and cultural events. It’s always taking each village’s own history or historical context, but reaching out to multiple aspects in a sense.
Because of the pandemic, there is something strange happening in U.S. cities — we’re no longer using them in the same way. People work from home, and some people are moving to the country to work from there. Do you think this could be part of a larger shift towards the rural?
This is already happening in the Songyang area.
In the past four years, there have been over 6,000 people moving from cities to Songyang County and its villages. In Pingtian, the first village we started working with, the total number of inhabitants has increased by over 100 now. Young people are moving back to start their own businesses related to agricultural products and rural crafts, and even rural tourism. Not only are villagers moving back, there are also city residents who aren’t from the area relocating to Songyang.
Are those city people taking up weekend homes or actually moving there permanently?
Some of them still keep a home in the city. But they not only take a second home in the countryside, they also start a new business and create jobs. They become this bridge connecting the city and the village. Compared to cities, rural areas still preserve most of China’s culture and heritage. The cities are more modern, but more or less the same as many other international cities. Right now in Songyang, all the local villagers are really into the idea of rural revitalization. There’s a lot of confidence and optimism. Our projects are deliberately small-scale, both architecturally and in terms of investment. The idea is to attract more for the next step, for further investments or further initiatives from the local community.
How do you feel about the future of these places?
At the beginning, we didn’t plan to collaborate with Songyang over such a long period — it’s already been six years now. But today we hope it will be for an even longer term. In the first year, we probably took on over ten projects pro bono. These were very small-scale, just a bit here, a bit there. The bamboo theater, the teahouse, the Pingtian religious center, and so on. Now I look back on that time and think it was really important to build up an understanding of this area and build up trust with these local communities. If we had only worked on one project there, maybe we wouldn’t have invested so much into learning about the local history and all these traditions in different villages. I think this understanding becomes the foundation for our collaboration with and connection to the area. This emotional connection pushed us to think further about how we can engage — and also about how architecture can engage.
What you call architectural acupuncture!
Yes. To us, the acupuncture strategy is about proposing sustainable minimal intervention, but also creating the conditions for these long-term developments to trigger their own initiatives. That’s how this area with mostly rural villages can achieve long-term sustainable development with just the support of their own community, not always needing the support of the government or large industrial investments.
And it’s worked. It seems that the area is really thriving with everything that you’re doing there.
The area is doing better and better. Even during this critical time, Songyang has recovered very quickly and is almost back to its routine. All the construction sites are back to normal. Tourism is coming back as well. The county has really built up confidence in its local communities.