tantou: these are not mcmansions

This past week, I joined members of ATU on a research trip to Kaihua County, Zhejiang. ATU is a Shenzhen-based NGO, and their mission is to bring critical attention to architecture and urban planning practices. Most recently, they have decided to intervene in rural development in order to ameliorate the problems of bringing urban planning and its ideologies into rural areas. Continue reading

constructing the countryside: kaihua, zhejiang

On Sept 17, I joined members of the Shenzhen based NGO, 观筑 (ATU Architectural Development Communication Center) on a one-day five village tour of Kaihua County (开化县) in Zhejiang. Kaihua is relatively underdeveloped with respect to the economic powerhouses, Hangzhou, Wenzhou, and Ningbo, which are all located in Zhejiang. With respect to Shenzhen, Kaihua like much of rural Zhejiang has been a source of migrant labor. In addition, the Shenzhen Zhejiang Merchants Association is active, and Zhejiang people to be found across the class and professional spectrum of immigrants.

The purpose of the trip was to deepen a conversation between the Kaihua Government and ATU about how to better pursue what is know as 乡村建设 (construction of the countryside). Kaihua is developing leisure tourism for families and yuppies from nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou. ATU has offered to provide a sustainable and relatively low-capital investment plan for the County.

A few notes about the trip.

1. The connection between Kaihua and Shenzhen happens at two levels. First, one of the ATU members is from Kaihua and was elementary school classmates with the current Party Secretary of Kaihua. However, the actual project will be institutionally mediated.

2. The conversation about constructing the countryside is a huge issue in Shenzhen, and taking shape in diverse forms that range from documentary film-making to the ATU project.

3. A Hong Kong professor and students provided a basic design principle for one of the villages, and it seemed the most ready for tourists seeking a leisurely rural excursion.

4. The villages aren’t obviously materially deprived because 30 years of remittances have paid for the construction of new homes. In turn, the villages seem, at first uncontextualized glance, to resemble US American Mac-mansions in an underpopulated suburb.

5. In point of fact, one of the impulses behind the leisure tourism plan is ongoing outmigration. The majority of Kaihua residents are grandparents and young children who have not yet or cannot (for whatever reasons) join their parents in one of the coastal cities.

6. One of the attractions of leisure tourism is 农家乐 (happy at the farmer’s home), where farmers provide guests with fresh, often organic meals. Kind of B&B with Chinese characteristics. As with American B&Bs, the point is a rural excursion without actual agriculture. Successful farmers now farm for themselves and their guests. Indeed, the point is to wash one’s feet and leave the paddy (洗脚上田), further marginalizing agricultural work and those who cultivate the rice, produce, and meat that we eat.

7. The villages are connected by a river and stretches of national forest, which may in time be connected through walking trails. But in the meantime, Kaihua might prove an interesting destination for folks with a motorcycle and curiosity about how the Chinese countryside is changing.

Below is a meander through five villages. The tour begins at a newly built resort in the national forest.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

baishizhou: intervention and experience

This weekend (Feb 22-23), two events organized for Shenzhen children focused on Baishizhou. On Saturday, ATU/观筑 held a “Young Architects” program in Venue B of the Biennale. On Sunday, CZC Special Forces and Ya Ya Theatre co-produced “Baishizhou Theme Park”, a 20-minute play that was written, directed, and performed by six of Baishizhou’s youngest residents in Venue A.

For the past two years, ATU has run the Young Architects program to teach architectural literacy through experience. They have intervened in the Baishizhou Tangtou row houses, building chairs and also built small spaces to spec, for example, a study room for one person that connects to another, but remains private. Saturday’s program was a urban renewal workshop for Baishizhou. Led by architects, Huang Jingjie and Feng Guochuan, six groups of pre- and teenagers took responsibility for one area. The requirements were, the total building area cannot change and improvements must be affordable so that rents will not increase dramatically. Each group had a professional consultant and 90 minutes to rethink urban renovation.

For over four years, Ya Ya Theatre has developed intimate performances that express unique experiences. Earlier in this year’s Biennale they produced a version of “One Person, One Story” in which members performed autobiographical and biographical monologues about a life-changing event. Lora Wang and Chen Lihua ran the two-month workshop that included exploration of Baishizhou and then developing a series of autobiographical vignettes. Sites visited included a dry swimming fountain, the Jiangnan Department Store plaza, and a video arcade.

So, the during the last official weekend of the Biennale, we had two events that developed the theme of the relationship that Shenzhen children have to Baishizhou, and by extension other urbanized villages. This in itself indicates that interest in the urbanized villages is spreading beyond commercial and academic enclaves. Moreover, we also saw community projects that assume urbanized villages as an important component of Shenzhen as an imagined community. This marks an important shift in the public awareness. Previously, urbanized villages existed outside Shenzhen representations of the city. The villages were (and to a large extent remain) glaringly absent from urban plans. Suddenly, the villages have emerged in public discussions about wither urban development and renewal?

These questions were at the heart of the post performance discussion “Learning from the Urban Villages” with Lora, Feng Guochuan and Zeng Guansheng. Audience members were not only interested in where the working class and young migrants would first settle in Shenzhen, but also in questions about the social value of street life and neighbors. This kind of conversation provided a glimpse into a larger, more general search for Shenzhen identity. This new identity reworks the version of high-speed development and red heroes that has been the previously ignored but not challenged vision of who Shenzheners are and what the city might be.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.