From Countryside to City: Chinese Architecture Now

From Countryside to City: Chinese Architecture Now

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Huiming Tea Space. Photo: Wang Ziling. © DnA_Design and Architecture.

April 18, 2022
From Countryside to City: Chinese Architecture Now
April 22, 2022, 12:30pm
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The Royal Academy’s awards programme seeks to foster year-round discussion and cultural exchange on architecture. We are starting our awards cycle with an online conversation taking place on Friday, April 22, 12:30–2pm GMT, which looks at how Chinese architects have been rethinking the countryside.

Our panel, Xu TianTian (DnA Architects), Austin Williams (Future Cities Project), and Dr. Xiangning Li (Tonji University) will join Vicky Richardson to discuss how these projects go beyond fuelling urbanite nostalgia and foster meaningful relationships that serve local communities.

Book and join the discussion here.

We’ve invited Austin Williams, director of Future Cities Project and course leader at Kingston School of Art, to give a brief preview. Read the full text here or explore his take via the excerpt below:

“Every year, 14% of China’s 1.4-billion population migrates from rural areas to the cities in search of a better life and a bit of economic and social action. As the Chinese economy boomed, many cities, especially those on the eastern seaboard grew exponentially.

A city like Shenzhen is a case in point; a sprawling collection of fishing communities of around 30,000 villagers in the 1980s. Forty years later, it is a metropolis of around 18 million people, 11 million of whom are an unofficial floating population of migrants, unregistered workers, and those with temporary residency permissions. This swirl of humanity has created one of the most dynamic urban economies in the world, but also stirred up a sense of uncertainty and overcrowding.

The situation in the migrants’ hometowns has been the equal and opposite of the urban experience. Professor Wu Fulong suggests that left-behind villages require significant infrastructural improvements and that villagers have been ill-served by the urban experiment. Cities like Shenzhen have drained villages of their working-age generations, who travel from the countryside to find work, leaving rural China peopled by the elderly, frail, ill-educated and poor.

As a result, there has developed a renewed focus on the well-being of villagers and seeking to provide opportunities and facilities within their villages to address population flight. It is a pragmatic policy to confront the rural infrastructural deficit under the slogan of “common prosperity”; a kind of levelling up initiative with Chinese characteristics. It is intended to improve the lives of the poor, while cracking down on exploitative, multi-billion-dollar tech companies.

To this end, many new state-funded development projects are in the countryside with architects encouraged to protect, regenerate, and renew rural life. Architects are as likely to be found in remote settings, constructing small-scale vernacular homes and barn conversions, as providing high-rise masterplanning interventions in the city.

This is of course, part of a top-down mandate by the state to fulfil its desire to make the countryside appealing for returnees and to encourage people not to leave in the first place. At a time of Covid, global uncertainties and economic stagnation it is also an attempt to encourage the patriotic essence of the noble peasant farmer, to laud the simple life and to encourage a sense of place and resilience.

China is still designing urban agglomerations, constructing towns, and building thousands of new buildings, so this is not to suggest that China has had a complete change of heart. It simply confirms that there are contradictory pressures acting upon it at this particular moment in its development. But reconstituting “the rural” is part of a political narrative of broader social engagement that might just help unify the nation and heal some of the rifts that developed over the years of hardnosed economic migration. That’s the idea, at least.”

Read the full text here

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Royal Academy of Arts, London
April 18, 2022

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