Architecture business promotes rural development while preserving local culture and landscape

By Li Xiaoyu
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, November 16, 2021
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Light steel structures rise next to a sugarcane field in Xingcun Village in Songyang County of Lishui, Zhejiang Province, reflecting the rocky peaks of the mountains beyond. The production of brown sugar can be seen like a live performance through large glass partitions: the layout of the space, the lighting, the uniforms of the workers, the light and shadow effects, even the heat and steam of the cooking wok - everything is choreographed; the pencil drawings on the glass walls depict the traditional process of production like the plot of a story that repeats itself.

Sugar production is currently Xingcun's primary source of revenue. Prior to the opening of the factory in 2016, farmers produced sugar in big iron pots directly in their own courtyards. It was difficult for them to make ends meet since the quality of their products did not meet the food safety standards for sale in supermarkets. Young people didn't want to remain in the village or take over faltering family businesses.

The new plant combines the family workshops and improves production conditions. As a result, the price of Xingcun's sugar has gone up, as has the villagers' income. Approximately 50 residents who left to work in other places have returned to join the business. This plant, which also serves as a hub for exchanges between the village and the outside world, is known for its rustic elegance, which has attracted a rising number of people in cities. Their annual number has increased from 200 in 2016 to 15,000 in 2019, resulting in a strong demand for accommodation and other services.

The case of Xingcun is an excellent example of the measured and long-term approach known as architectural acupuncture, which has been executed by Xu Tiantian, founder of DnA_Design and Architecture based in Beijing, and local officials since 2014. Buildings that use existing materials and fading traditional workmanship provide a bright vision for cultural, social, and economic growth in the future.

Architecture plays a role

Located in the southwest of Zhejiang, Songyang has more than 400 villages. Its unique scenery featuring gentle hills, rice paddies, and tea plantations is depicted in traditional Chinese literature and countless artworks. It has been dubbed "the last mystery spot south of the Yangtze River" by National Geographic magazine.

As urbanization proceeded, the majority of rural residents moved to urban regions, leaving the countryside with mostly fallow farmland and abandoned, decaying buildings, with only the agrarian customs and traditions of the past surviving. Songyang was no exception.

Local officials have collaborated with Xu's team over the last seven years to revitalize the rural economy by establishing a local ecosystem of new amenities and renovated houses in communities across the region. Each of these multi-function public projects, with their targets ranging from tofu factory, camellia oil workshop, and rice wine distillery to pottery factory, was customized to Songyang's unique cultural heritage and setting, with the least possible changes to their original looks. Xu attempted to use a method that is conceptually comparable to acupuncture in traditional Chinese medicine.

By placing needles on a series of meridian points on the human body and taking into consideration the acupuncture activities of the many organ systems, the treatments have the effect of enhancing the patient's total wellbeing rather than focusing just on the symptoms. Xu uses architectural acupuncture to repair the system holistically and restore the residents' pride in their local identity. The majority of the projects employ modest local materials and traditional building techniques that have been modified to produce contemporary artistic experiences.

Economic benefits

Unlike tourist projects in many villages that require huge investment, Songyang's acupuncture strategy runs on a low budget, aiming to encourage and inspire local people while also attracting external capital and resources. Soon after the initial projects were completed, more and more communities showed interest in joining the ecosystem based on architectural acuity. Some went so far as to suggest specific plans.

A new local economic pattern has also emerged. The silk workshop and paper factory offer dyeing supplies to a workshop in a nearby village, while the pottery factory provides packaging for rice wine and brown sugar. Xu's proposal serves as a catalyst for communities to choose their own development paths, while also bridging the divide between the village and the city. "We're attempting to establish a rural-urban link," she explained.

More than 6,000 people have returned to Songyang since her first initiatives to start new enterprises based on their experiences in the city. With 4.9 million tourists last year, the district's gross earnings from tourism increased from 1.85 billion yuan ($287 million) in 2016 to 5.37 billion yuan ($834 million).

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