Wan Li, a Postdoctoral Fellow of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, has traveled a unique career path that has combined exceptional talent and a deep commitment to her profession. During the past decade, she and her teammates have designed dozens of aseismatic, eco-friendly houses and bridges in Southwest China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Wan is a native of Chishui, a city in Southwest China's Guizhou Province. At the end of 2006, she attended a lecture given by Edward Ng, a professor of the School of architecture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. At that time, Wan was studying in the architecture Master's program at Chongqing University. Wan volunteered to join the team, when Prof. Ng recruited university students (from Hong Kong and China's mainland) who designed and helped build bridges and other facilities in remote, poverty-stricken areas.
When Prof. Ng learned the magnitude-6 earthquake razed large areas of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan on August 30, 2008, he decided to offer a helping hand to the victims. In 2009, Prof. Ng led a team, composed of students of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Chongqing University, to implement the post-earthquake reconstruction project in Ma'anqiao, a village in the prefecture. As Wan went all out to help the villagers build bridges and houses, she became one of Prof. Ng's best assistants.
Prof. Ng, Wan and several other team members designed the village's activity center as an arc building, so the villagers, most of whom are either Dai or Yi people, could dance in a ring in front of the building.
Despite the harsh conditions in the village, Wan took delight in helping the villagers build houses and bridges. She worked long hours every day, and she wore a straw hat and a pair of cloth shoes as she walked along the village's lanes. "When I saw we turned the drafts into buildings, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment," Wan recalls.
While the team implemented the project in Ma'anqiao, Wan lived in the house of Yang Xingqiong, a villager. Yang felt uneasy that Wan had to live in her shabby home, but Wan considered the house as her second home.
The activity center of Maanqiao Village
In Wan's eyes, the houses (built by the team), though neither gorgeous nor eye-catching, were like a stage, on which people would play the dramas in their lives. Therefore, the houses were the embodiment of harmony of man, architecture and nature.
During the past few years, Ma'anqiao's Post-disaster Reconstruction Project has earned the team many national and international prizes, including the First China Design Exhibition (2012) and the 2016 TERRA Award.
Wan has been pleasantly surprised by the fact the team has won so many prizes for the project. "I have gained a better understanding of the meaning of architecture. Building earthen houses is by no means less important than building skyscrapers. As more than 40 percent of Chinese live in rural areas, more architects should serve rural residents ... Architects can make their lives more meaningful by helping rural residents build their homes," says Wan.
After she completed her Master's program at Chongqing University, Wan began studying in the PhD program under Prof. Ng at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014 implemented a research project named One University One Village (1U1V), which aims to bring together the expertise, knowledge, and human resources of "a university" to improve the livelihood of "a village" and its needy villagers in a strategic, systematic and sustainable manner. As one of the co-founders of the project, Wan was the project convener of 1U1V.
Soon after the magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Ludian, in Yunnan, on August 3, 2014, Wan and her teammates went to Guangming, a village in Ludian, to help the villagers rebuild their homes. The team invited Su Guomei, an earthquake expert from Cambridge University, and Bai Wenfeng, a professor with the Faculty of Architecture and City Planning, under Kunming University of Science and Technology, to design low-cost, environmentally friendly aseismic houses with local materials (soil), local labors (villagers) and local technology (rammed earth).
Soon after the team arrived at the village, Wan learned that an elderly couple, who could not afford to rebuild their home, lived in a shabby shed. The team decided to design and build a small rammed earth house for the couple.
The team used technology to design the house for the couple, so they could live comfortably. For example, the team designed a semi-outdoor atrium, so the couple could chat and create handiworks in the well-lit, well-ventilated space.
A scientific experiment, by Kunming University of Science and Technology, proved the house could meet the local seismic code perfectly.
The post-earthquake reconstruction project was named the World Building of the Year during the 2017 World Architecture Festival (WAF). The same year, the team received the Residential Architecture Award from Britain's Architectural Review (for the project). Many countries, including Nepal, Colombia and the Kingdom of Cambodia, were interested in the project.
During the past four years, the project team has built aseismatic earthen houses in many rural areas in Yunnan, Sichuan and Chongqing.
While conducting the post-earthquake reconstruction projects in Ma'anqiao and Guangming villages, Wan and her teammates taught local residents how to use soil, stones and wood to build houses.
Based on her 10-plus years of experience in building earthen houses in rural areas, Wan believes architects should hire rural residents and use local resources to build houses in rural areas, rather than employ urban laborers and use industrialized materials transported from urban areas to build the houses. That would not only save energy and cost, but also help retain the traditional style of local architecture.
"We have been trying our best to promote the endogenous growth in rural areas," says Wan. "In other words, by teaching rural residents how to use our technologies, developed based on using local resources, to build houses, we have been transforming the 'high-science and low-technology' into crafts that can be learned and used by rural residents. In this way, we have been helping promote sustainable rural development."
(Source: Women of China English Monthly November 2018 issue)