Architect Designs in Utopia: Harmony with Nature

May 16, 2018  Editor: Wushanshan
Xu Tiantian, architect [China Daily]


Xu Tiantian believes in community rather than grand statements.

Over the past four years Xu Tiantian has traveled between Beijing and Songyang in Zhejiang province numerous times. In fact she has become so attached to the city that she says she regards it as her child.

Considering that she has left indelible traces of herself across Songyang's landscape by designing 20 public buildings, 15 of them now complete, in various areas of the city, that analogy may well be right on the money.

In March all of Xu's completed Songyang projects went on display at the Aedes Architecture forum in Berlin, and late this month they will go on display at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Songyang has more than 400 villages with a total population of about 240,000, and tourism and tea are the city's key industries - this in an economy that remains solidly agrarian.

Xu, 42, says that when she first visited Songyang, in 2014, it seemed that she was stepping into the past. Time seemed to crawl and the clear message from its many old buildings seemed to be "Urbanization has not caught up with us yet."

She went to a tea garden where she designed bamboo pavilions, marking the start of her connection with the "utopia city", which Xu reckons exists in the fable of the ancient Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, in which people live in harmony with nature and forget about the outside world.

For hundreds of years many Chinese intellectuals have dreamed of living in Tao's utopia, she says, and it is what has guided her in designing buildings one after another in Songyang.

The bamboo pavilion is an open space in a tea garden in Songyang, where both tourists and farmers can step in to have a break. The bamboo theater in a bamboo forest has the same openness, with no doors and no windows. Only a dome structure connected by bamboos defines the open space under it as a theater.

"I would not design a marquee building in rural areas," Xu says. "It must fit in with the surroundings and serve locals well."

When she designed a memorial hall for Wang village in Songyang locals asked her to build a fancy one like those they had seen in big cities, she says, but she refused.

She is fond of employing the concept of modern space to redesign a building's interior while choosing local materials for its exterior, such as bamboo and stones from waterways.

In Pingtian village Xu found the worst house, which was inhabited by the poorest family with a rundown cowshed and a pigsty. It was due to be demolished, but Xu decided to turn it into a village center.

She designed show space in it, displaying farming tools used in Pingtian, a performance stage and upstairs two rooms offered as homestay for tourists.

"I chose this dilapidated house to change the way locals think and to inspire confidence in their city," she says. "If the interior of even the worst house can be turned into something attractive, then other old houses in very poor shape can also be restored."

It worked, and many locals visited the center and started to renovate their old houses.

Xu regards the role of an architect in rural development as being that of a doctor, someone who diagnoses ailments and then offers remedies.

In rural development, architects should respect local traditions and culture, encouraging more people to take part in building their community, and working in collaboration with them rather than against them, she says.

Xu has won acclaim for her work in Songyang, and many cities have turned to her for help. The mother of three lamented that she lacks the time to work on more buildings even as China puts a premium on rural vitalization and eco-friendly public buildings, throwing open huge opportunities for architects.

Her next project is to turn discarded dredging vessels along the Yangtze River into usable public spaces.

After graduating from Tsinghua University, Xu went to Harvard University. She worked for two architecture firms outside China and set up her own studio DnA_Design and Architecture in Beijing in 2004, focusing on public buildings. The first building she designed was Songzhuang Art Museum in the suburbs of Beijing.


Pine Park pavilion [China Daily]
Pine Park pavilion [China Daily]


(Source: China Daily)

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