China’s “barefoot architects” are transforming rural villages

A man rides a bike through the empty village on May 2, 2019 in Tuanjiecun, China. Image: Getty.

China is urbanising at breakneck speed. Hundreds of millions of people have migrated from rural areas to cities in search of jobs or higher wages, even as the government commissions new buildings and infrastructure in less populated places, to try to even out development.

Many of the 900m people living in China’s rural villages have undoubtedly benefited from this huge transition, been lifted out of poverty and given better access to education and health care. But rapid development and massive migration away from these villages has also led to the loss of traditional architecture spanning back hundreds of years.

However, over the six years I have spent conducting research on such rural villages, I have seen an emerging wave of architects helping to regenerate these villages from within and preserve the heritage of their buildings for future generations.

Vanishing villagers

China’s housing ministry has made some efforts to preserve the nation’s agrarian architectural heritage. There have been five waves of official shortlists designating “China’s Traditional Villages” since 2012. As a result, 6,799 villages have been formally considered for conservation and tourism-led regeneration.

But there are some 2.5m more ordinary and underdeveloped rural villages where such heritage is being lost at an alarming rate. In some places, traditional buildings are built over to make way for expanding cities or accommodate tourists. In many others, the destruction is more gradual.

An abandoned building in Anhui province – a typical scene in non-listed rural villages. Image: Xiang Ren.

In the remote parts of rural China, villages are mostly inhabited by the elderly and pre-school children whose parents have left to seek work in towns and cities. As the traditional clan-based social structure of Chinese villages has dissolved, ancestral buildings are becoming dilapidated from lack of maintenance – if not abandoned altogether.

Prior to China’s rapid urbanisation, architecture once served to tie a village together. Constructed using local materials, traditional buildings expressed local characteristics, reflected local rituals and were cared for collectively by families and village communities. These forms, practices and values are absent in modern developments, which are produced at an industrial scale and designed for economic efficiency.

Rebuilding hopes

In recent years, though, a new wave of architects have been taking an ethical and culturally sensitive approach to preserving rural heritage and delivering a more humane and decent way of living in left-behind rural villages. Some are trained architects who practice professionally. Others are “barefoot architects” who draw their expertise from the longstanding building tradition of pre-modern China, which was dominated by carpenters, rather than architects.

Interior of the new-into-old building, with flexible timber structure to respond to the users’ changing needs. Image: Wei He/author provided.

One example can be found in Pingtian – an ordinary village supervised by Songyang County of Zhejiang province – where architect Wei He and his studio renovated an abandoned house into a youth hostel.

Working within the shell of the original building, which is made of a compacted soil material called “rammed earth”, Wei carefully inserted a new timber structure to create semi-private sleeping capsules, along with a lounge and reception area. The timber was sourced locally and is lightweight and can be taken down or reconfigured with relative ease.

Local labourers including several carpenters got involved in the process and helped site architects to resolve technical problems using local know-how. The renovation of the 270-square-metre hostel cost less than £100 per square metre and – since its launch in 2015 as part of the emerging bed and breakfast industry – the business has successfully brought both tourists and local people back to the village.

Old becomes new

Further north in Zhejiang province, not far from the city of Hangzhou, stands Jianshan, a village in Anji County. Here, Weizhong Ren creates new buildings for his village, consciously merging the roles of designer, builder and user. Since 2005, Ren has been creating rammed-earth buildings nicknamed “eco-lodges”, which preserve the local traditional layout and construction technique, while also sourcing materials locally and sustainably.

An ‘eco-lodge’ in Jianshan village, designed and built by the barefoot architect without any drawings, has become a popular destination to learn about building with earth. Image: Xiang Ren/author provided.

His idea is that the familiarity and comfort of the rammed-earth buildings typical of the area helps villagers feel like the new architecture is an extension of their heritage, rather than an imposition on it. Some other barefoot architects throughout rural China persist with timber and brick construction in locally familiar forms.


The conservation and regeneration of Chinese rural villages helps to sustain not only the built heritage, but also the connection between the community and its environment. Contemporary architects – whether professionally trained or not – face many technical challenges to regenerate decaying villages. But what really matters is preserving space for people’s memories and traditions, especially at a time when nearly two thirds of China’s 900 million rural residents are moving to the fast-expanding cities across the country.

The Conversation

Xiang Ren, Lecturer in Architecture, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.