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.

 
 
 
 

Home-working and uncertainty: How will coronavirus affect jobs around the country?

A quiet commute: the M8 motorway in Scotland. Image: Getty.

This week’s unprecedented announcement by the Prime Minister on how we need to live our lives over the coming weeks and months will have profound impacts up and down the country. The geography of this will vary depending on the structure of different local economies. This blog looks at three areas where this will play out – self-employment, the ability to work from home, and the rise of remote working.

Self-employed people in the North and Midlands are more likely to be in insecure, lower-paid roles at high risk from economic shocks

The economic impact of Coronavirus on self-employed people has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. And while the Chancellor stepped in to extend Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to this group and people working on zero-hour contracts, they still stand to lose almost two-thirds of their current earnings.

Britain’s self-employed population is disproportionately located in London; of the almost 5 million self-employed people across the country, almost a million live in the capital. London accounts for just over 15 per cent of all workers in the UK, but for approximately 20 per cent of all self-employed people. Along with Worthing and Brighton, almost one in five people in work are self-employed in the capital. 

In contrast, self-employment is way less popular in other parts of the country: in Gloucester and Hull, for example, less than 7 per cent of people are self-employed.

But while cities in the North and Midlands might have lower rates of self-employment, those who are self-employed in these places are more likely to be in precarious situations. Of all the self-employed people in Burnley and Blackburn, only two in ten also have access to additional income as employees.

By contrast, four in ten do in Cambridge. In addition to that, they are also more likely to be in lower-skilled, lower-paid occupations, such as in the hospitality, personal care and transport sectors, meaning they are more vulnerable to economic shocks.

Share of self employed people that are self employed only. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cities in the Greater South East are more likely to be able to shift to working from home

The Prime Minister asked those who can work from home to do so. But how likely is this across the country?

The jobs that could be more easily done from home – such as consultants or finance – are concentrated in cities in the Greater South East (see the figure below). Assuming some sectors could completely shift to home working if necessary, up to one in two workers in London could shift to working from home. Meanwhile in Reading, Aldershot and Edinburgh over 40 per cent of workers could too.

On the other hand, less than 20 per cent of all workers in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke could work from home, suggesting the economies of many northern cities are likely to be hardest hit by a complete lockdown. Manchester, Leeds, Warrington and Newcastle are the exceptions as they have a higher share of jobs that could shift to home-working, reflecting the slightly different structure of their economies compared to other northern cities.

Estimate of workers that could work from home 2018. Image: Centre for Cities.

Once Coronavirus has peaked, face-to-face interaction will continue to be more important than ever

The arrival of Coronavirus has sparked debate in the comment sections of newspapers about the benefits of home working.


This is nothing new. In the late nineties the death of distance was declared by many because of internet-driven improvements in communications. And yet, despite their further advancement since, jobs (particularly high-skilled ones) have continued to cluster in cities.

This is because of the benefits that cities offer – such as face-to-face interaction. While this might seem intangible, no doubt many readers who have been grappling with trying to communicate with colleagues working from home in recent days will now be all too aware of the benefits of being in the same room as their team. So, while technology no doubt makes this strange period a little easier than it would otherwise have been, by the end of it we are likely to be reminded of the value of face-to-face meetings to help us get things done.

Elena Magrini is a senior analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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