[Several factors have combined to create opportunities for such projects. Restrictions on the transfer of rural land have been relaxed. Urban residents, weary of repeated food safety scares and environmental crises, have become increasingly interested in rural lifestyles and organic farming. Domestic tourism, bolstered by the growth of the middle class, is booming.]
By Amy Qin
The Sun Commune project by the architect Chen Haoru focuses on farming
and community development. CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Nestled in verdant hills amid bamboo forests and feathery grass meadows, the
Sun Commune is a thriving eco-farm about 60 miles from the eastern Chinese city
of China . Its centerpiece is a pig barn. Hangzhou
Yet this home for 30 or so black hogs is no ordinary outbuilding. An open-air bamboo-lined structure, it has pyramid-shaped thatched roofs and a swimming pool. On a recent afternoon, the swine snoozed to the soothing sounds of soft jazz in their custom-built residence, which has been called
’s most beautiful sty. China
The sty was designed by Chen Haoru, an architect and professor at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art in
. He is part of a wave of architects who, as
funding for projects in big cities has dried up in recent years, have turned
their attention to China’s other frontier: the rural outback. Hangzhou
“Ten years ago, there weren’t that many opportunities to do projects in the countryside,” Mr. Chen said as he led a tour of the Sun Commune grounds. “All of the focus was on the cities. There was no interest in the rural areas.”
Several factors have combined to create opportunities for such projects. Restrictions on the transfer of rural land have been relaxed. Urban residents, weary of repeated food safety scares and environmental crises, have become increasingly interested in rural lifestyles and organic farming. Domestic tourism, bolstered by the growth of the middle class, is booming.
President Xi Jinping has endorsed the shift in emphasis. During a speech in 2013, he called for the construction of a meili xiangcun, or “beautiful countryside,” one in which “money is not squandered on unnecessary things” like tasteless exterior enhancements.
The nature of the projects varies. Some focus on tourism, others on farming or community development. In addition to Mr. Chen’s pig barn, notable examples have included a village library near Beijing by Li Xiaodong, a rural community center and museum in Henan Province by He Wei and a rural regeneration project near Hangzhou recently completed by Wang Shu, who was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel, in 2012.
But they all have a common goal: to revitalize the countryside and enhance its appeal to young people, farmers, visitors and educated workers.
“The most important thing is to make the villages attractive to people again,” said Mr. Wang, who also teaches at the China Academy of Art.
“The farmers have lost confidence in their own way of life,” he added. “They think villages are backward and that cities are good.”
He Wei, an architect and professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in
, said: “These projects are not just about
making beautiful buildings. said “They’re about function and stimulating
economic activity.” Beijing
Opportunities to build in the countryside have expanded even as mass urbanization continues to hollow out
’s villages. China
The country’s rapid urbanization has led to groups of villages’ being razed to make way for high-rises. From 2000 to 2010, the number of villages in
dropped from 3.7 million to 2.6 million, a
loss of about 300 villages a day, according to research by China . Tianjin University
, the site of the Sun Commune, thousands of
villages have been destroyed. According to research by Mr. Wang, only about 30,000
are left in the province. And most, he said, are in danger of disappearing in
the next decade. Zhejiang Province
“Everyone, including the local government, is interested in this topic of how to revive
’s villages,” he said. China
Architects see an opportunity to play a special role in this revitalization. For one thing, their designs can enhance the reputation of a rural development project and stimulate tourism or agriculture.
That’s what the
businessman Chen Wei had in mind when he
turned to his friend Mr. Chen, the architect, to help him build a barn for pigs
as part of his organic farm. This was in 2013, at around the same time that 16,000
dead pigs were found floating in the nearby Shanghai after having been dumped by farmers upstream. Huangpu River
, the city people never really interact with
rural people, so there’s very little social trust,” said Mr. Chen, the
businessman and now the director of the Sun Commune. “The barn is a major draw
— it’s part of our brand. It attracts people from the cities to come to the
farm so they can actually get to know the people who are growing their food.” China
Others, like Mr. Wang and his wife, Lu Wenyu, have taken on rural projects with the aim of creating a model for sustainable development in the countryside.
In 2012 Mr. Wang and Ms. Lu began working on Wencun, a village about an hour’s drive from the Sun Commune. Through constant negotiation and consultation with local government officials and villagers, Mr. Wang and Ms. Lu oversaw an expansive regeneration project that included the construction of two dozen new houses and the refurbishment of some of Wencun’s existing homes and public spaces.
The new homes, completed this year, combine elements of traditional houses in the Wencun area — like an inner courtyard and a room where families pay respects to their ancestors — with modern amenities like an access road for cars and a space designated for watching television. Mr. Wang’s signature design elements are woven throughout: narrow rectangular windows, unfinished concrete exteriors and patchwork masonry.
As of a few weeks ago, only a few of the houses had been occupied. But a villager who poked her head out of one said: “So far, it’s been nice living here. It’s cleaner, and the walls are whiter.”
While the Wencun project is still getting off the ground, Mr. Wang is already trying to work out how this type of design-based development might be replicated on a larger scale.
“With Wencun, we’ve created a research and work method that can be copied, but the challenge is still scalability,” he said. “In terms of implementation, every village has different traditions and vernacular architecture. There’s no one template.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to building in the countryside, though, is unpredictability. Rural land-use rights are especially tricky, since property in the countryside is collectively owned and, technically, it is illegal for urban residents to own rural land. Even when an outsider reaches an agreement with a villager to buy or rent land, there are very few legal protections.
That was a problem that the artist Ou Ning encountered when he and his family were recently forced to leave their home in Bishan, a village in rural
. Though villagers credit Mr. Ou with helping
to rejuvenate the community and attract tourists, some suspect that the social
aspect of his project — which focused on art and rural reconstruction but also
touched on ideas like anarchism and utopia — may have rattled local Communist
Party officials, according to a report by The Times of London. Anhui Province
In February, just over a week after Mr. Ou and his family had celebrated their third Lunar New Year at their restored home in Bishan, the paper reported that the local government had shut off the electricity and water at the house without warning. Contacted by telephone, Mr. Ou declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
“In the countryside,” said Mr. He of the Central Academy of Art, “the government can cut off a project much more easily than in the cities. In one night, all of your work can be torn down. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”