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A Rural Revitalization Case study – Songyang, China, (松阳县)

by Ralph Spencer Steenblik, edited by Vincent Augustin M Peu Duvallon

Ralph Spencer Steenblik Guest posting at FLAVELissues from Wenzhou, China where he is a professor of architecture in the Wenzhou-Kean University School of Public Architecture. He is writing this post as a set of observations and opportunities within his practice and pedagogy. This post focuses on Manuel de Sola Morales’ idea of urban acupuncture within a Chinese context, particularly in contrast the a tabula rasa approach. The article highlights the Aedes, Regions on the Rise conference and the Wenzhou Wetlands Studio, he is running with in collaboration with Linnea Moore and Dean David Mohney at Wenzhou-Kean University.

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I found myself participating in the Songyang, China, Aedes conference called “Regions on the Rise,” organized by Hans Jurgen Commerell, following an exhibition curated by Eduard Kogel. The subject of the conference highlighted the work of Xu Tiantian (徐甜甜), with an exhibition of her work (debuting in Berlin in 2017) and site visits to several of her local projects. She made it a life passion to revitalize the remote and rural area called Songyang County. The county is home to a large number of traditional villages unscathed by modern industrialization. It is only second in the country in number of “traditional villages”.

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Shicang or Hakka Indenture Museum, Designed by DnA, Model photo from the Aedes exhibition

Xu Tiantian, founder of DnA an architecture firm in Beijing, began her work in Songyang as a grassroots volunteer project which grew into commissions, some of which will be discussed in this article. The collaboration gained momentum with the support of sympathetic municipal leadership. Xu Tiantian employs an “acupuncture strategy work[ing] within limited budget to achieve the goal of motivating and attracting investments from other resources. Its primary program is to serve the village and the villagers, to restore their rural heritage as well as opening up for tourism. By applying architectural acupuncture to this area, the projects aim to activate the circulation between villages and among the regions that could also provide a sustainable strategy for rural revitalization in areas beyond Songyang.”1

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Renovated existing (stone) Shimen Bridge on the Songyin River, in Songyang, designed by DnA

Spending time in Songyang, I am impressed with the general sensitivity between the traditional built landscape and contemporary interventions. DnA’s work in particular provides ideal case study projects incorporating traditional momentum (both cultural and economic). The symbiotic examples of the Hakka Indenture Museum (契约博物馆), in Shicang, and the nearby restored traditional multifamily dwelling as a bed and breakfast. The museum is a ground up new construction project using local materials and providing a tourist destination. The Museum also provides strong connections to the landscape and the village fabric. Its terraced habitable green roofs blend well with the surrounding agricultural steps. The local craftsman are well trained in rough hewn stone construction traditionally used for bridges and similar. Beyond these ‘feel good’ gestures the spaces are compelling, detail oriented, and most importantly, inspiring.

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Traditional local construction near the Shicang or Hakka Indenture Museum

 

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Shicang or Hakka Indenture Museum interior with roof openings to the exterior and interior gutter

 

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Shicang or Hakka Indenture Museum roof terrace

 

Let me contrast these efforts with my current home town of Wenzhou, China; only three hours East (on the coast) by car from Songyang. Wenzhou is a beautiful place with an amazing network of natural and ancient artificial transportation canals. The canals span across the Oujiang / Wenruitang River Delta. Unfortunately, with the transportation developments of the industrial revolution, the efficiencies of the canals as a primary transportation network have become surpassed by the automobile. Therefore, the canals have become less valued and have not been as meticulously maintained. In some instances the canals have been filled in and replaced with roads and insensitive high-rise developments. Often the villages are cleared from the landscape to make way for such high-rises. My colleague Vincent Peu Duvallon describes the phenomenon as a timeline with several frozen instances. You simultaneously see the traditional village, the demolition rubble, and the relocation towers; all visible from a single vantage point.

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Image courtesy of Tong 2007  (LINK)

 

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Village near Wenzhou, with a well integrated connection with the landscape

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Vibrant Wenzhou street with rich student population in Chashan, Wenzhou

 

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SimCity 4 screenshot

I remember as a child playing early versions of SimCity. My impulse was to preemptively flush out an extensive city grid very prematurely. This would result in a hollow ghost of a city with the promise of full development. There was no guarantee that the population and buildings would follow the precursive grid. Yet, by not establishing a predetermined transportation fabric or grid one may find it difficult to manage or navigate the mess. The dichotomy is a difficult one without a wholesale solution; a balanced approach is necessary—distributed with a bottom up solution with top down support.

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Construction pace, road that ends abruptly at brick wall, with traditional village gardens beyond

Within the political climate in China, often fast paced developments occur sweeping the landscape, overlooking the details, and potentially ending up with somewhat of a SimCity problem, with infrastructure lacking the soul brought by local initiated buy in. This development pattern may be similar to the postwar scenario in the United States (US), and possibly throughout the globe. Within the US, a primary method for addressing the need for housing near cities was through suburbia. This pattern has continued as a modus operandi, turning a dream into a commuting, pollution, and low density land use nightmare. There a number of issues or problems related to common, suburban, low density, developer driven, sprawl (which occupies much of the current surroundings of global metropolitan areas). NPR produced a series entitled Beyond Sprawl, which highlights some of these challenges. At the conference in Songyang Remy Sietchiping, of UN-HABITAT, introduced many of the documents surrounding the United Nations efforts regarding urbanism. He spoke about the ways that the “New Urban Agenda” can aid in efforts to create a more intelligent urban fabric from the CBD to the rural village. He also discussed Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”

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Phoenix, Arizona from Piestewa (Squaw) Peak, 2003

The acupunctural analogy and model proves to be a palatable and restrained example of implementing the above UN doctrine and solution that avoids the SimCity problem of overextending the development beyond the bandwidth of local buy in and engagement.

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Micro-Yuan’er, Beijing, China (Photo courtesy of ZAO/standardarchitecture)

Urban Acupunctural strategy (originally conceived by Manuel de Sola Morales2) is also different from the top down brute force precedent of Bilbao, which used the prestige of the architects, and the monumentality of the projects to solidify the global position. Ideally an acupunctural strategy starts with grassroot participation, employing a caring detail cognizant designer in creating catalytic interventions. This requires intentional actors willing to act and improve the community starting with the details, from the bottom up. Then having the vision to build in mechanisms for institutional momentum. Connecting these actors with thoughtful designers is critical.

Thus the opportunities for young design students to practice an acupunctural method is immediate, giving them the opportunity to learn in a very utilitarian and productive way, simultaneously engaging with the community.

Within the Architectural design studios at Wenzhou-Kean University, our efforts focus on addressing issues of community engagement, along with a focus on reinvigorating historic infrastructure. The Wenzhou Wetlands studio focuses on engaging the wetlands canal network in an effort to produce key catalysts for the local economy, optimistically, in an effort to circumvent the threat of replacement with placeless relocation towers. As we continue educating young architects in training, we hope they will build on this work of sensitive interventions, Toward a Global Localism.

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Wenzhou Wetlands Studio, Wenzhou-Kean University, December 2018

  1. Rural Moves – The Songyang Story, 2018, pg 24-25, Aedes Architectural Forum Press

2.Frampton, Kenneth. Megaform as urban landscape. University of Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, 1999.

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Ralph Spencer Steenblik has lectured, published, exhibited, and curated globally. Recently his work has been exhibited in art exhibitions in London, Berlin, and Barcelona. In late 2017 he spoke on machine learning and tensegrity with Phillip Anzalone at the MIT ACADIA conference; and elaborated on related subjects in early 2018 at a multi-session symposium at Yonsei University in Seoul Korea. His work was published in “Project Anticipation” 2016, a UNESCO sponsored symposium on Anticipation held in Trento, Italy, and he spoke at AIANY Design Conference. He has showcased his work at Galeria Zero, Design Santa Fe at Site Santa Fe’s Design Lab, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut, and many others.
 
A professor at Kean University’s School of Public Architecture, he has taught at Pratt Institute, NJIT, CUNY, and has sat as critique on juries at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, FIT, Parsons, Wesleyan University, Pratt, Kean University, NJIT, NYIT, University of Hartford, and ISU, ID. He founded his interdisciplinary project, phi architecture φ, in 2004. His influence has been felt at design offices such as Asymptote and is a founding member of an innovation platform at Pelli Clarke Pelli. Some projects of note include The Hudson Yards Masterplan, The Ping An International Finance Centre (second tallest building in China), The Beinecke Library renovation at Yale University, Arizona State University Business School in Tempe, USA, and renovations at the World Financial Center, New York. He holds a masters from SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture).
 
Steenblik acts from the philosophy that interdisciplinary collaborations infuse spaces with nuanced solutions, and is interested in creating urban complexity and intricacy on the macroscale and inspiring, interactive spaces on the micro scale. Incorporating advanced digital tools and sustainability offers new opportunities to this ongoing project.

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