RE-INVENTING THE WHEEL :: collective housing project for migrant workers

CHINA / NANHAI, GUANGDONG / In their effort to offer a more affordable and comfortable Collective Housing to disregarded migrant workers in China, and ‘a recognizable face to an invisible group of people’, architect Liu Xiaodu and his Urbanus/Peoples Architecture studio, instead of just designing another high-rise, opted for a most remarkable 21st century update of a forgotten local typology, the Tulou. Max Borka reports on how Chinese architecture reconquers its identity.

(For More images: see the MAPPING THE DESIGN WORLD FB-Page)

In the frantic urban growth in China, little attention is paid to accommodations for migrant workers. This is also the case in Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of the Guangdong province, and its neighboring areas that ride the wave of prosperity on the backs of these laborers. In order to house these ‘floating people’ in a dignified way, Urbanus teamed up with China’s largest real-estate developer Vanke, to design social housing on the edge of Guangzhou. To create affordable housing was Liu Xiaodu’s first priority. “In the West, it has long been common practice for the successful bidder of government land to earmark a part – maybe one-tenth – for low-income housing, and I don’t see why this can’t happen in China.”

Liu Xiaodu and Urbanus based their design on a centuries-old but forgotten collective housing typology, known as Hakka Tulou, a self-contained circular and protective multi-family building, fortress-like, and found in the rural areas of Fujian province. Tulous or “mountain wheels” were built from earth and wood from the twelfth century onward by Chinese Hakkas – Hakka meaning ‘guests’, or migrants- moving from the war-plagued central regions to the south of China. Tulou was a dwelling type unique to the the Hakka people, integrating living, storage, shopping, religion, and public entertainment into one single building entity. The most distinctive feature of this lower-income housing was its defensive circular outer wall, up to 6 feet thick, and constructed from rammed earth. But what mainly captured Liu Xiaodu’s fascination was the communal shrine in the middle. “It was an ancestral hall where all residents met to worship, and to discuss matters of common interest. This idea of public life at the core of a building’s functionality is essential to any socially-conscious design.”

With its perforated concrete shell, punctuated by wooden lattices, Urbanus’s 21st century version Tulou is six stories high. In an effort to transform ancient heritage to suit contemporary living, the construction is made from concrete and steel, while in their search for a main shape the architects eventually came up with what they call an ‘e-shaped loop’- an outer circular block with a rectangular box within, connected to the outer ring by a courtyard and bridges. Liu Xiaodu: “Traditional units in Tulou are evenly laid out along its perimeter, like modern slab-style dormitory buildings, but with greater opportunities for social interaction. By introducing a “new Tulou” to modern cities and by carefully experimenting its form and economy, one can transcend the conventional modular dwelling. Our experiments explored ways to stitch the Tulou within the existing urban fabric, which includes green areas, overpasses, expressways, and residual land left over by urbanization.”

Both the circular and rectangular blocks contain small apartment units; the spaces in between are for circulation and community use. Wooden inserts shade the balconies, giving each unit a secondary living space. The e-shape has a diameter of 72 m. It incorporates a small hotel with 18 rooms, 24 dormitories measuring 32 m2 and 245 small apartments measuring 31 m2. With a separate living room, two bedrooms and a bathroom, each apartment can accommodate up to two couples and even another single person who could sleep on the couch. Communal spaces are situated on the lower levels and on the roof of the complex.

To save costs, there is no lift. Another cost-cutting measure is the confidence in self-regulation: residents are responsible for their own minor maintenance and cleaning. This approach keeps the homes affordable. Rents are low and apartments are even not made available to car owners, in an effort to create a homogeneous community, with as many migrant workers as possible – a goal that has not entirely been realized yet, but remains a primary target. As an ‘architectural antidote to social segregation,” offering “a recognizable face to an invisible group of people”, the pioneering prototype in the town of Nanhai is intended to become the first of many that can adjust to their context, extremely well fit as this typology is to relatively inexpensive leftover plots, where the introverted form does not only provides a feeling of home and community but also offers excellent protection from from the chaos of the outside environment and 21st century threats such as traffic noise, while creating an intimate and comfortable environment inside. www.urbanus.com.cn

LIU XIAODU & URBANUS/PEOPLE’S ARCHITECTURE: TULOU COLLECTIVE HOUSING (2008)

Images:Yang Chaoying

THE TULOU COLLECTIVE HOUSING PROJECT HAS BEEN SELECTED FOR THE MAPPING THE DESIGN WORLD EXHIBITION AT RECIPROCITY, THE DESIGN BIENNIAL FOR SOCIAL INNOVATION IN LIEGE, BELGIUM, FROM OCTOBER 5 TILL OCTOBER 28 2012, AND WILL ALSO FEATURE IN THE ACCOMPANYING MAPPING THE DESIGN WORLD MAGAZINE – FOCUSING ON MORE THAN 100 EXAMPLES OF (DO) GOOD DESIGN PRACTICE FROM AN EQUAL NUMBER OF COUNTRIES.

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