Architect Xu Tiantian and her team used principles of acupuncture to create a network of interventions involving rural food production in Zhejiang Province in China to improve the well-being of the entire Songyang region, rather than just targeting symptoms.
For centuries, China has been an agrarian society with a demographic distribution weighted heavily towards rural areas and an economy that primarily relied on agriculture. Once the economic reform was launched in the early 1980s, the rural population began to pour into cities seeking opportunities to earn a better living. As the majority of the labour force shifted from rural areas to the cities, the countryside was left with the elderly and the children of the labour force, unattended farmland, vacant and run-down houses, as well as the agrarian cultures and traditions from past centuries.
The Songyang region is important for the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of brown sugar, which is now Xing village’s primary source of income. Before, the villagers produced the sugar in big iron pots in their own courtyards but had no licence to officially sell their product. The new factory has now made this possible.
Songyang County, part of Lishui City, in the southwestern part of Zhejiang Province, was not exempt from this situation. In 2014, the county consisted of more than 400 villages in an area spanning over 1,406 square kilometres with a total population of 240,000. Its rural to urban demographic ratio is roughly 4:1. Underneath Songyang’s idyllic and picturesque sceneries where clusters of ancient villages are strung along rolling hills with tea bushes on their slopes, lies an unbalanced demography and dormant economy.
At the edge of the village, the new factory/community building consists of several elements accommodating various functions and connected to each other by corridors. The completely transparent ground floor links the work zones to the adjacent fields and the neighbouring village structure.
To address this loss of the labour force and revive the countryside, the Songyang County Government launched a rural development initiative. This is where our collaboration began. Our first projects revolved around the Damushan Tea Plantation and some of the villages, including the Pingtian Village Center, the Damushan Tea Room, the Bamboo Pavilion among many others.
The main room with the ovens is only actively used for sugar production in the three winter months between October and December. It was, therefore, important to design the building in such a way that the village community can use it for other activities. Older inhabitants meet there during the day for tea and films are screened, or the local puppet theatre gives performances in the evening.
All of these projects have become learning processes for us to understand local construction materials and techniques, as well as an exchange of ideas that renewed the locals’ preconceptions about construction. We learned bamboo construction from Xu Chaoran, our contractor and an expert on bamboo structure. Through the Hengkeng villagers we discovered a way to transform a creek into a water terrace using the minimum amount of stone and cement. However, we also had to overcome many obstacles – with the construction in Pingtian, for example. Here we worked with Mr. Wu, a local expert on the conservation of buildings such as ancestor’s halls. He did not see the value of renovating the cluster of buildings that later became the Pingtian Community Center. It was only by the end of the project, when Mr. Wu told me that he would like to build a house like this one in his home village that I finally realised our concept had fully convinced him.
The transparency between the different building elements and the unobstructed view of the processes involved in the production of brown sugar also make the building attractive for visitors.
The experiences we had with these early projects both helped us to understand the issues we needed to address through architectural intervention and to realise the dormant potentials in the natural and cultural capitals of Songyang. We began to contemplate a strategy that would not only temporarily alleviate the symptoms of the issue, but improve the system holistically.
Acupuncture, a practice in traditional Chinese medicine, shares a similar conceptual notion with what we needed to achieve. By pinpointing the needles on a set of meridian points on the human body, according to the functions of various systems of the organs, the interaction of these networks of interventions results in improving the well-being of one’s overall health rather than only targeting the symptoms.
Caizhai village lies in a mountainous landscape alongside a small river and has long been known for its excellent tofu production for two centuries. Traditionally, the families worked in their own small workshops, which did not meet today’s food standards for the sale of the products. A village joint venture was established to build a tofu factory, which the families can enter as shareholders, thus gaining access to an expanded market that provides them with a higher income. The building site of the new tofu factory is located at the entrance to the village making it a visible sign of a new era.
We proposed “architectural acupuncture” as a systematic and sustainable rural strategy for Songyang County to regain its “rural self-confidence”. By adopting an approach of minimal interventions, multi-functional public programmes are introduced to different villages and rural regions, each tailored to the complexity of the respective cultural heritage and context.
Tofu is made from white soybeans processed into soy milk. The resulting soy curd is dehydrated and pressed into blocks to be further processed in various ways. These processes require different work steps, which are carried out in the manufactory in separate rooms to achieve hygiene standards for sale.
Applied with vernacular materials and construction techniques, architectural acupuncture integrates nature back into the villages, thus restoring their rural identity, whilst stimulating local economic development. Similar to the way acupuncture releases trapped energy at various meridian points on the body to restore the overall health of a person, architectural acupuncture is a strategy aimed at motivating and inspiring villages and communities to initiate their own self-regeneration for further development. Moreover, the concept of architectural acupuncture aims to activate the dormant resources and generate circulation among the villages in Songyang by establishing links with the nearby regions and beyond.
The tofu factory follows a slight slope in six stages, each with its own unit, from north to south: beginning with the preparation rooms, followed by the soy milk production hall, the cooking department, the deep-frying hall, the drying department and finally the tasting hall for visitors at the entrance to the village. The whole complex is a prefabricated contemporary wooden construction, which has similarities with the traditional mortise and tenon wooden construction of the old village houses.
In the case of Xing village, brown sugar, a local product, became the stimulator that connected the economy of its vicinity. Unlike other traditional villages, Xing has maintained a rather steady population and its agricultural production generates sufficient income for villagers to build new modern houses. So brown sugar production became the key element for introducing the village’s heritage. The traditional cooking process is a striking performance, but the family workshops were in poor condition. This new factory was programmed to engage family workshops by improving their production conditions. This multi-functional building, designed both for production and public education, has elevated the price of sugar and the villagers’ income. Consequently, 50 former villagers resettled back in their hometown, and twelve young villagers joined the sugar production union. The total number of tourists per annum increased from 200 in 2016 to 15,000 in 2019. In other words, this local product became a catalyst for other tourism programmes initiated by the Xing villagers.
The Rice Wine Factory is located at the edge of the village on an irregular site. In the background lies the heterogeneous building group of the village, while in the foreground the agricultural landscape reaches right up to the new building. The architect responded to the irregular shape of the building site with a volume stepped on both sides, which blends into the proportions of the village.
Caizhai is a traditional mountain village that has been built along a river over the past two hundred years. The village is best known for its tofu production in the county region, but the products from the traditional family workshops did not meet the current standard for industrially certified food. A new factory was programmed, on a linear slope following the topography of its location, to upgrade traditional tofu production. This will allow tofu products to be sold in city supermarkets, thus increasing the village’s economic revenue. Serving both as a site for production and exhibition, its covered walkway is a leisure space where visitors and villagers can observe the tofu production process in sequence. A village union has been set up to operate the factory, engaging family workshops as shareholders of this collective economic entity.
The production of rice wine is a complex process requiring some hyper-clean rooms. If a show workshop is to be created that also serves as a tourist attraction, the paths of production and those of visitors must be strictly separated.
Acupuncture cultivates architecture into a multi-dimensional expression that generates new experiments and explorations for the place and the people. Each building is holistically integrated into nature, the village and the community. It embodies the village’s heritage and identity through an architectural design that restores village pride and attracts tourism. Hence, the complexity in the notion of “architecture as acupuncture” is also carried out as a social structure.
Unlike some touristic villages in the country, which have had massive amounts of investment, the Songyang acupuncture strategy works within a limited budget to motivate and inspire local communities as well as attract external investments and resources.
The storerooms for the rice wine in the basement are accessible by elevator. The lounges and wine-tasting rooms for visitors are located on the upper floor and reached via stairs.
Soon after we completed these initial projects, more and more villages expressed interest in joining the acupunctural system. Some even came up with detailed programme proposals. For example, the papermaking factory in Dalinggen village was initiated by the community only after thorough research and discussion within the village had been conducted. Eventually, the factories and workshops will build up a new economic circulation within the whole county. For example, the pottery factory will provide packaging products for rice wine and brown sugar, and the silk farming workshop and paper-making factory will provide dyeing material for a workshop in the Pingtian Village Center. Each factory has a union set up for the villagers to operate it, run by family workshops as the shareholders of this collective economic entity. In fact, all of the acupuncture projects have become triggers inspiring further initiatives which either the communities themselves or private investors have supported financially. This has generated a new model for rural economy that integrates cultural heritage, traditional production and rural tourism.
The floor surfaces are made of red bricks divided by ribbons of exposed concrete. The reduction to basic materials used without further refinement, and the simple, arched motif for the ceiling and openings give this manufactory a rustic expression that blends in well with the rural scenery.
The process of revitalisation is intended neither to isolate rural areas from their urban counterparts nor to convert any rural area into an urban expression. Rather, its goal is to activate the interactions between them by restoring a rural identity. As the living conditions improved in the villages, the younger generation of the labour force are motivated to return to their homes. In addition, the pleasant environment and accommodations can also attract urban residents to visit or even relocate to village living. Facilitated by the internet and modern infrastructure, the rural can provide an alternative mode of living to the urban.
Since our initial projects in Songyang, the area has witnessed a significant increase in population growth, tourism and tourism-related business. All of which has translated into an increase in revenue. The gross revenue from tourism in Songyang County increased from 8.4 million RMB in 2014 to 41.9 million in 2018. The number of returnees from cities reached 6,000 in 2019. Most of them initiate or participate in the rural tourism programmes with their education and experience from the cities.
The access corridor for employees, from which the various production rooms are entered, runs through the middle of the workshop. Visitors are led from the village side into a separate corridor, which allows a view of the production through large glass panels.
On May 30, 2019, UN-Habitat, during its first UN-Habitat Assembly, announced the Songyang Innovative Rural Development Programme (Songyang Programme), a collaboration with the People’s Government of Songyang County, China. “Architectural acupuncture” has been adopted by UN-Habitat as an “Inspiring Practice on Urban-Rural Linkages”. We hope that our Songyang Story will provide a sustainable stimulus model both in concept and practice that can benefit other rural regions.
Xu Tiantian is a graduate of Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is the founding principal of DnA_Design and Architecture practice. Her groundbreaking “architectural acupuncture” is a holistic approach to the social and economic revitalisation of rural China and has been selected by UN-Habitat as the case study of Inspiring Practice on Urban-Rural Linkages.
This is an edit of an essay by Xu Tiantian in the book The Songyang Story: Architectural Acupuncture as a Driver for Rural Revitalisation in China (pub. Park Books) to follow the 2018 exhibition “Rural Moves – The Songyang Story” with projects by Xu Tiantian, DnA_Beijing at the Aedes Architecture Forum, Berlin. Caption texts are by Dr Eduard Kögel, curator & architectural critic. Reproduced with kind permission.
Title photo: Tofu factory by Xu Tiantian, DnA_Beijing, Caizhai village, Datongba town, Songyang. Photo © Wang Ziling