Images – House for all seasons China

This story from Gizmag caught my eye for a number of reasons. Architect John Lin, who is a professor at the University of Hong Kong, has won an award from the Architectural Review in 2012 for his house which has been built in Shaanxi Province with philanthropic funding. It is designed to assist the continued urbanisation of China’s people as over half (51.27% or 680 million) of China’s population now live in cities, which is the first time in that country’s history.(Telegraph). Having seen a documentary recently on the White Horse village and their 4 year transformation from rural subsistence farming to urban dwellers, one of the reflections for me was the shape of everyday life and how our housing choices determine it.

The people of White Horse village were not 100% behind the change that was thrust upon them by central planning authorities. Their way of life changed dramatically, and while most agreed with the direction that China is heading, they were unhappy with the impact on their everyday lives. The traditional rural way of life where there were multi-age households and the elderly are part of everyday life changed when people moved into multi-storey apartments. The day-to-day engagement with their neighbours was gone and may of them struggled to cope.

The other reflection was that whilst the opportunity to make a living increased enormously, so did the costs of living. There were no more market gardens or vegetable plots for self-sufficiency. All the food they once grew had to be bought at the supermarket. This is the same situation in many large Western cities, with people unable to grow their own food, they are forced to buy it. The counter-trend in the West is the growing popularity of rooftop and balcony gardens for food.  

The self-sufficient house includes stairs for growing vegetables, courtyards for collecting water and storing goods, there is a pig pen and an underground biogas boiler. The update of the traditional rural house was designed to assist rural people to become less reliant on outside good and services, to try to arrest the growing inequality between city and country. It is built in a mixture of mud brick and concrete and uses modern techniques in conjunction with traditional design. The award was given by a non-Chinese magazine, it would be interesting to know if it is as valued inside China where much architecture is designed to be fast to build but often falls down. The team who built the house looked at the buildings in a particular village and synthesised the design requirements from the living quarters and activities in the village. This house is an example of the diversity of living environments required in the name of development’ It cannot be one size fits all.

Plan of House

Outside view during building

Cross section plan

It will be insightful to see if this house, or something like it, can update the rural accommodation of the 48% of Chinese left on the land. A design such as this might also have currency in other parts of the world, which are grappling with similar issues. The cultural expression might be different but the reflection of past and future together is the same, as is the immersion by the architect in what already exists in order to design what is now required.

This house is also earthquake resistant which brought to my mind a Chinese film I saw recently called ‘Aftershock‘ which told the story of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 through the eyes of one family, highlighting the changes China has been through during that period. This movie is engrossing for a number of reasons, the biggest one being the insights into the stories the Chinese are telling themselves about their history to this point. An all Chinese cast, apart from what must be the worst actor in Canada, it has an impressive recreation of the earthquake which gives a good feel for what it might be like to be in one. This film was shown on IMAX screens across China and in the US and I can imagine the impact would have been incredible. Having watched some Chinese films in the past, most of which seemed include maniacally grinning evil villains, it was great to engage with a modern film that told a modern story about a rapidly changing world.  The trailer is below.

So what does this all to do foresight? Examples of the past being incorporated into the future are useful for foresight thinking as we have the tendency to want to change everything as we envision the future. Learning to bootstrap your thinking to incorporate the past and present into your vision for the future is a useful skill. We use the Futures Triangle (opens pdf) developed by Prof Sohail Inayatullah for this process as it asks you to imagine a preferred future state, identify what you will leave behind from the past and what you will take forward; and to think about the dynamics in the present that will assist you to get to your preferred future and those that might work against it. We have clients that use this tool to talk with their staff about new ideas, and we find it very powerful in workshop groups for people to confront how they will be different to bring a new future to pass.