The Project of "Xifu Native Town" Culture and Art Village in Jintai District of Baoji City is very different from many other projects that I have led and designed in the past. The village’s vitality and the possible sustainable existentiality fascinates me. This project lasted four years and endured the peak time of the Covid-19 pandemic in China. Promoted jointly by the district government, local street office, village committee, native villagers, operators, artists, folk article collectors, and catering operators, and built on the base of the previous “New Village” (an expression with Chinese characteristics, an epitome of the phenomenon for an era), this place gradually presents a brand new look.
This project happened to fit the concept of the “rural revitalization” proposed on the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (the project design started in 2017, which was before the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China launched this initiative）. It is a typical case that shows the first path to rural revitalization, that is to integrate the urban and rural areas. Its final case name “Xifu Native Town” does express a great amount of commercial ambition, and the operation team’s initial intention is to make some complement to the commercial activities for the neighboring commercial street. But somehow, the final state delivered has undoubtedly made the project a typical case of the urban-rural integrated development.
Many empty village houses have been efficiently used, the urban boundaries have been expanded, and a high-quality space for the tertiary industries to integrate into the countryside has been provided. It has offered a new way of life for the native villagers who choose to stay where they have been living, and served as an elegant pastoral residence for newcomers like artists, art collectors and catering operators. Surely the final presentation of this project is completed with some luck in the process and is achieved by the compromises from many parties, while for now this successful project has delivered a great new community balance: the native villagers get the rental from their unused houses; the ones who stay in the village (38 households in the village and 19 households stay) enjoy the living environment of great improvement and can open the door to do some business; the new commercial operators can scientifically coordinate and manage the entire community; unsettled artists and folk article collectors can rent these renovated houses in the village at very low prices; the government makes great performance for its people; it offers the local citizens one extra choice for their leisure time, the tourists one more location to visit and creates a new landmark for the city; it is beneficial from any aspect and everything is thriving.
Before elaborating the design of this project, let's first look at the background. City of Baoji has a long history and is called "Chen Cang" in ancient times. It is adjacent to the Qinling Mountains to the south and its northern parts are terrace-like plain. Along the Weihe River it shows east-west long and narrow layout. The bottleneck of Baoji’s expansion in its east and west after the rapid development over the years plus the natural block of the Qinling Mountains Nature Reserve to its south forces the city’s development boundary move to the northern terrace-like plain area. (Yuan, terrace-like plain, geographical feature peculiar to Loess Plateau)
The side areas of the terrace-like plain are generally steep loess slopes. Originally, there were many village houses here, but because of the peculiar geological reasons there is serious soil erosion throughout the year and the sides keep collapsing, causing huge geological damage and the primitive villages to disappear. Around 1995, in order to improve the housing of rural residents, China released the preferential policy of “New Countryside Construction” that helped the villagers with poor living conditions to gradually relocate to the terrace-like plain, namely the current “Shengliyuan”, where this project is conducted. In order to implement the Party Central Committee’s wise policy of benefiting the people as soon as possible, the construction of new villages on the plain used ready-made architectural planning drawings to quickly complete a batch of residential buildings in that era when there was in shortage of technical resource support. At that time, the architectural plans and blueprint were basically shared throughout the city. It became the basic pattern of the current “Xifu Native Town” project. The plan is built with a “barracks” layout, and the street scale was reserved, but the mixed traffic of people and vehicles did make it overcrowded and space-wise, it does not feel comfortable.
The architectural outlook basically copied the “New Huizhou” style of white walls and black tiles but luckily that architect of the year kept a bit of “original flavor”, the single slope roof facing the courtyard. (The Loess Plateau has been in great shortage of water since ancient times, and the single slope roof facing the courtyard is for collecting rainwater). This kind of new villages combined both the northern and southern Chinese architecture style were built widely on the plains, but no archived documents were left.
Due to the lack of technical resources for architectural designs, the depth of foundations of all houses was too shallow to meet the requirements of today’s specifications. The pipe network systems such as drainage and power facilities were also not considered properly. The electricity supply was only sufficient for household lighting. Although natural gas pipelines were added later, the amount of power generated was still only enough for household cooking, leaving a big obstacle for the later transformation and design. Moreover, in the early-stage discussion of the investment budget, the fund were very limited. The budget for the renovation of the pipe network system alone reached 1/3 of the planned investment amount. The limited funding means that basically none of the original buildings can be changed. The buildings are all brick-concrete structures, and the structures had to be strengthened once they were changed. The expensive cost narrows down the choice into playing with the ideas on the courtyard walls, streets, and green space.
One of the biggest advantages for this project is that from the very beginning, the operators and the government had already set a clear construction goal: keep the basic layout of the architecture, retain its culture, and establish a self-reliant and sustainable business; create a new business card in Baoji with the orientation of a comprehensive community with local properties. This clear direction was never changed, making a good start for the presentation of the entire project.
The first stage of the design was to sort out the space, adjust the street scale, plan the diversion of people and vehicles, re-divide the courtyard, plan the business form, locate the landmarks, and establish the style direction.
This stage took more than a year. After discussion of multiple options, the conclusion finally came. Formal design not only needs to consider the chaotic style of the original building, but also needs to be innovative so that it looks completely new; it needs not only meet the requirement of sustainable commercial space, but also meet the need of local residents for residential properties. “Finding the right balance” became the key. In the end, the solution lied in the transformation of the courtyard wall. Something was added to the flat and straight back street (located on the north side of the building; the original building system only had south courtyard but no north courtyard) was added, and the south courtyard was partially expanded. Some street scales were reduced in order to make space comfortable, and the wall was partially opened to create a see-through design to satisfy the commercial needs.
The mountain wall facing the main street is designed with a landmark structure (because it is located on the eastern side of the village, it is later called the “East Corridor Pavilion” by locals), which facilitates the publicity of the commercial area and softens the so-called “barrack layout” style. We rearranged a green area in the middle of the original village, added a rain garden (reservoir) to conserve the surrounding green space, preserved all the trees, and demolished an untrodden pavilion of mixed style. Another public toilet was built to make a complement to the infrastructure.
In the second stage of the design process, we encountered big obstacles in the implementation of construction technology. The local builders’ limited construction knowledge forced us to abandon the high-tech construction methods used in first and second tier cities, and what we could do only was to adopt low-tech strategies with design details. Also, due to the limited fund, we only considered to use local workers for construction and could not afford the specialized materials. Since the design could be complex but not with too much innovation, we made the spatial pattern and the landmark physical design the key.
The third stage is construction. For this stage, I would like to give my special thanks to Dean Shi of the local civil architecture design institute. Without his rich experience in supervision, the implementation of the design would not be possible. The lack of preparatory materials led to big discrepancy between the plan and the actual site, so we had to be on the site to supervise the construction. As for the super-large-scale landmark structure “East Corridor Pavilion”, originally I planned to build it with the method of a three-dimensional lofting - factory processing - on-site installation. Yet, limited by the budget, I had to choose fully manual on-site implementation.
While he complexity brought me in despair that it was too difficult to finish (we accelerated to build hoping to catch the Chinese Harvest Festival Opening), Dean Shi came to the rescue, led the construction team and work hard for many days and nights, thus the completion of the project.
The final stage is delivery. The last thing we want to see in such projects is disconnection: make meaningless design and the construction team earns a sum of money and walk away, making the operation team feel at loss and have no idea where to start. Without gain or profit, the decline is inevitable. But in this project, the operation team was fully dedicated to the preparation and investment attraction since the very beginning to the end. In the end, thanks to all parties’ close cooperation, we had a satisfactory result. Although it is not perfect from a design perspective, such an “intimate development model” of cooperation between all parties provides a good model for other “village revitalization” projects in the future. After the delivery, this place has became a business card of Baoji and even of Shaanxi Province, and it has become the first batch of model projects for “rural revitalization”.
Next I would like to talk about the “possible sustainable existentiality”. As mentioned before, this success of this project lies in the compromises from all parties because of various reasons. The process of presentation was so painful that even myself once had the idea of “I’m done with it”. However, with some good luck and good timing, we manged to create a win-win situation for all parties. In other so-called cultural tourism projects across China, either the native villagers are driven away to vacate their houses for so-called renovation, or the government simply provides a piece of “clean” land for the investors to draw blueprints at will. Sadly, either way loses the indispensable essence of life. Without it, even the most beautiful blueprint can not support sustainability. The rural revitalization was put forward on the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and its key point emphasized the most is the establishment or integrated development of primary, secondary and tertiary industries. The scale of this project is not big, and the houses are still for the use of living only; this project is not involved with the integration of industries. Establishing the first and second industries is not promising, so the only strategy is to make transformation to the third industry purely. To establish sustainable service fundamentally is to make a space where “people live here” and “more people come here”. The issue of “people live here” is the base to have the essence of life, while “more people come here” is the basic requirement to have the essence of life. The people who live here offering service to the one who come here in a reasonable space shows a new social scene.
This project is a process to create this kind of essence of life. If all the original villagers were driven away, the scene where the newcomers invest and bring the “people who live here” is not sustainable. The newcomers will leave if they can not earn any money. But the new investors can bring new “service way”, set example for and teach the “people who live here” on livelihood. It can be predicated shortly that the people “who live here” with business mind would learn from the newcomers and set up their service, building various service scenario and mode. In addition, they live here originally, so they have lower cost and can well survive the short-term loss, if any. The longer the business lasts, the more chance to form the “accumulation effect” in economy. As long as there is no major accident, it can be inferred that this rural reconstruction model established by chance will gradually influence its neighboring villages. With certain scale, the essence of life will be more, and the ability to resist risk will be stronger.——Meng Fanliang Monday, August 9, 2021