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Recap: Architectural Acupuncture, 4.14.21

Recap: Architectural Acupuncture, 4.14.21

On April 14, China Institute hosted an important conversation on how design and innovation are saving China’s villages—and America’s cities, too. The program was co-presented with the American Institute of Architects, and was part of the Culture Pass Festival, co-sponsored by Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library.

XU Tiantian, one of China’s most innovative architects, presented inspiring projects in Zhejiang’s countryside and shared notes with Joel Mills of the American Institute of Architects about how great design can make a difference.

Speaker Bios:

Xu Tiantian (XT) is founding principal of DnA_Design and Architecture Beijing Office. She received her master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard Graduate School of Design, and her baccalaureate in architecture from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Prior to establishing DnA Beijing, She worked at a number of design firms in the United States and the Netherlands. She has received 2006 WA China Architecture Award and 2008 Young Architects Award from The Architectural League New York.

Joel Mills (JM) is Senior Director of the Center for Communities by Design at the American Institute of Architects. His 26-year career has been focused on strengthening civic capacity, public processes and civic institutions. This work has helped millions of people participate in democratic processes, visioning efforts, and community planning initiatives. In the United States, Joel has provided consultative services to hundreds of communities, leading participatory processes in over 100 communities across 35 states. He was a founding Board Member of the International Association for Public Participation’s United States Chapter. He has spoken at numerous international conferences concerning democratic urbanism and the role of democracy in urban success, including serving as the Co-Convener of the Remaking Cities Congress in 2013. Mills is an Academician of the Academy of Urbanism in London, UK.

Moderator’s Bio:

Dinda Elliott (DE) is Senior Vice President of Programs at China Institute.

Full Video of Architectural Acupuncture:

Selected Program Quotes:

DE: People in the countryside in China earn only 1/3 of those that live in cities. The income discrepancies are still very dramatic. Projects tend to be grandiose- one size fits all- such as when China moves villagers to new towns and their way of life are destroyed. When we learned about these architectural projects, we realized what she was working on was a universal challenge: How to revitalize neighborhoods bypassed by modernization?

XT: Many of the villages become “hollow villages” with a small population, mostly elders. The real China is in the countryside. Architectural acupuncture has become a sustainable and systematic strategy as a healing treatment.

With a minimal intervention approach, a project is introduced to restore a village’s identity, open it up for tourism and stimulate economic development. I will introduce [several] examples:

1. The renovation preserves the village fabric and weaves these spaces into public programs. The construction was done by the local villagers [and they have a space for home stays, and a recreation of what life was like]. The number of inhabitants went from less than 20 in 2015 to more than 200 now.

2. This was a space that became the motivation for villagers to set up new cultural programs and small businesses.

3. Here, there is a space that is used by the villagers in the off-season. Tourism has increased to over 20,000 people per year.

4. Here is a bridge over the Songyang River linking two villages. The villages used to be one over 200 years ago, but were divided because of a flood, so it is a symbol of reunion. It is also used as a weekend market.

We hope that our Songyang story will provide a sustainable strategy for other regions.

DE: During the communist era, the approach was more top-down- every village in the old days had an auditorium and they all looked the same. It was a cookie-cutter approach to reinforce that everyone was the same.

XT: Yes, it was for public programs in each village. It was a government strategy.

DE: What strikes me as so different, is that these are small and quiet and little. But there is a big idea behind them. You went into each village and did long, in-depth interviews about what the individual village meant to its in habitants.

XT: These villages are like one large family living there for generations. Every one has its own legacy. The villages are proud and it is the root of their families. The idea of acupuncture is to facilitate public programs, but the idea is to be tailored to the needs and context and tradition of each village, and to engage the local communities…each project generates further initiatives in the village and reactivates the circulation. Acupuncture is to release blocked energy, there are still energies embedded in each village.

DE: How do you persuade local officials that this is the way to go as opposed to say a large tourism resort?

XT: Most of the focus on China is on the urbanization of its cities. But there are things happening in the countryside. This is collaboration, through every sector including the private sector. Starting 8 years ago, the country wanted to develop its rural tourism- that is how we got involved. Acupuncture started a year later and is the idea that this is not a massive surgery, it is a healing process and it takes a minimal intervention with a limited budget [with diverse funders]. It also attracts [economic interest] from the cities to the villages.

JM: By grounding things in the values of the people, you can create places with deep meaning and that are of value from around the world. This initial example is from Seattle. It took a community conversation to produce a troll- and this is a particular intervention- they came up with this idea for a troll under the bridge which immediately transformed the place.

The troll is a place to celebrate life events in the neighborhood, so the troll is a reflection of the community pride and how it is representative of them and it came out of tapping into [who they are].

In Portland Oregon, the conventional thinking was to demo the district and urban plan a new neighborhood. But what came out of [the community conversation] was that they wanted to keep the framework. They really embraced the idea of maintaining industrial character but creating a new urban neighborhood.

The way that they approached this was as totality of place. What evolved was innovative partnerships in infrastructure investments, such as taking down a section of highway to build more affordable housing. The public realm was a strong piece of this. It has become a real model. Because it has been integrative and incremental, it has allowed a wide variety of things to take place.

It is always a conversation in the states, it is tough to envision a new [entity]. And it takes a lot of time and capital to convert them. Everything about a special building is an argument for keeping it. When you breathe new life into them, the return on investment is so much larger than if you tore them down and built something new today.

XT: A street corner with a decade of memories, they are the important part of our lives. I think design has a sensibility to preserve memories and restore memory. Each village has its own very strong context and maybe stubbornness. Not every village was open to it.

DE: What kind of opposition did you face?

XT: Most villages were into the modern buildings from the cities, like what they see on TV. The first year we started with a dozen pro-bono projects.

Each village has something to be proud of; even if it is rice wine, or tofu…these really become a key element to engage in communication with these communities.

DE: Developers and governments may not have patience to see the results.

JM: It is not about one big project that often communities get stuck on- the large project that touches the entire community. Those require so much sophisticated financing, partnerships, and time to achieve that what happens…we talk about building small things tomorrow to other things a couple decades out. That is when you can talk about a complete transformation. We had communities say: ‘Twenty years ago, your ideas seemed like dreams. Today we are living those dreams.’

DE: And this is what you are seeing in China. It starts to build momentum.

XT: Exactly. After a few build projects, it sets a good precedent for the others. These aren’t massive tourism with huge crowds in the villages. It is tailored to the village and context. It is not a contradictory tourism to the villages. The scale and content of the tourism is not an issue these days.



Explore upcoming online programs of interest at China Institute

See previous programs in the Getting to Zero series