Oliver Wainwright goes in search of the new rural China

Beijing greeted my arrival with one of the smoggiest days of the year. OMA’s hard-to-miss CCTV building was almost invisible from across the street, shrouded behind a thick grey cloak, while by night the skies throbbed with an eerie neon glow, like a toxic version of the northern lights. So the temptation was to get out: the countryside beckoned.

Two hours’ flight and five hours’ drive to the south, I arrived in the tiny village of Bishan in rural Anhui province, a jumble of white-rendered houses nestling in the rice fields below a mountain. With streets patrolled by clucking chickens, it is the unlikely home of anarchist music promoter and underground publisher, turned architectural curator and now rural hermit – Ou Ning. 

Sitting in the timber panelled courtyard of his magnificent old merchant’s house, which had lain derelict before he moved here from Beijing two years ago, he explained his plan to create a ‘practical utopia’.

‘Chinese cities have become insufferable,’ he said, ‘There is an urgent need to re-empower these rural villages.’ In a relentless governmental land-grab, farmers across the country have lost their fields to the insatiable march of steamrollers (which means China now imports much of its rice), while the tide of urban migration has sapped the countryside of its young labour force and lifeblood.

Drawing on China’s Rural Reconstruction movement of the 1940s, when politicised intellectuals flocked to the regions to improve agricultural techniques, Ou is one of a number of people trying to reignite cultural life in the countryside. He has established a bookstore and café in Bishan, where elderly villagers now rub shoulders with ­urbanite weekenders, and he has plans to start a school and even introduce an alternative ­local currency, like the Bristol pound.

Wang Shu’s farmers’ houses will stand in sharp contrast to the bleak uniformity of recent government housing, and the farmers’ own attempts to copy suburban villas: bloated bungalows clad with a frenzy of bathroom tiles

While he enjoys the support of the village officials – who rub their hands with glee at the prospect of artist-led gentrification – the provincial authorities are naturally suspicious. Last year, his planned international photography festival was mysteriously shut down with less than a day’s notice. ‘They think these activities are dangerous,’ he said, ‘because it’s how the Communist party began – organising the farmers for revolution.’

Four hours’ drive to the east I met Wang Shu, the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize, at his Art Academy campus in Hangzhou, a picturesque ensemble of buildings in his trademark style of recycled bricks and swooping tiled rooftops, sited around a willow-fringed lake. Based here for the last 17 years, he too is now turning attention to the countryside. He is completing a development of 30 farmers’ houses in the nearby village of Wencun, a high-density group of courtyard houses to be built of rammed earth and local stone, designed to grow out of the local grain. They will stand in sharp contrast to the bleak uniformity of recent government housing, and the farmers’ own aspirational attempts to copy suburban villas: bloated bungalows clad with a frenzy of bathroom tiles.

‘Originally we learned many things from the countryside and applied it to the cities,’ said Wang, explaining the approach of his practice, whose self-effacing name, Amateur Architecture Studio, says it all. ‘But now we will fit what we learned back to the countryside.’ He plans to move his entire office to the village and set up an architecture school, bringing students to work on live projects with villagers, a practice unheard-of  in conventional Chinese architectural education.

‘In China we have too many big things, and an obsession with growing our cities,’ he said. ‘It is time for architects to focus on the small things.’


Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at The Guardian. Read him here every other month


Grounded

Just a few weeks before I visited China, president Xi Jinping declared a ban on weird buildings, stating that architecture should ‘inspire minds, warm hearts and cultivate taste’. ‘It’s the end of Zaha in China,’ said one Beijing consultant. ‘Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao, so developers will think twice before commissioning any more of her spaceships.’