Shortlisted: Learning from Projects

This project is an unbuilt ‘Clan-Community Hall’ in a natural village of Zhejiang province in China, with its contemporary relevance not only to a decaying traditional building type – clan ancestral hall in Chinese villages – but also opposing the assumption with a hegemonic point of view under urbanisation.  It is a hybrid building co-produced by hybrid practitioners.

 

Hybrid building and hybrid practitioner

Professional architects still seem to be reluctant to engage the great richness in architectural anthropology, while most of those with ‘non-professional knowledge’ have survived but are locked in marginal sites and groups. While some hybrid practitioners such as local barefoot architects might be happy to engage they have in fact already been a part of it, but not always that actively. Thus active intervention from the outside is needed, with the level of facilitation depending on the locality.   

So what it means to consider the ‘hybrid building’ as an inclusive production site for knowledge is that it is not solely an intervention but is produced through that intervention. It is this hybridity that invents a new temporary meaning – offering neither the final interpretation nor the last word, but a palimpsest added to by different actors in different periods: an accumulative process.

‘Hybrid building’ is a processual co-production and a relational way of participatory practice, during which micro-design activism encounters the vernacular, the irregular, the spontaneous, the messy engaged, the ritual, and all those busy everyday lives of buildings lying outside the sanitised environment of the design studio. In this ‘Clan-Community Hall’ project, villagers have been enabled to negotiate and renegotiate their spatial boundaries, to generate new possibilities for encounters, spaces and collectives. They become the starring actors of this design activist stage. 

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Stage -1

The architects’ briefs and programme in early stages (0-2) are too thin to respond to the diversity, complexity and contingency of the real world life after the handover (Stage 7 and many invisible stages beyond). Together with changing pattern of clientship, procurement, and the bureaucratic side of planning permission, they widen the gap between people and buildings, impose discipline in the production line, and suppress the social content including the place and ritual from which architecture was born.

In response to this inevitable limitation and challenge to the profession, this project sets out to provide an alternative way. Taking the Chinese village as an exemplar site, this ‘Clan-Community Hall’ project defends or demonstrates the hugely overlooked social transformative value and potentials in contemporary architecture and architects through three approaches – which all happen before Stage 0. They are getting back to the natural but not administrative village which stayed furthest from the political mega-structure, re-establishing collaboration with the family clan which formed the social structure in organising the village, and getting their hands dirty working with indigenous barefoot architects from a critical perspective and position of architecture. 

This calls for architectural practitioners with a development perspective to gain a thicker local interpretation, to facilitate a deeper understanding of social structure of locality, and to keep a more critical and conscious viewpoint before Stage 0. Stage -1 has a potential value to unlock, nurture, and catalyse deeper locality and further local practice from the within and the bottom, which might open constrains from the limited briefing by slightly shifting the focus and resource allocation during the next few stages.

 

Real-world impact

The real-world impact of architecture might not always be dominated by the physical building scale. The ‘Clan-Community Hall’ has been dramatically experienced at many scales except the conventionally object-oriented building scale, as a result of its unbuilt reality and unbuildable status. At the same time it is not only the unbuildable part that makes the ‘hybrid building’; the buildable also contributes: in this case, refurbishment of the  ‘Temple of Earth God’ close to the ‘Clan-Community Hall’ site is a perfect by-product improvised through the agency of the unbuildable. More importantly, compared to quick collective action, the temple was warmly received by the collective and appreciated in later use, which matched what had been expected in the unrealized clan hall project. But what matters is that the buildable part of architecture might not always be the answer to local questions. So there should be more self-critical and thoughtful approaches to shift the architect’s focus from the buildable parts to the unbuildable –perhaps more socially-transformative ones.

Xiang Ren, Sheffield School of Architecture, UK