June 29, 2016

Meng Yan (MY), Standpunkte (SP)


SP:How was the Urban Tulou project initiated?

MY:At the very beginning this was a research project initiated by the developer Vanke. The head of Vanke, Wang Shi, is a very popular figure.For the first generation entrepreneurfollowing the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there’sa kind of idealism, because of the education and the background of the 60’s and 70’s, a time when collective value in China prevailed. Now he’s a very successful entrepreneur, but he also wants to think ahead of his time and try things that other developers will follow. Also, like a lot of Chinese entrepreneurs, he wants to give back to society. It’s almost like a Chinese tradition: when you get rich, you have to do something good for society. Wang Shiwent to Fujian and saw the traditional tulou, which he thought was a very interesting typology that could possibly be transformed into some kind of new social housing typology. After his trip to Fujian, he invited us as one of three architecture teams to research whether this typology can be brought to a more urban context. Given this topic, we did our own research, and we came up with some concrete ideas – we thought that the tuloutypology could house young migrants to Shenzhen. So now we had a target demographic and then we come up with a proposal, and Vanke liked it.

SP: Do you remember what characteristics of the tulou really struck Wang Shi?

MY: I don’t know because I was not there with Wang Shi. For me, it is the spatial configuration. It’s a very powerful architectural space. Seen from the outside – it’s a very solid, simple, massive geometry with very small openings. And then when you actually go through the heavy wall into the courtyard – all of a sudden there’s a very live community right in front of you. To see the life that surrounds you – I think there are few locations where you get this kind of feeling. For example, with Louis Khan’s Exeter library, it’s a small building, but once you enter, you’re struck by the space, and the books surround you. I think the tulou is ten times as powerful because the contrast between the outside and inside is so great.


SP:You made a move to use a very strong iconic and symbolic form and to insert it into an urban environment. Is the idea to provide a kind of identity for people who might not necessarily have a strong presence in the city?

MY:In China today, the value of collectivity is lost. People like Wang Shi and myselfwere born in the 50’s and 60’s, when collectivity wasa big shared value. The whole country didn’t really have a very strong sense of private life or private property. After the 80’s and the opening up of the country, all these newvalues got stronger in the younger generations. Butfor a long time, especially in a city like Shenzhen, where everybody is a migrant and comes from different places, very few people feel like they belong to this city. You make your living and send your money back to your family and during the spring festival everybody leaves the city.

SP: There is something interesting about why you chose to go with the circle. The circular form gathers people into a center. It also allows people to look across to each other and creates a feeling of connectedness.

MY:We intentionally picked the circle for its strong visual impact. The round shape also creates a very equal space. There is no corner – so you have a very equal division of each individual unit. I think the symbolism of the strong center in the circle is very important for the migrants because each individual feels very small. In a harsh and rapidly urbanized environment like Shenzhen, buildings and people are mixed in a way so that there’s no strong sense of community. If you build a housing project where everybody can share the common space, the people get a stronger identity because of theircompactness. In this way, the tulou becomes an incubator for the new migrants, whom are young people that are just out of school from somewhere else and come to the city. The round shape also creates a juxtaposition, a comment on, even a critique of the city itself. Most of the fast growing cities in China like Shenzhen are built like objects in fields. If you also look at the so-called iconic buildings in a lot of the Chinese cities, you’ll see there are iconic objects while the housing is the background. Most of these iconic objects are theaters, museums, andpublic buildings. Very few of those are residential. But if you look at the UrbanTulou, it’s iconic, it’s monumental, and it’s residential. That means a lot and that’s also intentional.


SP: There’s something subversive in the decision to put a circle in a rectilinear city. The rectilinear grid is a representation of market driven housing – its goal is to maximize every square inch of the space and build up. While the circular form is not necessarily inefficient, it is a less accommodating shape to that idea of maximizing the plot.It also seems that these buildings are meant to be low–rise or mid-rise. Do you think that this model of urbanism can be an alternative to high-rise, high-density housing?

MY: I don’t think that one can completely replace the other model. We need both. If you look at the government sponsored low income housing projects in China, it’s all high-rise. It’s actually a miniature version of luxury housing and shrinks the apartment units from 200 square meters to 20 square meters, but the typology remains the same. What we thought is important for the so-called low income… low income is a misleading word, by the way. A lot of times, people misunderstand that low income only refers to security guards, cleaning workers, and the like. Now, especially in Shenzhen, low income also includes a lot of the lower earning white collar workers, a lot of architects even. They cannot afford the commercial housing projects, so they live in the urban villages, which has less ideal living conditions. I think the needs of this group of people differs from people who live in the luxury high rise apartments. They need to share a lot of information. They have to communicate with others who have similar economic status. The superrich go to their private club. They goto the golf course. They have a lot of other amenities. We believe building typologies for lower income group should differ from the prevalent building typology – the market-driven development.


SP: Can you talk about the core elements of the traditional tulou that you felt were essential to bringing into the urban model, but also how you changed them according to the needs of the migrants?

MY: The traditional tulou is a rural typology. The group of people who shared the same surname lived in one tulou. They have a lot of things that they can share. In the center of the courtyard there is usually afamily shrine. For the Urban Tulou, we have to think about what is the common space in the middle. What can be shared between migrants that come from many different places? Also, in the urban context, land is much more expensive, and we have to increase the density. That’s why we put a square in the middle of the round tulou, which createdtwo layers of housing and additional courtyards.Also, the traditional tulou is like a castle – it is protected and therefore anti-urban in a way. In the urban context, the tulou on one hand has to be protective, and on the other hand needs open up to neighbors. We created a half open tulou instead of a completely closed circle. Instead of a solid material, we used this pre-fab concrete screen unit that is not very expensive and also was a very popular material in the 60’s and 70’s in China. So it also has this cultural implication in addition to serving as ventilation. We’re very careful to play between a kind of “Chinese-ness” and the more contemporary architectural vocabulary. We really wanted the building to integrate into the urban context. There is concrete tile on the roof. We added a little bit of wood to soften the concrete. The materials are all very common, and that’s intentional.


SP:The vernacular tulouhoused large families that all lived together. The architecture of the tuloustrengthened that – there was one large courtyard, and everyone faced the center. Also, dividing the unit over different levels led people to move through the corridor and run into each other. You talked about how the Urban Tulou was designed for young migrants who are trying to find stability in the city and therefore it will help them to find common attributes with each other. How does the architecture of the Urban Tulousupportthat?

MY:In the traditional tulou shared by family clans, everybody knows one another. There is a very strong sense of security. In the Urban Tulou, we didn’t know whether there will be security issues. If you look at Chinese apartment buildings – everyone has their own security door – there’s steel bars and it looks like a prison when all the doors are closed, but everyone feels safe. For the Urban Tulou, we designed a security door that allows ventilation to go through the entire apartment when closed. We spent a lot of time designing that door to make it look nice and secure, but not like a prison door. But later we removed the door from the project because of the budget. As it turns out, I’m glad we didn’t build that door. After people moved in, we noticed that because residents kept their doors open for ventilation, people got to know one another much quicker. A lot of young people came to live here and then started calling their friends to join them. At night when the residents come back, they will open their doors and share their cooking. They will call their friends to go to one apartment to have dinner together and the next night they go to the other apartment.


SP:In what other ways has the Urban Tulou been successful?

MY:The residents have their own social events. At one point the community formeda soccer team. There was a music teacher living in one of the units, so there’s a group of amateur musicians that holdperformances in the building. The community gradually started to emerge. There are also newborn babies. I was very moved when I saw the first baby born there. Now there are more than a dozen. So there are also old people showing up, because in China the old generation always takes care of the newborn. At the beginning we didn’t expect that – we thought only young people would live there. Now we see babies, people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, and we also see people in their 70’s. We also designed a restaurant in the urban tulou. I don’t know if it is still there now, but when we designed it, we gave it great importance. Why? Because number one, we thought, young people don’t cook as much. It’s not just a restaurant, but rather we thought of it as a dining hall. On the other hand, it’s also a restaurant for the outside public, so it becomes a shared facility. I like to imagine that there would be public events, such as an exhibition, a small concert, or a film screening inside the Urban Tulou that would draw outside people in.

SP: When you were talking about the success of a housing project – one of the things that comes to mind, besides the question of security, is the issue of maintenance.

MY:Vankehas a team to manage this property and are doing a pretty good job. On the other hand, the people who live there share some responsibilities. Every Saturday there is a self-organized group clean. If you see the communal as being between the private and public – then the communal really needs the residents to contribute and have a sense of ownership. They have to see that this space belongs to them.


SP: The Urban Tulou has been in use for several years now. What are some of the responses that you have seen from the outside public regarding the Urban Tulou? Has the response led to similar development or new ways of thinking about developing housing in China?

MY: We got a lot of comments from all different fields. Most of these comments are positive. People think that at least this is one way of providing an alternative model to current housing. Especially if you consider now as a time when a lot of people are talking about co-living, co-sharing, the sharing economy, and sharing values, the Urban Tulou is a pioneering project in this movement. While we receiveda lot of attention, we haven’t seen any ambition from Vanke and other developers to follow this model. If you look at the collage drawings we did for the project, we wanted to propose a model of private and public collaboration. As a developer, Vanke can do an experiment on their own, but if they want to think about the bigger picture, they have to engage the government. The government controls policy and has the power to setcheaper costs forlandon the outskirts of the city that are still connected to good public services such as transportation. If the government provides low land prices, then the government and the developer can work together.

SP: But that hasn’t happened?

MY: I haven’t seen anything like that happening. The government now is initiating a lot of social housing developments that replicateshigh rise tower housing. But we – URBANUS – have been trying to design new types of housing. Recently we designed an apartment loft building. It’s a linear building, but also with long corridors and vertical connections and individual loft apartments. This is a rare type in China. You can imagine a similar building to the Urban Tulou, but instead of a round shape, we turned it into a slab building. Interestingly enough, this building is considered high-end. But we want to see a high-end building in an urban context also having a social aspect behind it – the building becomes vertically stacked streets in the sky connecting row-housing. We’ll see whether that will be successful or not.

Past Present Future

SP: It’s an admirable experiment in providing alternate ways of living to the dominant market driven model.

MY: It’s a different world now. In China, people born after the 1980’s and 90’s have a stronger and stronger sense of private ownership. But if you compare that with China in the 60’s and 70’s – people were building collective buildings called communes. Some of these big commune apartment buildings still exist in Beijing. People are now trying to save them. If you look at those buildings – they’re similar to the Urban Tulou. There’s open corridors with shared kitchens. So at the very beginning we didn’t call this project Urban Tulou, we called it the Tulou Commune to build a connection with the past and create a new idea of collectivity for the future.