Last December – after the Double Rural book launch at the HKU Shanghai Study Center – MovingCities received a copy of Homecoming – Contextualizing, Materializing and Practicing the Rural in China [Gestalten, 2013]. The book – edited by Christiane Lange, John Lin 林君翰 and Joshua Bolchover – presents work and thoughts by “architects [that] are offering resistance against the rapid urbanization that has dominated the Chinese landscape“. Homecoming is a timely publication, but also the result of a strange harvest. Sisyphus in China, a review.
A short blurb from the publisher:
Homecoming presents work by an emerging generation of Chinese architects that uses unique design and working approaches to resist generic mass construction and foreign iconic building. In particular, these architects are offering resistance against the rapid urbanization that has dominated the Chinese landscape. By responding to a local Chinese context, they have raised the avant-garde of China’s architectural design practice in recent years.
The title of the book has multiple meanings for the featured architects. For some, “homecoming” is returning back to China after they have studied and lived abroad. Others understand working with the rural as “coming home” to discover their ancestors and traditional roots. All may also refer to personal memories and perceptions they have of the Chinese countryside.
Homecoming talks about architecture in China; despite the fact that only 5 out of the 15 contributors, could be said to be Chinese architects.
The editors explain that the idea for the publication arise during the Chengdu Biennale, in September 2011. Notice that besides their academic duties at the University of Hong Kong, the editors operate as Rural Urban Framework [RUF] – a Hong Kong 香港 based architectural practice, involved in building in China’s countryside. During the biennale they “presented a 12-meter-long cross-section from rural to urban territory, made up of multiple images from our project sites in China” and “discovered that there was a lot of common ground among the participants in their attitudes and agendas regarding their working experiences in China.”
In the book’s preface, the editors use tension, inspiration, contemporary and distinct, traditional buildings or material techniques, the need of a diversity of responses,… to describe this common ground.
With the ambition to be “intentionally controversial“, the book is actually the result of the Homecoming Symposium held at the University of Hong Kong in April 2012. It thus comes as a bit of a surprise that many contributions feel like minimal thoughts and ideas scrambled together, rather than an academically contextualized – complex or critical – positions on the profession or China’s countryside.
Homecoming is not controversial, neither conformist.
The book is structured along following three chapters:
Under the section Contextualizing the Rural, essays describe the historical evolution of the Chinese countryside, its shifting identity, and its interpretation through different modes of cultural production. Materializing the Rural portrays contemporary design philosophies which incorporate, extract or adapt traditional material and construction methods. Practicing the Rural demonstrates alternative design methods to engage and activate rural communities and how the rural context itself can be a rich source for experimentation.
While reading Homecoming, we were aware of how difficult it is to talk about the rural and/or the countryside in contemporary China. Unfortunately, contributors have avoided a critical contextualization, especially in Contextualizing the Rural. A reflection on Mao Zedong, a personal story on a rural experience of about two decades ago, and a reflection on the personal intentions of a Chinese curator, hardly clarify – let alone introduce – the current condition of those non-urban areas. It is equally frustrating to read in the conclusion of an essay on the work developed between 1932 and 1946, by prominent Chinese scholars and architects Liang Sicheng & Lin Huiyin, that “for these historians working in this period, the countryside was simply not a vehicle for furthering their knowledge or definition of Chinese architectural history.”
It is hard to come home when the door is locked.
It is hard to come home when the windows are boarded up.
It is hard to come home when home is nowhere to be found.
More interesting are those two chapters in which the architects explain their personal positions and projects related to the theme. A couple of quotes:
“These local builders are really efficient and skillful in doing timber construction, but once we encountered technical issues that they were not familiar with, it created problems.”
[Hua Li 华黎]
“Self-motivated projects offer one spiritual liberation and therefore are more authentic and conscientious. Sometimes these projects are a form of self-exploration.”
[Liu Jiakun 刘家琨]
“The reality of working in rural areas is that the profession of architecture does not exist in villages.”
[John Lin 林君翰]
“But we don’t want to go vertical in the traditional way. What if we can go vertical in a way that becomes a more desirable way of living?”
[Zhang Ke 张轲]
“Later, I started to understand that through relaxing and sharing, endurance and tolerance, the spiritual concept of home exists universally.”
[Huang ShengYuan 黃聲遠]
“Architects put too much emphasis on their own self-worth, so they cannot work with others. They can build shiny skyscrapers, but not simple village houses.”
[Hsieh Ying-chun 謝英俊]
Homecoming is no home run on the subject.
Homecoming has inquisitive intentions.
Homecoming is a brief introduction to an up-and-coming subject but oftentimes drifts off into impressions vaguely related to the subject, thus omitting further investigation into the first hand architects’ accounts – these contributions are an almost unfiltered, yet too small, look in the architects’ kitchen and brain. An external evaluation of their projects [by also including the cultural, construction and climatic context, for example] would have been welcome, so to better position these rural-related projects against other types of architectural practices in contemporary China; thus highlighting personal and professional engagement with these territories.
Homecoming looks at the countryside from the perspective of the city – as almost all architects, scholars, etc… are raised and based there. And as such, this duality could have been further explored, resonating throughout this title. On Contextualizing the Rural introductory notes, scholar Cole Roskam reinforces this impression as he writes that “architects who willfully sentimentalize the rural deny what is a vital tangle of social and economic bonds that connect city, country, and the vast stretches of space in-between.”
Homecoming speeds over these vast stretches. An in-between book.
Sentimentalization is fairly absent in the book, but equally the exploration of connections across different contributions.
But more than anything else, Homecoming totally embraces what Yung Ho Chang 張永和 writes in Questions Please – the book’s foreword:
It is of paramount importance that we explore designs that provoke questions concerning the state of architecture in China, and make sincere Sisyphean attempts to answer them, in order to create a common ground for meaningful and constructive discussion and debate.
Naïve or not, it is true that we need to explore designs that provoke questions; although better so by not doing it with the attitude, or the expectation, of undertaking Sisyphean attempts to answer these. This seems to suggest that we should raise questions that really can’t be answered after all, that we are doomed to continuously start all over again.
Sisyphus, so we imagine, must have been frustrated of doing the same work over and over again. Unless he would finish an impossible task, he would never be able to go home again.
Homecoming is good. It welcomes you back.
Homecoming gives us comfort, a sense of belonging and being.
But more importantly, we need to broaden our horizon, move on.
With contributions from Joshua Bolchover, Yung Ho Chang 張永和, Frank Dikötter, Juan Du 杜鵑, Huang ShengYuan 黃聲遠, Hsieh Ying-chun 謝英俊, Hua Li 华黎, Liu Jiakun 刘家琨, John Lin 林君翰, Meng Yan 孟岩, Cole Roskam, Philip Tinari, Tong Ming 童明, Robin Visser, Wang Weijen 王維仁, Zhang Ke 张轲, and Zhu Tao 朱濤.
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