Hans-Jürgen Commerell and Kristin Feireiss, Aedes Architecture Forum, Berlin
While train connections in rural areas are being successively done away with in Europe and Germany, the digital interconnectivity of the hinterland is falling victim to neoliberal profit maximization, and we are currently feeling the effects of the political, social, and economic consequences of this, China has chosen the opposite route. In recent years, the most remote regions there have been linked by means of high-speed train lines and the final mountain villages are being connected with the rest of China by means of fibre optic cables. Over a total of four weeks in September and December 2017, we saw and experienced this ourselves on an exploratory tour of the rural areas of Songyang County, about seven hours by car in a southwest direction from Shanghai.
On the search for architectural and spatial models for improving rural living areas that might also be able to provide us with impulses for Germany and Europe, in the mountainous landscape of Songyang County, we made the acquaintance of a congenial team consisting of the architect Xu Tiantian and the Party Secretary of the Songyang County Committee Wang Jun, who, in only a few years, have succeeded in generating a new ‘rural self-awareness’ by means of architectural acupuncture.
While in the past three years ten projects, from the concept, through participatory processes, up to the realization, had already been implemented with breath-taking speed, it nevertheless amazed us, that in the merely three months between our visits, two completely new projects had once again been put in place. With caution and meditational sensitivity, the architect and her client, the regional government, have jointly repaired old clay farmhouses in the village, municipality, and natural space or landscape in collaboration with the inhabitants. The buildings have been adapted to contemporary requirements and consequently given additional new uses, or local spaces of collective memory have been created, thus reanimating the cultural and historical awareness of the region. As an example, community spaces have been integrated in the new building for a production site where cane sugar is obtained in a traditional way. This has significantly increased not only the self-awareness of local villagers, but also the price of the organic product.
It is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that we bring the process of this rural ‘upgrading’ and the built objects resulting from it to Europe in this catalogue and exhibition as the Songyang Story. Based on the example of long-neglected rural space, it shows that changes in society, the economy, and ecology are possible by means of many small steps and active engagement, and that architecture and committed architects play an important role in the process.
We thank the architect Xu Tiantian and her design team as well as Wang Jun and his highly motivated employees of the local government for the wonderful collaboration as well as for their support in producing the documentation and exhibition. Our gratitude also goes to Angelika Fitz, the Director of the Architekturzentrum in Vienna as well as Andreas Ruby, Director of the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, for helping us bring the topic to other countries and generate a discussion about it following the exhibition in Berlin.
Part of “Rural Moves – The Songyang Story, Xu Tiantian, DnA_Design and Architecture, Beijing” exhibited at the AEDES Forum, Berlin.