About a 90-minute drive outside the Chinese metropolis of Chengdu, in central Sichuan province, Archi-Union’s In Bamboo project hunkers down, just off a road in the countryside. Its Möbius-like, figure eight–shaped roof twists and contorts above fields of wheat, rapeseed, and winter vegetables, depending on the season, while its scalloped walls of intricately handwoven bamboo bulge beneath the building’s gray-tiled eaves and are traced around the edges by meandering flagstone paths.
It’s an idyllic image. But to hear the project’s Shanghai-based designers describe it, In Bamboo demonstrates “Rural Area Prefab Industrialization in the Era of Digital Humanities.” And while the efficiency of the Chinese language often seems like a mouthful in English translation, the point here is clear: In Bamboo elegantly makes the case for a symbiotic relationship among rural, industrial, and digital.
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At just under 20,000 square feet, the project also blurs functions, acting adaptively as a community center, restaurant, and exhibition hall for Zhuli (or “in bamboo”), a modest settlement of about 85 families within the town of Daoming. The building sits on the former site of two adjacent courtyard houses that had been largely abandoned, and, taking their footprints as a starting point, Archi-Union digitally generated the structure’s Möbius roof, thus “linking two houses as one community center through topological connectivity,” says studio founder Philip F. Yuan.
Indeed, under Yuan, Archi-Union has become widely known for its experiments in digital design and fabrication—the parametrically derived facade of its Chi She gallery in Shanghai was assembled by robots, brick by brick—and In Bamboo’s fluid forms and natural materials produce what might be described as a kind of computational vernacular. The roof’s dynamic, complex curves are clad in gray ceramic tiles of a type that’s native to the area, while the woven bamboo-cane panels that wrap the perimeter walls give a nod to the village’s main craft specialty. Two courtyards, including one with a pool, emerge from the hollows of the infinity sign–shaped plan, where the roof dramatically plunges as it channels water when it rains. “Whether you can see it or not, tradition informs all my projects,” says Yuan.
So does pragmatism. Yuan had to minimize costs and reduce construction time for the government-funded project and, to do so, he relied largely on prefabrication. The building’s steel and laminated-wood construction system was premade, much of it in Chengdu. (Structural bamboo was not an option because the local variety isn’t strong enough. “It’s the softer kind that pandas eat,” Yuan wryly explains, referring to the area’s most famous residents.) Inexpensive studs and chipboard panels help fill out the material palette; the entire project, including landscaping and interiors, took only 52 days to build.
Formally and typologically, In Bamboo is striking enough, but its potential as a model for socially productive rural architecture is head-spinning. China has an estimated 600,000 villages across a vast countryside that, despite remaining home to more than 600 million people, have been depopulated and in decline as people and economic activity have in recent years migrated to the cities. The phenomenon has focused tremendous attention on rural revitalization in China. Fueled by government policies and cash, a wave of new architecture pushing a spectrum of strategies—from the development of agricultural and cultural tourism, to new schools and plain old “beautification” efforts—has cropped up in response.
In Zhuli, In Bamboo deftly negotiates these issues. For starters, with its programmatic flexibility, the use of the building itself is not predetermined. With only a few enclosed rooms—just six, which are used for meetings or dining—the otherwise open, continuous space adapts, as needed, for exhibitions and workshops, often on local crafts, alongside other events. “Until now, there was no place for the community to gather,” Yuan says. That’s when it’s not functioning as a restaurant. Even on that last count, the building remains shrewdly ambiguous; it doesn’t have a kitchen, instead using that of the existing house next door, whose owners have now made it their business.
The flexibility makes sense when one considers that In Bamboo is only the beginning of a larger, still-evolving plan for Daoming, all of it designed by Archi-Union, that includes an eight-villa hotel, children’s summer camp, water-filtration ponds, and a small service center that, alongside public restrooms, will have a package-delivery station that will link the village to China’s burgeoning e-commerce economy. What’s more, Archi-Union has developed a master plan that includes a new village entryway as well as guidelines—covering everything from paving patterns, materials, and fence heights—to steer construction in an enclave that’s now humming with residents rebuilding once-dilapidated homes.
“We’re trying to show the villagers how to use architecture to change their lives,” says Yuan. “We’re creating systems, but they can use them in bottom-up ways.” According to Yuan, the redevelopment efforts are under the direction of a newly formed company jointly owned by the local government and the village.
Yuan calls In Bamboo a prototype. By merging digital design, industrial fabrication, and the vernacular, the project shows how non-Cartesian architecture can spur non-Cartesian thinking in tackling complex redevelopment in parts of China.
Archi-Union Architects — Philip F. Yuan, principal; Alex Han, Xiangping Kong, Bing Yang, Tianrui Zhu, project team; Qinhao Wen, Xiaoming Chen, Jingyan Tang, interior design
Jing Wang, Lei Li, Chen Liang, Qiang Zhou
Yong Liu, Ying Yu, Qiang Zhou (electromechanical)