MIT- China Southeast University "Village Urbanism" Joint Design Studio

From January 16-23, 2016, with the generous support of Mr. Samuel Tak Lee, the "Village Urbanism" joint urban design studio was successfully launched in collaboration between MIT's School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and China Southeast University's School of Architecture.

This joint studio focused on studying Baima, a town in the Lishui District of Nanjing, Zhujiabian Village, and its various settlements, to create a uniform development strategy that addresses the three elements of "town, village, and settlement." This study reflected on the seemingly inevitable decline in village living in China's urban coastal areas with advanced economies and transportation systems, and whether the younger generation has viable alternatives other than leaving the countryside for the city. The studio focused on increasing economic and industrial interactions between the city and the village, strengthening transportation connections, adjusting the layout of village settlements and social amenities, and forming new village architectural typologies, all while maintaining the village landscape ecology. Ultimately, this studio project provided a new plan for Baima and Zhujiabian village, and this endeavor will potentially be used to introduce the topic of cooperative urban and village development in China to MIT's global research on urbanization.  

Led by MIT professors Adele Santos and Rafi Segal, MIT’s design team had four urban design graduate students, six architecture graduate students, and one PhD student. Professors Xingping Wang, Ming Ge, and Hong Jiang, lead China Southeast University’s team.  This team included 20 graduate students in the fields of architecture and planning.  

The first stage of the studio lasted three days, which consisted of collecting data related to the existing conditions in Baima town and Zhujiabian village. Professors Santos and Segal opened the first day with a lecture on "Global Urbanization Case Study Research.” China Southeast University's Professor Hong Jiang introduced Baima town and Zhujiabian village's geographic, industrial, economic and demographic conditions, and explained the specific issues that they currently face.  They also discussed China's disparate urban and rural development and the steady decline of rural areas. Immediately after the briefing, the entire studio team began to conduct on-site research in Baima. The 30 graduate students were divided into five teams and researched five topics in great detail, including: "Rural Settlements,” "Public Services and Amenities,” "Cultural Tourism from Zhouyuan Museum,” "Hydrology,” and "Current Rural Development.” On January 18, the research groups presented their findings to Professors Wang Shu, Wenyu Lu, and Dongqing Han. In just three short days, the studio group graphically produced a wealth of research material that was commended by Professor Wang Shu. Professor Wang Shu also introduced recent projects his team has done in Zhengjiang Province experimenting with rural construction development. He specifically pointed to the challenges in rural development, such as the lack of understanding by villagers, their disinterest, lack of support, and the attitude of villagers and village officials to follow the conventional path of demolition and construction of imitation vernacular architecture to promote tourism. In commending the studio group, Professor Wang Shu also encouraged the group to critically tackle the socio-cultural, economic, institutional, interpersonal, and community complexities in rural development and planning.

Picture 1: Joint Studio group photo after the first stage

Picture 2: Using drone to shoot village settlement in the first stage

Picture 3: Visit to "Zhou Yuan" near Zhujiabian Village

Picture 4: Landscape of Baima Town and Zhujiabian Village

Picture 5: WANG Shu and Professor LU Wenyu joined the critique

In the second stage of the studio, the 30 graduate students formed two design teams to begin design work in "Rural Digital Development" and ”Rural Concentric Development.” The studio also conducted site visits and research, using the renowned tea culture of the nearby "Huanglong Mountain" as a precedent. On January 23, after 5 days and nights of intense design work, the two design teams presented their in-depth analysis and design results for urban planning strategies to the professors and a panel of visiting judges. These presentations covered areas such as transportation systems, community demographics, local industries, agriculture and rural landscapes, as well as public services, amenities, and cultural tourism. Professor Xingping Wang from China Southeast University stated that the work from the two design teams transcended academic boundaries in featuring large-scale analysis of ecological structures, city-town-country transportation system, architectural spatial details, and dwelling topology studies. At the same time, he has had similar experiences in rural areas of province Jiangsu, where he has worked for a long time, and gave a detailed description of the unique spatial, cultural, and geographic features of China's rural areas. 

Picture 6: Final critique at Southeast University 

After the MIT group returned to the US, the students continued their work. On February 11, the results were displayed in the corridors of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT.. During the exhibition, the studio participants received insightful critiques from MIT's City Planning Professor Brent Ryan, Center for Advanced Urbanism Director Professor Alan Berger, School of Architecture and Planning Associate Dean Professor Dennis Frenchman, China Academy of Engineering Fellow Professor Jianguo Wang, and China Southeast University Head of the School of Architecture Professor Dongqing Han. Professor Berger commended both design projects' thoughtful and respectful approach to the site context, but also encouraged the students not to be restrained by the existing conditions. In rural areas, there are many poorly constructed buildings as well as subpar living conditions and public spaces.  As such, architects and planners should propose solutions of a larger scope. Professor Jianguo Wang also identified the importance of macro and micro scales of development and planning. The macro scale requires larger plans that reflect and support the starting point of integration between urban and rural industries and economies. The micro scale requires locality and practicality; it requires focus on the practical needs of villagers in terms of housing requirements, building materials, and skilled labor, and also the conditions of the public environment. Professors Ryan and Frenchman highly praised the amount of work in such a short time, and remarked that this studio is a great beginning of potential of further collaborations with Chinese academic and research institutions. Professor Dongqing Han congratulated the studio group for a successful final product and hoped for future collaborations with MIT. 

Picture 7: Academician WANG Jianguo and Professor HAN Dongqing joined exhibition opening at MIT

Picture 8: Productive linkages

Picture 9: STL MIT Lab and Southeast University Professors

This studio is based on the long-term research of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning's students and faculty as well as the Center for Advanced Urbanism. This studio aims to explore to alternatives to the existing dualistic structure in the development of China's urban and rural areas. This involves identifying and deploying different programs, scales, and spatial understandings in order to truly benefit the working and living conditions of villagers. The most important question is how to retain the villagers, whether that is through improving the quality and coverage of services between city and village, constructing more efficient transportation connection, and/or improving the typology and public amenities of rural settlements. Through the integration of form and function, and observing the successful unified development of  European and Latin American towns, the implementation of architecture and planning in Chinese rural areas at both macro and micro scales will be a huge accomplishment. We hope this joint studio will catalyze further research on the boundaries between city, suburb, and village, increase community productivity and revitalization, and improve the ecological and living environments in villages.      

--Waishan Qiu, MCP, STL Fellow