Within the Frame: The Countryside as a City

by Carly Augustine (MArch II '16) and Nicolas Lee (MArch II '15), recipients of American Society of Landscape Architects 2015 Student Award

Within The Frame identifies the issues of the city through the investigation and redefinition of the connection between its architecture and its landscape. A multiplicity of scalar relationships is created through the use of housing as a framing device for a diverse landscape. From the personal spaces of the interior gardens, to the communal spaces of the corn fields, there exists a relationship between the dwelling, landscape and every day activities. By learning about the history and the dominant type of the Chinese countryside, we can start to reevaluate the role of rural urbanization by providing a basis for new solutions and alternatives to the conventional way of living. We challenge the social and spatial implications of the Chinese Government’s goal and attempt to find an alternate model for a dense urban core through the lens of framing the landscape.

The rapid growth of urbanization is changing the landscape of our cities where modern norms upset cultural and traditional ways of living. In China, there is rising social and economic disparity between urban and rural populations, mainly influenced by the Hukou household registration system. The Central Government of China is focused on the development of the countryside and searching for new means to bridge the gap between the urban population and rural villagers by the following: through the upgrading and consolidation of villages to provide better amenities and services, to make land more efficient in order to improve food security and to prevent rural migration by making towns more attractive. With this policy in place, Collective rural life is being transformed into an urban based economy. Within traditional Chinese society, there is a symbiotic relationship between village and country. The residential status of peasant village members allows rural villagers to own land as part of a collective, which enables them to live off the land and make a means for themselves. “Rural citizenship entails self-responsibility, in food supply, housing, employment and income; it lacks most of the welfare benefits enjoyed by urban residents.” Farming was a way of life and agrarian living was centered on the landscape. Land was a means of financial security and identity for the farmer and his family. The location and proximity to land of the new villages has a great impact on the scope and scale of resources that a village may command and influences the social networks of both old and new generations of villagers. Currently, the relationship between location of residence and way of life, governs the social and spatial qualities that defines the rural from the urban. However, in recent years, urban based industrialization has transformed the economy of agriculture and the non-mechanized farming methods of older generations has become a hobby more than a means of income generation. Villages are being consolidated and relocated to provide upgraded housing, as well as making way for urbanization. The advent of rural urbanization dissolves the definition of what it means to be a rural villager, by stripping away their land and taking away their jobs as well as their way of life. The spatial implications of relocation involved with rural urbanization are unresolved and have contributed to the “loss of land, livelihood, social networks and collective identity.” In the old villages, proximity of dwelling unit to land facilitated daily agricultural activities and processes. The link to agricultural land prompts a feeling of ownership over the space, providing identity and order. In both the old and new villages production activity is integral with one’s social life. Social interaction occurs among the heaps of corn, peanuts and garlic where everyone must congregate to complete the task of sorting and peeling. Within the new developments, we see the importance of farming over modern luxuries. Garages are appropriated for storage of peanuts, driveways as gardens and roads as sorting areas instead of utilizing this space for the car. However, new towns ignore farming as a cultural act – there is no porosity of landscape into the town, and so left over space is appropriated to fill the needs of the users. Agricultural production is not seen as a mere income generating tool, but instead, it is a cultural practice, a part of the collective memory of the community. We believe this shift towards rural urbanization is spatially unbalanced, therefore creating a rural urbanization in disconnection with all that is rural. “Agricultural land in China is often wiped clean of all previous historic or cultural significance to make way for urbanization.” Villagers are forced to change their living traditions to adapt to suburban life. In order to transition the gap between rural and urban, we must distill and safe guard the traditions and characteristics of rural life in China. Learning from the tradition of city making in ancient China and the philosophy that underpins it, this project seeks to establish a social and spatial framework to capture and frame the ideals of rural life while meeting the demands of urbanization. Within the existing rural villages of China, the porosity between village and agricultural land caters to the means of living as a farmer. The expanse of the agricultural land penetrates the village fabric creating an ambiguity between landscape and village, home and work. In opposition to the organic nature of rural villages, the imperial cities of China are clearly delineated by walls, conceived as a whole universe to be constructed within the decreed frame. Through the use of walls, the city of Beijing has been defined by the frame – from the original city fabric – to the extents of new growth. The frame originates from within the dominate type of the courtyard house. The deep structure of the courtyard typology is composed of the amalgamation of pavilions, bounded by 4 walls, and aggregated to form courtyards. The scalable deep structure of the frame of the courtyard type creates a sequential experience, “alternating between open and closed space, nature and building, adhering to the yin and yang concept of alternation.” This proposal seeks to heighten these relationships between architecture and landscape, frame and void, to produce new relationships. With the advent of rural urbanization, a new type of town must be designed to mediate between life in the city and life in the country. As the plan for the imperial city embraced ideas of Confucianist thinking with emphasis on centrality, unity, harmony and balance, our design for the new town wishes to centralize the ideas of collectiveness as seen in the rural villages. In delineating four edges, our strategy of framing is not to promote a dense urban core, but rather to use the frame as a strong, simple and clear architectural artifact to create an aesthetic, and productive object through the use of landscape.