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How One Firm Reimagines Rural Chinese Villages Through an Urban Lens

For many firms and architects, the frontier of urban design and city planning can be found in the fast-growing cities of China, currently home to a forest of forthcoming skyscrapers. For John Lin and Joshua Bolchover, co-founders of Rural Urban Framework (RUF), a research and design collaborative the two University of Hong Kong professors started in 2006, interesting work lies on the other end of the country's mass urban migration. In a Chinese countryside that has seen hundreds of millions move into cities, hallowing out parts of the rural population, Lin, Bolchover and their students and collaborators have discovered that this unique situation provides an opportunity and testing ground for adventurous architects, and a chance to solve the problem of how to deal with the imbalances caused by urban migrations, an issue relevant to countries across the globe. According to Lin, the solution involves a culturally relevant, participatory approach, which has served them well over nearly 20 projects.

"It's a process of bringing value to design," he says. "It's doesn't cost more to add good design. "

RUF, which just win the 2015 Curry Stone Prize, an annual social impact design award, started focusing on rural Chinese villages during trips through the southern part of the country, where, according to Lin, they'd see the vast differences and changes in the landscape, from the skyscrapers of Shenzhen and bustle of Guangzhou to massive factory districts and small villages. Observing construction in these villages, fueled by remittances from those who had packed up and moved to big cities, Lin and Bolchover were witnessing a classic rural migration story through the lens of Chinese culture and experience (for instance, Western observers may look at the downsides of the country's rapid urban migration without considering how many people it has lifted out of poverty). Intrigued by the idea of reusing the landscape and fueling economies that could work within these small towns, they began taking on projects, working for small villages or with locals and charities on a series of pro bono designs meant to create community centers or help rebuild after earthquakes.

"We're trying to get villages to build less and build smaller, which is a strange thing for architects to do," says Lin. "How do we reuse an abandoned building, or courtyard spaces, and turn them into something for the whole village?"

While many of the group's projects, from a village center in Qinmo to a charitable hospital in Andong, seem to work on a small scale and limited budget, the pair see themselves as urbanists, with their work fitting seamlessly into bigger discussions of urban design. Within the tight grids of many of these villages, many citizens live close together, so many of the same questions of community, land use, and scale are faced in the city and countryside. Often the architects are working on smaller structures within a larger village redesign, building so as to maximize community space. It's about taking the existing building stock, often reusing materials, and figuring out ways to make it more beneficial, says Bolchover.

"You could say the big trick is to meet different expectations," says Lin. "The village head, charity, the Chinese government, villagers, and our own expectation. If you're able to tie all this together, I think that's what architecture is really about. It elevates things beyond being a service provider."

As RUF expands its work—the collective recently began working in Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, tackling the challenges of rural-to-urban settlements of nomadic tribesman—they're still tackling issues on the same continuum.

"We're seeing what we can do within the space and grappling with larger forces," says Bolchover. "It's all about the dialogue and the context. Urban doesn't always mean big."

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