Courtesy CBC Aerial view of Xiamutang, China

"What if you built the whole mass of Western Europe in 20 years?" ask Dutch architect Neville Mars and writer Adrian Hornsby In The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction (Nai010 Publishers, 2013). "What if 400 million farmers then moved in? What if it happened between now and 2020? … Would you be able to go to sleep at night? And if you did, would you dream of somewhere else?"

In their book, Mars, Hornsby, and others trace China's breakneck urbanization and accompanying rural depopulation of recent decades. Contributor Saskia Vendel projects that by 2030, China will have added an urban population the size of Beijing each year for 35 years. Such a rapid migration has delivered significant changes for urban Chinese, including better economic prospects and improved lifestyles—the promises of the Chinese Dream.

A structure in Xiamutang prior to revitalization
Courtesy CBC A structure in Xiamutang prior to revitalization

And yet, the new urbanites are often treated as second-class citizens, while those remaining in the countryside have experienced economic stagnation or decline. "Coastal cities [in China] have attained almost rich-world standards of living," The Economist reported in June. "Deeper inland, vast swathes of the country, especially rural areas, lag far behind … . Compared with the gaping regional divides in China, the rich world's increasingly visible geographical inequality seems almost trivial."

Six years ago, President Xi Jinping championed a new approach in his country. In a 2013 speech, he advocated building a meili xiangcun ("beautiful countryside") unsullied by the acquisitive behavior shaping fast-growing Chinese cities. This movement became a national strategic plan to improve the living environment of rural communities, modernize infrastructure, and bring new insights for rural construction through design and art. With this aim in mind, the China Building Center (CBC) inaugurated the International Colleges and Universities Construction Competition in 2016. Since then, the CBC, in a collaboration with Urban Environment Design (UED) magazine, has selected one village each year for design-build proposals focused on rural development.

Last summer, 21 architectural colleges and universities from China and abroad joined the Third International Colleges and Universities Construction Competition held in the village of Xiamutang, China, to propose innovative ways to stimulate the vitality of micro-spaces in rural areas. The competition theme for "Q Village" focused on play, emphasizing the importance of fun-making activities, turning "the negative and boring rural spaces into positive and interesting ones" via creative design interventions, according to a competition description. Several projects were constructed during a two-week period, such as South China University of Technology's Suspended Gallery, a bamboo bridge designed with custom joints. The ultralight, tensile structure conveys a floating sensation while referencing vernacular material traditions. This and other installations literally and figuratively bridge the old and new, vernacular and modern, architecture and infrastructure.

Blaine Brownell Suspended Gallery by the South China University of Technology team

According to the CBC, sites are identified for revitalization based on a variety of circumstances. Some villages are dilapidated to the point of requiring comprehensive reconstruction; some possess intact cultural monuments but receive too little—or too much—tourism; others have modern, yet degraded, infrastructure in need of repair. In the case of Xiamutang, a village located in Jiangxi Province in south-central China, cultural history and natural setting played roles in its selection. (The nearby city of Ji'an was the birthplace of renowned literary figures Yang Wanli, Wen Tianxiang, and Ouyang Xiu.)

Before being chosen for meili xiangcun treatment, Xiamutang was "like thousands of Chinese villages in recession," CBC officials tell ARCHITECT. "There were shabby buildings, unequipped infrastructure, and scarce educational resources." The village consisted of more than 50 households in varying states of decay, several important communal structures in ruins, and failing infrastructure. In addition to hosting the design competition there, CBC and UED invited architects, designers, and artists to revitalize many of the existing buildings in creative ways.

Cricket Coffee café featuring a subtly modified façade
Blaine Brownell Cricket Coffee café featuring a subtly modified façade

Visiting Xiamutang is an eye-opening experience. Upon first glance, it looks like a historic settlement situated within the hilly, lush hinterland outside Ji'an. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that remarkable changes have occurred in the year following the competition. Imaginative play structures such as a spiraling pavilion that coils into itself, a suspended fabric cocoon, and a thatch and bamboo dome occupy several courtyards and residual spaces.

The renovated structures hold even more surprises. A centrally located communal building—now a café called Cricket Coffee—is clad in hand-laid bricks, ceramic tiles, and newly installed cast glass blocks, inside of which are grass sculptures of various insects. Another former residential structure has been transformed into an entertainment venue that largely maintains the original house's appearance from the exterior, but inside features a blackened steel structure that forms a stair and mezzanine—as well as prismatic windows that refract the daylight. A subterranean, sky-lit gallery space hides below the forecourt of a reconstructed temple.

A "cricket" block
Blaine Brownell A "cricket" block

The Xiamutang design interventions disrupt traditional models of historic preservation. Equally transformative is the social change that the village's makeover has brought about. Rather than preserve agriculture as the dominant source of labor, the CBC has encouraged economic diversification—including small businesses and cultural organizations that serve the burgeoning tourist population, as well as local families looking for more children activities. "What the 'hollow village' needs is not the traditional villagers who stick to farmland, but the 'new villagers' with advanced ideas and values," the CBC says. These new villagers include artists, photographers, educators, and social workers who long to abandon China's frenetic and polluted cities for a quieter, cleaner, more relaxed way of life.

For these individuals, the meili xiangcun version of the Chinese Dream symbolizes a bridge between traditional lifestyles and contemporary creative pursuits. The new residents are likely as attracted to becoming part of a welcoming, close-knit community as they are to exploring newfound artistic freedoms. In this way, Xiamutang—which aspires to salvage rural China from an unpropitious fate—is as much social experiment as it is a physical one.