School of Architecture, CUHK

REACTIVATE: Dong Minority Architectural Workshop in Hunan

Date & Time

28.07.2016 28.07.2016


Hunan, China


Between the 22nd of June and the 1st of July 2016, graduate students from the School of Architecture at CUHK participated in a joint summer workshop with students from Guangzhou University, exploring how to “reactivate” the remote Dong Chinese minority village of Gaobu in Hunan Province. Led by Prof. Peter W. Ferretto (CUHK) and Prof. Ling Cai (GZU), 32 students researched and proposed ways to revitalise a village that confronted many social and economic problems related to the mass exodus of its youth to nearby urban areas.

The Dong ethnic minority people are one of China’s 56 ethnic groups, who live mostly between the regions of eastern Guizhou, western Hunan and northern Guangxi. With a population of almost three million and a long history of more than 1,000 years dating back to the Tang Dynasty, the Dong have developed a rich culture steeped in tradition and folklore strongly connected with the structure of their village settlements.

For centuries, the Dong people have lived in self-sustainable villages, generating an autonomous relationship between land and dwelling. This sustainable system is in a state of entropy today, where modernisation with its advantages and disadvantages risks disintegrating both their customs and ecology. Rather than lecture the villagers on the impact and reasons of mass migration to urban settlements, this Workshop started with a concept: Re-Activate.

The Workshop’s premise was that architecture can serve as a vehicle for collective expression and empowerment. By working closely with local communities, understanding their social customs as well as their traditional craftsmanship, a new civic approach towards architecture can be achieved, awakening the awareness of social, sustainable and economic issues facing populations in rural Chinese minority villages and beyond.

The idea is based on taking the status quo as a point of departure, a point from where things can be adapted and altered to generate new meanings for the Gaubu village. The students working in groups had to analyse various aspects of the village: social space, waste, water, abandoned dwelling, etc., before making a prototype intervention that would highlight this condition to the villagers.

The Workshop came alive exactly through this process of making, where the villagers, each with their specific tasks, were activated to construct the prototypes with the students. For example, the “Abandoned” team, who explored the obsolete tools that lay hidden around the village, converted these useless machines into new toys for the younger generation. Through this process, the villagers were able to reevaluate things that had no apparent value and transform them into positive assets.

The results were impressive and inspiring. Ten mixed teams composed of students from both universities assembled a wonderful exhibition of architectural prototypes, all manufactured by the students together with the help of the villagers, addressing sustainable and bespoke ways of enhancing local public life. The exhibition was inaugurated by the governor of the province and his delegation, who embraced the value of the Workshop and complimented the students for their creative accomplishment in this stimulating example of socially motivated architecture.

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