Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge 2019

In 2018, I joined Creative Cooperative. One of the first project I got involved with brought me back to China. Though a different province—Jiangxi, villages here are facing the same problems as the rest of China and some Western countries: depopulation and aging countryside deprived of productivity and energy; over populated big cities with its urban problem bundle: air pollution, housing shortage, etc. To revitalize a village in Jiangxi, China, a company in Xiamen set up a project titled Lucitopia, and we were called in by the company based in Xiamen to provide a design solution, of which resulted in design challenges two years in a row.

Lucitopia is situated within the Qingliangshan national forest park, there are a dozen old village houses left with people occupying them, mostly old people who still carry on the lifestyle sustained by working in their land. Their children and grandchildren have migrated to either nearby county towns or even far away provinces to have a life in bigger cities. Relatively remote, a two hour drive in the mountain from the nearest high speed train station, this place have remained for a long time a traditional relationship between people and their surroundings: taking what they can from the land and mountain, which including manual farming, foraging and (now illegal) hunting, building houses from local bricks and rammed earth, making tools from local bamboo; all that came from the land will go back to the land eventually with the use of maneuver as fertilizer, compost gas as heat source… etc. Though the now seemingly ecological and organic lifestyle have not bring fortune and development to the region, the prolonged depopulation, poverty, certain level of inconvenience according to modern urban standards have outshone the traditional land wisdom of people rooted their lives in soil.

traditional houses built of local wood and bamboo
a smart temporary device made of wood and stone for drying foraged bamboo shoot
porous ventilation panel made of woven bamboo
local rammed earth house with smart wooden stick installations for hanging appliances

We identified many ingenuities that perhaps can be rethought or structured to reconnect the wisdom with modern times. Following Andrew Bullen‘s co-design methodology, we had several workshop sessions with people working for Lucitopia town development to define the core value and design goal of Lucitopia. Following those values and goals, we have compiled a design statement for the 2019 Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge. A detailed account about the objective and process can be read here.

In the course of half a year, we have visited the area twice prior to the challenge. It is a place with fresh clear air, a small clearing along the river with magical mountains surrounded by magical mist to wake up to. Yet I don’t want to paint a romantic picture of a natural paradise where people live in total content and complete harmony with the nature, in fact, the remote location thus preserving an old lifestyle also means the lack of modern transportation, prosperity and future for many people who moved elsewhere in search of a better life. It is a place with its own historical complexities: situated en route from Fujian province to northern inland provinces, it has been a important logistic center for several centuries before modern China; being within the province where Chinese communist party was founded, it has a strong red history and sentiment; the national forest park used to be managed by an army production corp, further complicating the already intricate ownership situation in terms of land and other natural resources. Local government have been encouraging beekeeping business and medicinal herb cultivation, many farmers have then started to housing beehives in their land and subsequently selling honey through Chinese online shopping sites.

local beekeeping boxes

Eight schools from Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Russia, France, Singapore and China with ten teams in total 55 people joined the challenge. In 5 days, we organized field trips around the site, led several workshops to guide their design process towards a design solution that is systematic, inclusive, as well as sensitive. At the beginning of the challenge week, we have assembled a panel speakers to talk about bamboo based product design, system based ecological interventions and artistic method for countryside revival, township policy planning, food&art. I was also giving my talk on dangerous eating at one of the sessions. You can find the transcript of the talk here.

The challenge ended with Team London wining the first prize with a well rounded plan that by collaborating with local or even global leading culinary institutions to bring young urban professionals to Lucitopia to advance their culinary training by discovering and utilizing local resources.

Challenge participants learning bamboo weaving from local craftsman
team London final presentation

With the wrapping up of second year’s design challenge, this project has only started its baby steps, with each day passing by, deeper and deeper have I felt the inherent difficulties in such a large scale project. It not only requires a deep understanding of the local need, intricate relationships between different stakeholders, but also asks an acknowledgment from the designer, that a top down master plan isn’t always the best. This project has also strengthened and deepened my understanding of both traditional practice based Chinese lifestyle and culture, also the inheritance of enlightenment ideals behind western practices, I could see where these two come to clash at times and at other times, perhaps could learn from each other to establish a more beneficial theoretical framework as well as modes of practices for the future.

Additional links:

  • To read more about the process of LRDC 2019, head to ESDC’s blog post.
  • To read more about Lucitopia organization, head to Lucitopia website.

%d bloggers like this: