Pimp My Ping Fang
Pimp My Ping Fang

Bryan Davies is an artist based in Leeds and is married to Laura Davies who is an artist as well. I have written before about them as the new Charles and Ray Eames or Robin and Lucienne Day of the footballers’ wives generation - http://www.bryanandlauradavies.com/biography

Bryan is an architect/artist. That’s not necessarily either or both of those things, but somewhere moving between the two.

In this project his main concerns was the dynamics of the village from an architectural perspective – how the social conditions and difficulties could be improved through better use of its spaces and buildings.

All the artists were aware of the divide in the village, demarcated by the river (semi-dried up from the hydro-power stations). On one side of the river was tourist land, occupied by the hotel, the hotel restaurant, the museum, the entrance to the forest park etc. On the other side of the river, over the only bridge, lived the majority of the residents, in either new apartment blocks or the older ping fang (flat house) district and, further out, farms and farmsteads. This side of the river also has the main market square and several shops and restaurants lining the main road through the village.

The tourists pass through this part of Nanling on their way to the Hotel and Forest, but their interaction with it was minimal, stopping to buy the odd thing from the market or eating in some, but not all, of the restaurants. Mostly the tourists pass through in expensive cars with blacked out windows and head straight over the bridge to the hotel.

Whilst the village, in comparison to the hotel, is dirty and cluttered, the artists all felt that it was vital that this part of Wuzhishen, it’s heart, was seen as part of the attraction, or at least part of the whole ecology of the valley, not just the forest park. The intention of the whole Happystacking project was to develop the whole socio-cultural ecology not just the landscape.

Bryan Davies’ approach was to look at ways to highlight the benefits and value of the working village and to begin to look at ways to enhance what was there. To make a better living experience, a better visitor experience and a better interaction between the two.

It soon became known to us that the Government Forest Agency intended to demolish the ping fang district and to re-house the tenants in new apartment blocks within three years time. Whilst the apartment blocks are an improvement in terms of accommodation and sanitation, there is a great deal to be lost in demolishing the older architecture. These traditional houses are enjoyed greatly for the social living patterns they provide, having the houses split between cooking/washing rooms and living sleeping rooms. The consequence is that there is constant communal interaction, as the residents use the central street between the buildings as additional living space. This way of life is valued and will be missed should the houses be demoloshed. It is also part of a social history that is deeply rooted with the Chinese way of life.
Across China, as part of the movement toward mass modernisation, rural dwellings and vernacular buildings are being demolished in favour of a homogenous architecture of improved accommodation, usually the standard multi-storey pastel tiled apartment blocks.

These blocks address the question of human hygiene and better standard of living but do not address the quality of living. The communal living is lost, as are the gardens, the connection with the land, identity - and the pleasure of diverse and vibrant human ecology.

If you live in Leeds, know about architecture and social history and so on, you can see this one coming, having seen the problems that this process of modernisation has incurred, albeit over a longer time span. You can see the value in vernacular, in genuine communal living, in growing your vegetables with your neighbours and in working with what you’ve got, with the materials at hand.

Bryan’s proposal is to hold off the demolition of the ping fang in favour of redeveloping the narrow streets and houses to play up their uniqueness and to amplify their many good points – with more social space, more garden space, more flexibility and more interest. This will not only make for a better quality of life for the residents, but an actual attractor for visitors, to come and take part in the village, not just drive through it, but to come in and see it, meet the folks and see the best of another China, which has still has relevant contemporary applications.

Bryan’s vision plays this up to the max, with aerial walkways, roof gardens, cantilevered opening roves, silver-surfer internet cafes, vegetable garden shops, fashion boutiques, carpenters workshops, micro-businesses and so on and so on.

This approach (at least as a physical change) has been tried and tested in Britain –see http://www.urbansplash.co.uk/chimneypotpark/ for an example – and elsewhere including Beijing with the preservation of the hutongs, but the emphasis here is on the balance between attraction for visitor and attraction for genuine sustainable living.
His scheme is not just for the visitors but for the residents, providing, for example, an internet hub and social club for the elderly residents to chat with their children and grandchildren in the city.

In addition Bryan designed a new model market stall which would raise the game in the market, provoking the thought that their might be another way of displaying the produce or you might rethink the way things are sold and packaged for different markets. The stall was made by a local 76 year old carpenter, with a little interpretation of the artists design http://www.happystacking.tv/blog/219, a mix of high modernism and local craft. On the stall in the market Bryan showed his designs for the re-imagined ping fang which returned a very positive response. Locals commented how they would welcome the chance to maintain their houses and how the new proposed version could be made locally in steel or engineered timber, using the engineering skills already in the village.

Again what is important here is to sow the idea that there might be an element of self organisation and control in how the village is shaped. That they are not just at the mercy of a higher authority, but can start to imagine what can be done on their terms. This is no revolution, but better use of what we’ve already got.

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