China’s rural revolution: the architects rescuing its villages from oblivion |

In the remote Chinese village of Caizhai, a series of wooden pavilions step down a slope next to a babbling brook, their pitched tiled roofs echoing the rocky peaks of the mountains behind. Through big picture windows, day-trippers look inside, watching big barrels of soya make the journey from bean to tofu, passing through different rooms for soaking, grinding, pressing and frying, in a mesmerising parade of beancurd production.

Caizhai has always been known as a centre of tofu. But, before this facility was built in 2018, families would produce small batches in their home workshops. They struggled to make ends meet, as the conditions didn’t meet the food safety standards for the tofu to be sold in supermarkets, while the younger generation saw little incentive to stick around in the countryside and join ailing family businesses.

Now, however, with a newly formed village co-operative running this purpose-built factory, they are processing 100kg of soybeans a day, supplying nearby schools and workers’ canteens, and selling the improved product – for almost double the previous price – to retailers in the cities. Around 30 younger villagers, who had been lured away by metropolitan life, have returned to Caizhai to join the production team, and visitors have increased 20-fold. They are drawn by an increasingly widespread nostalgia for the countryside, to see traditional tofu-making in action and get a taste of village life, creating demand for further cafes, guesthouses and related businesses nearby.

On the waterfront … Dushan leisure centre.

On the waterfront … Dushan leisure centre. Photograph: Wang Ziling

“We think of it as a kind of architectural acupuncture strategy,” says Xu Tiantian, the Beijing-based founder of DnA, the architecture practice behind the tofu factory and several other such projects across rural Songyang county in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. “In each case, we have tried to make something that restores the villagers’ pride in their local identity, as well as bringing in visitors and creating a local economic network.”

Over the last seven years, she has been working with county leaders to build an impressive constellation of new facilities around the region, from a brown sugar factory and a camellia oil workshop, to a rice wine distillery and pottery production plant, along with community centres and museums. The projects have now been brought together in a handsome new book, which reads like the work of several practices over several decades, such is the dizzying speed of change in China.

From a ring of bamboo trees tied together and pulled inwards to create an outdoor domed theatre, to a…

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