An interdisciplinary practice addressing contemporary physical and social living environments, DnA works across a multiplicity of scales. Research and discussion on context and program are at the core of their design and architectural work. In this interview, we talk with Xu Tiantian, founder and principal, on her recent Swiss Architectural Award, how her work bridges the divide between rural and urban contexts and what comes next on her efforts to conjugate architecture and eco agriculture.
This conversation was originally developed for the writing, in Italian, of the article "L'arte di riparare" by Federica Sofia Zambeletti for The Good Life Italia, 46, April-May 2023.
KOOZ The Swiss Architectural Award promotes aesthetic but also ethical and ecological architectural approaches. Specifically, the prize was awarded to you for projects like the re-use of the Shimen Bridge (2016-2017), the Tofu factory in Caizhai (2017-2018), and the transformation of the abandoned quarries of Jinyun (2021-2022). How are these works representative of your approach to architecture and the built environment?
XU TIANTIAN Those three projects are representative of our architectural explorations and experimentations throughout rural China. As an architecture office operating both within the rural and the urban, we are very much interested in reusing existing resources, structures and infrastructures and weaving these within their social and cultural fabric. Beyond the reevaluation of the existing, our architectural approach is driven by collective memory and the rural identity of a place. We see that our interventions thrive when they directly engage with the local community, restoring a sense of pride and honor.
Our architectural approach is driven by collective memory and the rural identity of a place, our interventions thrive when they directly engage with the local community, restoring a sense of pride and honor.
The Caizhai Tofu factory is a compelling case study, very representative of our understanding of architecture as means and not as an end. The intervention develops as a series of small-scale implementations within the public buildings of the village with the aim of integrating family workshops as active shareholders of the tofu village economy. Through this approach, individual family households— often left behind by the rural economy—can become part of the collective economic structure of the village, the so-called co-ops, which are at the very foundation of Chinese rural society. Beyond the economic empowerment of the local community, the intervention also works on the preservation of craft. By opening up the spaces of production and transforming these into live performances, the factory itself becomes a live museum as well as an educational facility which residents and visitors alike can engage with. On the other hand, the quarry project revolved around the possibility and challenge of re-activating an industrial wasteland into an open-air community space able to host both public and cultural programmes.
The rural has kept its overall structure, a solid framework where people live in harmony with nature and with the tradition of agrarian culture.
KOOZ Your previous answer focused on three specific cases found within rural China. How much of your approach can also be translated to your understanding of the built environment in cities? Do you engage differently within a metropolis, let’s say Beijing?
XT I think we can definitely learn from the rural. As Chinese cities are built in such a short time period (a few decades) they are very emblematic of what we have forgotten, in terms of history, culture, nature, biodiversity etc. and, although we have come to define the rural as the “forgotten land”, it has differently kept its overall structure, a solid framework where people live in harmony with nature and with the tradition of agrarian culture.
Throughout our smaller urban projects, we try to ensure the city as a place of cultural diversity.
We try to counterbalance the massive cultural loss brought by demolition and replacement of old buildings with new modern structures by introducing programs within small scale open spaces. Throughout our smaller urban projects, we try to ensure the city as a place of cultural diversity.
KOOZ You grew up at a time of rapid urbanisation, partially influenced by Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of China to the world. How did this moment in history inform your outlook and expectations, especially in regards to architecture and its purpose in contemporary society?
XT China continues to witness the (apparently endless) growth of its economy, creating a false sense of optimism. This fast pace has resulted in us forgetting and/or neglecting our rich cultural heritage. It is now necessary to reflect upon our history and culture as a means of achieving a common understanding, a common ground.
It is now necessary to reflect upon our history and culture as a means of achieving a common understanding, a common ground.
I truly see the architectural discipline as very embedded within the cultural discourse and framework. Architecture is not just about the making of individual isolated buildings but it really is a medium to deliver the philosophy, the culture of how people have been living in specific territories for thousands of years. I think that as architects, it’s important we nurture this kind of relationship which is ever so more apparent in the rural, where there is a true kinship between the legacy of a family and that of a village.
KOOZ You undertook your bachelor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and then a Master of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, which then brought you to work in the Netherlands and in Boston before establishing DnA Architecture and Design. How did these experiences inform your approach with DnA Architecture and what prompted you to establish the studio in Beijing?
XT Of course my architectural experiences (both local and global) have had an impact on the foundations upon which I have built DnA Architecture. Nonetheless, I believe that it was my experience in working throughout rural China and collaborating with artists as Ai Wei Wei and being exposed to their more conceptual and unconventional approach which really informed my practice.
We very much engage with critical research of the site, identifying issues and criticalities we want to then address as architects.
To date, we identify as an architectural office tied to the artistic disciplines. Rather than working on a given programme and location, we ourselves initiate the programmes and the proposals to local authorities. Moreover, when starting to work on each project, we very much engage with critical research of the site, identifying issues and criticalities we want to then address as architects. That’s why we call ourselves practitioners through acupuncture, we operate like doctors.
KOOZ Songyang and Jinyun are counties threatened by significant youth migration towards the metropolis and at the same time they are areas which preserve China’s cultural heritage. How do your award-winning projects operate in between these two forces and try to engage the youth?
XT As a result of both our interventions and the later implementation of the Central Government’s campaign for rural revitalization, we are indeed experiencing the movement of young people back to this region. Within the context of the Tofu factory, whilst some individuals went back to work within this invigorated economy, others are returninghome to start their own businesses and initiatives after having gained experience and knowledge in the cities.
We are indeed experiencing the movement of young people back to this region.
An interesting social and economic factor, which really picked up because of the pandemic, is the “Live Broadcasting economy”: young people in the factory reach out through a live broadcast on the internet and sell their products online. Whilst this strengthens the economic reach of the village, it also has an educational layer embedded within, exposing the city dweller to the making of tofu and directly engaging the unique resources found in rural regions to the city.
KOOZ This live broadcasting is an example of the positive outcomes that the use of technology can have in our lives and projects. I don’t know how much your project would have impacted the community without the digital component connecting cities with the rural.
XT One of our early projects was a tea house in Songyang, which since 2015 was operated by a young girl from the village whose family has managed the teahouse and made tea for decades. Last year, I discovered that the girl quit her job at the teahouse to work full time on her live broadcasting, selling her own tea products through tik tok. Her gross revenue last year was 15 million dollars.
It's time for a real shift in architecture. We cannot passively receive commissions, but should actively apply our knowledge and experience.
KOOZ Your work goes so much further than building buildings. What is for you the agency of the architect within our society?
XT I think it's time for a real shift in architecture. We cannot just passively receive commissions, but should rather actively apply our knowledge and experience and look for issues and provide solutions through design. By working through a multiscalar approach, architecture can really push innovative collective economic structures which engage locals and family workshops. Prior to our intervention, the Shimen bridge used to be “just” a piece of infrastructure, but through our intervention its function was expanded and transformed to become community space, a market space, a marathon route, and so on. Through our work in rural areas, we always aim to expand the function of space. In smaller communities and areas, one doesn’t need many architectural artefacts but one building which can accommodate more functions. The space must be adaptive and more resilient, designed to have less operation loads.
KOOZ As a final question, what is the most interesting unbuilt project that you would like to undertake?
XT At DnA we are currently researching the tulou, a hundred years old typical typology found in the province, whose main function was acting as a defence mechanism whilst also hosting collective living. One might remember / associate these as they were featured in Mulan, the movie.
Three years ago, we discovered that thousands of tulous are now abandoned and left in critical conditions, which will ultimately lead to their demise. At DnA we are adopting an adaptive reuse approach to both restoring those which are still active whilst also transforming those which have been abandoned beyond their original functions, in order to cater to the needs of contemporary society. We are looking at the possibility of transforming the vacant spaces for social community and cultural programmes as well as to open up interesting economic possibilities.
Eco agriculture and its variation around the world is so fascinating for us and deeply influences how we think of architecture.
Beyond the tulou, we are also working on a small island with a particular focus on systems and water, tapping into the intellectual types of agricultural systems invented by the local community. Whilst wastewater is not considered useful when on a continent, on this island it becomes extremely precious for tree plantations. As such, it is collected and pumped up to the mountain to go through an eco-recycling filtration system which renders it as freshwater for trees and irrigation. By working with local indigenous wisdom, we are also exploring the cultivation of seaweed with oysters, the cultivation of rice fields in the mountains, the farming of fish, and also the agro-reforestation of mushrooms.
Eco agriculture and its variation around the world is so fascinating for us and deeply influences how we think of architecture. When we have this type of agriculture—as per the tofu factory, where production can engage the community with the plantation also ensuring a better revenue—these spaces can become educational and cultural platforms. Architecture can be programmed in this sense. In the long term, I would love to work with eco agriculture as a different concept of industrial agriculture.
Xu Tiantian is the founding principal of DnA Design and Architecture. She has received numerous awards such as the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architect in 2019, the 14th International Prize for Sustainable Architecture Gold Medal, the 2022 Swiss Architectural Award and the 2023 Berlin Kunstpreis. In 2020, she was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Xu Tiantian has engaged extensively in the rural revitalization process in China. Her groundbreaking “Architectural Acupuncture” is a holistic approach to the social and economic revitalization of rural China and has been selected by UN Habitat as the case study of Inspiring Practice on Urban-Rural Linkages. Xu Tiantian received her Master of Architecture in Urban Design (MAUD) from Harvard Graduate School of Design, and her Baccalaureate in Architecture from Tsinghua University in Beijing.