He Wei treasures the old while introducing something new into China’s rural panorama

PINGTIAN – In a traditional village in eastern rural China, architect He Wei furnishes a traditional rammed-earth house with a perspective for the future.

The village of Pingtian – located in the Sidu Township of Songyang County – is so small, it does not appear on Google maps. Its remoteness is a blessing and a curse at once. While it is culturally viable for most of this picturesque region of China to remain untouched by the cheap kind of souvenir buying tourism, the historic villages are starting to die without support, houses crumble and villagers leave. The rolling wave of urbanisation is neither new nor unwanted, and as Foreign Policy magazine concluded in 2015, the Chinese government is supportive of people abandoning their rural lifestyles in favour of the convenient mundanity of the city. Once living in rental apartments, they are likely to become part of a more service-centred economy, making and spending money rather than living in isolation in the countryside. In the northwest of Spain, similar things have been happening as a result of the government selling off whole villages which have been stood empty for years, often for less than 100000 EUR.

Luckily, Pingtian is still far away from being sold as an abandoned whole. Instead, there are initiatives in collaboration with universities and other institutions to work on small renovations and innovative changes that will increase slow tourism and keep its heritage alive. The transformation of Papa’s house – the endearing name given to the mud-walled structure by locals – into Papa’s Hostel is in line with those values.

Architect He Wei has left the building’s exterior completely untouched while inserting a younger face inside. Thanks to the demolition of all partitions on the first floor, the youth hostel embraces arriving travellers with one big space that can be used for communal activities by both visitors and locals. Despite new wooden additions, the traditionally earthy flair has been retained. Innovative sleeping compartments are found on the second level. Cleverly adapting the building with a house-within-a-house strategy, the interior is initially undivided. Instead, there are three hut-like polycarbonate structures held together with simple wooden beams. Each unit is translucent, lightweight and transportable - quite literally. Rolls have been placed underneath the structure which allow the 4–6 inhabitants to connect with their inner or outer child and move them around within the room. Another playful detail is a series of randomly placed openings in the portable structures which allow guests from other compartments to peek inside. Concerns about privacy should be put to the wayside anyway when planning to stay in a hostel.

In He Wei’s culturally conscious renovation, nothing is imposed on the house. The spaces are inviting, open and flowing, his interventions are small but effectual. Abstaining from unnecessary cluttering or decoration, Wei’s special emphasis is placed on light. Transparent tiles on the roof ensure enough brightness comes from above and with carefully considered window slots on the sides, some panoramic vistas of the mountain landscape are revealed while views of China’s Zhejiang Province are certainly worth a look. With cities like Venice and Amsterdam overcrowded by tourism, it seems a few tourists more will be warmly welcomed in rural China, and in more ways than one.

Photos He Wei, Chen Long

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