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Urban life has too often sounded the death knell for tradition, especially the types of homes people live in. Villages have been depopulated in the rush by workers, mostly young people, the very lifeblood of any community, to the cities.
Zhang Lei, a professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Nanjing University, wants to stop this by getting, as any good architect would, to the very foundations of the problem.
“For years we have seen a lot of old villages dying slowly before being torn down,” Zhang says. “It’s such a shame. So I wanted to do something.”
Zhang’s two design works for the bookstore chain Librairie Avant-Garde, the Yunxi Library bookshop in Daijiashan village, Tonglu county, and Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang county, both in Zhejiang province, opened in 2015 and 2018. The villages have since had many more visitors. Hostels have been built and, as a result, property prices in the villages have soared.
“I never thought that a small bookstore could change the fate of a village,” Zhang says.
When Qian Xiaohua, founder of Librairie Avant-Garde, whose headquarters is in Nanjing, started opening bookstores in the countryside six years ago, he encountered a lot of scepticism. After all, even bookstores in cities could barely survive, faced with online competition.
Even more surprisingly, Qian prefers targeting old villages that are haemorrhaging their young people, with just the elderly and children left behind. Those villages are usually located in picturesque surroundings, many with historical details.
Qian, accompanied by architects, then chooses old buildings from the villages to be renovated into well-lit modern bookstores that remain true to their original structures and decorative aspects. Since April 2014 Qian has opened five bookstores in the countryside. All have attracted many tourists and even enticed young villagers to return home.
Apart from their commercial success and resulting economic revival of the villages, these bookstores have become new public spaces for locals, benefiting the development of rural areas in the long run.
Last year, Shaxi Bai Ethnic Bookstore, a branch of Librairie Avant-Garde, opened in Jianchuan county, Yunnan province. Apart from general books, there are specialist works about local culture, geography and history, such as the Ancient Tea-Horse Caravan Route and Bai ethnic culture.
The modern bookstore, once a deserted granary, has welcomed a lot of grandmothers and mothers bringing young children to read or just walk around and soak in the atmosphere, like relaxed visitors at a park. People do not consider it, primarily, as a commercial place. Some children go to the bookstore to do homework because they feel at ease in the space, says Huang Yinwu, architect of the bookstore.
“Not only does it provide space for selling books, but also serves as a local library,” says Xia Zhujiu, an architectural theorist.
For many architects, one of the most important reasons for accepting a contract is to see whether the building will be properly used in the future. Based on the original buildings, architects need to find solutions to connect the old with the new and the rural with the urban. They prefer to use local materials, refer to local traditional houses and hire local workers for renovation projects.
In Yunnan province, for example, construction workers are not professionals. They are farmers who work in the fields and take on building work only if new homes are required.
“It’s a very traditional style of mutual assistance,” says Hua Li, who designed the Xiadi Paddy Field Bookstore, a branch of Librairie Avant-Garde in Fujian province.
Architecture in the countryside is often the fruit of people’s wisdom accumulated over generations in a certain place. It is based on the knowledge of the local climate, natural resources and culture. One can learn a lot from the buildings by observing and understanding them, Hua says.
Previously published on Chinadaily.com.cn