By Stefania Danieli
Living in China you will discover that China is not only Beijing and Shanghai, but a melting pot of one-billion-something mass of people: a multiform entity constituted by different ethnic groups all characterized by peculiar cultures, traditions and customs.
It is important to bear this in mind when looking at some architectural expressions which at a first glance one could say are not “typically” Chinese. Among all Chinese historical sites, Tulou is one of the most amazing, and it’s no wonder 46 tulou sites have been inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site in 2008, being “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment”.
Tulou (土楼) literally means “earthen building” and is a structure typical of the southeastern part of Fujian province, in Southern China. It seems that throughout history, the Hakka people have migrated from Central China to Fujian to escape from conflicts with other populations, where a majority of the Hakka population is currently living. The name Hakka (客家) means “guest families” probably because they were considered as “guests” from local populations when they first arrived in the South.
Arriving in the Fujian province and looking to settle down, they could only found places in the mountains, the harshest and most inaccessible areas of Fujian. This is the first reason explaining tulou’s external appearance: a fortified four or five floors building, open to the outside only through a relatively small door. The circular (or sometimes squared) building includes dwellings on its perimeter, while the central space is used for common activities, with a small ancestral hall at it center, serving for worshipping, weddings, funerals etc. Its high and thick outer walls make it almost impenetrable, protecting the houses from external threats, and the main door, the only weak link to the outside, is designed to be solid and resistant to any eventual attack.
One interesting characteristic of tulou’s structure is the fact that it does not imply any hierarchical meaning. In fact, it constitutes a living environment for communities of equals: all the rooms are of same dimensions; every family occupies a portion of tulou, from the ground to the highest floor, and can have more than one portion according to the number of components of the family. All the families share many facilities such as water wells, bathrooms, washrooms as well as the surrounding farmland.
Tulou not only were designed to be effective defensive structure, but thanks to their smart architecture they actually constituted also an excellent living environment: the thick walls guaranteed a good temperature regulation in the houses, the lower floors had no windows because were used to storage food, staircases linking all the floors and circular corridors at each floor guaranteed an easy access for people throughout the whole building.
This kind of structure is so unique that inspired recent projects such as the Urban Tulou designed by Urbanus Architecture and Design; recently built in Guangzhou. What do you think about it? If you have any idea or any related project you want to share, you are welcomed to share it with us in the comments section!
Stefania was born and raised in Italy, where she took a BA in Languages and a MA in Business Communication at the University of Perugia. She fluently speaks both Mandarin and English, and by now has been living in China for over two years. Having been raised in a country rich of history and culture like Italy, she has always had a strong interest in art and architecture, which led her right through the Chinese landscape design industry. She is currently working as Marketing Director at Beijing’s based America Leedscape Planning and Design Co. Ltd.