10.15.2008

Cooper-Hewitt Features Tulou Affordable Housing Design

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is currently showing an exhibition on Tulou, an affordable-housing prototype designed by Chinese architecture firm Urbanus for the city of Guangzhou, China. The Tulou prototype includes 245 apartments, an inn, exercise facilities, a library, storefronts, and varied public space. The exhibition will feature two bedrooms at actual size, as well as images, models, and project information. It runs from October 3, 2008 to April 5, 2009 at 2 East 91st Street in New York.

In a recent review, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff praises Tulou as a thoughtfully designed solution to the urgent need for low-income housing in China's rapidly growing cities. Tulou, which means “little kingdom,” is a centuries-old term for structures once used to protect villagers from invaders in the Fujian Province. Dwellings were centered around an interior courtyard and surrounded by walls of mud. Urbanus has adapted this idea for contemporary use in urban settings. Ouroussoff notes a symbolic connection between original Tulous and the new models, which “suggest fortifications against a contemporary marauder: speculators who have so often forced the poor out of urban neighborhoods to make way for new development.” Urbanus maintains a sense of openness by arranging stores around the base and allowing entry portals, courtyards, restaurants, inns, and housing units to break the continuity of the exterior walls.

While Ouroussoff praises Urbanus's “graceful balancing act between historical and contemporary values,” some of his terms (such as monks' cells, Le Corbusier, and Communist-era housing projects) call to mind inhospitable housing schemes of the past. It is not clear how the recently completed Tulou in Guangzhou has altered the existing urban fabric, how it has been received by residents, or how the architects have learned from housing projects that failed in other settings. It seems the design might create islands of poverty instead of integrating residents into mixed-income neighborhoods. Low-income housing requires more than graceful adaptations of historical building types. It must provide a healthy environment that allows people to meet their daily needs and escape cycles of poverty. With hope, the Tulou design will contribute to a renaissance in affordable housing that improves living conditions for China's urban poor.

(Photos of the new Tulou plan are from the Urbanus website. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

(The photo of the traditional Tulou is from Kit's Hakka Earthen Houses (Tulou) album on Picasa. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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