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ADS9: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon

Zhuxuan Yang

Zhuxuan completed her undergraduate Architecture degree at the University of Liverpool in 2018. After graduating, she spent one year working at Shedkm Architects London before joining RCA, primarily focusing on modular residential and regenerative city projects.

Being raised in China and received architectural education in western system, building placelessness and designs under western hegemony become a question that she’s interested in. In the future, she hopes to draw upon her past experiences to explore how architecture could be intertwining with cultural identity and modern technology.

This year’s brief has given me the opportunity to confront an urgent topic in China - the stigmatisation towards single women. Unmarried women in China over 27 years old are judged by both the public media and their families and be nicknamed as the Leftovers. This idea of being good wife and mother is still depicted as the ideal life path for female, meanwhile, passive judgement on single-women still dominates the mainstream Chinese culture.

However, things are changing now and single women co-living communities are raising across the country. Personal pursuit, higher earning, educational attainment and working satisfaction are the new ingredients that have empowered these female groups to downplay the attachment of marriage to receive a better life or gain societal identities.

One single-women community in Beijing has drawn my attention, a co-living village practising land art as the dominant task daily. It’s a collective ritual of using natural materials such as water, rocks, flowers and soil to create temporal changes in landscape. Land art there has emerged as a new everyday ritual to their community, intertwining with everyday domestic life, the ritual has redefined an alternative way and formed a new kinship net for singlehood living.

Learning from the emerging subjectivity, I asked myself these questions prior to starting the project:

Can a feminine space of empowerment be created that challenges the existing spatial typologies and therefore redefine women’s sphere?

Secondly, can land art be used as a spatial language to redefine an everyday life and form a new kinship model?

Building in Flood Season — Curved roof and sculpted terrain are the main design language. Roof is the primary surface conducting the flow whereas ground terrain become the second modulating layer, mimicking the geometry from roof in a smaller scale

Zì Shū (Self-Combed), the title of the project, comes from an old Chinese ritual of braiding one’s hair in feudal era, was once an act of autonomy and self-determination in Chinese female culture, a symbol of freedom from forced marriage and enslavement in family life. The last generation of self-combed women has disappeared, but semblable groups have emerged nowadays, which become the emerging subjectivity that the project researches.

The project is a new community for single women, a community where everyday ritual is not defined by the norm, but the shifting water. It’s a home for 130 over-30s women who no longer see marriage as life necessities. As well as the daytime assembly place for more females, here they decide how to spend their daily lives for creative cooking, ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), land art, etc.

To better embrace the water condition, the project chooses to sit at a constantly changing shallow in the city of Chongqing, China, where the water level changes drastically during the year that could create various relationship between building and water. The shifting water brings uncertainty and temporality to the space that becomes ingredients to foster new series of rituals and encourage an autonomous way of living.

Curved roof and sculpted terrain are the main architectural language of the building as their surfaces hold the ability for modulating the flow of water while create opportunities for forming different inhabitation of water such as pool and stream. Roof and ground will be joined at both the periphery and some points inside the building to blur the perception of layers and enclosure. Inhabitation level will be interspersed in between, tying roof and ground together through structures and voids from the skylights. Primary curved walls are built based on the ground contours, forming series of flexible spatial dividers for togetherness and solitude. Drawing from the ancient Lady’s Building typology, courtyards become key elements in defining residents’ gathering and living area as upper private rooms are divided into clusters and spread around courtyards. When water flows and penetrates through periphery and roof, fluidity and indetermination not only reshape the space constantly, but also facilitate a new way of defining women’s sphere and growing life networks.   

Fragment Section — People enter the building through peripheral patios. Gravels, sand and grass will filter into the ground floor through interspace, forming a continuous landscape
Fragment Section — River and rain form various inhabitation zones, creating constantly shifting spatial experiences for inhabitants
Ground Floor Plan in Dry Season — Curved walls in ground floor are built based on the terrain contours to form a series of flexible spaces, both interior and exterior are connected to form a land art practice field
Ground Floor Plan in Flood Season — The different inhabitation water creates throughout the year give rise to undefined and ambiguous programmes which mean that daily rituals are not constrained by the building
First Floor Plan in Dry Season — When ground floor is very much shared, first floor is the private living space. Following geometries from ground floor, curved walls become primary elements in constructing upper floor language
First Floor Plan in Flood Season — Straight walls are secondary structure dividing them into individual units and multiples sized courtyard. Since it’s located in-between roof and terrain, flood season won’t influence its inhabitation
Fragment Courtyard in Dry Season
Fragment Courtyard in Flood Season
The Sculpted Ground — The cone geometry creates different curved surfaces on the terrain. The more curved parts are used for water gathering and guiding flows, whereas the relatively flat parts are occupied more for daily activities
The Curved Roof — The roof is defined by a larger scale of cone surfaces and the skylights on the roof are designed to respond to the ground, where it has opening on the roof is where to have sunken point on the ground
The Overall Roof Tile Patterns — Roof tiles are designed in a certain direction and geometry to better orient the flow
The Customised Roof Tile — Each tile is relatively big and different with either deep or shallow grooves
Development of the Courtyard — Defining the Primary Wall and Flow Direction
Development of the Courtyard — Defining the Open and Shaded courtyard
Development of the Courtyard — Adding the Private Units around Courtyard
Development of the Courtyard — Skylight Responds to Open Courtyard
Springtime — Temporal Water Pool in Central Space
Summertime — River Flowing Through Courtyard
Autumn — Gathering at the Sharing Ground
Winter — Entrance to the First Floor

Natural ingredients form temporal landscapes in the building that will change with the passage of time and weather. Land art happens anywhere. Furniture will be made as light objects to be moved around easily. As flow continuously reshapes the inhabitation area, daily rituals will be shifting and improvisation becomes an essential skill.

Surface as Mediator to Modulate the Flow
Curved Roof and Sculpted Ground Become the Primary Design Language
Tiles as Micro Mediator to Orient Flow and Daylight
Process of Making Tiles at Home

Water is the aura that the project works with. Starting with physical tests, the building was imagined as surfaces to modulate the flow of water. Dividing clay panels into ground and roof, the simulation explored how water changes the spatial perception through both horizontal and vertical flow. Therefore the basic design language will be curved roof and sculpted ground.

Casted tiles are tested to explore the right pattern and geometry for one single tile and how can they be displayed to guide the flow.

The New Zì Shū Community

The sculpted building surfaces and curved walls not only give chance for modulating water but also these geometries fostered a symbiotic relationship between water and residents. As water flows through the building over the year, it brings new patterns to everyday life, but moreover, it cultivates a new form of kinship model, that is based on other like-minded women rather than the traditional biological or conjugal relationship. The way they form their life network becomes a confrontation to the stigmatised singlehood living in Chinese society and it will continuously redefine the cultural norm, starting from this contemporary Zì Shū community.