Architects don’t always think big buildings and bright city lights. For Beijing-based He Wei, the project he was keen to put his name to was a clutch of old warehouses in a remote rural village of just 150 people – the plan being to give new life to a community through good design.
When he first visited Xihe in Henan province as part of a government rural poverty alleviation programme in 2013, He looked beyond its population of mostly left-behind old people and children – who didn’t have Wi-fi or mobile phone coverage, let alone viable means of support – to the adaptive reuse potential of an abandoned granary complex. Within its five pitched-roof masonry buildings clustered around a courtyard – which were still structurally sound and had vast interior space – He saw a vehicle for his belief that contemporary Chinese architects should go back to basics and start from the core ideal of architecture – care for humanity.
On a shoestring budget and using labour from nearby villages, He and his team led the conversion of the 1950s buildings into a community facility and tourist attraction as a cooperative project. The Xihe Cereals and Oils Museum and Village Activity Centre, completed in August 2014 and already generating income, received a top award last month at the Golden Pin Design Awards, Taiwan’s international design competition.
The biggest building – a 7,300 sq ft warehouse – was earmarked as an activity centre for village meetings, and special events such as weddings. A smaller, 4,500 sq ft warehouse was envisaged as a museum displaying the use of traditional millstones, oil presses, and other farming implements. A shop was set up with the aim of one day selling locally grown organic produce, including tea-seed oil, a traditional staple of southern Chinese cooking. And in the courtyard beside a stream, an existing pool was refurbished as a place where children could splash and play. […]