Travel Itinerary

June 7th, 2012 - Over the next two months, Pro Unit will move forward through in-field research including building visits and interviews with residents, architects, and academics. Gathered information will initially be presented in the form of photographs, images, and text.

This map shows the major cities that will be visited and the overall route, however the itinerary is subject (and likely) to change. First stop: Beijing. It is currently hot, noisy, and wonderfully vibrant with life and activity here. Expect updates as the jetlag subsides and the exploration begins.




The Tulou are vernacular dwelling types constructed between the 14th and early 20th centuries in Fujian, China. Although they were not conceived during the same political environment of the other buildings studied, a number of them functioned as people's communes and are still in use today, albeit more so exisiting as tourist destinations. The insular nature of the Tulou fostered a tight knit community within its thick walls. Families did not only share use of public facilities and an ancestral hall in the center of the courtyard: since the typical functions of a home were divided across different floors, they had to use the public open-air passageways to move from one room of their homes to another. Much like in Bentham’s Panopticon, residents of the Tulou were in constant view of each other, and this helped reinforce their lifestyles as resembling that of one large unified family.


A view of a Tulou from the interior courtyard. Image: agraphia.

The typical functions of a home are split by level - with one family occupying different rooms on several floors. Image: Martin Tai.

The centercourtyard contained communal functions such as a library and an ancestral hall. Image: Martin Tai.

 In 2008, the Shenzhen based firm URBANUS designed an affordable housing complex with 245 apartments, deriving the form from the traditional Tulou typology. Unlike the original Tulou building, the URBANUS building provides residents with more privacy by giving them each their own apartments on a single level, instead of splitting up the rooms of a typical home into multiple levels as is the case in vernacular Tulou. However, the URBANUS building follows the communal objectives of the Tulou by incorporating a variety of other public functions into the building, including retail space, a gym, library, and other gathering spaces. URBANUS has taken the collective qualities of the Tulou and updated them to a contemporary context, where the line between public and private space is more sharply drawn. It will be interesting to also test out some of the more unconventional combinations of public and private space as seen in the orignial Tulou typology.

Tulou Collective Housing in Guangzhou. Image: Urbanus.

Tulou Collective Housing in Guangzhou. Image: Urbanus.

An vision of Tulou in the contemporary cityscape. Image: Urbanus.



Dazhai (大寨) became a model village in China during the 1960’s, mostly for the purported achievements of its residents in not only agriculture but various engineering feats. The idea that such a well maintained village could develop out of the collective hard work of its residents was exactly the type of model that government officials were trying to replicate throughout the country under the banner of the people’s commune.

A large portion of Dazhai’s residents lived in “train-like” housing, which developed out of a combination of dispersed vernacular cave dwelling typologies and modern demands for economical and dense living. Rows of housing were built two levels high onto a gently sloping hill, so that at each level two rows of housing opened out to an exterior street. The smaller streets connected to a larger sloped street that led residents into the central town plaza.

A poster of Dazhai from the 1970's, showing the housing compound in the center right of the image.



Hongshunli Big Socialist House

Hongshunli Big Socialist House (鸿顺里社会主义大家庭) was conceived in 1958 along with the wave of interest in people's communes during that year as described within several previous case studies. Initiated by the residents of the Hongshunli neighborhood in Tianjin, a major city not far from Beijing in Northeast China, the commune started with the construction of a dining hall and kindergarten. After receiving the encouragement of visiting vice chairman Liu Shaoqi, a plan was created to construct a multi-floor block housing building, which was published in the 1958-10 issue of Jian zhu xue bao (Architectural Journal.) In the journal, the building was described literally as a “big socialist family.” It is easy to see how the building sought to achieve that in looking at the plan.

The units aggregated around a large central courtyard, which was opened to exterior entry by pulling the two sides of the building slightly apart. All possible programs that could be collectivized were absorbed into the shared facilities of the building. Each housing unit included two bedrooms and a small balcony, while the public areas included dining halls, kitchens, restrooms, workshops, storage space, and facilities for the care of children and the elderly. Private living area only accounted for less than 40% of the built area, while collective living and circulation space occupied the remaining 60%. As such, the designers of the commune were afforded more liberty to define specific programs within the large amount of public space – rooms such as “breastfeeding room”, “needle-working room”, and “bank” appeared in the floor plan. Perhaps in alignment with the tradition of naming buildings after favorable phrases stemming from imperial China, several rooms were called the “court of prosperity.” Despite the ambiguity of their functions, it is clear that these rooms were emblematic of the idealized notion of communal living spreading throughout the country at the time.

Panyu People's Commune

The design of the Panyu People's Commune (番禺人民公社) in Guangdong province was featured in the 1959-2 issue of Jianzhuxuebao (建筑学报), a scholarly paper for architecture published in China since 1954 and an invaluable source of information thus far on topics pertaining to the design of people's communes. As the people's commune movement gained traction in 1958, there was an explosion of articles in the journal covering topics of new construction of the typology, primarily as new village in outskirts of cities or rural areas. For the Panyu commune, the architects drew up designs for a series of low-rise housing blocks featuring minimal private dwelling units clustered around shared public facilities. The commune provided housing for approximately 6232 residents in 1787 households, with housing, public facilities, and light industry stretching along a main road that formed a boundary between a more rugged topography and a large swatch of flat crop fields.

In each of the housing blocks, families on the same floor shared use of a kitchen, restroom, as well as flexible community meeting rooms. Much like the Suicheng commune, the housing units were accessed via an open air passageway, suitable for the warmer climate of Guangdong province. The layout of the housing block profiled in detail in the journal forms a orthogonal zig-zag shape that results in the creation of two courtyards, presumably used for outdoor activities such as clothes laundering and gardening.

The majority of private rooms were fairly economical, being comprised of two rooms in a linear layout. Such rooms were to designed to provide accommodation for 2 to 3 people. The back room served as a bedroom, while the front room served the purpose of a living room but in some cases doubled as a bedroom as well.


Photographs of a living block in the Panyu commune. Jianzhuxuebao.

Site plan of the Panyu commune, showing the line of buildings built at the edge of crop fields and a more rugged topography. Jianzhuxuebao.

A series of diagrams shows the amibition of the designers and planners in providing a flexible kit of parts of units that could be assembled in various housing block configurations. Jianzhuxuebao.

The architects and planners of the Panyu commune did not stop with the design of a single repeatable housing block. As evidenced in the journal, they drew up plans for a series of housing block layouts, using a kit of parts of private dwelling units that varied somewhat in size but for the most part conformed to either a 2 room linear configuration or a 3 room l shaped configuration. The housing blocks, while varied in plan, shared the characteristic of arranging a series of public rooms either in the center or on the end(s) of the housing block. The design of the Panyu commune revealed an ambition and acknowledgment to flexible living arrangements, but always keeping in mind the relation of the private dwelling unit to the shared public facilities. The latter was always given organizational prominence, through methods of centering, protrustion, or a mixture of both. In each case, the communal area determined the overall organization of the housing block, and it was clear that the designers intended for such spaces to be at the focus of the residents' day to day lives.