Can Old Housing Bring New Answers?

The Tulou are clan houses built in the Fujian province of South East China.  It is believed that these structures were built as early as the 13th century, and many of them survive today at varying ages.  Some are several hundred years old.  I first heard of these structures from Earth Architecture’s website and they grabbed hold of my imagination for a few different reasons.tulou-courtyard

First they are built from earthen materials, the outer walls being essentially rammed earth with wooden structures sometimes internally.  I am fascinated with earthen building materials because you just can’t get more sustainable.  Literally the whole world’s population could build their homes with dirt and the earth would be no worse for wear.

Secondly, they have stood the test of time.  Not only in the sense that the buildings have lasted for hundreds of years, but also people in China have continued to actively live in them and construct them up until the last 100 years.  Practically, they must have worked.  Not only did they succeed in providing defense from other warring clans, but there must have been more.

Lastly, the tulou were built to house entire clans.  Some of the ones still in use today house up to 600 people.  Yet in Western culture it is rare to even find a handful of extended family members under the same roof.  I myself live in an urban bungalow with my wife and child, but we have often sought ways to shake this formula up.  International students have lived under our roof, friends who needed a place to go, and students who I have worked with and shared life with.  But these arrangements have been temporary.  Should we be so ardent about our values for individualism and personal space?  Are these things the earned privilege of a wealthy and affluent culture?  Or are they blights on what would otherwise be a more meaningful and sustainable life?

What other residential models like the tulou are out there but withering in the brutal heat of modernity?  Can we take some lessons from the dying clan lifestyle of China?  Or at least build homes that we expect our children’s children to be able to come home to some day, if only for a visit.

Leave a Comment