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13.30  Communist Ideology, Vernacular Tradition, and Imagined Modern: Collective Housing in the Early Period of People’s Republic of China, 1949-1966

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13:30, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

During its first two decades, the communist country, People’s Republic of China, faced severe political and economical challenges. Housing a population of over 500 million was one of them. By 1949, continuous warfare among warlords, against Japanese invaders and between communist Party and Nationalist party had lasted for over three decades. Both urban areas and the countryside were heavily destroyed. Millions of people were homeless. The communist party confiscated and redistributed all real estate in the country. But it was far from enough. Large amount of housing were needed. However, due to several ongoing wars, including against the Nationalist Party in the south and against South Korea in the north, the newly founded Communist country hesitated and was incapable to launch systematic civil construction. At the same time, most architectural and engineering professionals fled the communist country due to the ideological conflicts, thus the country had neither the resources nor professionals to lead the reconstruction of domestic housing services. 

Housing constructed during the early period of People’s Republic of China is yet to be studied. Most related research claim that all housing construction of this period were work units (danwei), an ideal communist urban form to accommodate its comrades. It was never that simple. Applying a similar Marxist and Leninist idea of communist ideology, China employed a dual ownership system that was fundamentally different from other communist countries. Property ownership and life organization in the urban areas are controlled by the state, while those in the countryside were controlled by local farmer collectivities. In other words, in most aspects of daily life, urban areas and the countryside applied two different systems. 

Reflecting on architectural designs, there is a broken link between traditional craftsmanship and the communist system that was supposedly superior. In the urban area where constructions were organized by the state, governments were eager to invent building forms for the new era. These collective housing forms were very often embedded in the work unit (danwei) system and attempted for pioneering techniques. The two decades post War World II was also the peak period of modernism in Western Europe and North America. However, due to the Cold War, the only construction technique and knowledge support that China received was from the USSR in the early 1950s. In most cases, Chinese designers and constructors in urban areas can only rely on their imagination for the “communist housing style.” The countryside enjoyed more independence in housing construction. Vernacular and traditional approaches were largely used to construct collective housing (jitiwu) across the country. This collective housing relied on local materials and structural systems, but they mostly used an egalitarian architectural layout to replace the traditional hierarchy layout, which was considered to represent an old ideology. 

The period from 1949-1966 was considered as the critical turning point in the transition of China’s mainstream architectural practices that were used for many major national projects to explore symbolic building forms for China’s communists and to break from the past. It was also the critical turning point for China’s housing construction, which lay between China’s traditional architectural system and the modern construction system. In recent years, these buildings call for attention in the renewal of China’s built environment in urban and rural areas. This paper will attempt to trace the social history of China’s collective housing back to the early decades of People’s Republic of China and to raise further discussions on this issue.

Zheng Jing


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