Tulou Collective Housing


Chaoying Yang

The traditional Tulou dwelling is a rural Chinese housing typology originating in the 12th century, particular to the Hakka mountains of the Fujian province in southeastern China.

Af Nina Tory-Henderson

Following the Chinese dwelling tradition of ‘closed outside, open inside’, the self-contained structures formed a small walled city of sorts, each housing a familial clan of up to 800 people. A solid fortified wall built of compacted earth contained the individual dwellings, enclosing a generous inner courtyard and communal facilities. The homes themselves were small and modest, allowing for generous shared amenities including ceremonial halls, water wells, bathrooms, washrooms — even the surrounding agricultural land was often a communal entity.

URBANUS reinterpreted the traditional rural typology into the contemporary urban context of Nanhai, Guangdong, which lies within the same geographical region as the traditional Tulou. The building provides 220 apartments for low-income earners, and while they remain at the same price of conventional affordable housing in the area, the new dwellings provide a far greater quality of life through a focus on collective resources; a series of public and social spaces, shared and commercial facilities create a vital public life at its center. Like the traditional housing model, equal quality of life is given to all. There is no hierarchy to the dwellings, with each apartment almost identical in size, materials, exterior, and interior appearance, with each having its own outdoor balcony.

The Tulou Collective Housing provides an alternative to status-quo affordable apartments in southeastern China: identical, modular high-rise towers with no internal social life, poor natural light and ventilation and little regard to the surrounding context. Its circular and relatively low-rise form sits in direct contrast to the neighboring high-rises, but with an uncanny relationship to the surrounding density. While taking from an ancient housing typology, the building seems an evolution, or mutation, of the neighboring towers — as if one had been laid on its side and wrapped around itself.

This formal alteration provides apartments that are small but surround generous shared open space and facilities, as well as being naturally lit and ventilated by the central courtyard and wide external circulation. Communal space includes a library, computer room, fitness areas, bicycle parking, shops, a dormitory, restaurant, and a large open courtyard. The oversized circulation also allows for social pockets and outdoor living rooms; tables and chairs litter the corridor space while children play in the generous pedestrian street on the ground floor. The Tulou typology creates an intimate, comfortable and secluded environment in its bustling urban context, masking the adjacent expressway, high-density housing and residual urban landscapes with its peripheral wall. The architecture looks inward, creating a convivial communal center.

Externally the building refers to the materiality and solidity of traditional Tulou housing, with a palette of perforated concrete blocks, timber screens, and a traditional tiled roof. It has a monolithic quality in its pure form but also displays a delicacy in its lattice perforations and timber screens. The exterior cladding acts as a second skin, shading the outdoor balconies attached to each apartment, creating a ventilated buffer for passive cooling in the warm climate. In contrast to its exterior, the interior façade has a more familiar contemporary face akin to the urban locale, with fine steel balustrades and a pastel color palette common to apartments in southeastern China.

Through revisiting a traditional dwelling typology, URBANUS has designed for the essential qualities of what we need to live together: basic but well-designed spaces filled with natural light and air, with the community and public life at our doorstep.