Through more than 1700 years of administrative, cultural and social changes, Nantou has never stopped evolving in surging waves of time. With accelerated urbanization, its nine-street structure is still visible, but buildings have grown in thick layers, gradually shaping a rare specimen of urban diversity and density.
The 2017 UABB introduced the first attempt of regeneration at micro levels. Since 2019, Nantou has welcomed the biggest changes since the 1990s self-building frenzy: while preserving its texture, scale and historic spaces, the language of contemporary aesthetic, economy and lifestyle is being written into the alleyways.
Nantou is undoubtedly important to Shenzhen. It carries the historical baggage
and the cultural self-confidence the city longs for. Traces of its origins are relatively remote and they need to be unearthed, but perhaps not necessarily from every house in Nantou. On the contrary, with the intense interweaving of local culture, Nantou has become a lively neighborhood that Shenzhen desperately lacks. Many urban villages are rich, but Nantou had no outline at all, with each layer recording a specific period simultaneously. The clues of each development stage have been violently compressed. Everything happened too fast, and the old and new had no time to shift, thereby juxtaposing expressions.
The same goes true for the regeneration that started in 2019. It is a new opportunity and also another layer, which deserves to be commemorated. During this period, we participated in the renovation of two buildings. The site conditions of the two buildings were very different. However, during the design process, we still felt many commonalities and formed some consensus that was not widespread.
In the overall planning stage, in order to facilitate management, each renovated building was numbered. The two buildings we renovated are NT46 and NT88. After the transformation was completed, we continued to use such markers which may seem a bit cold, but in fact neutral and nostalgic in their own way. It stores the collective memory of a major event: wisdom and efforts worthy of respect are marked down in this process.
What should we record this time? Like most of their neighbors, NT46 and NT88 are self-built houses by villagers. The main brick-concrete structure of the building no longer meets safety regulations and requires overall structural reinforcement. Usually hidden or irrelevant, this seemingly inconspicuous "standard process" actually has extremely symbolic meaning in our eyes: an urban village may not be "high-end", but its bottom line should be safety and dignity that translate into care and respect for locals. Only above this bottom line can we have the mood and necessity to continue discussion. Nantou is evolving from temporary to permanent, marginal to normative, vague to clear, and a new urban identity and historical mission are being implanted. Therefore, we developed a consistent expression in both projects: turning structural reinforcement into visible exteriorization, leaving behind recognizable new layers that form a new logic and ethics.
The design strategy of strictly inheriting existing structural system, and reinforcing areas only where there are deficiencies through calculation, is a standard practice. However, making system-level adjustments to the structure and avoiding large-area component reinforcement is another kind of specificness. The idea of avoiding reinforcement of large-area components to preserve the original appearance of the existing building not only meets the minimum intervention requirements, but also respects those who are emotionally bound to the building in a sense.
NT46 is located on the side of a small square south of the main intersection. Enter from the south gate and pass the Dongguan Guild Hall, one can meet it head on. The small square directly opposite the main facade is one of the most important public spaces on the axis. The scale is very comfortable. Upon arrival amid the hustle and bustle of the street, one will acquire a sense of ease.
Taking advantage of the square, NT46 gained an opportunity for self-expression that is very rare in an ancient city with cramped buildings. But this also became our first problem. In the colorful cross streets and small squares there was a condensed, exciting stage play. In the end, we chose to weaken the self of the building and fade it into the "unconscious" background of the square. This rare relaxation in density is already cherished and does not need to be described deliberately.
The design started in fear of waking up the square and disturbing the area. The mosaic on the original facade is the most efficient and durable exterior material for residential buildings in Nantou. The ivory white is decorated with slices of blue, which is refreshing and beautiful. On the premise of retaining the mosaic as much as possible, we reorganized the shape: adding a new platform to complement the architectural recess, opening the closed balcony to form an L-shaped corridor space, and the gray space along the street on the first floor continued the existing street logic. The resulting new building volume has a more complete interface to the square, with a modest identity. There are only two new small balconies that act as a cautious wink.
We wrapped the old building with buttress columns and externalized them on the facade for honest display. We placed the "new" structural layer on top of the "old" mosaic facade. The method of strengthening buttress columns is a standard practice in the reinforcement, but slight changes in member dimensions at each floor have added implications that they double as architectural patterns.
The columns on the ground restored traditional "arcade" scene. They are a façade element that extended to the square and the street. The buttress structure extends to the roof, blurring the inside and outside, opening up the interface, and bringing a vertical connectivity to the public system opened up by the square.
Another trouble in the design process is the uncertain future program. The only thing we are sure of is that the entire residential building will be converted into commercial or office space. This transformation from private to public is happening throughout Nantou, especially on the main streets. The structural externalization avoids the conventional practice of painting walls and replacing windows, essentially maximazing public potential. At the same time, the reinforced structure is exposed, which releases the internal walls and openings to a certain extent to meet subsequent changes in different functional requirements. This kind of framework reserves flexibility and allows many unexpected scenarios.
Identical to NT46, the NT88 was originally designed with an open park in mind, so we had similar expectations for them. Unfortunately, soon the facade facing the park was completely blocked by a substation, and NT88 lost its only display, which we still cannot let go of. Of course, as Nantou grows, these vast changes have made it more typical, to the daily life of hand-shaking buildings in urban villages.
NT88 was an unfinished red brick building hidden among trees. Without direct display, the continuation of its self-identity is more reasonable. Of course, it will later become a small oasis nearby that was also renovated with red brick paving.
The house functions as an exhibition hall and office. In addition to renovation, the design task also includes adding new floor areas, which is a challenge in an already compact site. The height cannot be exceeded, and we can only expand the standard floor area: on the outside we added a circle of corridors to bear the space requirements generated by new functional changes, and at the same time provided circulation. The new addition to the building is not skin but a new thickness with vitality. The previous building became a part of a new life that is treasured inside and visible outside.
The new thickness is also an opportunity to rethink the relationship between the building and its surrounding. By sorting out the floor plan and external environment, new ledges of different sizes are presented in all directions to meet the area requirements. The widened volume is very close to the surrounding buildings and trees, and there are not many breathable interfaces, just like most urban village buildings: closed corners and clear boundaries forced "face to face" views. Therefore, we also adjusted the facade strategy and redefined the "edge" for a slightly relaxed corner along the grid.
The reinforcement of NT88 followed the same enclosure strategy. In order to avoid corner columns, the structure uses a windmill-shaped shear wall system arranged in the middle of the facade. At the same time, the height of the beams drops to both sides, allowing the corners to be further released and opened. The system forms a logically self-consistent two-way lateral reinforcement system, which also allows the load of the additional corridor to be reasonably channeled within the newly added structure without increasing the burden on the original structure. The force transmission path of the two-way cantilever is hidden in the building facade, and the opening at the corners hints at this mechanical feature.
The shear wall in the middle also rejects the oppression of building proximality, and redirects the internal sight line and the way of contact with the external environment, instead forming an extension to the corners. The new facade composes horizontally connected windows, letting in natural light and surprises.
Like NT46, this externalized reinforcement also responds to the program change of NT88 from residential to public. At the same time, we hope that it can provide a new view prototype for urban village architecture. We are also relatively restrained in our desire for control. Therefore, even if the clients presented a overly simplified use, the building still does not deviate from the essence of the architectural concept, and even creates some surprising moments.
After these two houses were completed in different locations for a long time, they were basically silent in Nantou and rarely mentioned or discussed. For us, each represents a time that cannot be recovered. Based on the results, there are flaws in the exterior construction, and the interior use is unpredictable, but probably the attitude still left marks: renovation is not just a thin layer of beautification and decoration of the old. New life emerged. We do not have the right to define how others live, whether it is right or wrong, but what actually happened is that more interesting souls joint efforts. There were disputes and contradictions during the dialogue, but we heard from residents and communities at higher frequency.
Some say that Nantou’s time has past, but we feel that possibilities have just started to emerge. We respectfully invite everyone to come and take a look. It may seem that this place is aiming to commemorate the past, but in fact it is talking about the future. It is an unflattering path, but clumsiness is also a kind of nourishment. I remember one afternoon, at a street corner there were aunties picking vegetables and chatting, office ladies drinking coffee, and Internet celebrities taking photos. At that time, everyone was doing almost everything, without distinction, and nothing was unnatural. Together, we are best in Nantou.
Of course Nantou is not without controversy, but in this collective confusion, any hasty definition would be arbitrary. When we falter, it's often not that we're wobbling, but that we walk the bumpy road. Therefore, participating in it is already a blessing and does not require much motivation or conscience. As for future hopes, perhaps Nantou is restoring not only the lives that have been impacted by reality, but also the authenticity and its deeper values.