BaO Architects' colourful bathhouse scheme in rural China holds its own against the nation's extravagant architecture
There is no doubting the growing architectural prowess of the Chinese nation, yet with the drama of countless emerging inner-city project proposals it is easy for the smaller, equally intelligent designs to go under the radar. Last week, French architect-founder of BaO Architects Benjamin Beller contacted WAN with details of a beautiful rural scheme in Shanmen, a small township in the mountainous region of Tianshui, Gansu. Now complete, the modest build provides the close community with education and hygiene facilities in colourful and highly sustainable style, not only fulfilling a basic need but educating the neighbourhood on issues of environmentally-friendly design.
Prior to this commission, Shanmen was poorly equipped for regular bathing with the spread of disease a very real issue; a local boarding school was forced to close for over two years in the face of an epidemic. More than 5,000 people including 700 students were in desperate need of sanitary cleaning facilities as there were no public amenities or private bathrooms within the township's houses.
Gaining an Honorable Mention for Excellence in Architecture for Social Investment last year at the MoMA in New York, the Split Bathhouse project is beginning to receive recognition for its inventive and highly effective design. The facility is split into two distinct sections – one for men, the other for women – linked by a communal greenhouse which acts as both a social area and buffer zone between the two shower space. This internal volume can be opened on either side to form an open-air space, almost a central courtyard which is naturally ventilated and lit. Blind walls on both shower rooms act as blackboards, encouraging interaction within the community through the passing of public information and permitting children to draw, write and play in this communal space.
Unfazed by the lack of existing amenities, BaO has approached this commission with vigour and innovative vision, combating conventional preconceptions of rural living: “While not wanting to make the apology of local (vs global), one could agree that what is perceived as the countryside is actually a space of exceptions to the rule, chaotic and informal entrepreneurship, sometimes irrational, sometimes down to earth decisions, individual and collective actions, top-down/bottom-up balance, that because of the lack of control, produces diversity and non-standard solutions.”
The rural location of this scheme has forced the designers to be creative, the largest challenge being a lack of a public water supply and drainage systems. As a result, water is pumped from a well sunken 8m into the ground and stored in a 20 cb m tank to be heated using energy generated by 100 sq m of solar panels located on the building’s roof. If solar energy does not suffice for any reason, there is a back-up boiler installed on site. Both the men and women’s sides feature dry toilets to help eliminate microbes and will be emptied every two weeks.
In order to maintain a highly sustainable water filtration system, BaO have integrated a series of rhizofiltration basins formed of bamboo. Waste water is ejected through a number of channels and directed through bamboo constructions. Bacteria living on the roots of the bamboo stems eradicated microbes in the water, cleansing it before it is returned to the ground.
The team at BaO aimed high with this concept, looking further than a basic shower complex to the greater social benefits of architectural design: “The bathhouse was conceived as an incubator triggering social, cultural, sanitary, environmental and economic mini-revolutions demonstrating that, even in such a context of urgency, it matters to go beyond simple problem solving and to respond to countryside’s development with wholesome and holistic approaches.”
Though at first this build may appear simple, the minute design details are both inventive and highly effective. Whilst tall towers and sprawling masterplans across China may warrant attention-grabbing headlines, it is important that small-scale projects such as this are equally celebrated.
BaO worked in collaboration with Madaifu - an association working with children in difficult familial situations in Gansu province - on this scheme.