Material Authenticity:
Searching for the Meaning of Authenticity through Wood
in Dong Minority Villages, China

Under the era of the image, architectural designs are gravitating toward a scenographic inclination with blind worship of foreign architectural styles, while rampant and largely unreflective importation of Western ideas is ubiquitous to new constructions in many rural territories in China. In such circumstances, can the returning to foundations and giving prominence to materials become a possible way to go against this phenomenon?

In today’s China, the use of wood in construction has declined drastically as a result of the emergence of modern architectural styles that promote the use of mass-produced components made of steel, glass, and concrete etc., often to achieve a sense of universal aesthetics. Wood is therefore increasingly marginalized as a low-cost, low-quality building material only utilized by the rural population. As a result, the broad range of responsibilities that the carpenter had previously held as the master builder on the job-site has also diminished. In order to lift the importance of timber industry in the Dong villages among the southern China wood markets, it is important to take advantage of the local vernacular architecture knowledge and traditions of high-quality craftsmanship, which, on one hand, will be able to re-establish wood as a material that could successfully meet the stringent requirements imposed on buildings today. Thus, offering an alternative to different types of wood construction is a crucial strategy. On the other hand, carpenters, in particular, will be benefited from this change, as they regain the responsibility for the construction of entire buildings after decades of having been relegated to the mere installation of roof structures. Within the transition to modern, computer-assisted design and production processes, the use of modular building systems, high levels of prefabrication, and efficient equipment for transportation and lifting will be involved, which streamline off-site manufacturing and facilitate rapid and precise on-site installation. This comprehensive development will open up significant markets for wood, ranging from small-scale components to building constructions, while remaining deeply rooted in its craft tradition.

Taking the autonomous region of Dong minority group and its wood-oriented culture in Hunan, China, as a testing ground, the project has looked for a positive attitude to the connection between architecture and age, exploring the composition of an autonomous space by elaborating on the intrinsic quality of wood. From the intimate, personal experience with wood to the comprehensive network of the local timber industry, it is hoped that this project can become a useful model and a source of inspiration for the present situation, promoting an integration of vernacular values and a new approach for specialists and communities.

In order to achieve a positive approach, this project has looked for a deeper understanding of material authenticity at multiple levels through the study of wood, not only from the perspective of technology and structure, but also looks at the interactive relationship between the surface properties and spatial qualities of wood. Transparency, colour and texture of wood are accounted for the spatial effect, contributing two different expressions of materiality – visible and invisible. With the dual implication of wood, this project aims to balance the relationship between material, space, and spiritual culture.

To respect the traditions, this project proposed a school of carpentry, trying to bring back the manpower and sustain the wood craft industry, through a contemporary language which does not compete with the old, but respectfully presents and communicates with traditions. New building types and forms are occasionally seen in Dong settlements, but they have not yet had any sweeping effect in changing the settlement patterns. Usually, a school is inherently a social system. It teaches students knowledge about the past, while also progressively bringing prospects to different ways of thinking. In essence, the project is more than merely a school, which can be regarded as a social centre for the entire village with the ocus on the interpretation of traditional timber system and spatial fluidity.

Under this strategy, the knowledge and skills of working with wood are evolved and can hopefully be passed down from one generation to the next. Carpenters are not only competent craftsmen who master traditional skills, but also competent as modern master builders, playing the role as if the mixture of the architect and engineer.

Project Name

School of Carpentry

Hunan, China
Site Area

Gross Floor Area

Building Height

3 storeys / 15m height
Post Graduate / School

The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Student Name

Beryl Wong

Peter W. Ferretto

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