An Interview with The Architect: Zhang Jian


Zhang Jian

Chief Designer of Airbnb Guilin Rural Empowerment Project in Longsheng

Partner of D+ architect

As Chief Designer of the Airbnb Guilin Rural Empowerment Project, architect Zhang Jian admitted the biggest challenge he faced wasn’t a technical one — but the intense conflict between his personal ideals as a designer and requirements on the ground.

Airbnb is a very appealing brand among designers, Zhang shared. Airbnb’s creativity and strong sense of design, as well as his personal motivation to support rural empowerment and poverty alleviation, were two key reasons why he took the project on. However, the course of the project led Zhang and his design team to encounter various obstacles that challenged their original concept and ideas.

According to Zhang, his biggest concern was ensuring the re-designed homes would successfully work as a model project of rural revitalisation in local villages and regions further afield. These would need to be models that could be copied and referenced. Therefore if the technology or design concept applied were too progressive, or the techniques and materials too hard for villagers to obtain, the project could not realistically function as a model. Zhang struggled to find the best approach to share his project concept with local villagers unfamiliar with design or architecture, and bring them on board with his design team’s vision. He likewise had to reconcile the collision between his personal ideals and project realities.

During this process, Zhang constantly recalibrated his perspective  to place himself in the shoes of a local villager. He wanted to ensure that the project model satisfied Airbnb’s functional and design demands, while at the same time create designs that could be implemented by villagers with minimal fuss. As such he discarded potential concepts that were more aesthetically appealing in favour of simple, utilitarian and scalable plans, which aptly reflects one of the biggest features of this project: Sustainability.

Aside, the other key factor the design team focused on was the balance of modernization and local cultural features. Throughout the project,  Zhang and his team continually looked out for potentially ways to integrate local culture and design into the transformation of each rural home. For example, while doing their research, the design team noticed an interesting detail from local villagers’ everyday lives. Due to the cold local climate, villagers often built fire pits inside their homes, where they lit fires and hung baskets overhead to smoke meat. The fire pit was a convivial place where the entire family could gather. With the warmth and energy of the fire, family members prepared their daily food and drew closer to one another. Zhang retained the same feature in every home as he wanted every visiting traveler to feel a strong sense of involvement upon entering the space. “The fire pit itself evokes and retains a strong  sense of local history, culture and lifestyle,” said Zhang.

Zhang, as a designer himself, sees Airbnb today as a brand marked by innovation and creativity. His design team’s original intent for this project was to think freely and push the boundaries of innovation and new design. However, speaking to the local villagers made them realize they had to adjust their position and perspective. Rather than wholly think and ideate from the designer’s perspective, they needed to strike a careful balance with villagers’ priorities and needs in addition to the travel guest experience. To Zhang, the strong focus on operational functionality and sustainability was the key difference between this project and his previous commercial projects.

Looking ahead, Zhang hopes that the homes he re-designed can serve as a model for other rural villagers, both in Guilin and in other cities, so that they can continue to effectively upscale and transform their own homes with local materials and building techniques.

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