Architecture for the People: 10 Subversive and Imaginative Designs for China

Putting architecture into the hands of the people in a country where home ownership is typically out of reach, this studio has some incredibly innovative ideas, from modular units that ‘plug in’ to the envelopes of historic buildings to unexpected uses for cheap and plentiful materials. These 10 projects by People’s Architecture Office explore the convenience of prefabrication, multipurpose objects and the brilliance of simplicity while still offering structures that are bright, fresh, airy and comfortable.

Courtyard House






In Beijing, a whole lot of historic architecture has simply been cast aside in favor of newer, cleaner, more spacious suburban housing. Once-vibrant neighborhoods lacking in simple infrastructure like sewer systems are being left behind and neglected, growing more and more dilapidated. PAO has one solution: modern modular units that simply ‘plug in’ to the existing architecture to make it more livable. In the case of ‘Courtyard House,’ the original buildings are used like an envelope for newer structures that can be quickly, cheaply and easy assembled on-site.

Plugin House






The firm carried the same concept over to ‘Plugin House,’ which slots onto a tiny, awkwardly shaped plot in a traditional ‘hutong’ alleyway. The prefabricated panels used to create these structures already have insulation, plumbing, windows, doors, wiring, interior and exterior finishes built in, and they snap and lock together with no more than a single hex wrench. People who no prior construction experience can put one of these houses together in 24 hours, and it costs less than $10,000.

Plugin Tower





Plugin Tower is another PAO project that easily fits into existing urban environments, and gets around the difficulty of stable housing in China, where land is held exclusively by the government and building private homes is only affordable to the wealthy. This structure requires no foundation, so it doesn’t need planning approval, and it can be picked up and moved to a new location. The prefabricated steel frame comes in a kit of parts, and the modular living units just plug right in. You can rearrange it however you like and expand it when necessary.

Container Pavilion





Shipping containers are cheap, easy to procure, highly stackable, customizable and a breeze to transport, so it’s no surprise that PAO has made use of them. This cantilevered pavilion consists of six yellow units overlapping six red units in a perpendicular arrangement, creating shaded areas on the ground and a series of rooftop recreation spaces. The ends of each unit are glazed for views of the city and sightless through the entire building.

Hutong Insert: Beijing Culture and Art Center





PAO uses its skills in inserting modular units into historic structures in their proposal for the Beijing Culture and Art Center, set within a traditional hutong house. A competition to design the project called for a solution that would renovate the building while retaining as much of its original character as possible; PAO’s proposal makes it easy to add lots of interior space without disturbing much of the outer structure at all.