Mu Wei (left) and Wan Qian (right) both teach architecture at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. They co-founded the Wiki World project eight years ago with a mission to improve the urban environment through architectural construction and the participation of kids and families. Recently, they drew national attention in China for a hand-made cabin project built outside of the city of Wuhan with their own families.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrAsia (Kr): How and why did you decide to build a hand-made house with your families in a forest in the outskirts of Wuhan?
Mu Wei (MW): It is part of a project named Wiki World that we’ve been working on since 2012. We are architects who also do global architectural education, and we have been organizing workshops in which parents and their children can get an education through architecture.
The core idea is to build a new living environment together with children of urban families and with local resources. In the past, we have done a lot of this kind of education for people, from college students to ordinary families, to let them learn to cooperate and to build houses in the nature. The Wuhan cabin is part of a “beautiful village project” we’ve been working on, and it is also a very personal project among our international work, because, after all, we live in a city nearby.
In the process of “building houses with kids,” we shifted from our earliest intention, which was to build experimental architecture, to include simple functions in our project to define it as a house. We think that the epidemic has led to a bigger desire for nature and more thoughts about the essence of life for mankind.
So, we want to use this opportunity to take it from an experimental project that would be dismantled afterward, to a continuous project that keeps building itself and growing beyond the cabin, to become a small village.
Kr: Can you explain the process in developing the Wuhan Cabin?
MW: At the earliest stage, we built one cabin with our own team, then some friends joined to build another. Two months ago we recruited some college students to build a milk tea shop next by, and this coming weekend, we’re gonna take a pet community group to build some architecture for pets.
We’re going to bring all the fun communities there to build a fun project in which everybody participates in the creation and the construction.
Kr: It sounds like the two of you are going to build a new village, reminds me of games like Animal Crossing.
MW: You’re right, we are the offline version of Minecraft. Our slogan is that everyone has the right to build their own house.
Kr: How to educate and tell participants what to do in the construction?
Wan Qian (WQ): One of the things we do in the long run is to lower the threshold for construction. People usually think that construction is for professionals, but in fact, we don’t need too much professional training as long as we’re handed pre-programmed tools and materials. It’s just like playing with Legos, or purchasing furniture from Ikea.
Today, we already have a variety of very mature and pre-programmed tools, building materials, and equipment. When we integrate these materials together, people can build houses with simple training and guidance from professionals. We can make something as complicated as architecture construction into something that even kids can participate in.
MW: Activities that involve kids have to be very safe and easy, just like with Lego toys. For instance, this year, we cooperated with the French Ministry of Culture to create a children’s architecture construction curriculum, which officially became an experimental curriculum for France’s public primary schools.
We have made some systematic division of architectural education according to different ages and the length of class hours. There’s content about basic cognition, work and cooperation, and then hands-on activities.
Kr: How has the feedback been different from different countries and age demographics?
WQ: We observed that Chinese parents tend to have higher expectations in the workshops. When it comes to kids, instead, everyone’s reaction and perception, regardless of where they are from, tends to be similar.
MW: The feedback we got is that children are full of energy. When encountering new things like architecture construction, they will go from cognition to fear, to ignite the hormone and participate.
Furthermore, we found that the sense of participation of parents will be higher, especially for fathers. People in modern society experience a lot of anxiety, and fathers have little participation in their children’s education. Building a house together, which is a job that involves a lot of strength, gives fathers a chance to affirm their roles. For children, dads can have the physical strength and accompany. For the dads themselves, it gives a feeling of venting and sweating.
Kr: What’s the main purpose behind your architecture?
WQ: In my first-grade classes, I would often discuss a question with my students, what is architecture? I think the ultimate goal pursued by architecture is to be eternal.
Yet, one of the paradoxes that come with this is that there is only one thing that is immortal, and that is death itself. Only dead things are immortal. So, what was the first group of architecture that humans built? A mausoleum. A pyramid. 2000 years ago, ancestors in the East offered architecture a new idea, the idea of life and death in a sustainable circle. What ancestors pursued was not the immortality of the individual, but the continuous growth and metabolism of the group.
To some extent, as long as you still have an image of the house in your mind, you have the memory of the construction process, the memory of living in there, and this has actually become eternal for you. If this cabin camp would be burned to the ground today, after all these human traces would be removed, nature would quickly fill the blank with plants and animals. This is what we are doing, an idea of architecture that is recyclable and sustainable.
Kids in the Silk Room project in 2013. Photo: Wiki World.
Kr: Throughout all your projects, do you have a particular experience or a person that has left a deep impression on you?
WQ: In the Silk Room we made in 2013, there were 30 children working with us. We asked each of them to make a model of a treehouse in their minds. The older the children were, the more their creations looked like normal houses, with everything built on a flat platform.
But there was this boy, the youngest among all, only four years old, who created something similar to our plan: A house like a worm on a tree, without a flat platform. I was very impressed by that kid. I think that the younger the children are, the less polluted their thoughts will be.