Image: Design workshop example

A Greenhouse is an “energy object”—it embodies energy, mediates temperature, contains technology, requires technique, and has politics. For the Intersecting Energy Cultures workshop and future events, I propose a history and design-based workshop on greenhouse farming at the village of Leibei, a place along the Yellow River in Shaanxi Province in Northwest China.

The workshop will be organized by the greenhouse farmers, two architectural designers, and myself. And the targeted participants are local farmers and policymakers in the village. The workshop and field research is part of my dissertation project, titled “Energy Objects”, which studies the histories and contemporary cultural practices of energy, technology and environment by interpreting the cultural and political meanings of mundane objects in rural China.

From Marshall McLuhan to Frederic Kittler and John Durham Peters, generations of media scholars have been seeking mediation of mundane objects and their cultural denotation. In rural China, for example, the everyday objects of energy, embedded in practices of culture and agriculture, configure the lives of men and women working in the farming field and at home. Having relatives in the village is only part of the reason why I choose this place. Leibei offers historical value as it was a “model village” during Mao’s campaign of “Learn From Dazhai Village in Agriculture, 农业学⼤寨” (1963-1980). Mao Zedong’s idea of “Human Must Conquer Nature ⼈定胜天” and the campaign “Learn From Dazhai Village in Agriculture” led to a national mechanization of agriculture including greenhouse design.

It was until 6-7 years ago, farmers in the village began to work on jujube Greenhouse farming. Today, the internationally famed Winter Jujubes, nurtured in the greenhouses of Leibei, introduce the village to the global network. I see this transformation as a commercially successful case and hope this workshop brings our attention to this corner of rural China again in finding an alternative energy culture.

Workshop Details

1. Mapping the village farming land. First of all, there are three types of greenhouses in Leibei. Earth-wall/Warm Greenhouse, Iron-plastic film greenhouse, and cold greenhouse. A warm Greenhouse has a thick earth wall. The earth’s wall would absorb solar energy during the day, and emit heat during the night. Very efficient and cheap material. After talking with my partners in the village, I learned that the earth-wall greenhouses have less usable farming area than the iron-plastic film greenhouse because the thick earth-wall will take up some area, and also they need to reserve larger gaps between greenhouses for natural lighting purposes (wall block light), also and can only face south in order to receive maximum sunlight. The iron-plastic film greenhouses have fewer limitations, since they don’t have an earth wall, they can face either north or south. They are a bit more expensive than the earth-wall greenhouse. However, their ability in containing the heat during the night is worse than the earth-wall greenhouse because of the lack of the earth wall. There are several factors affecting which type of greenhouse a farmer would choose—economic factors, the cost of a greenhouse, the type of the earth, some ground cannot be used to build earth-wall greenhouses because they are not suitable for laying the earth-wall foundation, the slope, and elevation, and also the shape of the farming land, why is that? Here I tried to draw an illustration to show how the shape of the farming land affecting the type of greenhouse one can choose. In 1980, the Household responsibility system is created—meaning households are held responsible for the profits and losses of their farming land came to replace the socialist collective farming, maintained through public ownership (see the image attached). So this mapping section of the workshop will take farmers and hopefully some village policy makers walking around the farming land, using drones and cell phones to take pictures, mapping out each household’s land, to seek a possibility to adjust the shapes of each household’s farming area.

2. Telling a history of agriculture in Leibei, one of the well-respected elders in the village. Arrange a desk at the public square, they have a very well-designed public space.

3. Irrigation—what does the Yellow river mean to them? To greenhouse farming? Yellow river is a notorious monstrous mother river) gave birth to towns along the river but also destroyed many.

4. Greenhouse Design and Construction Most of the funding will be spent here. During the workshop, we will reenact several greenhouse designs from history on a smaller scale, and look for lessons and inspirations from these designs, especially in their thermal energy production methods. In the end, we will build a greenhouse—not as a model to be duplicated, but as a laboratory to fail and learn.

Downloadable Media