Fujian Tulou (Tulou 土楼 meaning earth building) are rural dwellings in the Fujian region of China. This mountainous province located in the south-east of the country has many examples of this traditional architecture. The community buildings were built by the Hakka people from the 12th century to the 20th century. Their architecture is recognizable for its size, shape, construction technique and above all for its unique function. They were built both for a defensive purpose and to establish a community organization.
A Hakka architecture
During the end of the Northern Song dynasty around 1120, many conflicts broke out and many people from the northern provinces migrated south. The Hakka refugees settled in Fujian province, far from their homelands. There they built the first Tulou, small earthen buildings that could accommodate all families, with a shared central space. These buildings were an important place of gathering and exchange between families far from their roots. Later, during the Ming Dynasty (late 14th to early 17th century), special attention was paid to education. The form of the Tulu evolved and diversified, hosting schools and other community functions. Finally, the conflicts between different clans and later the Sino-Japonese wars influenced the architecture of the Tulou, strengthening their defensive function.
Construction and structure of the Fujian forts
The structure of the Tulou is made with materials from the region. The outer walls are made of clay, earth, lime and stone, and the inner structure is made of bamboo arranged vertically as a bone structure. In addition, key parts are often decorated with a mixture of sticky rice and brown sugar to improve the stickiness. A stone base (often sandstone) allows the lower part of the wide outer earth wall to be up to 3m thick. The upper part of this wall is formed using the same technique but has a thickness reduced to about 1.50m. This has a double effect. Firstly to insulate the ground from attacks from the outside, and secondly to ensure thermal comfort during the harsh winters. Besides, the transverse earth walls are also very thick and function as fire walls. The buildings have between two and five floors and are divided vertically, each family having two or three rooms per floor depending on the structure of the transverse walls. Finally tiled roofs unify the structure and overlook the courtyard.
A unified and communal building for the clan
The Fujian Tulou are defensive forts but also community buildings. Their form allows to unite several families within the same building, or a whole clan. These closed volumes could house up to 800 people within their terracotta walls. The architecture and organization of the Tulou is not reproducing the social hierarchy, everyone is at the same level. The rooms are of the same size, with the same windows, rising vertically according to the size of the family. While the exterior wall is devoid of ornamentation and has few openings (especially at floor level), the wall facing the inner core is more decorated, more open. Indeed the inner courtyards are places of family unity, of sharing. Low buildings are often built in the middle of these courtyards, they are places of education for children, or places to commemorate ancestors. Otherwise, the central square can serve as a market, a commercial place, a common space for the community.
Forms and typologies
The use of regional materials, their integration into the landscape, and the transmission of this knowledge over the centuries make the Fujian Tulou a perfect example of virtuous and inclusive vernacular architecture. But they are also recognizable for their different typologies. Initially the Fujian Tulou followed a square shape (fanglou 方楼), open inside. The corners were then more exposed, less luminous and with a distinct and less performing ventilation. Later the round shape (yuanlou 圆楼), became a viable alternative. The figure of the circle reinforced the community idea, the defensive vocation and allowed a better diffuse ventilation. The rectangular shape also developed in a distinct way, as a variation from the original square shape. From these three typologies, other forms developed, such as the oval, the hexagonal, or the half-moon. Of the 35,000 clay buildings in southern China, more than 3,700 are classified as Tulou. Most of them are square (more than 2000) or circular(more than 1000).
Closed buildings united in clusters
The Fujian Tulou allowed the defence and prosperity of the clans and their perfect autonomy while reproducing the traditional communal pattern of the Chinese family in a high-performance building integrated into the Fujian mountains. All these characteristics made them iconic buildings, reflecting the image of the clan that inhabited it. The model developed and spread in the Fujian region but also around the original Tulou. These Tulou groups are clusters composed of several buildings often mixing shapes. They are of different sizes and heights, the largest covering an area of 40,000m².
The best known is probably the Tianluokeng Tulou cluster located in Tianluo. It consists of a square building surrounded by three round buildings and an oval building.
Another famous one is the Chuxi Tulou cluster. It is located in a 14th century Hakka village that contains 36 Tulou. This cluster consists of circular and rectangular buildings that fit into the semi-urban landscape. The diversity and the size of the site are at the origin of an anecdotal fact. In the 1960s, the CIA, made aerial surveys in China during the Cold War. They identified the site as a potential site for nuclear silos. For more than 30 years they confused the circular shapes of the Tulou with a missile launching base.
The Architectural organization of these buildings is similar to Louis Kahn’s research on Scottish castles. The structure of the castles is similar to the Tulou, with their reinforced outer walls for defensive purposes, a united structure, and an open heart dedicated to community life. These typology of buildings where the people are living in the walls are described in the article Walls as a Rooms on Socks-Studio.