Design for Life Awards – Maosi Bridge

April 2007

School children from Maosi village in Gansu Province, China, commute safely to school across the bridge that they helped build. (Courtesy INDEX Awards)
School children from Maosi village in Gansu Province, China, commute safely to school across the bridge that they helped build. (Courtesy INDEX Awards)

"The typical Architectural bridge is one that solves the problem of span, context and load in as elegant a manner as possible. The [Maosi] Bridge is modest and chunky but brilliantly answers the demands of the context. It is a wonderful example of how inventive architectural and design thinking results in something both delightful and socially empowering." - Jury’s Comment, Royal Institute of British Architects International Award 2006

Among the top nominees for this year’s Design for Life INDEX Awards is an extraordinary construction project in the remote province of Gansu, north-west China. Extraordinary, not because it is high tech, or a great work of art, but because of the harmony between the principles of its design and construction, and the needs of the community which it serves.

The Po River runs through the middle of Maosi village, cutting it in two. The old log bridge had to be rebuilt by the villagers each autumn after it was destroyed by monsoon flooding. Its narrow, slippery surface was hazardous for the 200 children, who had to cross the river several times a day to and from their school on the other side. Among regular accidents, a mother and her child were swept to their deaths.

Professor Edward Ng Yan-ynug of the Department of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong CUHK came across the village by chance, and took up the challenge of designing a solution which would be cheap, simple and easy to maintain by the villagers. He brought together architects, engineers, laymen and students to develop ideas. After two years of research and planning, the result was the 80-metre long Wu Zhi Qiao (Bridge of Sustainability).

Rather than try to conquer nature with a massive structure, the team constructed piers without foundations, shaped to minimize resistance to the water and heavy enough not to be washed away. The bridge was constructed largely by hand by the villagers, with extensive use of natural, local materials, such as stone and bamboo. It is designed in small sections with handles so that each section, if detached, can be replaced by six villagers. The bridge planks on the piers form a zig-zag pattern, which discourages heavy vehicles from crossing the bridge – and is an added bonus for those who hold the traditional Chinese belief that evil spirits cannot turn corners. "After 20 years, now I can again walk to visit my friends on the other side," an elderly man told the bridge builders.

The new bridge has survived the floods over the last 15 months, and the bamboo decks have gained strength as a result of being covered with mud. The project has won three major architectural awards, including from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Encouraged by the success, the team has embarked on another bridge project in a Tibetan village in Sichuan. Professor Ng hopes that young villagers will themselves be inspired to build more bridges, reaching more communities.

By Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editor, Communications and Public Outreach Division

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