These unique ring-shaped buildings are found exclusively in Fujian in South China, particularly around Jongclingr either individually or in groups, and each constitutes acomplete self-contained residential village. Exceptional though they are, there are several thousand of these structures in existence. They were built from the seventeenth century to the present, with diameters vary-ing from 17 to 85 in metres. Besides the round variety, there are a great many square ones and all manner of intermediary forms. Although inward facing and closed to the outside world, they make a less impenetrable impresstion in the landscape than one might expect. They are inhabited by communities of entire families of Hakkas (strangers) who migrated to this region from the north looking for better living conditions. In these fortress-like buildings they could protect and defend themselves against onslaughts and often lengthy sieges. Otherwise the surrounding walls are entirely blank with perhaps the occasional tiny window placed as high as possible. Constructed of bricks of dried clay, the walls are one and a half metres thick at the bottom and taper they rise.
All dwelling units are located against the outer wall, whereas the central area is either open or built-up to same extent. Onthe ground floor are the living and eating quarters and kitchens, all ranged in accordance with Chinese tradition round small internal courts giving onto the open central area. The bedrooms, like the storage rooms, are located along the galleries above and curiously can only he reached from two or four public stairs. In other words, with certain exceptions you are unable to proceed directly from your living quarters to the bedrooms except by way of the front door, across the public space. Evidently there is less need of privacy, though these are after all, large family groups, in China the basic units of the social structure. Privacy besides, is a privilege of the rich who are more in a position to indulge in it, as they have less need to rely on one another.
The central area whether open or closed is collective. Here the harvested crops prepared with some degree of collaboration and stored in barns. Besides rooms set aside for production, there may be schools, boarding houses and general cafe-like spaces where you can meet together. Finally, there are the remains of religious places, in the shape or open corners resembling miniature squares along the galleries, where modest ceremonies are enacted. In some complexes there is space for a temple in the centre that doubles as a theatre. Presumably the religious activities me still not accepted by the authorities and have been reduced during the last fifty years to their present marginal form. Nor do we know exactly how much more prosperous these comununities were in the past, and the fate of the landowners who must have lived and ruled here in earlier times and presumably built these houses. Divided into living units that all emerge at a differentiated communal area, these housing complexes are in effect fully fledged towns which like medieval settlements could hold out almost indefinitely against attackers. Their shape suggests a comparison with a built-up amphitheatre such as the one at Arles.
Excerpt from Space and the Architect By Herman Hertzberger