The Great Wall may be built to last, but…
June 27, 2008
So once I finally had gotten into China, had experienced one huge Chinese city and been caught in a couple of tour group traffic jams, I decided to reevaluate how I wanted to spend the remainder of my 30 days in China. I realized that the "must see" list for China generally consists of things and places that have become institutionalized in the Chinese cultural landscape, carefully preserved in museums. I decided that I wanted to experience some of the China that is not yet in museums. The China of minority cultures and rural areas that is still largely in the hands of the people. The China that is likely on the list of demolition sites in the government's quest to make their country bigger, better and more modern. Take Shenzhen, for example. Thirty years ago, it was a small agricultural community. Then the government says "We want capitalism...here" and boom. Almost overnight, the large metropolis of the special economic zone arose and continues to expand to accommodate more shops and skyscrapers without history or identity. In addition, the rebuilding of Sichuan Province following the earthquake will be an interesting insight into the future of renovating China.
There were many cultural surprises during my 30 days, but I was particularly struck by the way China engages in a unique type of overly enthusiastic capitalism. My favorite example was a bridal shop in Kunming that was blasting dance music from oversized speakers out front, while people stood along the sidewalk in fluorescent orange traffic vests, waving plastic hand clappers and trying to direct people inside. The saleswomen were staged inside wearing some of the dresses and greeting the people as they were ushered inside. Previously, I might have considered a bridal shop to be a specialty shop (someone is either getting married, or is not), but not in China! Fortunately, the same enthusiasm was also visible in the support for the earthquake victims and survivors, with people everywhere raising money and expressing their national pride.
While my trip was largely focused on more rural architecture traditions, I was also curious to see some of the new "sustainable development" projects that make the news as the world nervously watches China's aggressive and seemingly unstoppable pace of development. I found Shanghai to be incredibly intense in its quest to become the next city of the world. Everywhere you go in the city, there are comparisons being made to London, New York, and Dubai and less and less of a feeling that you are in China. The Urban Planning Exhibition Hall displays a scale model of future development in central Shanghai and even has a 360 degree digital fly-through of the cityscape. While I admit I was impressed by the presentation, I left feeling a bit nervous about the future. Traditional building and living was discarded with comments about how much "happier" all of the people are to be living in high-rise apartments, and most of the "green-living" display highlighted the creation of parks to increase the per-capita green space from the 1940s estimate of the equivalent of the space needed to stand.
Following up with my Arup contact from London, I met with Stehanie Zhang, a sustainability consultant working on the Dongtan Ecocity project, one of Shanghai's shining examples of ecological development. Not surprisingly, considering Arup's reputation, the project will be a high-tech solution to marketing new eco-living to the Chinese consumers. The project takes 86 square kilometers of agricultural land and open space on Chongming Island, outside of Shanghai City, and creates an urban "self-sufficient" community within a small southern portion. It claims to be inspired by the traditional water-towns in the region such as Suzhou (which feels just like any other large Chinese city, plus a few canals) and Tongli (one of the older and smaller towns interwoven with canals that has been all but swallowed up by tourism). As the project is still in planning stages, Ms. Zhang was not able to discuss the architectural design, though she willingly shared information on efforts to preserve much of the existing agricultural land and wetlands, promote renewable energy, recreate the local economy, and demonstrate intelligent design. Arup hopes that the Dongtan Eco-city will become a successful model of sustainable development that can be easily recreated in the future. While I found the project to have some value and potential, it seems to be a very isolated example due to the high cost, high-tech approach that will likely transform the land into a research facility, tourist destination and agribusiness center that could be located anywhere in the world…say London, New York or Dubai.
From a last minute meeting with an urban planner, Karin Doberstau, I did manage to get off the beaten path for a couple of hours and explore an interesting urban development project. On a former industrial site along a river, a Chinese architect has creatively renovated a series of derelict buildings into a commercial center that included cafés, offices, art galleries and relaxing outdoors gardens¾ a great example of urban revitalization and reuse that is a much more accessible and less resource intensive sustainable alternative than the flashy Dongtan project.
Along the lines of "green" development, I also visited the Integer Expo Eco City in Kunming while I was out in the Yunnan Province and given a very generous personal tour by Belinda Liang. Unlike Dongtan, this project is a government sponsored effort to educate consumers about alternative living and create a model specific to western China's climate and culture. Although this is also a fairly high tech project, it aims to take local traditions and materials and introduce new concepts and technologies in ways that they will be adopted by local consumers, builders and governments as future solutions. While there were still some very flashy elements of this project (like a model apartment with a wall decorated entirely in peacock feathers), I found it to be a much more realistic and accessible development alternative that is likely to have an impact on regional building and living in the near future.
Getting beyond the mainstream tourism industry and experiencing rural traditional architecture in China is not a simple task, but I was determined to try. I was fortunate to have been invited by Professor Ho from Chinese University in Hong Kong to join him and a group of students on a research trip to examine patterns of influence in vernacular architecture within a group of villages in southern Zhejiang Province. This trip provided an unique glimpse of traditional rural life and building that I would have otherwise missed out on, considering language and transportation barriers outside of China's major cities. I learned many lessons from Professor Ho and his students regarding feng-shui, local materials, and how lifestyle was traditionally connected to design in residential architecture.
In southern Fujian province, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to stay with a family who has lived in the Tulou earth building for generations and now runs a hotel from their home. The Tulou earth buildings are traditionally constructed by clan families of the Hakka minority people. The buildings are constructed in a rammed earth technique, with walls over 3 meters thick. Levels of wooden walls, windows and doors are constructed on the interior, letting in light and air, as there are few external windows. All of the kitchens are at the base, with sleeping areas above, creating a communal living environment that is well protected from climate and other outside threats. We visited Tian Luo Keng, a famous cluster of earth buildings that US satellites picked up in the 1950s, and were consequently mistaken for nuclear testing facilities! The oldest of the earth buildings in the Taxia village, called Yuchang, was built during the Yuan Dynasty, making it 700 years old and still standing! Amazingly, some of the posts of the internal wood structure are angled as much as 15 degrees. No one is sure if this is a trick by the original carpenters, or a slow shift over time. It has been repeatedly examined by engineers and determined to be structurally sound!
I spent the end of a rainy afternoon sitting in my room on the fourth floor of the earth building, watching the mist swirl around the surrounding hills and the rain fall like a waterfall from the roof around me into the courtyard below. The sound echoed up the walls softly, temporarily replacing the sounds of laughing children and women chatting as they cooked the evening meal.
There was one controversial thing I witnessed during my stay in Taxia that I took some issue with, and that was the changes being made in order for the Chinese government to apply for World Heritage status on the villages and boost tourism to the area. Everywhere we went, elderly members of the community were teaming up to knock down sparkling bathrooms and kitchens constructed less than a year before using family savings to upgrade the homes. Since World Heritage requires that the buildings have no new construction and follow original design, the Chinese government has come through saying it is time to break out hammers and pickaxes. This is being grudgingly carried out in exchange for minimal compensation from the government and a future of catering to international tourists. Some people I met called this an improvement, but not many of the people I saw were happy to deconstruct their new home additions.
My last stop was the Yunnan Province, known for containing over 30 percent of China's minorities and a diversity of microclimates that result in varied building traditions. From Kunming, I had a few days to get out to Dali and see some of the local Bai minority architecture. Unfortunately, there were few resources for English speakers, but there were some well preserved buildings and I even saw a traditional Bai dance performance in one of them! I was frustrated to only have 5 days to spend in this region with so much to offer, so before my flight, I decided to run out to the minority village museum outside of Kunming, which supposedly represented some of the diversity of China's minorities. While it was interesting to see models of Tibetan architecture, and I found a few other groups with a style very distinct from Han Chinese building, I was frustrated by the depressing atmosphere of the museum. People dressed in tacky versions of traditional clothing tried to sell you equally tacky tourist nick nacks while (no longer surprisingly) blasting loud dance music. I ran out of China as the clock ran down on my visa, feeling a bit overwhelmed and nervous about what the future holds…
For anyone keeping track, my 30 days in China have well beyond expired, and though my update has taken a while to put together after racing madly through China, I am happy to take the time to reflect on the experience. I admit that I needed some time and space away from a rather intense month of cultural and linguistic challenges and a fast-paced tour of some very diverse projects to be able to gather my thoughts. I am now in Thailand, my last stop of the trip before heading home. I have a wonderful design research project that I will be involved in starting in early July, which will be a great end to an amazing journey.
Photos up tomorrow: