Preservation Playground

Preservation Playground | MARK Magazine#35

It is midsummer when I visit Baoshan, a district on the northern outskirts of Shanghai 上海 known for its steel factories and shipyards. But I am not here to check out industrial sites. I am here to visit Wendao Garden 闻道园, which covers an area of over 400 hectares where ancient houses from the nearby provinces of Anhui, Jianxi and Zhejiang are brought and reconstructed. It is the pet preservation project of former businessman and now full-time collector Wang Wei. The structures are being repurposed as boutique hotels, clubhouses and the like, but in a way Wendao Garden 闻道园 fits right into its industrial surroundings. This kind of preservation is also a form of logistics.

It is commonly known that one result of the rapid urbanization of China has been the destruction of historical architecture and other examples of the nation’s cultural heritage. In 2007 Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of construction, hit out at certain local officials, citing their ‘senseless actions’ and deriding projects that had ‘devastated’ historical sites. According to the vice minister, China’s historical and cultural heritage was facing the third round of havoc to transpire since the establishment of New China in 1949. The first round occurred during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ movement of the late 1950s and the second during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when huge numbers of relics and sites of historical value were demolished. He attributed the source of the third round to the tremendous territorial changes now occurring. I wonder, though, whether relocating archaic buildings relics is the remedy.

Preservation Playground | MARK Magazine#35

On my visit to Baoshan, I am accompanied by Abraham Zamcheck, who – along with Yonatan Cohen and Robert W. de Miguel Moyer – recently founded Arctora, a US-based architecture firm. All three men are Harvard GSD graduates. A couple of weeks earlier, Zamcheck had told me a story and suggested today’s outing, which I could hardly refuse. In short, he’d explained that a decade ago a rich Chinese guy with a luminous idea had started buying up old houses in nearby provinces. In the meantime he’d amassed an impressive collection, most of them stored in a private warehouse. His plan? I’d have a chance to find out. All Zamcheck is willing to reveal is that I shouldn’t see his endeavour as a crazy business scheme or even as an investment. It’s more of a hobby, and it’s part of a wider movement in China aimed at saving historical artefacts from the collateral damage of progress. During my years in China, I have met scores of art collectors, both foreign and domestic – in all shapes, sizes and colours. A house collector, however, is something new.

Wendao Garden 闻道园 serves as a model for the Hui Garden project, which Abraham Zamcheck has been involved in over the summer. Hui Garden includes the relocation of several Huizhou village houses to the new Minhang Campus of Shanghai Jiaotong University. Zamcheck was asked to devise an urban design for the campus that combines these pre-modern dwellings with new buildings. Not a man unfamiliar with the territory, Zamcheck not only studied traditional Chinese architecture as an undergraduate at Harvard and at GSD, but also translated a book on wooden architecture south of the Yangtze for Professor Liu Jie of Shanghai Jiaotong University. ‘Traditional architecture and planning can help inform modern life and society,’ says Zamcheck. ‘At the same time, we want our project to challenge the way things were done in the past and to propose something new.’

Wendao Garden 闻道园 | Shanghai, August 2011

How things were done in the past can be seen at Wendao Garden 闻道园. After a stroll around the grounds, we visit the warehouse, where approximately 50 houses await reconstruction and where Wang Wei’s impressive collection of oddly shaped rocks are on view. When we finally have a chance to sit down and talk to Wang, we are impressed by his modest, laid-back demeanour. I begin by asking him how collecting houses became a hobby. ‘It is probably just something personal,’ he replies, ‘as my ancestral home is in Anhui Province, the place where my grandfather and greatgrandfather lived before they moved to Shanghai. I do this preservation work because in recent years lots of houses have disappeared owing to financial and political turmoil – and to the pressure of rapid urbanization. During this process, we were able to buy some of the houses.’ As our conversation continues, it becomes clear that Wang’s hobby is the result of what he calls ‘a circumstantial opportunity.’ And, like many hobbies, this one has had an outcome that was unforeseeable at the onset. ‘Originally, I planned to buy only one house and use it for having tea and meeting friends. Later on, traveling through the countryside of Anhui Province, I found people breaking private homes to pieces, as such structures are not protected by the government.’

After our meeting with Wang Wei, I ask Zamcheck if he knows what happens to the residents of the old houses after they are bought up. I’m wondering whether most villagers – in return for a bit of cash – are willing to leave their ancestral homes and spend the rest of their lives in bland suburban apartment blocks. ‘For some families, the money they receive for their houses represents something of a financial windfall,’ he says. ‘Removing these buildings, however, may be detrimental to the future of a village, which could otherwise view the houses as a source of pride and history, or as the basis for future tourism-related industries. The primary point of departure for me was the conviction that these houses have a practical value for the communities in which they were based. People involved in these projects will tell you that the rural population cannot wait to tear old houses down and to build more practical structures. This is not true, although I don’t think that local preferences – one way or another – are going to have a dramatic effect on China’s urbanization schemes. The project does touch on the larger question, though, of how the countryside fits into the nation’s modern economy. Unless there is some creative thinking about urban development, the draining of the physical and intellectual assets of the countryside will likely accelerate.’

A few days after our visit to Wendao Garden 闻道园, I meet with history professor Cao Shuji of Shanghai Jiaotong University, who introduced Zamcheck to the topic of preservation and commissioned him to study the integration of old village houses into the campus. Cao stumbled upon these structures while conducting research. ‘At the history department,’ he says, ‘we buy contractual housing documents in Huizhou, south of Anhui Province, as resources for study and research. During this process, we discovered a substantial market for the trade in old houses, which we reported to our university. From then on, we started to buy houses ourselves.’ In the beginning, the idea of buying and rebuilding a few houses on campus was fairly modest. ‘I hoped our university could buy one or two houses and turn these into a place for studying Chinese culture,’ says Cao. ‘But when I reported our plans to the vice headmaster, he wanted to make the project bigger – more in line with the university’s overall ambitions. He said we should buy 30 houses. We currently have 15.’

Cao explains that Arctora’s role in the project is as a tester of ideas. ‘Before we saw Arctora’s design, our idea had been to create a Chinese village, with narrow lanes and randomly arranged houses – a beautifully reconstructed village. The main problem was that the houses were not big enough by far to fulfil our requirement for more office space. We needed to insert new buildings as well. Arctora’s proposals helped us solve most of our problems.’ The architects presented three schemes: a courtyard model, an organic model and a village model. ‘At first we thought that any new programme introduced into the rigid typology of the village house would fail functionally or just seem inappropriate,’ says Yonatan Cohen. ‘Eventually, we decided to use this predicament as a narrative for the project. Clashes between new programme and old structure would confront future users and force them to think differently about the space they inhabit.’

Old Houses Waiting in the Warehouse of Wendao Garden 闻道园 | August 2011

Back to Wendao Garden 闻道园, where Wang’s warehouse still holds dozens of houses awaiting reconstruction. Before reassembling the first one outside, on site, his team checks to make sure none of the components are missing and reviews the construction methods to be used. I ask Wang what types of problems he faces. ‘The houses suffered a lot of damage during the Cultural Revolution,’ he says. ‘Buildings were altered radically at that time. Lots of woodcarvings were demolished and the faces of characters destroyed. I believe you’ve seen some examples. The ones that were preserved owe a debt to the intelligence of the villagers. Among the houses we purchased are some with carvings hidden beneath a layer of clay on which local people had inscribed quotations from Chairman Mao. When we removed the clay, we saw the intricate carvings.’ Cao stresses the necessity of attention to detail in this kind of work. ‘There are many similar projects in China today. One of them is a real mess. They put Ming and Qing Dynasty houses together randomly. Some people are totally unable to distinguish one era from another. They haphazardly combine the various parts of old houses. If they need a column base or a roof, for example, they just grab whatever happens to be lying around.’

The way in which such age-old structures are researched, collected and rebuilt illustrates current Chinese preservation practices. It provokes discussion about cultural authenticity and the Chinese habit of cut-copy-paste, and it shows the growing tension between rural and urban communities. Projects such as Wendao Garden 闻道园 and Hui Garden are about understanding rural villages as a resource for rejuvenating present-day architecture. ‘The Anhui houses are only half the story,’ says Cohen. ‘The Huizhou merchants had dual lifestyles; because of their business obligations, they owned houses in the city and the countryside simultaneously and managed for several centuries to enjoy the benefits of both. Our hope is that projects like Hui Garden and Wendao Garden 闻道园 will remind users of bygone days, when a harmonious balance existed between the urban and the rural.’

Because only a few of Wang’s houses have been erected and a few dozen are waiting to be reconstructed, I ask whether he finds it strange that he will probably never be able to enjoy the full results of his hobby. ‘Yes, there are lots of them,’ he says, ‘and I’m constantly asking myself how to manage and use them – and how to store even more. We have houses that are between 100 and 500 years old. I see myself as a temporary keeper. It is probably up to the next generation to benefit from what I bought and built up.’

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Text by Bert de Muynck

Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Illegal Copying | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man | #26 (June-July 10)
“Deshaus: Slow Down” | #28 (October-November 10)
“JR | City Faces” | #30 (Feb-March 11)
“Major Forces | Sun Jiwei” | #31 (April-May 11)

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