Not So Different

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

Chinese rooftops

An American curator finds the challenges facing architectural preservation in China strangely familiar.

Download article as PDF

Staring out my window in the late 1980s onto a flowering pomegranate tree and the traditionally decorated interior gateway in the late-17th-century Beijing courtyard mansion was romantic. My life seemed linked with generations of men and women who had inhabited the same rooms in very different time periods. But most of the romance ended there. About 25 other families, in addition to mine, now occupied this once one-family compound, with only two toilets and a few cold-water faucets. Bicycles and junk that didn’t fit inside the small rooms were piled everywhere in the courtyards; rampant gossip filled the air. Almost 40 years earlier, at the time of the 1949 Liberation of China, the owners of the home had left the country. The Ministry of Culture took over the compound and transformed the beautiful buildings into a “dormitory” for its personnel and their families. The project had been a good instance of reuse with the byproduct of preserving (in a manner) a historic structure.

In considering preservation and its current efforts in the Americas and Europe, glancing at another culture’s approach to reuse and preservation may offer new perspectives on the foreign culture as well as on our own. Today, American and European newspapers rightfully and heroically publish articles on the sad destruction these days in Beijing, where swaths of courtyard houses are demolished to make way for spanking-new malls, stadiums, and high-rises. But to say that architectural preservation is not part of the current Chinese thinking would be too simplistic. Preservation efforts originate with needs and missions, and those needs and missions often differ from culture to culture, and from group to group within one culture. Below are a few tales of needs, and of preservation, from China.

Chinese rooftops

In 1949, the Communists liberated China with the mission to relieve the aching poverty suffered by a majority of the population throughout the country. Leaders of the party initiated land reform and other attempts to equalize wealth and opportunity, not all of which were successful. The division of the one-family home I lived in, and many like it, were part of these efforts.

In the ensuing years, the Chinese government also preserved and promoted specific landmarks that would echo its mission. Not unlike the restoration of Mount Vernon at the beginning of the preservation movement in the United States, government officials selected homes of exemplary revolutionaries to preserve and promote. The tamped-earth house where Chairman Mao Zedong grew up in the small village of Shaoshan in Hunan Province proclaimed his ties to the agricultural lifestyle of China’s down-trodden peasants. By 1950, the house had already become a restored and well-maintained site open to the public. (In the past 60 years, over 40 million people have visited.) Mao’s home was not the only residence preserved at the time. A large multi-courtyard compound in the town of Shaoxing in southern China, the childhood home of the revolutionary writer and poet Lu Xun (1881–1936), was restored and opened to the public in 1953. Built in 1754, the handsome residence exemplified the dwelling of a well-to-do family, but authorities presented it as a lesson in the nurture and development of a revolutionary soul.

Even the Forbidden City, for 500 years the center and symbol of the imperial power so disdained by the new government, had justification for its preservation. An illustration in a 1950s children’s book depicts scaffolding surrounding the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, and dozens of workers laboring to repair the monumental edifice. The caption under the drawing explains to young readers that the building is being restored so all the people will be able to view the masterful craftsmanship produced by toiling workers of the past. The message was to celebrate the creations of the ancient masses.

As the building of a new China and its new identity gathered momentum, many landmarks that did not fit the new needs and missions were cleared to make way for an improved vision. It was against this background that the great architectural historian Liang Sicheng (1901–1972), the first person to research, discover, and lay out the stylistic evolution of China’s three millennia of architecture, went to Chairman Mao. Liang pleaded with the leader not to tear down the city wall encircling Beijing, to preserve all the older buildings within it, and to construct all new edifices outside the old city center. Mao deemed Liang’s suggestion unpatriotic. How could the new state’s most important edifices not be directly in the center of the metropolis? (Liang’s daughter-in-law today remembers that the historian cried when he heard the subsequently announced plans for the future capital.)

But the struggle to reconcile architectural heritage and patriotic purpose is not confined to urban areas. The village of Huang Cun, in a remote part of Anhui Province, tore down its two ancestral shrines in the 1950s to contribute the bricks and timbers to a dam and reservoir project. Three decades later, the county announced its plan to take down the third ancestral shrine in the village for construction materials for an electric plant. A native of the village who had become a respected professor in Beijing heard about the proposal and was able to stop the demolition of the 450-year-old building.

Today in the same region, there are competing voices and needs in regards to preservation. Local governments know that preserved architecture brings tourists and therefore much-needed income to the area. But families in the villages are eager to carry on their lineages and need daughters-in-law to do so. And daughters-in-law — in strong demand — prefer new, modern houses.

The one-child-only policy and the favoring of boy children resulted in a shortage of girls, and potential brides. Young women today can therefore be selective about choosing husbands. Men with new houses and city jobs are far more attractive than those living in their families’ multi-generational 200-year-old ancestral homes.

A woman in the village of Huang Cun is sitting in the interior courtyard of her family’s 100-year-old home. She counters me when I compliment her on her house. “This old place, if we had more money, we’d tear it down…” “Why?!” she asks in response to my next question, incredulous that anyone would think otherwise. “Otherwise, we’ll never get a daughter-in-law!”

She is far from alone in her thinking. A 20-something-year-old son in the same village recently told his father it was time to tear down the 18th-century home in which the whole extended family still lives. The son’s reasoning: he could not find a wife. The father, a schoolteacher, cherishing the walls and windows that his ancestors had built for him and his descendants, offered his son a solution: modernize one bedroom for the future wife, but make all the new components reversible. The son erected walls within walls, added full-length mirrors and built-in cabinets and painted the entire interior of this first-floor bedroom pink. Within a year, he married, and the next year, a son arrived to carry on the lineage.

Riding in taxis around Beijing, which is already a good decade into a total transformation of its cityscape, I often take up my informal and continual survey on the local population’s feelings about their changing surrounds. Where do you live, in a pingfang (a “flat house,” a one-story traditional courtyard house) or an apartment building? I ask. Inevitably the answer is an apartment building, often with an added “But I grew up in a pingfang, a dazayuanr,” the multifamily courtyard-type house like the one in which I had lived. How would you prefer to live? I ask. The answer is almost always “A pingfang. Everyone knew each other. Apartment buildings are so impersonal. No one talks to each other. But they’re convenient…” Why don’t you live in a pingfang now? “Who can afford to?!” Indeed, while some groups of families still inhabit dazayuanr, real estate in the districts of the old hutong — alleyways lined with enclosed courtyard houses with their grand gates and interior trees — is now affordable only to the very rich and the high officials.

Two unmarried sisters in Beijing live in five rooms of the 17th-century multi-courtyard home that has been handed down for generations in their family. One sister wants to install modern aluminum and plastic windows to keep out winter drafts. The other, unwilling to quarrel with her older sibling, cries herself to sleep thinking how their ancestors’ home is being irreversibly modified.

Today in Beijing, many people mourn for the spaces and environments they once called home — the quiet alleyways, the low roof-lines. They curse the new architectural landmarks by renowned foreign designers as alien to their Beijing, and have a series of offensive names linking them all in a popular poem. Perhaps a new appreciation for the past is emerging. As for the daughters-in-law…

A home in Jimingyi in Hebei Province from the Ming period

Modernizing history: A home in Jimingyi (Cock’s Crow Post Town) in Hebei Province from the Ming period (1368–1644) features a new ceiling made of woven strips of plastic Coca-Cola packaging. Photo by Nancy Berliner.

Many of the challenges and approaches to preserving architectural structures in China have parallels in America and elsewhere in the world: The efforts to preserve homes of the heroes of the American Revolution (George Washington and John Quincy Adams). The endeavors to save and present the more modest dwellings of anonymous laborers who suffered hardships in the past (slave quarters at Monticello, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). Structures presented as historic buildings despite significant modifications (Paul Revere’s house). Economic cycles that preserve buildings by default in hard times, creating the basis for an eventual tourism economy that preserves but occasionally mis-preserves those same buildings (Salem, Massachusetts during the 19th century). Local decisions to demolish whole neighborhoods in attempts to modernize or “revive” a city (the West End of Boston and, more recently, New London, Connecticut). The justifiable desires of individuals to live with modern conveniences and keep up with fashions that provide status within their community; and the equally justifiable yearning for architectural environments that evoke the distinctive cultural identity of the place (Vermont and Nantucket).

And, finally, this: The usually well-intended but often conflicting aspirations among the multiple members of any society means that, despite preservation guidelines, codes, and standards, the man-made landscape will inevitably continue to unfold in fluid and sometimes even surprising shapes and forms.

A Chinese book on architecture lists a historic garden as still surviving in downtown Beijing. The address is a neon-lit contemporary restaurant hemmed in by skyscraping apartment buildings. Within the restaurant’s courtyard is a man-made rockery and, atop the rockery, almost invisible to customers, an old pavilion. Clothes hang on a line outside the structure and a television plays within. Someone is living in one of the best preserved gardens in town.

Top image: Photo © William Perry |

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

    […] Berliner’s comparative perspective ["Not So Different," Spring 2010] addresses the mass clearance of urban fabric in Chinese cities in the light of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: