Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Future Of Historic Preservation In China

Wang Fu Jing Street
Beijing, China

Hello Everyone:

Today we are going to take a trip to the People's Republic of China and take a look at the country's historic preservation efforts.  Our guide will be Sascha Matuszak and his article for Next City titled, "Modernizing China Seeks Historic Preservation Model."  Over the past three decades, China has been on a demolition spree, razing older places and rebuilding cities all in the of urbanization and modernization. In the process, countless historic buildings and communities were lost forever, trampled over by some space-age looking ("weird architecture" according to President Xi Jinping) building.  What does the future for historic preservation in the People's Republic of China hold?  Perhaps a way to honor its social and cultural history while moving forward into the future.

Hutong destroy in Beijing, China
Photograph by Boris van Hoytema/Flickr 
 Throughout China's rapid growth, preservation of historic places was a serious topic of discussion, but rarely did developers and officials halt the demolition derby.  While China has outwardly embraced conservation and preservation recommendations from agencies such as UNESCO, the country's decision-making vis-a-vis cultural heritage preservation have by and large been disregarded by the hurried need to modernize, urbanize, and make money.  In the wake of this manic rush to prove that China was on par with Western nations, many of Beijing's hutong neighborhoods have fallen and historic sites have been turned into tourist ventures.

In recent months, the pace of urbanization has slowed down in several major cities, giving scholars and citizen to have a little more say about cultural heritage preservation.  Before, developers and officials only considered profits; now community, culture, and historic value play a greater part in the discussions.  Mr. Matuszak writes,

China's preservation strategy has developed into a basic two-fold process.  First, places with strong social and cultural value (and therefore economic value) are identified.  Once those spaces are listed and protected by UNESCO or the domestic equivalent, the State Administration for Cultural Heritage, authorities decide to either replicate or renovate that space in order to maximize profit, protect the spirit of the space, and still allow for the urbanization drive to continue unabated.

Xintiandi, Shanghai, China
Sascha Matuszak uses Shanghai's Xintiandi as a case study that has helped define this two-pronged approach for the rest of the country.  Xintiandi is an upscale district in the heart of the city's shopping and financial district.  Only a few blocks long, Xintiandi mimics Qing Dynasty design, while housing retail and commercial enterprises.  At the heart, amid the faux-imperial design, are several neighborhoods recall turn of the century European-like buildings that are now used for residential and professional entities, which provide the cultural heritage and Xintiandi provides the revenue.  Xintiandi has be so economically successful that any city in the nation with a similar "old district" has followed the Xintiandi model.  Mr. Matuszak observes, "Unfortunately, much of what the Xintiandi model has 'saved' lacks the social power that the original community once had, and people have to, in effect, re-inhabit the space and re-create the lifestyle that gave life to the space in the first place."

Kuan  Zhai Xiang Zi
Chengdu, China
One good example of a city adapting its development strategy to accommodate the loss of a community is the Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi in Chengdu.  Chengdu was the city where imperial representatives lived and Manchurian warriors trained; Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi became a "...valuable and consistent space for communities, despite the many changes to the core demographic."  In the wake of the demise of Qing Dynasty, Kuomintang officers moved, replacing the Manchu aristocracy.  The generals were later displaced by the Communists who gave the homes to "the people."  The working-class, who took over the the stately homes, were slowly moved out beginning in 2004 to make way for renovation of the area.

Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi became the city's version of Xiantiandi-faux-imperial fa├žades with a Starbucks. However, developers in Chengdu took a slightly different tack.  While Xiantiandi is solely a commercial and retail development, developers opted to leave several of homes and a plethora of the historic architecture in tact-allowing some of "the people" to continue living there-in order to maintain the community.  Mr. Matuszak writes, "Xiamtiandi and Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi are steps in a progression toward a realistic preservation policy for a modernizing, urbanizing China."

West Lake with Linying Temple
Hangzhou, China

One of the outstanding examples of the melding of urbanization and historic communities is the cultural preservation, in a sustainably successful manner, is the West Lake development in Hangzhou.  Hangzhou is an extraordinarily culturally rich city and was the capital of powerful Song Dynasty (960-1279).  West Lake has been a source of poetic inspiration for decades.  Mr. Matuszak enthuses, "The efforts of the city to shield the lake from Hangzhou's rise as a major economic power in eastern China, while simultaneously bringing the cultural and historical significance of the 11th-century Hangzhou into the 21st century is nothing short of remarkable."

The western side of the lake faces Hangzhou and, like many historic districts, has been given over to retail, commercial, and tourist ventures. However the remainder of the lakefront, in particular the western hillside, is dedicated to the preservation of the old pagodas and temples, passing the cultural achievements of the old city.  There are several smaller temples free and open to the public.  Educational plaques line the lakeside path and Hangzhou's famous Longling green tea is still cultivated, in the traditional manner, along the western hills.  Sascha Matuszak writes, "The developers have successfully isolated the economic engine so necessary for any development to be approved in modern China, thereby allowing the rest of the lake to add value as  cultural and education resource.

The first thirty years of China's urbanization process is completed and with the next three decades ahead, local officials throughout the nation are increasingly studying Hangzhou's successful West Lake development.  The Chinese people have long tolerated the wonton destruction of much of its history in the name of progress.  However, priorities are changing and the pressure is mounting to find a preservation strategy for the future.

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