This is the thesis research for my master of architecture degree from Harvard Graduate School of Design. Reading it ten years after its completion, I am sorry to say that the hope I expressed at the end of the research has fallen miles short of reality, as the rulers of Beijing has tightened their grip on the city, rather than taking a laissez faire approach and allowing it to evolve organically. Nevertheless the insights I have gained through the research have profoundly influenced my take on historic preservation, and on architecture in general.
Individual Thesis 2008
Harvard University, Graduate School of Design
Thesis Advisor: Rem Koolhaas
Topic: Physicality versus Cultural Essence – A Comparative Study of Preservation Ideologies in the West and China, with a Case Study on Hutong Preservation in Beijing
Different traces of thought on architectural preservation in the West have more or less focused on the restoration or conservation of physicality, whereas the Chinese approach has put more emphasis on the preservation of the intangible aspects of culture. Following an evolutionary model of physical renewal, successive generations of Chinese architecture uphold the continuous cultural essence. This thesis attempts to explain how the different preservation ideologies were generated within their respective cultural context. The preservation of hutong neighborhood in Beijing is discussed to illustrate a real world case in which the preservation of cultural essence might be applied today, in order to render Beijing’s Old City an enriched and multi-layered urban cultural landscape that simultaneously stands for her past, present, and future.
History is complex for it is a convolution of people, ideas, and events that may be separated by geography and time but inter-connected by tangible or abstract relationships. History appears to be a collection of phenomena, some of which are exceptions and outliers that tend to confuse our understanding of the big picture, but the majority of which form some kind of trend that could be deciphered. If we take a bird’s-eye view of the Western and Chinese histories, and compare them side by side, we will realize that these two histories follow strikingly different development patterns.
The Western history, beginning with the onset of the Greek civilization around 2,500 BC, has gone through a series of distinctively demarcated but interconnected stages. Each stage has some kind of causality with stages succeeding it. For example, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century completed the intellectual preparation for the French Revolution in 1789, which in turn heralded the rise of nation-states in the nineteenth century, and the rise of new nations set the stage for the global conflict in the twentieth century. The Western history is characterized by this historicist linkage between its stages.
The Chinese history, on the other hand, although marked by different dynasties, is continuous. A dynasty is not fundamentally different from another. Starting with the Han Dynasty two thousand years ago, each dynasty went through the same cycle of founding, prosperity, crises, and decline. Although a dynasty was always replaced by another dynasty that claimed to be the new inheritor of the “Mandate of Heaven”, they nevertheless all adopted Confucianism as the ruling philosophy. This dynastic replacement phenomenon repeats itself until the end of China’s imperial era in 1911, although one can still argue that the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China afterwards are the continuation of the dynastic replacement model under the disguise of new political ideologies. Long in number of years, the Chinese history has nevertheless been compressed by its cyclical character. Even today, story-tellers on radios repeat the centuries-old tale of Zhou Dynasty’s war against the Shang Dynasty in 1046 BC, and school-children recite The Analects of Confucius written more than two thousand years ago.
Historic preservation found its role in the process of nation-state making. Monuments and art works provided a physical testimony to the posited temporal depth and internal unity of a nation. They contributed to the collective memory of the people that the nation-state tried to rally. By the end of the 18th century, initiated by the French Revolution, the European political system started the fundamental change from feudal monarchies to nation-states. It is during this period that historic preservation went through a crucial stage in which national cultural heritage became the driving cause. This period marked the onset of the modern era of historic preservation in Europe that has lasted to the present.
The belief in cultural diversity and national uniqueness stemming from the Kantian philosophy did not enter China until the 20th century. Before that, for two thousand years the Chinese outlook for the world was defined by the term tian-xia, or all-under-Heaven. According to this view, “All lands under the Heaven are the Emperor’s territory, and all people within the four seas are the Emperor’s subjects.” Not only was the Emperor the ruler of the people living in the Middle Kingdom, or Zhong Guo, he was also the supreme lord of the surrounding barbarian states who paid tributes to him on a regular basis. China remained as the center of the world known to it, with only vague knowledge of other civilization centers to its west. The enormous territory of the Middle Kingdom was administered through the carefully set-up bureaucratic system. The Confucianism-cultivated gentry class controlled the vast countryside and paid their loyalty to the court in the capital. The social conducts were regulated through the Confucian Three-Bonds that defined the relationship of authority and obedience between the prince and ministers, father and son, and husband and wife.
The wide acceptance of imitation in Chinese art and architecture further diminished the importance of the preservation of physicality. If a piece of work perished due to natural disaster or human destruction, a replacement of it could just be made in its place. For Chinese, this new building is not an imitation; it is the carrier of the cultural meaning that has been passed down from its predecessor.
On the technical level, if the Chinese intentionally chose timber construction for its economics and managed to overcome the crucial tectonic hurdles in large-scale timber construction, on the ideological level the disinterest in physical eternity shows that the Chinese understood that, no matter how strong the material might be, nothing would escape the erosion of time. The traditional Chinese architecture has a built-in metabolism; instead of trying to hold on to the original material, it requires frequent repair and replenishment. The constantly renewed architecture provided the physical carrier to the metaphysical meaning of the culture, which would become what is eternal.
In order to justify their political dominance, the ruling class of ancient China, particularly the emperor, needed to demonstrate their virtues, and one of the ways to do so was through performing Confucian ceremonies. This doctrine is confirmed by Professor Wang Guixiang at the Tsinghua University during my interview with him. His words are translated here:
“Western architecture pays more attention to durability, beauty, and usability. But the Chinese never cared about the durability of their buildings; the buildings changed following the change in dynasty. Instead of building architecture that would last forever, the Chinese were more concerned with the perfection of their morals. For example, the Emperor Wen of Han (2nd cen. BC) had the intention to build a pavilion for himself. When he learned the estimated cost of construction was equivalent to the sum of wealth of ten average households, he said he would not build something so extravagant for it would damage his reputation as a virtuous ruler. The ancient Chinese rulers always took pride in the lack of grand construction during their reign. Historical records show that the memoirs the ministers presented to the throne typically held critical attitude toward luxurious construction. This disdain of luxurious construction in ancient China is a result of the moral constraints imposed by Confucianism.
The Forbidden City reflects the Confucian moral standards. The grand structures were solely for ceremonial purpose; meanwhile the residence of the Emperor himself was kept at a humble scale. The wise emperors believed that winning the support of the people, not building eternal structure, was the key to maintain a longlasting reign.”
No physical existence can last forever and trying to preserve the physicality is a dilemma that the Western civilization has faced. The Chinese upholding of cultural essence and the allowance for the architecture to evolve is, in a sense, a superior way of preservation. As parts of the timber construction rot away, they could be rapidly replenished by new parts. This replenishment was enabled by the economics of timber construction. If a building was destroyed beyond repairable by natural or man-made devastation, a new replacement would be built on the same site. This replacement is sometimes a replica of the previous building, but more often a new design resulting from contemporary creativity. The successive generations of buildings exhibit a trend of evolution so that each of them can adapt to the specific condition of its time.
The difference in Western and Chinese approaches to preservation also reflects the different concepts of authenticity in the two cultures. In the Western context, authenticity is embedded in the form and material of the building; theories of Viollet-le-Duc, Ruskin, and Brandi all eventually need to be applied to the physical features of the buildings. In the Chinese context, authenticity depends on the building’s ability to carry the consistent cultural message throughout time. The material faith and artistic honesty that are so important to the Western preservationists have nothing to do with the cultural authenticity of historic buildings in China. The Yellow Crane Tower not only has its material been renewed, even its design has been altered from time to time. But generations after generations of Chinese intellectuals have come to the Yellow Crane Tower, writing poems that express their Taoist love for nature and Confucian passion for the service to all who are under the Heaven.
Hutong is the traditional residential lane in Beijing that first appeared more than 700 years ago. The most basic component of hutong is siheyuan, a courtyard house with the open space in the center and houses on four sides. The status of different family members is spatially expressed by the position of the room they occupy. Siheyuan physically corresponds to the hierarchical family structure of the traditional Chinese society, and the Confucian notion of domestic hierarchy. On the urban level, the layout of the Old City of Beijing suggests the same notion of order and harmony as siheyuan. The urban structure undergoes the transition from major public streets to structure undergoes the transition from major public streets to hutongs and then to individual courtyard houses. In other words, Beijing is composed of a modular system that grows from the building scale to the city scale. Several siheyuans together form a subblock. Connected by hutongs, a few sub-blocks form a block. Several blocks form a ward, and a few wards form the city. This modularity is the key character of Beijing’s urban formation. It facilitates the governmental administration, and also constitutes the smooth transition from public space to semi-public hutong and then to the privacy of individual courtyard houses.
Throughout history until a few decades ago, the number of hutongs in Beijing has increased with the population of the city. Starting from more than four hundred during the Yuan Dynasty, hutong reached a number of more than a thousand during the Ming Dynasty, and slightly more than two thousand during the Qing Dynasty. At the apex during the Republic of China era, there were about three thousand two hundred hutongs in Beijing. But in recent years, the number of hutong has decreased drastically. This rapid depletion of hutong has caught the attention of local preservationists as well as those who are abroad.
“What is happening is robbery of land and wealth. This is a battle for survival and property rights. China is not in a capital accumulation stage. The so-called ‘capital accumulation’ is only the excuse used by the robbers. Some people have the control of the state machine, and they are using it to seize resources. Government and business are one. The district governments started the development firms, so they can control the entire process of development [in both the public and private domains]… If you give the private ownership back to the residents, then they will have the motivation to repair the houses and preserve them. Then there will be no need to involve the government or developers. Now people are forced out of their home and some of them cannot afford a proper place to live, and live in basement instead.” – Excerpt from the interview with Hua Xinmin.
“Historic preservation planning is not a design issue. It has a lot to do with property rights and political system. We can accept development in Beijing. But China is a problematic platform on which the development is carried out. In the US, land is privatized and therefore the government can raise real estate tax. But in China it is different.…The current demolition and relocation is the people’s war against the people. Almost everybody is a victim in this war. Some of the government officials who demolished other people’s home got their own home demolished after they retired from the office. China is now in the Dark Age. Even tangible property such as house cannot be protected, let along something like intellectual property. If China still cannot resolve these problems, we do not deserve to be part of the modern civilization…
The government always talks about macro-adjustment and control (of economy). The real macro-adjustment and control should allow the poor to bring the rich to the court and protect their own interests. This way the poor will be able to maintain their purchasing power. Urban designers in China are elitists. They view the public with a condescending attitude. And they are anti-city. Capital elites and cultural elites have kidnapped and raped the cities. Fortunately protests by people like Hua Xinmin have taken effect. They are the heroes of this age, just like Liang Sicheng was the hero fifty years ago (when he tried to save the Old City of Beijing from destruction). They have made some correction to governmental behaviors. We need to first repair the system, although this will challenge the current (political) platform of China. Now we can see that the platform is tilting toward the right direction.” – Excerpt from the interview with Wang Jun.
Traditional Chinese architecture is simple in the form of individual building, whereas the fulfillment of the functional requirement and the creation of the magnificent architectural expression are achieved through the grouping of multiple buildings. In the case of the Old City of Beijing, the grouping of the imperial establishment and the hutong neighborhood form a contrast of scale and color between the two types of buildings. The grand dimension of the mountain-like roof structure of the palaces and temples that are either golden or blue hover majestically above the sea of gray formed by the tiled roofs of single-story siheyuans, imposing a spatial arrangement that reinforced the absolute authority of the emperor over the mass. The imperial establishment, which has now achieved the status of cultural heritage of utmost importance, needs the accompany of the hutong neighborhood to truthfully illustrate to the modern people the political statement that it intended to deliver in the imperial era.
The modularity of the siheyuan houses is another key character of the hutong neighborhood. Not only can several siheyuans be combined into a house with several courtyards, with each two neighboring courtyards connected through roofed walkways, the arrangement and combination of tens or hundreds of siheyuans can form a neighborhood of various shapes and scales. The flexibility of siheyuans in neighborhood composition on one hand facilitates the forming of the fish-bone street grid of the Old City, and on the other hand accommodates the large footprints of the imperial buildings at various locations within the Old City.
Hutong plays the role of an intermediate zone for the scale transition from main public street to siheyuan, and acts as a physical and mental buffer between the public life of the city and the private life inside the courtyards. Typically 3 to 10 meters in width, hutong is friendly to pedestrians but keeps heavy vehicular traffic out of the residential area. Containing corner-retails, peddlers, small restaurants, stationary stores, and barbershops, hutong meets much of the daily needs of the residents within an environment they are familiar with. In addition, hutong and the courtyards provide people the space to meet casually, either on their way entering and leaving their house or when they ask help from each other for daily chores, achieving a “balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around,” a requisite that Jacobs puts down for a good city street neighborhood. The familiarity between the neighbors have afforded the hutong residents a sense of community that is not available to people living in highrise apartment development. Many residents feel “at home” even when they are outside their courtyards but in their hutong.
Beijing is a natural city. Although it was planned 700 and again 600 years ago, it has been spontaneously growing since then for several centuries. The current trend in Beijing, however, is to turn it into an artificial city, either for the purpose of making a socialist political statement, putting up an orchestrated but vain manifestation of the country’s attainment of modernization, or generating profits for private developers as well as self-interest oriented local governments. If we allow political ambition and economic greed to continue hijacking the future of the city, very soon Beijing will be a city no longer recognizable to those of us who were once familiar with it, and the long and enriched cultural history of the city will undergo an abrupt change after which all attempts to trace the past will be futile.
The Chinese history has shown us how the physicality of a building can change but the cultural essence carried by the different reconstructions of the building persists. Based on that lesson, I suggest that the preservation of the Old City of Beijing is essentially the preservation of the cultural values of hutong, meanwhile the city’s character as a natural city should be respected so that the evolutionary mode of progress can take place to the hutong architecture. Siheyuans may decay and perish, and eventually be replaced by some new housing types that better meet the needs of contemporary life, but the relationship of scale and color should be maintained between the residential neighborhood and the imperial establishment for the purpose of showing Beijing’s historic quality as a seven-hundred-year old imperial capital, and the fishbone street grid and modular formation of city blocks by courtyard houses should be preserved to maintain the humanistic scale and friendliness of the Old City. Beyond that, the evolution of local architectural stock will not only enhance the life quality of the local residents, but also bring new life energy to the traditional neighborhood. By the evolutionary model, Beijing’s Old City will become an enriched and multi-layered urban cultural landscape that simultaneously stands for her past, present, and future.