Preserving ruins…or inhabiting buildings

It seems just proper to write about this issue from London, where you can contemplate the famous/ polemic Elgin marbles, the sections of the Parthenon removed/ bought/ stolen by Lord Elgin and transported to England in the first decade of the 19th century and displayed since at the British Museum. The opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens has renewed a debate that mixes politics and history with issues of curatorial and preservation practice. If the British Museum takes pains to underscore the harsh conditions and dangers (war, weather erosion, pollution) under which the relics of Athens were at risk of disappearing, and the connections with the rest of its collection as a “part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries”, the new Parthenon Gallery in Athens hosts other remains in a state-of-the-art resource, with a better display disposition (in London, the fragments of the frises cover the interior of the gallery, in Athens they go around a square structure) and views to the original site.


The caryatides of the Erechtheion have left room for her sister in London.
Image via Hugh Pearman

Besides the fascinating coincidence (?) that it was James Bruce, the next Lord Elgin and son of Parthenon’s Elgin, who ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace/ Yuanming Yuan in China during the Second Opium War, the Parthenon debate serves me to introduce another China-related issue, recently discussed in China Files. Sun Yunfan and Leah Thomson have written a great piece on the practice of yidi baohu异地保护 or ‘preservation through relocation’. The building they discuss is the Yin Yu Tang, a merchants’ house from Huangcun, Anhui province, acquired by art historian Nancy Berliner in 1996 and re-erected at the Peabody Essex museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

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Online documentation of the process of assamblage of the Yin Yu Tang.
Peabody Essex museum

The new dangers that affect historic buildings in China are not war or the environment but the aggressive projects of urban destruction triggered by urban renewal plans in every Chinese town and city, plus the relative/ absolute inefficacy of official preservation programs and agencies. Collectors and entrepreneurs both Chinese and foreign are buying a lot of these old houses, but even in the best conditions (the Yin Yu Tang case is exemplary in the reconstruction methods used and the rigurous documentation that accompanies it, covering the building but also the family that lived there and the culture and traditions of the village), there remains the issue of the meaning of these deterritorialized buildings.


Traditional architecture in Huizhou, Anhui Province (via)

It might be a truism not even worth mentioning, because the museumization of any work is an alteration in all cases. The role of museums is an important one, but a visit to the Chinese Garden put together at the Metropolitan Museum will never equate the experience of sautering along a garden in Suzhou. It seems a missed chance to relocate a building which was still standing and could had been used in site. Preservation is done at the expanse of context and purpose, because houses are incomplete without the network of family and social interactions that inhabited them and cannot be replicated.

Other solutions, however, do have their problems, as well. At the Hong Kong conference I refered in the previous post, Chen Shuyan of Tianjin University discussed an economically sustainable way to reutilize architectural heritage: luxury tourism. The example of the Aman resort at the Summer Palace (this time, the ‘new’ Summer Palace) acknowledges the elevated cost of conservation, and the controversial pact with (the devil, I mean) tourism industries to salvage historical patrimony.

Lobby at

Aman Summer Palace resort, lobby

To what extent the Resort upholds the 1964 International Charter For The Conservation And Restoration Of Monuments And Sites (the Venice Charter), that read that the conservation of a monument must be “always facilitated by making use of them for some socially useful purpose”? We know the horrific, kitsch outcomes that the interaction of tourism and heritage usually produces: the case of the old town of Lijiang, which I visited at the beginning of its touristic heyday but before the airport was constructed, comes to mind, the paradox of tourism development being that it brings crowds that destroy the tranquility and remoteness that made a place interesting or picturesque in the first place. A luxury resort is expected to respect more, not only the appearance but also the atmosphere of an ancient building. And yet, it is reserved to those willing to pay $US 1300 to 4000 for a suite with views to the courtyard pond.

China Files fittingly finish their report referring to the Bishan Commune project, an “experiment in rural reconstruction and living” led by curator/ designer/ filmmaker/ editor Ou Ning. Emerging from an in-depth analysis of the problems brought about by massive urbanization in China, like deterioration of agricultural industries, rural villages, and farm laborer empowerment (Ou, 2013), Ou Ning is creating a cultural hub in the small village of Bishan, Yixian County, Anhui Province.


An ancestral hall was the venue for COAL+ICE exhibition, Yixian Photo Festival (web)

Of course, the challenge is to see the extent to which the project can go beyond a hip alternative venue for artistic projects (like last year’s Yixian International Photo Festival) and engage with the local community and reactivate the economy and thus, the village and its houses. After being responsible for some of the most interesting projects of the last years (including design, architecture, film, art, literature), Ou’s analysis productively frames the preservation debate in the dynamics of urbanization and brings refreshing, informed and committed (he’s just moved his residence to Bishan) new approaches to artistic and intellectual practice in contemporary China.

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Traditional architecture in Yixian county: let it be there a long time (Yixian Festival gallery)

Further reading

Sun Yunfan, Leah Thomson, “There Goes the Neighbourhood“, China Files, 11 April 2013

For information on the Bishan Commune and related projects (Buffalo Institute, Yixian International Photo Festival, Bishan Harvestival), see its website.

Ou Ning, “Bishan Project: Restarting the Rural Reconstruction Movement”, March 18, 2013. Link to Ou Ning’s blog

Mary Kerr, “No Turning Back: A Report from The Flaherty Seminar at the Bishan Harvest Festival”, DGenerate Films website

Bishan Harvestival“, Leap 11, December 2012

Yixian Festival Flickr gallery


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