New Life for Historic Cities

  • Tangible and intangible heritage are sources of social cohesion, factors of diversity and drivers of creativity, innovation and urban regeneration – we must do more to
    harness this power.’ – Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO at the World Urban Forum (Naples, 2012)
  • Urban heritage constitutes a key resource in enhancing the livability of urban areas. It fosters economic development and social cohesion in a changing global environment. This booklet calls to involve more people in preservation efforts, raise levels of awareness, and seek innovative schemes. By actively engaging public, private and civic sectors the city, historic and contemporary, can be better preserved and celebrated.
  • Urban heritage is of vital importance for our cities – now and in the future. Tangible
    and intangible urban heritage are sources of social cohesion, factors of diversity and drivers of creativity, innovation and urban regeneration.
  • The key to understanding and managing any historic urban environment is the recognition that the city is not a static monument or group of buildings, but subject to dynamic forces in the economic, social and cultural spheres that shaped it and keep shaping it. This booklet advocates that a historic context and new development can interact and mutually reinforce their role and meaning.
  • UNESCO’s approach to managing historic urban landscapes is holistic; it integrates
    the goals of urban heritage conservation and those of social and economic development. This method sees urban heritage as a social, cultural and economic asset for the development of cities.
  • The recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape was adopted on 10 November 2011 by UNESCO’s General Conference.
  • The historic urban landscape approach moves beyond the preservation of the physical environment, and focuses on the entire human environment with all of its
    tangible and intangible qualities. It seeks to increase the sustainability of planning and design interventions by taking into account the existing built environment, intangible heritage, cultural diversity, socio-economic and environmental factors along with local community values.
  • The historic urban landscape approach sees and interprets the city as a continuum in time and space. Countless population groups have left their mark, and continue to do so today.
  • As an approach, it considers cultural diversity and creativity as key assets for human,
    social and economic development. It is an alternative method to cutting the city up
    through ‘zoning’ into separate conservation areas, which thereby become ghettos of
    historic preservation. To these ends, UNESCO works with cities to support the integration of environmental, social and cultural concerns into the planning, design and implementation of urban development.
  • In many cities this approach has had very positive and encouraging results. For each
    local situation a balance is reached between preservation and protection of urban heritage, economic development, functionality and livability of a city. Thus the needs of current inhabitants are responded to while sustainably enhancing the city’s natural and cultural resources for future generations.
  • The different approaches – heritage, economic, environmental and sociocultural –
    do not conflict; they are complementary and their long-term success is dependent on them being linked together.
  • The historic urban landscape is the result of the layering and intertwining of cultural and natural values over time. Beyond the notion of ‘historic centre,’ it includes the broader urban context and its geographical setting.
  • How can a city become a stable ecosystem?
  • How can action and planning law work together in order to achieve climate-resilience for cities?
  • Can urban conservation serve the needs of local communities, including the poor and the marginalized?
  • How can future generations be engaged in maintaining the continuation of urban life?
  • Which new financial tools are needed for the management of the historic urban landscape?
  • Can we sustain and enhance the identity of cities as a way to brand them?
  • How can urban conservation promote new forms of productivity and socioeconomic development?
  • If dealt with properly, urban heritage will act as a catalyst for socio-economic development through tourism, commercial use, and higher land and property values – thereby providing the revenues out of which to pay for maintenance, restoration and rehabilitation.
  • Urban heritage areas generate much higher returns than areas devoid of any culturalhistoric significance. Proximity to world-class monuments and sites usually draws high-end service-sector businesses and residents, who are willing to pay more for locations with prestige and status. This is reflected in land and property values.
  • The 250-plus historic cities that have been included in the World Heritage List deliver very significant socio-economic benefits at the local and national levels – not only through tourism and related goods and services, but also through other functions. For instance, Salzburg (Austria) constitutes only 6 per cent of the country’s population, but contributes 25 per cent of its net economic product.
  • Urban heritage areas often demand enhanced management, because of more and/or stricter regulations controlling and monitoring the built environment, which improves planning and design if properly executed. This, in turn, increases certainty for investors as regards the safety of their investments in the long term.
  • The historic urban landscape approach in action
  • 1. Undertake a full assessment of the city’s natural, cultural and human resources;
  • 2. Use participatory planning and stakeholder consultations to decide on conservation aims and actions;
  • 3. Assess the vulnerability of urban heritage to socio-economic pressures and impacts of climate change;
  • 4. Integrate urban heritage values and their vulnerability status into a wider framework of city development;
  • 5. Prioritize policies and actions for conservation and development, including good stewardship;
  • 6. Establish the appropriate (public-private) partnerships and local management frameworks;
  • 7. Develop mechanisms for the coordination of the various activities between different actors.
  • Stadsherstel Paramaribo was established as a foundation in 2011 by Stichting Gebouwd Erfgoed Suriname (site manager of Historic Inner City of Paramaribo, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002) and De Surinaamsche Bank, the largest private bank in Suriname. Stadsherstel Amsterdam supports, advices and works intensively together with this Surinam initiative, to redevelop and protect built heritage in Paramaribo, the capital city of the South American country. This public-private partnership aims to re-establish the balance between living and working in the inner city through sustainable and commercially viable restoration and management. By giving out shares, businesses and banks can invest, with a modest dividend. In 2013 the foundation will change into a limited liability company, similar to Stadsherstel Amsterdam.
  • The Play the City foundation introduces serious gaming into city-making to test rules and constraints of a given complex urban question and co-design with stakeholders. In conditions where stakes are high and conflicting, city games feed designers with information, which only can arise from the real-time interaction of agents. Play the City has been designing city games for various urban questions internationally. Play the City helps build communities, develop tools for digital urbanism and create strategies for urban development through serious gaming. One of these games was played in Istanbul, focusing on the question of how Istanbul’s vast number of newcomers can be accomodated in an already high-density metropolis under the threat of earthquakes. Participants could “play” the role of the Mayor and use their RFID transport cards to express how they’d tackle urban issues.
  • Ushahidi is a successful non-profit tech company founded in Kenya that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing
    transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. One of these tools is the Inherity mobile app, an application that aims to protect cultural heritage by empowering local communities and visitors to lend a hand. Users can record, take a picture and locate on a map any tangible piece of cultural heritage they think is worthwhile. This can be as small as a piece of pottery or as large as a castle.
  • The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. It is owned by the City of New York, and maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line. Founded in 1999 by community residents, the Friends fought for the structure’s preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. In addition to overseeing maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park, Friends of the High Line works to raise the essential private funds to support more than 90 percent of the park’s annual operating budget. The more than 3 million people who visit the High Line annually have rejuvenated this former brownfield site. Photograph by John Dalton.
  • Disclaimer
  • The present document is distributed for information purposes only and aims neither to interpret nor to complement the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (2011).
  • The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this brochure do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
  • Cities are dynamic organisms. There is not a single ‘historic’ city in the world that has retained its ‘original’ character: the concept is a moving target, destined to change with society itself. To preserve the urban historic landscape, strategic and dynamic alliances need to be built between various actors in the urban scene, foremost between public authorities that manage the city and developers and entrepreneurs that operate in the city.

Historic Urban Landscape: Managing Heritage in an Urban Century

Bandarin, Francesco and Van Oers, Ron, 2012, Historic Urban Landscape: Managing Heritage in an Urban Century, John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex



  • Cities are dynamic organisms – there is not a single ‘historic’ city in the world that has retained its ‘original’ character: the concept is a moving target, destined to change with society itself.
  • Therefore, authenticity is a myth: important conservation objectives such as the safeguarding of the authenticity or integrity of the physical and social fabric of an urban complex are doomed to remain a myth, or at best, an approximation
  • The goal of conserving traditional structures in the historic city remains an aspiration that is subject to continuous compromise and adaptation.

Conservation is a utopia: collective aspiration

  • Utopias are collective representations of communities or societies, idealised conditions expressing shared value systems and common goals
  • Certain values are guardians of collective identity and memory and help to maintain a sense of continuity and tradition for aesthetic pleasure and entertainment.

Old and new

  • Historic fabric and new development can interact and mutually reinforce their role and meaning

Historic development

  • Contemporary attempts to reintegrate urban conservation principles and practices into urban development
  • Idea of urban conservation can be traced back to French Revolution time and the emergence of a new social order in Europe during the 19th century
  • A century later, a formal theory of urban conservation was developed in Europe.
  • It then took longer to define and put into practice the necessary legal and institutional measures
  • The Modern Movement gave additional impetus to many urban removal and renewal programmes worldwide
  • In the past 50 years, a thorough revision at the international level of the architectural and urban planning paradigms defined by the Modern Movement has taken place and a strong institutional and professional system has been established to support heritage conservation.
    • Toolkit: international legal instruments (e.g. 1972 World Heritage Convention)
    • Planning frameworks
  • Today this process has reached a peak.
  • Growing awareness of the challenges urban conservation faces in the coming decades, as new processes and forces of change gather momentum
  • Historic urban conservation has become a specialised field of practice but is also isolated from the management of urban processes
    • Need for an integrated view of urban management, one that harmonises preservation of what is defined as ‘historic’ and management of urban development and regeneration processes
    • The system in place is weak and powerless in the face of the types of change that characterise our contemporary world and its urban scene
    • Most important historic urban areas in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Islamic World have lost their traditional functions and are in the process of transformation that threatens to undermine their integrity and historic, social and artistic values
  • 2011: Historic Urban Landscape adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO
    • Response to existing cultural contexts in order to identify models adapted to the value systems of different traditions
      • g. Nara Document on Authenticity in 1994
    • Define operational principles able to ensure urban conservation models that respect the values, traditions and environments of different cultural contexts
    • Recognise and position the historic city as a resource for the future
  • The basis of the modern vision of cultural heritage was developed in recognition of the value of the historic monument
  • The notion of ‘heritage’ came about during the establishment of modern nation states and the need to define their own traditions and identities
    • As a way of celebrating national epics and to create traditions (Hobsbawn, 1983)
  • The safeguarding of ‘historic monuments’ has bene at the centre of the theory and practice of conservation over the last century. This influenced the approach to historic cities that focused primarily on monuments and less on the urban fabric and public spaces.
    • Institutions:
      • Commission des Monuments Historiques, France, 1837, developed further by Prosper Mérimée
      • Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, UK, 1877, created by William Morris
    • People: Victor Hugo
  • Public policies for the city were aimed mainly (not at cities but) at addressing the representation of the powers of the state, the modernisation of transport systems, the improvement of public spaces, the residential needs of the emerging upper and middle classes and improvement of housing conditions of the working classes
    • The historic city was viewed essentially as a place of physical and moral decay
    • Denunciation of these conditions by (famously)
      • Engels about England (1845)
      • Considérant about France (1848)
    • Gave rise to a wave of innovative and utopian experiments led by social thinkers, philanthropists and politicians; utopian responses to the crisis, which inspired important social reforms and represented a key contribution to the definition of modern urban planning principles
      • Phalansère of Fourier
      • New Lanark of Robert Owen
      • How they did not create a force of change for the historic city as powerful as that of the ‘urban engineers’ movement
    • Urban engineers movement
      • Remedy the unsanitary conditions of the working classes
      • Demolish large parts of the historic city to create better housing, open spaces and sanitation infrastructure (in place in emerging world including China)
      • Every industrialising country developed regulations and plans to clear the decayed parts of the city
        • Florence in Italy, 1865, old Piazza del Mercato Vecchio (Jewish ghetto) was replaced by the present Piazza della Repubblica, wiping out the medieval quarters and the old ghetto. This risanamento (sanitisation) subsequently served as a model for many other cities, both in Italy and elsewhere.
  • Grands Travaus, Baron Haussmann, Paris, 1850-1870
    • Not aimed at local situations but to redesign the entire city
    • Replicated in the historic centre of Rome, after 1870 when it became capital of Italy
    • Cairo, Teheran, Sofia and Istanbul, as well as many colonial capitals in the Mediterranean
    • ‘Haussmannian’ methods have never really disappeared (urban historian Spiro Kostof)
      • Traces in Robert Moses in New York, 1950s
      • Many urban renewal projects in Europe, America and other parts of the world in the post-WWII period as well as Asia currently
    • ‘Institutionalisation’ of heritage (that followed the French Revolution)
      • Was society’s response and testimony of its value in the public domain
      • Concepts of heritage mostly developed (150 years ago) by a group of theoreticians and administrators, who viewed the preservation of monuments of the past as a pillar of social and cultural development.
        • John Ruskin
        • William Morris
        • Romantic approach was a form of opposition to the ongoing modernisation and destruction brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
        • Contributed to the development of the notion of ‘common’ heritage, beyond national borders
      • Clashes between different conceptions of heritage (nostalgic and interventionist)
        • Ruskin in England, Seven Lamps of Architecture
          • Romantic & memorial
          • ‘Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’
        • Militant interventionism by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc, France
          • Restoration was the reconstitution of a ‘complete’ and ‘ideal’ state of the monument, one that perhaps never existed.
          • Dictionnaire Raisonnè
          • Not only to monuments such as Notre Dame but also reconstruction of the city of Carcassonne
          • Entretiens sur l’architecture, 1863-1872
            • Fundamental book for understanding how the social and technological changes of the 19th century transformed the role of architecture and the city
          • Sought to find a method to identify the continuities of architectural development, in order to establish the basis of a practice that would allow modern society to find its own language, beyond the many revivals of the time – opened a way to a modern interpretation of architectural and urban heritage
        • Developed by Austrian architect Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principle. The richly illustrated book pointed out that the urban room around the experiencing man should be the leading motif of urban planning, thus turning away from the pragmatic, hygienic planning procedures of the time. Sitte emphasized the creation of an irregular urban structure, spacious plazas, enhanced by monuments and other aesthetic elements.
      • Key theoretical development: Viennese art historian, Alois Riegl
        • Ideas defined the role of heritage in contemporary society and still form the basis of our theories of heritage conservation
        • The Modern Cult of Monuments: 2 categories of value of heritage
          • Memory: ‘antiquity’ of heritage as a factor of importance, value of antiquity easily accessible to the public
          • Contemporary: ‘use value’ of monuments, a character that allows them to be differentiated from archaeology and ruins
            • ‘Art value’ and ‘Newness value’ (untouched appearance of the work of art)
          • Brought about a fundamental conceptual innovation: interpreting the conservation of monuments through a theory of values
          • Intellectual ambition: cultural tourism – the growing interest of the general public in the values of antiquity
            • Heritage is finally associated with modernity
          • The historic city as heritage
            • The historic city was recognised as a heritage system only towards the end of the 19th Only in the second half of the 20th century did the conservation of historic cities become a subject for planners and architects
            • Urban organism with its dual nature of place, containing monuments of great symbolic and artistic value, as well as a fabric of ‘minor’ architecture, the vernacular, which is much more exposed to transition and substitution. The lack of interest in, and knowledge of, this fabric, of cadastres and technical documentation, was a factor in this significant lag.
            • Development of a new discipline: city planning = parallel development of an ‘operational’ concept of the historic city
            • Foremost urban thinker of the time: Camillo Sitte (1843-1903)
              • Historic city carried with it an ‘aesthetic’ value, superior to that of the modern city – paves the way for development of urban conservation practice
              • Sitte looks at the city for the first time as an historical continuum that must be fully understood in its morphological and typological development, in order to derive rules and models for the development of the modern city.
              • Rational, model
            • Followers:
              • Werner Hegemann, Germany
              • Raymond Unwin, England
              • Gustavo Giovannoni, Italy
              • Marcel Poëte, France
              • Charles Buls, Belgium
            • Radical departure from the approach of the urban ‘hygienists’ and defines the main goal of the planner and the architect as the art of marrying functional need and beauty, a programme and analytical method termed in different parts of Europe as ‘Art Public’ or ‘Civic Art’ or ‘Art Urbain’ and as the ‘City Beautiful Movement’ in America
            • Werner Hegemann: transformed Sitte’s proposals into a methodology of planning
              • The American VitruviusThe Handbook of Civic Art
              • Universality of the principles of urban creation
              • City as a continuous and incremental collage
            • Patrick Geddes: visual and aesthetic appreciation
              • City as an organism in evolution, where physical and social components interact in a complex web of change and tradition
              • Medieval city reinterpreted by Geddes as a continuously evolving context
              • Cities in Evolution
              • Identifies, for the first time, the genius loci, spirit of the place
              • The traces, memories and collective associations of values to space are key determinants of urban transformation
              • Conservative surgery: minimising the destruction of historic buildings and urban spaces to adapt them to modern requirements
                • Edinburgh, Dublin, India, Balrampur, Lahore
              • Integrate into the new design the values (aesthetic, functional and symbolic) embodied in the city as a result of its historic transformation
            • Ideas of Geddes played a role in the creation in 1920s, the Regional Planning Association of America, led by Clarence Stein and supported by Lewis Mumford
              • Opposed land speculation in favour of socially oriented planning
              • Most influential advocacy group
              • Acknowledged later as a reaction against the anti-historicist and functionalist approach of Modernism
            • Gustavo Giovannoni: technical approach to urban conservation: urban heritage
              • The historic city could still play an important role, not linked to production and communication, but rather to living and social exchange. The historic city, in this innovative concept, is seen as part of a network of urban functions, not just as a model for the creation of new urban centres, as in Sitte’s view, but as an area where new functions compatible with traditional urban morphology can be absorbed.
              • The aesthetic function, the beauty of the historic city, is an element that further strengthens this role and establishes a hierarchy and dialogue between old and modern urban forms.
              • A very important principle established by Giovannoni was the need to conserve the built ‘environment’ of historic monuments, the urban fabric that represents the layers of time, a clear position against the ‘dismemberment’ of buildings that was – and still remains in many parts of the world – an ‘easy’
              • Giovannoni was strongly opposed to the museum-like freezing of historic centres, a common practice at the time in Italy and other countries, consisting of the isolation of the historic fabric from contemporary life, and the creation of a specialised district used for tourism purposes
            • Fracture: The Modern Movement versus the Historic City
              • Movements such as the Arts and Crafts Movement in UK and America, the German Deutscher Werkbund and the Wierner Werkstatte in Vienna had renewed the language of architecture and urban design to cope with the needs of a new industrial society
              • Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier, 1977
                • Urged architects to detach from models and styles of the past
                • Which were detached from the needs and realities of the present
              • CIAM, 1920s-1930s: destruction of the traditional city and the creation of a new modern urban complex, based on high-density public housing, with functional and innovative housing typologies and elaborate transport infrastructure
                • The Plan of Amsterdam of Cornelis van Eesteren (leading figure of CIAM)
              • Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter, 1943
                • The historic city is a negative model. A specific section of the document deals with urban heritage, seen essentially as a set of monuments, to be respected in the name of their historic and ‘sentimental’ value, surrounded by ‘slums’ that could be demolished, with the exception of some ‘samples’ that could be preserved for their documentary value.
                • Put in place completely: Chandigarh and Brasilia
              • Rejection of the ‘layering’ process as the basis for the quality of urban spaces and the role of established social networks in shaping development patterns.
            • Athens Charter – the start of modern conservation, Athens Conference 1931
              • Importance only increased after WWII, with the adoption of 1964 Venice Charter and the growth of an international conservation movement under the aegis of UNESCO
            • New Approaches to Urban Conservation
              • First process: reaction against Modernism
                • The poor quality of modern urban spaces exposed the contrast between new developments and the historic city, where, in spite of poor housing conditions, urban spaces were far more enjoyable.
                  • Jane Jacobs in America
                • Second process: growth of an international conservation movement
                • Giancarlo De Carlo (part of Team 10): favoured citizen participation and consensus as a tool of planning and architectural design
                  • Sought to reflect the nature of the context, with its cultural, physical and historical components.
                  • Address the issue of contemporary design in the historic city in ways adapted to the realities of modern democratic societies
                  • Master Plan for the town of Urbino (new university buildings into the urban landscape)
                • Hassan Fathi, southern Egypt, 1945, vernacular architecture and informal settlement
                  • Architecture for the Poor, 1973
                  • Informal settlement and the value of traditional knowledge and techniques
                  • Recognised as a precursor of the urban management ideals that took shape at the end of Modernism.
                • John Turner, UK
                  • Many years of field experience in Latin America
                  • Self-help and self-building – rediscovering local traditions as a tool to preserve the social and physical integrity of places, while providing affordable shelter
                  • Housing is best managed by inhabitants rather than external planners
                  • The developed world has much to learn from the developing context and that the ‘freedom to build’ was the way to value local experience over the technocratic approach of traditional planning
                  • Reinforced the view that urban conservation must be participatory
                  • Establishing the preservation of the social fabric of the historic city as one of the most important goals of planning
                • Conzen, later developed by Whitehand, UK (urban geographer), palimpsest
                  • City as the outcome of an historical layering process
                  • Object: dynamics of urban space, a study of the marks left on the landscape by every phase of society, and of the forms that reflect the needs of its day
                  • Up until the 20th century, in most of the world, the relationship between townscape and ‘occupant’ society did not witness any tensions that were able to threaten the physiognomy of the towns.
                    • This allowed the townscape to be historic, even though it is still current – accumulation through time a variety of historical forms and meanings
                  • Managing the townscape as palimpsest
                    • Analytical tools based on:
                    • Understanding of the complex morphological processes (including building fabric, building types, plot patterns, blocks and street patterns)
                  • Limited practical applications
                • Saverio Muratori, Italian school of architectural typological and morphological analysis, 2950s and 1960s
                  • Typo-morphological analysis to understand the evolution of urban form
                  • Continued by Gianfranco Caniggia
                    • Tried to relate every building type to a limited number of basic spatial configurations, called Basic Elements
                  • Leonardo Benevolo, conservation plans for Bologna and many other historic cities
                    • The typo-morphological approach proved extremely effective in guiding decisions on the conservation and renewal processes of the historic fabric, used as a basis for planning and management of the building transformation process.
                  • Using perception as a tool of interpretation and design of space – integrated city planning and conservation
                    • Gordon Cullen, UK
                      • Visual impact of the city on the human mind
                      • Analysis of the individual’s memory and sensorial experiences
                      • City as a particular form of landscape
                      • Analysis involved all the elements that make up the environment: buildings, trees, nature, water, traffic, etc.
                      • Define a design methodology that extends beyond the mere ‘technical’ aspects of city making and defines an ‘art’ that is able to integrate building and environment
                      • City is not a unitary space (a townscape) – need to learn from the historical spatial layering of the historic city
                    • Kevin Lynch, USA
                      • Aim to define a systematic theory of the city
                      • The Image of the City, 1960
                      • New object of research for the planner: the mental image
                      • Lynch studies the interaction between individuals and the environment, something that belongs to all the inhabitants, and does not require the mediation of a technical expert
                      • Classification of the ‘elements of city image’, a new form of urban morphology derived from the individual’s view, in which the time dimension of the urban experience has a fundamental role.
                      • Questions some fundamental axioms of conservation – What to preserve? Why? How should change be managed?
                      • Concluded that the ability to select the elements to be preserved and to manage change is preferable to an inflexible reverence for the past. Preservation choices should be informed more by concern for the future rather than for the past.
                    • Typo-morphological: too deterministic and its application excessively mechanistic


Issue of control?

  • Risk and vulnerability vs. decline and decay – Should urban heritage change?
  • Exclusivity (marginalisation) vs. inclusivity (social diversity), assuming bad governance – social justice – Should cities be culturally diverse?
  • Planned guidance vs. collective agency, assuming good governance – Should people in the city self-organise?

Buildings Must Die?


Drawings of site 5 (East Shrine) showing wear and tear


Drawings of site 5 (East Shrine) showing wear and tear


One of the main characteristics of buildings in Guangzhou, which has a relatively humid climate, is how humidity changes their materials. As we see in the drawings above, water has risen above the course of stone on the ground and seeped into many of the brick walls. Over time, some of the bricks are corroded.


When we say wear and tear, it is so very often that this is something to be repaired. The building is ‘sick’ and needs active input to stop it from its natural course. This reminds me of the book Buildings Must Die by Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs that talks about waste and value. In terms of traditional buildings, where do we draw the line to say that this wear and tear is a sign of the death or sign of history and value?

Another even more curious thing is: is there a Eastern/Western divide in the perception of value in historic architecture? Is there a more material understanding that exists in the Western world different from that of the East? In many cases of repair of traditional buildings in China, the most common way is to rebuild the structure from scratch. Timber is difficult to preserve and many scholars have built on that to say that the impermanence of wood, the most basic building material in Eastern cultures, creates a culture that does not revere the material. Instead, Eastern architecture is created for transience and change.

Going back to the urban village, do the actions of the villagers align with this statement? If we take that as an assumption, what attitude should we then have towards these buildings?

Should we let them die?

Three Schools, Three Concepts

1. Tower Heritage

Like the regenerated Liede Village, the way for traditional buildings to be preserved in a urban village redevelopment was to remove and rebuild them collectively in a different area. With the amount of heritage left in Xiaozhou Village, this method would mean that some buildings will be completely erased away. Is there a way to rebuild them in a vertical tower and preserve, not the location, but the craft of construction and the spatial relationships within and between buildings? Could the tower be an exercise, like the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan, in storing the memory instead of the physicality of the materials? When the mentality for preservation is strong enough in the future, could these buildings’ memories then be reinserted into a new urban design?


2. Walled Heritage

The typical urban village building grows by securing the largest footprint possible with walls. Public spaces, however, are unprotected spaces there others could possibly encroach. Is the way to preserve these public spaces by creating that physical wall of protection? The resulting school would be strongly formalistic – based on traditional, inward-looking and highly efficient teaching methods. This wall would act as a boundary for the school and for the traditional buildings to be safe and monitored.

3. Free School

If activating the public spaces is the key to preserving the traditional buildings, then could opening up the public spaces and allowing overlaps of uses be a possible way? In this case the streets regain their function of being semi-public/semi-private spaces where there is a mixture of different uses – chatting, washing, waiting, resting, playing. The linear building then act as a vessel of activities to activate the street and public space.


Xian Village


Located right beside the city centre, Xian Village provides a huge contrast to the shiny high-rise towers. This is an urban village in demolition for more than 10 years. Many buildings have been abandoned and some are already in rubble. However, there is still a group of residents still living in the area.

One of the shrines is left only with its gate. Makes one wonder what is the place for these buildings in the city?


When the buildings are demolished, the interiors are exposed to the outside:

Shipai Village


Shipai Village is one of the densest urban villages in Guangzhou. Located right beside the Tech Street, it provides cheap accommodation right in the centre of the city.

Entrance separating Shipai and Tech Street

Streets inside Shipai are dark – the handshake buildings have been developed to its horizontal maximum.

There are very few traditional buildings still left in Shipai, one of them is pictured below. What I found interesting is the way that green tiles were clad all around the building to renovate it, even though the building has also been marked as a protected relic.