Buildings Must Die?

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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School: education in the Urban Village

Xiaozhou Village has a kindergarten right outside of the historic core. The kindergarten accepts migrant’s children but charges 1200 RMB per month (privately run), which is more than half of some migrants’ pay. Opposite the kindergarten is a primary school (government-run), which accepts migrants’ children on the basis that they satisfy certain requirements. There is then a specific percentage allocated for migrants’ children who do not have their hukou in the city. There are privately-run primary schools in nearby neighbourhoods and they do not have a percentage restriction. However, they do cost more.

The result of this is that many migrant families struggle with their children education. Young couples either leave their young children to their grandparents back in the rural village where they came from or have the female in the family not work to take care of the children. There is a need for a school for second-generation migrants to be together with their core family in the urban village.

But what kind of school should it be?

Xian Village

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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?

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

Shipai Village

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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.

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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.