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.


Xiaozhou: mooncake festival


Mooncake festival began with an indoor concert in the Litang, one of the main public spaces in the village. Most attendees were villagers.

Outside of the Litang, there are also many activities gathering residents, artists, community workers and villagers. This celebration event is organised by Jiazong, a community work organisation set up by the city government and works especially with disadvantaged groups like elderly.