Should historic architecture be retrofitted?

By Wu Jin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 22, 2017
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Zhizhu Temple, one of Beijing's religious shrines built in early 17th Century. [File Photo]

During the past few decades, the shrinking number of historic buildings has challenged China over the great loss of an historic legacy that can help cement the sense of belonging among citizens.

Although it is no use, now, crying over spilt milk, the efforts to preserve the remaining architectural structures have become imperative. However, the question is: to what extent should we retrofit them?

The Selexyz Dominicanen Bookstore redesigned from an abandoned church in the Netherland, the restructured Albert Dock in the heart of the old Liverpool commercial district, now a tourist resort of Britain provided with apartments, hotels and restaurants, the Bordeaux Museum of Contemporary Art in France and the Belgian Comic Strip Center are all good examples to show that not all renovation of valuable ancient structures are questionable and destructive, according to Yan Haiming, researcher from Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage.

Yan made his remark at a symposium held recently in Beijing, focusing on the appropriate measures to restore and reuse remaining historic architecture linking today with ancient times.

"It is better to encourage social forces to join in the protection of old architectures than to watch those buildings die a natural death," Yan said.

"However, no renovation should cause damage to the cultural heritage," he stressed.

Yan cited the contentious case of Zhizhu Temple, one of Beijing's religious shrines built in early 17th Century. Despite its award-winning renovation highly recommended by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2012, the refitted building has been prone to a spate of criticism focusing mostly related to it housing a high-end French restaurant.

However, to Yan, such denunciations are groundless.

"We should not overact to the word of 'luxury,' refusing to accept any designs related to anything of extravagance even they are rational and less destructive to the origins of ancient architectures," he explained.

According to him, the restaurant ruins nothing in regard to the temple restored to its original state, and violates no laws pertinent to the country's regulatory protection of ancient heritage.

"Although 'the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics' allows no cultural heritage to involve ownership by any individual or organizational investors, it does not equate to denying the rights of such investors to operate the relics in appropriate ways," he said.

Evolving from a religious site to factories in the 1970s, Zhizhu Temple has been renovated in the past few years by TRB, a subsidiary of Temple Republic in Hong Kong, with the efforts to restore the compound to its original look as much as possible.

In addition to the retrofit of Zhizhu Temple, the symposium also touched on the topic of Lijiang Ancient Town, a lost tranquil land now occupied by raucus bars in Yunnan Province, the controversial construction of replica city walls in Datong, Shanxi Province, headed by the city's former legendary mayor Geng Yanbo, the rough pavement of the remnants of the Suizhong Great Wall in Liaoning Province and the overwhelming applications for World Heritage Site recognition among local authorities seeking tourist revenue.

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