Zhang Lianzhi is not an architect but he is trying to turn porcelain into a new form of decorative expression in architecture.
Over the past four years, the 49-year-old Tianjin native has devoted most of his time to remodeling a 100-year-old building with hundreds of thousands of porcelain pieces dating from Tang (AD 618-907) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
These antique porcelains are part of Zhang's collection he has made over the past two decades.
The exterior wall of the French-style house located in downtown of Tianjin is covered with a variety of porcelain pieces such as plates, vases and figurines, making the house coming into the spotlight in the neighborhood.
As the remodeling project is going to the final stage, Zhang and his workers are often confronted with curious stares of passers-by and are bombarded with questions. "What is house used for?" "What does the interior of the house look like?" "How much is it worth?"
"Be patient," Zhang often answered with a smile. All the questions will be answered when the building is completed and open to the public as a private museum by the end of this year.
Collector to 'architect'
Zhang was born into a wealthy businessman's family in Tianjin and his interest in art and antiques grew with his age. A successful businessman owning a Cantonese-style chain restaurant, Zhang is known for his enthusiasm in collecting antiques. Over the past 20 years, he has kept expanding his collection of which antique porcelain makes up the majority.
Four years ago he spent 1 million yuan (US$125,000) buying a French-style old house, with an area of 3,000 square meters, on Chifeng Street in downtown Tianjin. The five-storey building used to be the residence of the Minister of Finance in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and then was used as a bank after the founding of New China in 1949.
Since the house had been deserted for many years, Zhang decided to give it a new look by refurbishing its interior.
"At that time I did not expect that the restoration work would develop into such an ambitious project," Zhang recalled.
At first he used ceramic tiles to decorate the rail and doors, which turned up to be "unexpectedly beautiful."
Greatly encouraged by the first attempt, Zhang began to experiment with the exterior wall. Then he came up with more and more ambitious ideas as the refurbishing went on day by day.
"The experience is like a child building his dream house with toy bricks," Zhang said. "All I need is my imagination to create and explore with such a large amount of porcelain pieces."
Without any help of professional architects, Zhang himself was the designer and contractor of the project.
The design, Zhang stated, "is based on my understanding of antique porcelain and traditional Chinese culture."
Elements of Chinese culture can be seen at every turn of the house. Zhang was particularly proud of the four "China dragons," entwining the exterior wall of the building. Each "dragon," with a length of more than 200 meters, is actually pieced together by mosaic of porcelain pieces.
The dragon is an auspicious symbol of power in ancient China and one of the dominant features in ancient Chinese architecture.
The wall around the courtyard is "covered" with more than 3,000 porcelain vases. Each vase is actually pasted on the surface of the wall and crystals are used to fill the gaps between the vases.
This unique wall has an auspicious name "Ping'an Qiang" (Wall of Wellness). The pronunciation of Chinese word for vase ("ping") is the same as the word for wellness.
Porcelain pillows are also used as decorative pieces here and there, which symbolized "suisui ping'an" (wellness every year)." The Chinese word for "sleeping" (shui) sounds similar to the word for "year" (sui).
In the interior of the house, porcelain is only used to decorate the part of the ceiling, the rail and the doors.
Zhang was not sure about the exact amount of porcelain pieces used in the house. But he said the porcelain plates had filled a truck. Besides, about 3,000 porcelain vases, 400 stone carvings and seven tons of crystals are used in the project.
All of these are antiques dating from the Tang Dynasty to early of 20th century, said Zhang who declined to reveal the amount of money he spent on the building's restoration.
But he admitted it was a slow and costly project. "It was a tremendous challenge to take on such a responsibility, especially for a person like me who is neither an architect nor a designer," Zhang said.
In the past four years he went to the house everyday to check the progress. The most difficult part, he said, was to spend hours everyday sorting through thousands of porcelain pieces for suitable items used in different parts of the house.
Fortunately his knowledge of porcelain helped him a lot. "The porcelain was made in different period of time and featured different style. It was in a sense a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle we have to piece them together," Zhang explained.
Fragments from different pieces are mixed up, thereby achieving the surprising effect of a new, more lively and interesting composition, Zhang added.
He was also proud of his another invention the special glue used to paste the porcelain on the wall. "Boil the glutinous rice until it turns into sticky juice and then fix it with cement. It's really durable," Zhang explained.
In spite of the challenges and difficulties, he was captivated everyday when seeing his dream house taking shape piece by piece. "Many people think I was crazy to build a house like this, but I'm glad to be such a crazy man," said Zhang.
Zhang's porcelain house has aroused controversy in the public. Some people threw doubts about his purpose and criticized that he had turned the antiques worthless.
But Zhang argued what he was doing was to preserve the past in a special way.
"The aim to preserve these antiques is to help people know about their value," said Zhang.
About 80 percent of the porcelain used in the house were broken or damaged antiques. But the flaw of these pieces had been carefully concealed when being pasted on the wall. "These antiques just look as presentable as the good ones. In such way the damaged porcelain is given a new life," Zhang said.
(China Daily September 13, 2006)