Archive for July, 2008


July 18, 2008

The Global Heritage Fund invited me to Pingyao as a new member of their Senior Advisory Board, so I was able to tag the trip on the back end of my work with the US China Arts Exchange Yunnan Sustainability Conference in Dali. All it required was a long layover in Beijing (not that bad, found a cool spot with an outlet and edited my book) and then a flight to Taiyuan, and then an hour ride with Han and Han to the loveliest hotel – a traditional Chinese courtyard house outfitted with all of the latest luxuries. I experienced what I like to call “The Dingle Effect” which is the arrival at a lovely, welcoming hotel after a long and arduous journey – it happened to Felicity and I in 1997 when we arrived in Dingle and it happened again in Pingyao.

Pingyao was a place I always wanted to see – the only Chinese city with a completely intact city wall hundreds of years old, running for more than 2.5 km around the historic town, which features over 3000 courtyard houses and a number of excellent temples. By contrast, our lovely Weishan in Yunnan – which lost most of its wall – has perhaps 100 original courtyard houses. Han Li is the new China project director for Global Heritage Fund, and I got the chance to see her EXCELLENT work at organizing a bunch of planning and architecture professionals to do a survey of courtyard houses there. Having done a similar project in Weishan in 2006, I was duly impressed with GHF’s careful and intelligent planning process under Han’s leadership.

Han was very generous showing me the project and also showing me the town. We got a special tour of the Shuanglin Temple, 6 km outside of the walls, which has the most amazing collections of THOUSANDS of sculptural pieces in multiple temples. How these things survived the Cultural Revolution is amazing – apparently the local Party Secretary told officials the temples were being used as granaries.

The current Party Secretary took us on a tour, and it was well nigh overwhelming, even during a month in which I saw the terra cotta army at Xian, the adjacent Hanyangling figures, the Buddhist murals at Baisha in Yunnan and the Shanghai museum. Architectural elements and naturalistic clouds formed the backdrop for sculptural groups that filled the interior of the temples in insistent undulations of exuberance and minutiae…

Not only that, but Pingyao has an amazing collection of reclaimed sculpture in its Taoist temple- from Taoist immortals to ancient Tang stelae. It is a bit of a jumble, but I truly felt I had stumbled into the best collection of sculpture in China…

Not to mention architecture – the duogong at the Gingxu temple I just mentioned were particularly exciting – evidencing the earlier Song influence much more than typical Qing rigidity and formalism…

And all of this was ON TOP OF the things Pingyao is known for: namely, its wall, its courtyard houses, and its draft banks that basically created a national banking system in the 19th century.

So, many thanks to GHF and Han Li and Jasmin Arneja (and other Han and Mr. Ji!) for their hospitality. It was a quick but very impressive visit and being located basically halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, a must for every traveler interested in architecture and sculpture. Final image (for now) Han and I on the wall near the east gate:


Razing River Forest

July 12, 2008

Well, that lovely little Drummond Prairie House on the 1100 block of Park is still there months after fencing went around it, but one of River Forest’s best Moderne houses went down quite suddenly a week or so ago. This gem, on the corner of Division and Ashland, vanished with short notice and certainly takes a notch off the suburb’s architectural value. They knock’em quick on Ashland – in our survey this Spring we suggested amending the district to exclude one house – formerly in the National Register District with its neighbor – because they razed the neighbor overnight for a pool a couple of years ago. Two blocks to the north, same story this summer. I guess public outrage at teardowns has finally reached a broad enough swath of the publication that those who will do it must do it quickly and darkly.
The pictured house at Division and Ashland was an excellent example of the postwar triumph of the “International Style” or “Arte Moderne” with its prominent horizontals and celebration of modern building materials. The staircase march of casement windows seen to the right was fantastic.

So River Forest is less architecturally significant than it was a few weeks ago. Even the recent claims that the 700 block of William was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright can’t add enough cachet to make up for this loss. After all, the 700 block of William is there, it is a Prairie gem of unparalleled proportions, and whether it was designed by Harry Robinson and William Drummond, who both worked in Wright’s studio or Wright himself (who also worked there) is an academic question. The fact of that block overshadows any authorship and its value remains as an excellent and surprisingly large and intact example of the Wrightian Prairie Style of the 1910s. Besides, the new claims are not based on evidence but connoisseurship – basically an informed study of the houses that finds more similarities to Wright than his students.

When Marion Mahony began making claims in the 1940s that Walter Burley Griffin had designed several of Wright’s projects, former apprentice Barry Byrne (who briefly worked with Drummond as well) dismissed these various claims of authorship as “absurd. We all (Drummond particularly) initiated designs while there, but we followed Wright’s other work and manner in doing so.” That is the trick to connoisseurship – it is very useful if you are trying to detect “fakes” but less helpful in distinguishing between similar and contemporaneous authentic originals. The 700 block of William is an authentic original Prairie School treasure, not a fake.

I still have to get to posting more info about Pingyao, where of course they have similar issues….

Dong Yue Temple Four Years Later

July 6, 2008

dong yue0860

Originally uploaded by vincusses

Thanks to Barry Maclean, the restoration of the Dong Yue temple in Weishan, Yunnan province is well underway. In this picture you can actually see the qiuwen screen that we found on site in 2004 when our SAIC students produced measured plans and a re-use plan for the temple site, on the edge of historic Weishan city and just below Weibaoshan, one of the 13 sacred Taoist mountains of China. Kudos to Mr. Li who is directing the restoration. The missing qiuwen screen was replicated, but without the characters in the interstices, a wise move. The decorative plaster on the side walls was restored and/or replicated only as necessary. This is the second excellent restoration in Weishan, the other being the Chang Chun temple on Weibaoshan. Both projects have a steady understated approach, unlike the gaudy over-restoration that one often finds.

I hope that Karin, Natalia, Hans, Stacey, Andrea, Marty, Kim, Chrissie and Marilyn see this – it is very gratifying to see a project move forward after you have worked on it!

More on Weishan later – and then a report on my eye-opening visit to Pingyao with Global Heritage Fund….

Oh – just added – here is Jingjing and our old friend Charlie…

And the side walls with decorative plaster – one rehabbed, one restored – can you tell which?