Posts Tagged ‘Weishan’

Terrible Loss in Weishan

January 6, 2015

Readers of this blog will know that I have often traveled to the historic city of Weishan, in Yunnan, China.  Origin place of the Nanzhao Empire that became the Dali Kingdom before Yunnan was incorporated into China, Weishan was an important site on the Tea-Horse Route and home to Weibaoshan, a mountain with two dozen Taoist and Buddhist temples.  For more than 620 years, travelers and traders passed through the impressive North Gate, virtually the only surviving element of the original city wall.  I have photographed it nearly every year since 2003, and it is one of two National landmarks in Weishan.  Four times I brought students to visit.

Weishan north gate 2014

So imagine my horror when I got an email this weekend with these photos:

image1 (1)


As of today I do not know the plans for this landmark, although I did witness a drone document the massive structure in 2012.  It appears the two-story wooden structure is a total loss and there is yet no word on the condition of the rammed-earth and stone base.   Stay tuned to this space for updates.


Report from Jerry Adelmann:  The North Gate hall has been reconstructed, and from the looks of it, they took advantage of the documentation and performd well.FullSizeRendere

FullSizeRender (3)



Categories Are Your Frenemies

May 15, 2012

When I was a kid, there was a tween game where you sat in a circle and clapped and called out “Categories!  Names Of!” and then someone shouted a category and you had to keep on shouting out examples of that category or you lost the game.

The nature of thought requires us to divide things into categories.  This is good, because it facilitates learning.  We need categories to begin to understand the multivalence of our world.  To this extent, categories are our friends.  As our understanding progresses, we begin to see the limitations – the false boundaries – of categories.  As we grow, categories become our enemies.

Architectural history is a good example.  We begin by learning styles and periods.  Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Craftsman, Art Deco.  We study the defining characteristics of each of these styles and pretty soon we are able to survey buildings in the streetscape and categorize them.


But these styles and periods begin to disintegrate the more deeply we analyze them.  Most graystones and brownstones of the 1890s freely mix elements of Italianate detailing, Queen Anne massing, Richardsonian Romanesque masonry and even Beaux-Arts details.  The more closely you look at individual buildings, you find designers and architects who were trying to be original or at least contemporary and the later periodization – the categories – played no part on their process.


The first architectural style book I bought in 1983 illustrated two categories:  Eastlake and Queen Anne – with the same building.  As I collected more such books, I found that no two even had the same categories, or used the same terms for categories.  Is it NeoClassical or Beaux Arts?  Is there a Second Renaissance Revival?  Is bungalow a style or a type?  What is Neo-Grec and why do New Yorkers find it everywhere?  When is Brutalism expressionistic?


Does that mean the categories are incorrect?  Of course.

Does that mean we should dispense with them?  Of course not.

They are our vocabulary, or perhaps our alphabet or characters.  We need these categories to initiate the process of learning.  When that learning has progressed to understanding that categories are imprecise and fluid and that there are permeable membranes between them, they have done their job.


The problem, like the problem of authenticity, comes about with time, the fourth dimension.  Authenticity is a slice of time, a moment we wish to preserve that we cannot, because all things exist in time and our conception of authenticity rests in the moment.

Categories (like ideologies) are static conceptions that must fail when confronted with the fourth dimension.  Art and architectural history do a good job with categories because they use them to define time-based periodization, but of course these categories don’t work for an individual artist.  The architect of my house designed in the Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Georgian Revival, and Prairie School styles at different times.


Available for rent this August.  I call it a pseudo-Georgian because the detailing is Georgian but the plan (see where the door is?!) is Victorian Queen Anne.  And it has steel beams, so it is modern.

If you hold too closely to categories, they will be more enemies than friends, and the more I think about it, I see this as a Western problem, culturally.

My colleague Stanley Murashige, who is leading our Historic Yunnan Study Trip with me this week, gave a great lecture last night on Chinese philosophy – specifically Confucianism and Daoism.  The distinction between how we view things and how Eastern philosophy views things is incredibly relevant to this discussion.  Mostly because the Chinese worldview does not consider THINGS; it is a view of PROCESSES.  In other words, everything is seen through the filter of TIME.


This is the Dao, which is translated into English as THE WAY, which sounds like a static category, but a more accurate translation would be “to trod the path” because it is more verb than noun.  Even people are categories in English but processes in Chinese.  The autonomous individual so central to Western thought (ignore John Donne for now) is, as Stanley said, a “crazy concept” for the Chinese.  People are defined not as things but as acts of becoming within society.  As time passes, the relationships and roles of each person shift.  There is no autonomous self that stands outside of these changes.

Cartesian dualism gives us a world of appearances and a world of reality, but in Chinese thought there is but one world.  Knowledge itself is a gerund as well, not a collection of facts but a performative tracing of a path through a dynamic world.


Wen Chung palace, Weibaoshan

Let me bring this back to my business and the business of this blog, which is heritage conservation (historic preservation).  This too, is not a thing but a process, as I have told many a lawyer to their dismay.  A community determines what is significant in its past, how it is significant, and develops treatments for bringing it into the future.  And they do it over and over again through time.

There is not a right treatment or a right answer for every situation or every time, but there is a PROCESS of context (heritage), identification (survey), registration (inscription, listing, planning) and treatment (conservation) that is consistent across a range of communities, cultures, and contexts.  Heritage Conservation trods a path.


There are no universal truths but there is universal truth.  Use categories as you learn.  Then, as you tread your path again and again, watch as they resolve into the foggy dew.


Community Planning in Heritage Conservation

October 17, 2011

I recently became Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, an organization I have been involved with for almost four years. GHF has patented a Preservation by Design® approach to saving World Heritage in developing countries. The approach follows to some extent the disciplinary boundaries we regularly bridge in teaching historic preservation: Design, Planning, Conservation and History. For GHF’s Preservation by Design®, the four are Planning, Conservation, Community Development and Partnerships. The emphasis on Community Development and Partnerships is key to the modern practice of heritage conservation.

One of the things my international practice in heritage conservation has taught me is that many other nations draw a sharper line between heritage conservation and community development. If conserving historic buildings is seen as a form of development, it is usually only conceived in terms of tourism development. Rarely do you find the understanding we have developed in North America that saving historic buildings is a vital community development and empowerment tool. A case in point is our new Preservation 10X plan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which makes “Sustainable Communities” the first of four thematic foci for the Trust going forward.

Five years ago I was asked by the State Department to consult with preservationists in Tustan, a fascinating archaeological site in the western Ukraine. My primary (and primal) suggestion was to do a community planning workshop with local residents to determine how they might appreciate the site, how they might benefit from the site, and how the interpretation and potential development of the site could impact the community in a positive way. The suggestion was well received, but it was entirely foreign to the concept of the “heritage conservation” sector.

Even many western European nations define heritage conservation as a distinct sector; distinct from planning, distinct from architecture, distinct from economic development. In our current work in Lima, Peru, we are attempting to introduce urban agriculture to the Cercado, the World Heritage Center of Lima. In so doing, we toured the area with the lead urban agriculture planner and the architect responsible for the Cercado’s historic fabric. It quickly became apparent that these two officials didn’t speak the same “language” when it came to the built environment. Our added value, as outsiders, is to bridge their bureaucratic and cultural boundaries and find new synergies.

Our culture values innovation and cross-boundary thinking, but many societies – I would hazard most societies – take a more defensive approach, safeguarding various disciplines. Even the term “heritage conservation sector” sort of freaked me out at an international conference in Sweden in 2007. Why would the sector define itself – and in this case its financial metrics – in contrast to other sectors? Isn’t that ghettoization? I have always seen the choice to conserve the historic built environment not as a luxury or specialty, but an essential component of community development.

There is a peculiarly American approach to problem-solving that more easily shrugs off cultural norms and categories. It is why we have Silicon Valley (where the GHF is located, perhaps not coincidentally). Perhaps it is the relative thinness of our cultural history; it is certainly an American pride in ‘thinking outside the box.”

At the same time, building conservation as a community development tool dates back to at least the advent of “the new preservation” in the 1960s in terms of historic neighborhoods and the 1970s advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program for commercial districts. In the United States, tax advantages for preservation have been around a full 35 years, so the recognition of this aspect of heritage conservation is deep here.

My most direct experience with Global Heritage Fund’s Preservation by Design® approach has been in Pingyao, which I have written about extensively before here and here. In remote archaeological sites like Chauvin de Huantar in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, the opportunities for community development are more limited, but no more so than Tustan. Santiago Giraldo of GHF has worked with the community on the hiking trail that takes you to Ciudad Perdida and hosts a variety of businesses that cater to tourists. The challenge, of course, is to insure that the development of the community is not solely dependent on tourism.

My work in Weishan, China with the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is emblematic of this. The goal there is to conserve historic buildings and landscapes and intangible heritage to serve BOTH tourism development AND the local community. So far, as I reported to International ICOMOS conferences in 2007 and 2011, the goal is being met. The North Gate, a 1390 national landmark in the heart of Weishan Old City, is now being used for community events and music as well as serving as a tourist destination. Thus heritage conservation serves both transient and permanent communities.

Ultimately, what we are doing when we preserve buildings is preserve community. One of the great mischiefs of High Modernist architecture and planning (which led to the modern preservation movement) was that it believed you could design a community from scratch and that it would function better than an existing one. One of the great strengths of heritage conservation is that it recognizes that communities can only be sustainable when they preserve and make functional those elements of their heritage which they value.

One day a 27-year old preservation planner pulled his yellow Nova over in Humboldt Park, Chicago, and wrote this down:

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation and enhancement. Our built environment is a vital reference for our past, and a foundation for future growth.”

Kid was right.

Weishan 2011

August 22, 2011

This is Dao, written on the side of a temple on Weibaoshan, the “quietest mountain in China” deep in Yunnan. Dao means the way, which can be as simple as a road or path or as complex as all of the doubts and triumphs within the human psyche. As one of the two 2,500 year old Chinese traditions, Daoism is the one that looks inward at the self, both in an attempt to follow right action (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) and to seek contemplative truths.

This temple on Weibaoshan was built without a permit – hence no one visits it – violation of karma/social contract

The other tradition is of course Confucianism, which is directed outward, at human behavior in groups, at families and the extension of the family that is society. It is about ethics and moral behavior and in many ways quite different to its inward-looking contemporary. Both influenced the adoption of Buddhism by the Chinese almost a millenia later, and both can be worshipped in the 22 temples of Weibaoshan, a place I returned to yesterday after an absence of two years.

Chang Chuen Cave (temple), a national landmark on Weibaoshan

The Way is clearer than it was two years ago, and not only because of the new signs that tell you the history of sites like the Nanzhao Yi temple, where I ran into some new friends, a stem-cell biologist and a historian and banker and geologist celebrating a 30-year class reunion,

or the amazing Wen Chung palace with its mural of the Yi people dancing under the pines and smoking tobacco, a mural sitting in a pool that I have watched slowly fade and delaminate for the last eight years,

as has the story of the Fairy of the Luo River on the other side

or the Yong Lingquan temple with its 400-year old camelia

or the Jade Emperor Temple

This year I was thanking the Jade Emperor more than pleading with him as I did in 2009 when on this cloud-shrouded mountain I got a phone call from Felicity because cell phones are part of the Way in China, and easily reach the most mystical places. That is the way, though it may not conform to the aesthetics of difference central to the lingering colonialism in our own consumer culture. But as anyone will tell you, I am not skilled at difference.

quick test: do you see contrast or harmony?

The mystical is not merely the otherworldly but also the simple pleasures that can escape you when you lose the Way, like the unfettered pleasure of crossing the bridge beef noodles for breakfast on Saturday or watching the man on the food street pulling the noodles for breakfast on Sunday and Monday.

Deputy Mayor Bi quoted the Buddha as he opened our conference on the restoration of the Dong Yue Temple complex (including the Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces) on the edge of town, historic places my students and I and SAIC and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University have been working to save since 2004.

Here is the delegation with our hosts in Weishan, near a reflecting wall.

Here we were again, Jingjing Gao and I, with SAIC Historic Preservation Director Anne Sullivan and Facilities VP Tom Buechele surveying the temple walls as we plan a permanent studio and student center here in the pristine depths of Yunnan, completely antipodal from our home but I place I have called home some seven times over eight years.

Dong Yue temple

Here is the view of Weibaoshan, from room 3004 where I always stay, where I have spent some five or six weeks of my life, although there is a new floor and new furniture and I have internet access because that is the Way.

My students often “complain” that I am constantly running into people I know when I tour them around Chicago, and it happens in China too – I ran into my June tour guide friend Jiajia Huo in the busiest airport in the world and of course the monk Xiao, and of course I visit with my Global Heritage friends in Beijing and doubtless I will run into someone in Dali.

I love the food here – nothing is refrigerated because it is picked and cooked within a few hours and there are dozens of wonderful mushrooms and vegetables and meats and no cheese thank god

There is a lot of eating and drinking in Chinese culture, which is why it is the civilized culture and all of the rest of us are barbarians. Indeed, they call me the Uighur which at least brings me into the geographic orbit of historic China without civilizing me completely, but I can drink and sing with the best of them and thus our negotiations proceed with mutual sincerity and propitious signs of success. Tom and Anne are doing pretty well at this too. The toast is “Gombei” which means “empty glass” and believe me, they check.

The town has improved as well, with new signage and more shops and more prosperity, but as I told the international ICOMOS conference in May (as I had in 2007) Weishan is still authentic and it is still a real place with real people, which means it has not lost its soul: it has not lost the Way. We walked through the market, a narrow alley of mushrooms and tea in big sacks and umbrellas and light bulbs and underwear and fake Crocs and then emerge into a vast market of raw meat and giant squash and vegetables they don’t even recognize in Beijing and Shanghai.

The new road opened and more tourists are coming but what they are coming to see is real history: continuous history that is not frozen or unmalleable but constantly changing. Change is not good or bad but it is inevitable and it is history and it forces us to constantly readjust our prejudices and even our aesthetics. Managing change is keeping the best of the past and repurposing it, giving room to grow creatively, staying in the flow of history. You cannot dictate change and you cannot fully anticipate it, hence the virtue of the heritage conservation field is its individuated process, which manages change by incorporating the deep character of a place into its future.

Creativity. That is our plan for the restoration of the Tai Bao and Shi Wang palaces -a studio space for students from SAIC and wherever else. What we do in heritage conservation is creative re-use, because we try as hard as we can to avoid the dumb solution, the simple-minded solution that works in dichotomies rather than the reality of the Dao, which is both-and.

Moon gate and part of Tai Bao palace courtyard

Shi Wang (Ten Generals) Palace

For years I have felt that the only breakfast is beef noodles, but there is room for other breakfasts just as there is always room for exoticism as long as you realize in can be found as easily in your own everyday as in the everyday of Weishan. And there is room for the cell phone on the sacred mountain as we learned in 2006 when the monk Xiao completed his mesmerizing tai chi chuan demonstration only to have his cell phone ring and we laughed at the contrast between technologies, but you must remember that all civilized behavior is a form of technology and technology is not a thing but a relationship (see next blog). You do not plan the future like you design an object because it is never that simple, but if you maintain the relationship the future will emerge in the appropriate way.

again: contrast or harmony?

this one is in Dali, but you get the idea

I feel at home here because it is familiar but also because the culture is so deep. Not old, not unchanging, but deep as in having reserves of understanding that allow you to stay in the flow of history. Sometimes you will fight it and people will die and sometimes you will push it and elements of culture we thought were permanent will be exposed as historical.

Managing change is staying on the path, the Way, the Dao and I am not – I insist – being mystical but simply trying to describe efficiently that living and contributing requires that you hold your beliefs and your culture as Jane Addams did, loosely in your hand.

the recently improved tie dye factory in Weishan – stencilling

Clinging tightly to anything – past or future or any other false dichotomy – can not lead to success or enlightenment or prosperity or even a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

North Gate, Weishan, a national landmark. 1390. 2011.

6 years. 348 posts. Thank you for reading!

2012 UPDATE: We are going again! Stanley Murashige and I will be leading a Study Trip to Weishan starting May 20, joined by the incomparable Han Li of the Global Heritage Fund. For more info, email me at

Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.

Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.

More on Yunnan 2009

July 17, 2009

yunnan rice fields
The rice replanting was in full swing throughout Yunnan when we were there in May and June, and you could watch this millenia-old agricultural ritual as we traveled north from Weishan to visit Jianchuan, to see the famous grottos and also the restored temples in Shaxi town. The Swiss had been involved in the efforts to restore these temples, which have some very excellent early Ming duogong, something you rarely see. Anyway, here are the temples at Shaxi in Jianchuan, Yunnan
shaxi temple7
But you have to see the duogong – see, basically as the Ming became Qing the duogong became less functional and more decorative and they got smaller and more elaborate.
shaxi temple duogong
These are robust duogong, to be sure. One of the challenges in China is that each dynasty – except the Qing (17th-early 20th centuries) – destroyed most of the stuff from the previous dynasty. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s was sort of a modern version of the iconoclasm that cycles regularly throughout Chinese history. Thus Foguangsi on Wu Tai shan in Shanxi is one of the oldest temples left in the whole country, dating from the late 9th century and it was just named a World Heritage Site thanks to my friends at the Global Heritage Fund. But for Yunnan, the temples at Shaxi are pretty impressive, as is the restored theatre and central square, sideng.
shaxi stage bldg
The town also has a series of gate, picturesque narrow lanes and a lovely old stone bridge over the river.
shaxi gate
shaxi bridge3
shaxi streeterr
The only GHB in this cultural cocktail is the fact that the lovingly restored town square was so empty, much emptier than the picture of it John Stubbs included in his new world conservation book Time Honored (I especially recommend Chapter 2 to all aspiring preservationists). This is the nagging problem with so much cultural tourism – they decide that tourism is the answer so they throw out the other options. Sideng had maybe two or three open shops and less than four other tourists while we were there. It was more of a stage set than a place.
shaxi sideng view0
Which is too bad, because the temple interpretation was good, including models and detailed panels describing every level of conservation from the region down to the individual monuments. And the museum of the tea-horse route in the theater building was small but worthwhile. Our work in Weishan involves the same horse-tea route caravan, which through history brought tea up from its sweet spot in southern Yunnan to Tibet and points east and west. (I did the English labeling here so there is a possibility of error.)
tea horse routeBLs
In Weishan we saw the restored courtyard used by the planning department which was also a significant site on the tea-horse route.
Tea horse inst ctyd
And we had tea there, which is cool. We also had tea in Dong Lian Hua (East Lotus Village) one of two Muslim towns we visited in the Weishan valley, and one I had seen before in 2007 (in fact they still had a picture of me up on the wall) and which was recently named a landmark. The highlight are three tower houses from which merchants could survey the caravans along the route, stable a large number of horses, and conduct the trade that made the valley.
DLH ctyd2 upper
DLH grp tea2
Like Weishan, Dong Lian Hua is a place where conservation has preserved the best of the past as a service to the people who live there, not simply as a sop to tourists. This is the best way – the only sustainable way – to plan for the future. Because real planning relies not on knowing everything that can happen in the future – that was the great fallacy of modernism in planning and architecture – but on creating enough utility and flexibility that a place or a building will continue to serve people in their full range of motion and time.
incense overal
I said it in my ICOMOS paper two years ago and It bears repeating: Weishan is a model of developing historic resources for tourism without sacrificing the utility those resources have for the local population. Indeed, local use is primary, because tourism comes and goes. I do not promise that Weishan has avoided the temptations of catastrophic tourism, only that they have avoided them so far. The work we do at SAIC, at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, in Yunnan is focused on this goal.
peach main rd v
Our role is to encourage making historic buildings as useful as they can be for those that live there and those that visit. And I think that describes all of my preservation practice over the last 26 years: we promote people’ better impulses toward their environment and discourage the baser ones, the ones that ignore the future for immediate gain.
Tea horse inst doors
(Above: traditional carved doors at the tea horse institute building, Weishan.)

You see, preservation isn’t about the past at all. It is about the future and how you would like that future to be.

I & M Canal

April 10, 2009

I gave a tour of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor on Wednesday – well, half of it, since it is a 100 miles long and you can only do about half of it in a day. We went through Willow Springs, Lemont and then spent time in Lockport and Joliet, visiting OF COURSE the Gaylord Building in Lockport and the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. I have been doing this tour for OVER 25 years, so it provided some reflection on how much progress there has been over that period of time, but I also noted – having done the same tour for the Art Institute last summer – how much progress there has been in the last 10 months.
There is now a “Rialto Arts District” featuring three galleries around the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet. There are even more sculptures and murals in that town (and a few less landmarks). The best change is undoubtedly the reopened Public Landing in Lockport, which provides incredibly great vistas of the Gaylord Building and most importantly, from an interpretive point of view, allows you to see how the Gaylord and Norton buildings functioned during their heyday as transshipment warehouses for grain and goods traveling from farm to canal to market.
When I first took a tour group along this route in the fall of 1983, the Gaylord Building was a rotting hulk and a fifth of Joliet’s residents were unemployed. I remember how impatient I was in my 20s at the progress of this grand experiment – the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor – which Jerry Adelmann envisioned. But it has happened. And I’ve gotten older and perhaps less impatient.

Speaking of Jerry, our friend Professor Fan Jianhua of Yunnan will be speaking today at Noon in the 112 S. Michigan Avenue Building about the Architectural Treasures of Weishan. Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao and I will be taking 14 students to Weishan this May to continue work on the preservation of the Weishan Heritage Valley – a national heritage corridor in China which has some roots in Lockport and Jerry’s work. We met with the students Thursday night and they are stoked. Our project will be trying to figure out ways to modernize traditional courtyard homes with modern conveniences, like plumbing.
This is a VERY busy semester. I looked at my “to do” list and it had 20 categories – not 20 things to do, 20 CATEGORIES of things to do – like my three classes, my program, my consulting job, my six or seven boards, and all those extras like tours and lectures. more to come….

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?

Rainy Season, Yunnan

August 7, 2007

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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Traffic and pouring rain made the half hour trip through Kunming take over an hour. By the time the taxi got to the airport it was less than an hour before our flight and the driver had to navigate a flooded parking lot with water bubbling up from the sewers. Two days earlier we were caught on a mountain pass between Weishan and Dali, trapped behind a van stuck in two feet of red mud. Muslim women pushed the van out but by then there were a hundred cars and trucks lined up and we were an hour late to Dali. Welcome to the rainy season in Yunnan, the high-elevation tropical southwest of China. This is part of my job.

We made the plane and there is a woman on a stretcher right behind me where three rows of seats used to be. Last night we sat in an ex-pat bar in Kunming drinking Laotian beer with Angel, our Burmese-Chinese interpreter and her friends. It had been a day of losing things – first Jonathan left his camera in a tuk-tuk in Weishan, which the honest driver brought back, then he left his backpack in a Dali restaurant and also got it back. In the morning Andrew couldn’t find his wedding band (he found it) and in the evening Jerry misplaced an umbrella (also found). Normal travel stuff, lost items and rain delays.

I have a scratch on my arm from the barbed wire atop the one remnant of the Weishan City wall, on the military base on the south side of town. I stumbled into it as I tried to keep the sentry gate out of the photographs. How many decades ago was that last tetanus shot? Heck, if I was going to worry about that I would worry about eating cold food like Ken warns against, but it tastes good and I am a little brash that way. I was drinking tap water in India in the mid-1980s. Enough chili pepper and you are fine. I don’t think the reason people get sick in foreign countries can be entirely explained by biology – it is a mental adjustment too.

The afternoon after the barbed wire we had tea with community leaders in a nearby Muslim village and visited four 1920s watchtowers and courtyard houses in the community. The towers gave superb views of the exceptionally well-preserved village, its mosques indistinguishable from traditional Chinese pagodas. The road there was lined with stone carvers crafting tombs – elegant aedicules of yellow sandstone flanked by fu lions.

Beef noodles for breakfast, four different kinds of mushrooms at every meal, lashings of green tea, official meals with copious baijiu toasts and the constant putt-putt of tuk-tuks. I like my job. I like China too – it is an appropriate successor to the U.S. – sort of oversized and clumsy, not refined like Japan but massive, driven and infinitely more skilled at capitalism than Europe and America. Kartik and Jonathan are on their first trip to China and especially for Jonathan its exoticism is striking. I remember how I was overwhelmed four years ago on my first trip, and I see it with my students each time we come. For me it is familiar, even comfortable, especially at mealtimes.

In most ways Weishan is like every other town in the world, a little of everything, but its historic core is unique, especially in China, which is moving so fast that little history will survive the next few years. Weishan is special – so far.

I have seen dramatic changes in 4 years. The old bird and flower market in Kunming is being torn down. The place is cleaner and everything runs pretty smoothly despite the rain-induced traffic jams on mountain passes and city streets. Yesterday at lunch I toasted our hosts with “China is the future and it is encouraging to see that in some places that future will happen in harmony with nature and history.”

In Weishan we reviewed progress on the temple restoration our students helped plan in 2004, now being funded by a leading Chicagoan. We were also there with three architects to respond to a preservation plan for the historic town, birthplace of the Nanzhao empire (700 AD) and center of Yi culture. The plan was authored by Tongji University, the MIT of China, and it was detailed in its surtvey of historic structures but predictable in its expansion plans and troubling in its advocacy of rebuilding long-lost landmarks, like the city walls and gates. Only the north gate survives, a regal 1390 structure that is the second largest in China after Tien An Men in Beijing.

Last summer our students documented 16 buildings in town and ultimately contributed 30-odd photos to a Yunnan photo book about Weishan. Faculty member Felicity Rich contributed so many that author Fan Jianhua listed her as a principal photographer. We returned to some of the houses and it struck me that I have had a small part in helping preserve this place – not as big as Ken and Jerry, who rep the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, but still, it is something.

Sunday we had a two hour meeting with the Party Secretary and later another with about 20 other local officials, including the mayor. They agreed that I told them how impressed the ICOMOS audience was with the “Weishan model” in April in San Francisco, a model that accommodates tourism without killing the town, as has happened in Lijiang and Dali and so many other Chinese “tourist” cities, Everyone in Weishan agrees with us – they don’t want to drive the locals out and they don’t want “any fake antiques”. Now we will see what the planners at Tongji want.

That will be a tough meeting, but the meetings, like the place and even the language, are becoming easier the more I do this. A two-hour formal meeting in a provincial government office in southwestern China is just something preservationists do. In the last year I have had similar meetings in Chicago office buildings, wooden lodges in the Carpathian mountains of the Ukraine, and by the shore of Lake Siljan in Sweden. The issues don’t vary: only the venues. Like I said, I like my job.

Postscript: I wrote this on the plane from Kunming to Shanghai last week. The meeting at Tongji turned out much better than expected – our colleagues were impressed that we thought Weishan was worth coming back to again and again, and they agreed to work with us on refining the plan. My brashness extended to toxic Shanghai and my GI tract paid the comeuppance. Four days back and I have a head cold. Nothing a little Pu’er tea can’t cure.