Traditional architectural forms in market oriented Chinese cities

This paper entitled “Traditional architectural forms in market oriented Chinese cities: Place for localities or symbol of culture?”, written by Fei Chen (University of Liverpool) gives a critical analysis of urban conservation and regeneration programmes in China1.  Ever since Beijing’s implementation of regulation on urban conservation, major Chinese cities have undertaken urban conservation projects. The author has selected four of them to study:  “Hu’er hutong” in Beijing, “Tong Fang Xiang” in Suzhou, the “Xintiandi” project in Shanghai and “Nanjing 1912” in Nanjing. The initial objectives of these conservation programmes were to provide modern facilities to residents and to preserve some of the traditional urban characteristics of the area, but because of capitalisation in the historical districts, the author notes that local authorities and land developers gradually came to neglect social cohesion, as the price of land increased. 

Fei Chen analyses these four programmes from three different perspectives: developers’ and local governments’ initiatives, their impact on residents, and the use of traditional architecture.

  • According to Fei Chen, the way in which local authorities intervene through these regeneration programmes has changed over the years. On the one hand, local authorities have decreased subsidies for the preservation of these particular historical districts as real estate prices have risen. On the other hand, municipal governments have, more and more, supported measures aimed at improving an image or promoting a place. Urban regeneration programmes have become tourist destinations.
  • Secondly, the author notes that these programmes did not all have the same objectives. Whereas the early ones tended to maintain the original residents in their historical districts, the later ones had a more commercial purpose and did not offer in situ housing lots for former residents who were then relocated far from the city centre. But even in the case of Beijing and Suzhou, the original residents were not able to keep their homes in these “preserved districts”; real estate pressure caused most of them to choose to sell or rent their former house to the emerging middle-class, which was seeking a more traditional “Chinese” atmosphere. These projects have in fact exacerbated the gentrification process of historical districts in Chinese cities.
  • In the field of architecture, Fei Chen observes an evolution of the regeneration process. The first urban development programmes tended to adapt traditional aspects to modern life. For instance, in Beijing’s Ju’er Hutong, the new courtyards were built to a design that allowed residents to socialise, thus respecting the “substance” of Chinese traditional living.  But more recent programmes have given preference to reproducing particular features of traditional architecture, such as curved roofs, to enhance their projects.  In other words, conservation efforts are limited to aesthetic considerations. The author notes that, in every case, tradition has been manipulated for the purpose of promoting a particular place, in order to offer an “exotic” and attractive image to the new Chinese upper-middle class and to tourists. Fei Chen regrets that in transforming these districts, many original buildings have been destroyed and she illustrates this with the case of Xintiandi, where only 2 historical blocks out of 23 have been preserved. 

Sinan Mansions, a high end complex near Xintiandi, Shanghai, Goulard SébastienFei Chen advocates more local resident participation in regeneration programmes, in order to avoid gentrification and truly respect traditions. For the author, traditions cannot persist exclusively in the form of architectural elements, but need the involvement of residents who will adapt traditions to their needs. Thus, we can conclude that the author opposes the creation of historical districts that resemble museums with frozen traditions.

As Fei Chen points out, Chinese cities have had to “modernise” their city centres as a consequence of rapid urban development. However some parts have been preserved or transformed into historical districts. Residents have been excluded from these initiatives, which have mainly served commercial and tourist purposes.  

Issues regarding historical conservation are being dealt with in many cities around the world, and particularly in Europe. But unlike Chinese cities, the historical districts in European cities are not preserved by means of a single large scale programme. There is a variety of projects (regeneration, rehabilitation) for the same area. This diversity of projects makes historical districts more vibrant and creates links with other parts of the city.

Full text available online

  1. Chen, F (2011) “Traditional architectural forms in market oriented Chinese cities: Place for localities or symbol of culture?” Habitat International vol 35, issue 2:410-18 []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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