In architecture, the theme of the re-use has always been one of the most complex. The tough challenge to which architects and urban planners have to respond is understanding in which direction the conversion of abandoned sites should go, investigating, first of all, the identity of these places in order to give them new meanings and not merely new functions.
Uses and society change and, consequently, spaces and architectures of urban centers transform. So, if it is true that the appearance of a city changes together with society, it is also true that buildings’ style and function are never separated from the present.
In a re-use project, the greatest difficulty consists, in fact, in working with an object designed by another architect. Deepening the correct level of knowledge, considering its material and immaterial values, weaknesses and shortcomings, finding the balance between empathy and critical distance are all elements that require an objective, “cold” point of view.
«The project of re-use requires by the architect the utmost attention to the pre-existing object and not to one’s navel»1. Reading the evolution of re-use approaches, with particular reference to industrial architecture, allows us to outline the cultural context in which significant interventions for the use of pre-existing structures and strategies for the conservation of cultural heritage values have been developed. Hence, considering a recovery project as a stratification process of material values and meanings is fundamental in order to grasp the transience of the design action, starting from the peculiarity of each individual case2.
In particular, the disused industrial heritage is the largest representation of an ancient era that, perhaps, will never return, evoking, through its traces, the spirit of previous generations: huge, abandoned buildings in which history, uses and memories of something that broke and then changed forever can still be read.
Unlike Europe, the idea of development and progress in China has never considered the possibility of recovering urban heritage for later reuse. Otherwise, Chinese politics have always favored brutal demolition as a solution to restart and rebuild in a futuristic key something usually bigger. This is how traditional rural villages, after the transfer of peasants to cities, were transformed into collective farms. In this way, in the context of the disastrous Great Leap Forward3, the past was erased forever and the few surviving peasants were uprooted from their homes.
In this perspective, both the cities and the rapid expansion process were based on the policy of the tabula rasa. «Only 10% of historic buildings in China have survived to this day», writes Wang Shu4. With the historic city demolition, Asian society had to deal with the concept of reconstruction from scratch: for years, entire parts of cities were destroyed to build new ones, removing the traces of the successive eras over time.
The theme is very complex and does not concern only the sphere of conservation of architectural and cultural heritage, but also other serious problems of Chinese society which, having a social nature, involve the weakest part of the population: lack of rights and guarantees for the citizens; absence of private property protections; corruption of the state in its highest functions. Many news stories tell us about suicides or episodes of self-harm done by people who saw their houses razed to the ground5.
The contamination with European culture and the change of political direction favored a gradual “cultural turn”. In fact, starting from the 1970s, with the Open Door policy, China transformed from a poor peasant civilization to a great modern country. Today, the continuous overlap between historical fabric and more recent impressive buildings is configured as a delicate palimpsest to be preserved and cared for. Very slowly, a delicate approach to the theme of recovery took place, rediscovering and reinterpreting the traces of a past culture, especially starting from industrial landscapes, now abandoned.
The most evident result of this paradigm shift, in understanding urban space as a representative for a symbolic value and in seeing the reconversions of abandoned buildings as experiments for new meanings, is the pervasive creation of cultural “containers” that dot Chinese cities and represent an integral part of their political agendas.
One of the most successful industrial recovery experiments involved the old sugar refinery built in the 1960s on a hill near the Li River in Yangshuo, Guangxi, in one of the most typical karst regions, surrounded by the characteristic natural landscape of the Southern China. The large truss, that still survives today, was used to transport sugar cane.
In 2018, Vector Architects revived this place thanks to its conversion into a luxury resort with a group of gabled masonry structures designed to complement the existing industrial architecture. The old sugar factory, with its important truss, occupies the center of the lot, while on its sides there are two new functional blocks. The original buildings house the hotel reception, a café, a bar, a multipurpose room, a gallery, and a library.
A submerged square and a reflecting pond load the old structure with symbolism and meaning. Otherwise, to maintain an aesthetic and material coherence, the architects used contemporary construction systems and materials, preserving, at the same time, the nuances and the masonry technologies of the past. The concrete and the wood die-cast block give more lightness and transparency to the new volume, not contaminating the existing order with the surrounding landscape. Indeed, the shed-like structures offer a light and modern interpretation of the methods used to build the original mill.
The lines of the new building profile are simple in order to not obscure the old sugar factory, distinguished by a sensibly expressive geometry. The interiors, designed by Ju Bin of Horizontal Space Design, also aim to emphasize the connection between old and new.
The slope of the roof maintains the same proportions of the original one and integrates it with the other pitched roofs of the new elements. The overall idea is to consider the intervention area as a large garden where it is possible to walk and meditate. The larger building, called the Sugar House Retreat, contains rooms with private back balconies, overlooking the mountain scenery. The Townhouse Garden hosts several suites that look towards old buildings and ponds. At the rear, the upper suites open on a private terrace, while the ground floor suites face a bamboo garden.
Two circulation flows lead the visit: a system of corridors constitutes the internal functional path, while a large walkway connects three space-nodes of the building, like caves. Walking around the hotel, guests will experience the alternation between light and dark, the mutation of the landscape, different distances and heights.
The verticality of the great karst mountain groups of the landscape relates to the strong horizontality of the new architecture, designating the interaction between man and nature, while the public walkway is interpreted as an artificial version of the path that, in remote times, led to a cave dug into the mountain.
Small events like this give optimism and let us hope for a definitive turning point, finally stopping the wild raids of brutal demolitions and giving back life and history to the Chinese people.
1 M. Boesch, Riuso: il mestiere dell’architetto, il suo ombelico e altro, in «Archi», n. 4, August 2017
2 P. Galliani, Architettura industriale moderna: evoluzione degli approcci e consapevolezze per il riuso, in «Territorio», n. 89, 2019, pp. 24-34.
3 The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social plan put in place by the People’s Republic of China from 1958 to 1961. It was set out to mobilize the vast Chinese population to rapidly reform the country, transforming the rural economic system, previously based on agriculture, in a modern and industrialized communist society, also characterized by collectivization. Mao Zedong based his program on the theory of the productive forces. However, the Great Leap proved to be an economic disaster that affected the country’s growth for several years. Historically, it is considered by most authors the main cause of the very severe famine of 1960, in which 14 to 43 million people died.
4 W. Shu, Il tempo dimenticato e la verità, in «Domus», n. 1021, February 2018. The architect writes how in almost all Chinese cities, hundreds of thousands of people, with few exceptions, quickly demolished buildings deemed to be of no historical value. This is because building land is worth much more today and skyscrapers have even higher prices. According to a rough estimate, an average of 90% of historic buildings have been demolished over the past 40 years. And all this in the almost total indifference of the population.
5 Liu Zhifeng, Deputy Minister of Public Works, recently acknowledged that forced demolitions are the most denounced crime and that very serious abuses were perpetrated in some parts of China. According to Zhu Ying, an expert from the research bureau of Xing Fang Ju (Complaints Acceptance Department), 11.641 reports of illegal demolitions were received in the first 8 months of 2003, doubling the 2020 data; 5.360 people went to Beijing from all parts of China to file complaints, 74% more than in 2002. Zhang Xinbao, director of the Department for Implementation and Supervision of the Law at the Ministry of Land and Resources, stated that in 2003 investigations were carried out on 168.000 cases of illegal land grabbing, again doubling the data for the same period in the previous year.