Spatial Weaving in the Architectural Renewal of a Historic Block: Qingguoxiang Block, Changzhou, China
written by Lu Yin (Ph.D. candidate, Southeast University), Zheng Xin (professor, Southeast University) | edited by Lee Jiyoon | photographed by Lu Yin (Ph.D. candidate, Southeast University) | materials provided by Zhengxin Studio
It is possible to read a city, and to thereby gain insight into its historic profundity. Changzhou is a city in the south of Jiangsu province in China, with a history of more than 2,500 years and famous for its abundance of fish and rice. In the 16th century, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal ran through a historic area into the south of the city. It became a meeting place for ships and merchants, and the lane on the north bank of Dongxiatang became a transportation hub for fruit from both the north and south of the city known as ‘Qingguoxiang’.
The Current Situation in the Area
Located in the central area of Changzhou, Qingguoxiang Block runs about 400 metres across from east to west and 200 metres from north to south, covering an area of about 9.9 ha, and it is currently is the best preserved historic block in Changzhou. Qingguoxiang Block is a famous ancient block in Changzhou, where merchants were known to gather, but also more recently became the Changzhou modern ‘celebrity cradle’. This block’s ancient architectural styles from the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republic of China, its historic landscapes, and grand courtyards along rivers are all ‘living fossils’ in the long history of Changzhou, displaying a traditional feature found south of the Yangtze River – ‘bridges over water, houses by rivers’. The overall pattern forms the characteristics marking the Qingguoxiang Block as the main axis, with north and south streets leading off in different forms. However, there are many problems in this area, largely due to its long history. The block’s internal traffic is not clearly organised, and there is insufficient room for pedestrians to walk and gather. Most buildings are neglected and in a state of disrepair, and suffer from various degrees of erosion. To reactivate the vitality of the area, the government’s cultural relics protection department has classified the buildings in Qingguoxiang Block, many of which were old residences previously outside the scope of protection, and through a woven range transformed and renewed them both on spatial and architectural levels.
Early Ideas: Hanging Courtyards
‘Hanging Courtyards’, a project presided over by Professor Zheng Xin, won the Overall Winner and the Winner of the Old and New Category in the 2015 AR&MIPIM Future Project Awards held by Britain’s Architectural Review magazine. This indicated the effectiveness in our thinking on the relationship between ‘old and new’. This project was the original conception plan for ‘Urban Design of Qingguoxiang Historical and Cultural Block’ in Changzhou. The key aspects of the dialogue between ‘old and new’ are ‘traditional elements’. The courtyard itself is a landmark feature in traditional Chinese architecture.
The restoration design of the Qingguoxiang Historical Block is based on tradition, but it is also innovative: ourtyards are usually built at ground-level, but the main concept of the project in Qingguoxiang Historical Block is the ‘Hanging Courtyards’, whereby a multi-level courtyard system is spread over two platforms. This concept not only introduces a rich environment, but also solves the problem of local spatial constraints.▼1 In addition to the concept of the courtyard, many other traditional Changzhou elements were drawn upon to inspire this project, such as traditional arts and crafts like bamboo carving and embroidery. These elements have been introduced as themes in museums and studios and have been used to reconstruct the Chenghuang Temple, but here they will ignite the memory of the city’s history and culture together on its ancient stage. This arrangement is not only consistent with the characteristics of the district, but can also enhance the vitality of the existing area. Qingguoxiang Historical Block may become a window through which the traditional culture of Changzhou is displayed, and the social life of this street may be connected with modern city life, reflecting a dynamic reality.▼2 In the subsequent design of the weaving range, we have further optimised the design across three aspects: spatial texture, thematic function and architectural scale.
Reusing Spatial Textures
In order to better organise the spatial arrangement of the street, we drew on the theory of building typology to analyse the original spatial texture of the block. By analysing the relationship between the buildings and the ground, we found that the main spaces displayed a texture-pattern of ‘four rows and two lines’. Of these findings, the streets were main passages that connected roads within blocks to urban roads, which are relatively straight; lanes are relatively narrow and indirect; and alleys are very narrow, indirect paths that lead to residential side doors. By comparing the spatial scales of different roads in blocks with the D/H ratio tool, we found that roads 1, 3, 4, and 8 were very narrow, and the D/H was lower than 0.5; roads 2, 5, 6, and 9 were relatively narrow, and the D/H was between 0.5 and 1; roads 7, 10, and, 11 were slightly narrow, and the D/H was between 1 and 2; and road 12 was wide, and the D/H was higher than 2.▼3 In the design, we extended the original roads of the weaving areas, preserved roads with a D/H higher than 0.5, and organically wove newly built elements with original parts to create an internal block space combined with fun pedestrian accessibility. In order to overlay these renewed areas with those outside urban spaces more effectively, we created four types of spatial path: main traditional pedestrian paths, main internal tour paths, secondary internal tour paths and traditional themed tour paths. The commercial areas enhanced the integration of underground and ground spaces to create pleasant, three dimensional open spaces. Multi-directional tour paths were linked with sunken gardens, guiding the flow of people to the interior of the block and forming half-open underground commercial pedestrian areas. These measures were used to form a system of ‘three-dimensional Lanes, courtyards, and verandas’, and thus created rich levels of space-time intervals, improving the benefits of the development and increasing the overall quality and aesthetic impression of the area.
How is possible to combine traditional elements with modern features to meet the needs of the public? Based on the protection of the original cultural and historic characteristics, we made a reasonable layout of business patterns, the implantation of functions, and design of spatial forms in the project, while taking the sustainability and complexity of block development into full consideration. Core functions and the main commercial patterns of modern urban life were introduced, such as hotels and inns, entertainment platforms, the SOHO offices,
and so on. More importantly, in order to restore and retain a sense of the history, we integrated local culture-based themed functions such as the history of Changzhou, the history of Qingguoxiang Block, ancient gardens, local intangible cultural heritage sites, opera stages, among other interventions. The traditional culture of Changzhou and the Qingguoxiang Block will be injected into ancient lanes such as Xuedong Lane, Tianjing Lane, Gucun 5th Lane, and Zhengsu Lane. Xuedong Lane is a lane now known for calligraphy and painting. The famous production methods of ancient calligraphy and painting, such as Jintan engraved paper, Changzhou Luo painting, Zhou family paper cutting, and Changzhou enamel painting, will all become native to this street. Tianjing Lane is a lane for handicrafts. The famous production methods of traditional craft such as Changzhou comb marking, Changzhou bamboo carving, Changzhou embroidery, and straw painting will all take root there. Gucun 5th Lane is a lane for history. The evolution of history from the Song Dynasty to Modern Times in Changzhou and Qingguoxiang, such as urban construction history, historical celebrities, and historical sites will be displayed there. Zhengsu Lane is a lane for traditional opera. The most representative opera art in Changzhou such as Changzhou Pinghua, Changzhou Xi Opera, and the Changzhou antimask will be displayed there and combined with an ancient stage so that the precious culture of the ancient opera is restored to the district.
The Recombination of Buildings
Traditional Chinese architecture consists of the most basic unit ‘bay’, and a number of bays constitute a single building. By analysing the layouts of these ancient residences, we found that their most basic original component model was a courtyard (patio)-house surrounded by walls. The new buildings use courtyards as a prototype, and small-volume buildings have been added to surround large-volume ones to achieve pleasant scales and a harmonious environment. The courtyard space in new buildings is not entirely constrained by the traditional pattern, but rather modified according to base terrains and specific functions to make the overall layout free, flexible, balanced, and unified. Courtyards with narrower bases often had no wing-rooms, or on one side only. The size and scale of the inner courtyard could also be modified based on specific functional requirements and designs. At the same time, the methods of spatial restoration and spatial replacement are used to integrate the buildings built at a later stage in the weaving area.
The existing plants on the site will be preserved, while native tree species will be replanted to weave together the fragmented architectural texture and landscaping systems.
During the renovation of the Qingguoxiang Block, in order to preserve traditional architectural styles while increasing the durability of materials, the new buildings will use new roof tiles, which employ the same-textured bricks. The new roof tiles had an improved design in that they were solid, rain-proof, and leakage-proof, while fitting in with the traditional tiles in form. The building walls use a white overcoating mortar, and the areas
below the baseboards are built with stones, while other decorations are made up of materials such as black bricks, cultural stones, timber, glass, steel, concrete slabs, and others.
The buildings in these historical blocks, and their textures, should embody a sense of local history.
Unique architectural languages can be used to deliver the architect’s understanding that they are re-creating history. During the Urban Design of Qingguoxiang Historical and Cultural Block, we advocated progressive renovation, an idea supporting an inclusive coexistence between the old and new buildings, as well as the weaving of the fragmented, historic environment on both the spatial and technical levels. In accordance with the theory of organic renewal and authenticity, this form of renovation is an attempt to connect history with future development.
1. Zhai Mengjie, ‘The dialogue between old and new buildings throughout time and space’, Southeast University
Newspaper, 30. April. 2015, p.52.
2. Zheng Xin, ‘The Authenticity in the planning and design of historical and cultural blocks’, China Cultural Heritage, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2015, pp. 22 – 28.
3. Ashihara Yoshinobu and Lynne E. Riggs, The Aesthetic Townscape, The MIT Press, 1983, pp. 46 – 49.
Lu Yin is a Ph.D. candidate at Southeast University (Nanjing, China). His main research direction is architectural
design theory and urban design. He has participated in a number of urban design and architectural design
projects, including Urban Design of Qingguoxiang Historical and Cultural Block in Changzhou.
Zheng Xin graduated from Southeast University (Nanjing, China) with a doctoral degree in engineering in 1992.
At present, he is Professor of Architecture and a doctoral supervisor at Southeast University. He has long been
engaged in research on architectural design and its theory, urban design, landscape environment, and
architecture. He was once honoured with many national awards in the field of architecture and urban design.
Zheng Xin also participated in the paper ‘Spatial Weaving in the Architectural Renewal of a Historic Block:
Qingguoxiang Block, Changzhou, China’ as a second author and corresponding author.