Not so long ago I was involved in a local history project to recreate an example of a bathing box – once commonly seen on the foreshore. The boxes were removed in the 1960s, yet some remained in the neighbourhood until quite recently. After all these years none now survived, and that is why we began our project. If only we had had the skill and foresight of the Chinese architect Wang Shu we could have made something wonderful.
The difference between the town of Ningbo and Torquay are unalike, yet similar. Both places are victims of modern growth programs. For sometime the Chinese government has overseen a massive modernisation of the country. When they decide to modernise, whole districts are bulldozed. Everything in the path of development is removed and the people are rehoused in new multi-storey apartments. Here farmland is sold off, roads are formed, and much needed single story housing is built “out of ticky-tachy and they all look the same” like it says in the words of the song.
In China Wang Shu reclaimed the materials from the villages dismantled to make way for the new. In so doing he demonstrated architectural leadership because he planned and built the Ningbo History Museum from the repurposed material. He used an old Chinese technique of Wa Pan to do this.
He didn’t just recreate something old. From his imagination he materialised something new.
The former villagers now have something to remind them of the 3,000 year old village, and the people, that once lived there.
The museum is substantial. It is a building of some 30,000 sq metres. Wa Pan has been employed by builders throughout the ages. It means to repurpose existing material and to reuse it in a new way. As I say, in the western world, Romans used the same rocks as the Greeks had in ancient times. Here in Ningbo Wang Shu did the same thing where he could, but he didn’t just re use bricks from the Ming dynasty he used lots of concrete. However the concrete he used was given a unique Chinese treatment. Bamboo, a traditional building material, was used to create the formwork for the concrete. The textural shape of the bamboo became a new building texture found on the walls. The walls are not solid though because they contain fragments of old tiles and other ancient matter in their fabric.
The skills once needed to build with traditional materials was lost to the new age builders. This meant that in order for the work’s creation the tradespeople had to be taught how to use old methods to build this new museum. These new skills have proved valuable to the employees engaged.
The building created in the Yiazhou province is much more substantial than the little bathing box I was involved in recreating. In our case our little project had to meet a set of regulations that did not exist when the original beach lovers built their humble shacks from found materials. All our building has is a familiar silhouette in a garden a long way from the beach. The people of Ningbo live in a city that did not exist a few years ago yet they have examples of ancient materials and forgotten skills as a constant reminder of their lost village.