China Today: What kind of urban culture do you appreciate yourself?
Lü Pintian: I appreciate any urban culture that is in accordance with humanity, with veins of traditional culture and lifestyle. In fact, there are many cities in China that have retained outstanding cultural characteristics throughout their modernization. Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province is a city famous for its 1,000-year-old handicraft industry, mainly porcelain making. The city was built around the basic requirements of traditional handicrafts, technologies and industries. Though without deliberate planning, every link of its growth met demands of the handicraft industry. The area housed numerous workshops, semi-product warehouses and kilns, and the architectural landscape formed naturally along the lines of the technological process of porcelain making. The workers' living quarters and production spaces were well integrated, with every detail of the design catering to the features of everyday life. The Changjiang River flows through the area to Poyang Lake, forming a transportation artery for shipping porcelain products out. At the edge of the settlement there was a special landscape peculiar to the handicraft industry, consisting of shallowly submerged dikes, thatched sheds, waterwheels and water-powered trip-hammer facilities (a china-stone grinding tool) to process raw materials for porcelain making. In general, the old city of Jingdezhen was a city with all the distinctive features of an artisan's settlement.
In traditional social patterns, the mode of "a shop in front with factory at back" was widespread in Chinese cities and towns, big or small, since it is a cosy and convenient arrangement for businesses and consumers alike. This layout displays the cultural characteristics and aesthetic features of a place because indigenous handicrafts are particular to their habitats. Such cities are conducive to human contact; they are approachable and livable. In today's urban construction, we should draw on traditional and historical experience. Cities with time-honored handicraft industries can support a style of urbanization and modernization in which cultural characteristics and distinctive aesthetic features still play a huge part, just by integrating the handicraft industry with commerce.
In creating a city's characteristics and soft power, encouraging folk crafts deserves more attention. The cottage-style industries can maintain a city's cultural distinctions, and resist the damage to human's cultural diversity caused by massive industrial production and intensified homogeneity of thinking. The city that entwines its handicraft industry with its urban planning and architecture is a city greatly enhanced, one that will exercise strong soft power in the future. For instance, in order to enhance the correlation between architectural form and specific locality, a city can encourage practice of and expertise in folk crafts whose manufacturing, raw materials and artistic traits are defined by local geographical and sociological realities. Both in urbanization and construction of the new countryside, traditional manufacturing traditions can and should be preserved by integrating specific environmental conditions, cultural elements, habits and customs, and lifestyle demands.
Today, in some of China's cities, people have begun to pay attention to preserving old neighborhoods. Thought is given to the size of roads to make them people- rather than car-friendly, and efforts are made to increase the prominence of traditional-style buildings. Pedestrian-only streets are set aside to preserve a harmonious relation between people's private domestic lives and the development of industry and commerce.
China Today: The world has so many cultures; in all this diversity, what is the attraction of Chinese culture?
Lü Pintian: There are many lovable things in Chinese culture, and one that relates especially to urban planning is the idea of "harmony between man and universe."
Regarding residential buildings, Chinese tradition emphasizes communications between man and nature, and man's dependence on, adaptation to, and utilization of nature. For instance, the weather is hot in southern China, so in building residences, the windows are smaller than in the north. As a result, the rooms are shady and cool in summer, and life indoors can be endured without air-conditioning. The climate is cold in the north however, so the windows are larger than in the south, and they face south to soak up sunshine. In mountainous and waterside areas in southern China, people build houses in compliance with local landforms, perching the structures, made of locally-grown timber or bamboo, on stakes over water or along slopes. This method doesn't change the natural formation of terrain and save flat land for farming. I call this wisdom of building the "spirit of stilt houses."
Traditionally human settlements make full use of natural conditions. In the water-rich south, rivers can be used for shipping and in many places we see riverbanks used as public spaces or marketplaces, where people get together, rest, or conduct trade with commercial boats anchored nearby.
Traditional Chinese architecture is invariably tailored to local conditions and seeks harmony between man and universe, gracefully supplementing its natural environment instead of brutally altering it. By contrast, modern architecture tends to use bulldozers to level the ground, often causing damage to the ecological environment and the surface structure of the earth. Obviously, this is an unwise and anti-ecological approach to construction.
The windows of traditional Chinese architecture can be opened and closed, while modern buildings create closed spaces and rely on air-conditioning. This causes discharges of waste air and heat. Artificial regulation of temperature consumes a lot of energy, and accelerates the exploitation of scarce natural resources and ravages nature.
The engineering wisdom of traditional Chinese architecture should be an inspiration and contribution to the overall development of human civilization. Modern urban construction should not be confined to one pattern of "steel bars plus cement." Instead, we should follow the principles of applying different and indigenous building materials and designs that suit local conditions. For instance, in China, the Bouyei minority people build houses of slabstones, the Uygur people build houses of rammed earth, the Tibetans and Qiang people build watchtower-like houses. In northern China there are cave dwellings and underground courtyards, and in southern China there are stilt houses and residences on water. Traditional buildings of various ethnic groups in China stress interdependence and mutual respect between man and nature. China's architectural culture is fascinating, and a large number of experiences and techniques from the past have survived to date. The preservation of this traditional wisdom and related practices is the purpose of protecting intangible cultural heritage.
China Today: How can China's unique urban culture get the attention it deserves?
Lü Pintian: Through publicity, we can let the world know about China's intangible cultural heritage, and present the most exquisite, elegant, intelligent and beautiful aspects of China's local customs and traditional lifestyles. In recent decades we have enjoyed showing off our modern buildings, regarding those as the most advanced. In fact, our concept of what is "advanced" or "backward" is experiencing a reversal of those denotations in architecture as our vision and perception of urban development matures. The advancement of a city, to a greater extent, is shown in the preservation of its unique identity, not in the number of its look-alike modern high-rises.