Sitting down to write this blog, breaking the routine that was so foreign to me just four weeks ago but already feels comfortable and automatic, is making me realize just how much I’ve experienced in this short time. I’m interning at the Hunan University School of Architecture in the city of Changsha, working for one professor and his small army of graduates as they set about the important and hard task of preserving and restoring old buildings in a quickly modernizing region.
Contrast Old and New—Traditional Roof and Modern City, Changsha.
Recently, I went with some undergraduates as they surveyed an old neighborhood in Chenxi. The houses, mostly timber, were mostly from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Some doors opened off the main streets into narrow courtyards hemmed in by leaning old buildings. Other doors opened directly onto bedrooms and living spaces. The buildings were beautiful; even the windows of many were elaborately carved. I couldn’t stop taking pictures; it was all so gorgeous. I felt awkward snapping pictures of people’s lives; I worried that locals would bristle at the foreigner blithely cooing at the doors (many shaped like the letter eight for good luck!). I worried that I was unfairly fetishizing the often hard realities of other people’s daily lives. For even for all the beauty and life, it was obvious that life in this neighborhood was far from comfortable. Many of the buildings were abandoned and falling down. Even those who were still standing tall lacked many of the conveniences of modern life. No air conditioning. No toilets. No potable water. Many people used simple coal stoves to cook their dinners. When it rained one night, the streets flooded.
After the flood, Chenxi
This sort of uneasy coexistence between the aesthetic and the practical, between the romantic and the real made me think of a piece that I saw earlier this year at the Princeton Art Museum. On my way out from a visit downstairs to the ancient sections, I walked through the Contemporary Collection and stumbled upon upon Mai Dang Lao (McDonald's) by the Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu, a takeout container reimagined as antique pottery.
Mai Dang Lao (McDonald’s)
2002, Cast bronze
The Princeton University Art Museum
There was no easy or simple way to categorize the neighborhood in my mind. No matter how many smiling grandparents I saw chatting outside on little stools while children played around them, I couldn’t file the experience under some sort of simplistic “Community-Idyll” label in my head. The simplistic narrative of anonymous modernity crowding out traditional community was so tempting, but also overly romantic. The same plastic bags covering broken windows that I tried to crop out of my shots because they ruined some aesthetic were shielding families from rain. I could smell the community toilet from a half block away.
Close-up of one of the public bathroom’s roofs, Chenxi.
The surveying trip I was on had a more than academic purpose: the students were interviewing residents to figure out the histories of each individual house and to see what the residents identified as the key problems in their neighborhood. Indeed, it would not be their neighborhood for much longer. The residents are being moved to modern high-rises; some will return, but most will stay in new modern apartments. Many old houses will be renovated; the most badly deteriorated will be torn down. New residents, with more money to maintain their historic houses, will move in. It’s hard to hear about this neighborhood shift; hard to hear that this community as it exists now has an expiration date. There’s not much I can express except for hope that most people are happy with how things turn out and feel so privileged to have seen what stands now.
Clothing drying in skywell, Chenxi