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Project Profile


2005 Honouable Mention

Pingjiang Historic Block

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Project Title: Pingjiang Historic Block

Location: Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Size: 28,500 square metres (buildings only); 32,000 square metres (overall area)

Cost: US$ 5,179,000

Responsible Party: Ruan Yisan, Zhang Qin, Lin Lin, Tong Ming, Zhang Yanhua, Peng Rui, Yang Yi, Yang Weize, Zhou Weiqiang, Shao Jianlin, Hui Jianlin, Xu Gang, Xiang Bingjun

Heritage Architect: Ruan Yisan, Zhang Qin, Lin Lin, Tong Ming, Zhang Yanhua, Peng Rui, Yang Yi, Yang Weize, Zhou Weiqiang, Shao Jianlin, Hui Jianlin, Xu Gang, Xiang Bingjun

Contractor: Suzhou Kuaixiang Historic Buildings Construction Company
                      Suzhou Taihu Classical Gardens Construction Company
                      Suzhou Xiangshan Historic Buildings Construction Group
                      Suzhou Urban Planning and Designing Institute Company

Date of Completion: December 2003

Project Synopsis

Pingjiang Historic Block, a city block comprising a number of historic structures and relics, is located in the northeast quarter of the ancient city of Suzhou in China. Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou is situated along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River on the shores of Taihu Lake in southeast Jiangsu Province, not far from Shanghai. The historic city of Suzhou is famous for its “double chessboard” urban layout, with parallel streets and waterways forming a distinctive grid. Pingjiang Historic Block is considered the most complete and characteristic remnant of the ancient city. A comparison of the current configuration of the district with a historic city map dating back to the southern Song Dynasty in the twelfth century shows that Pingjiang Historic Block almost perfectly preserves the urban layout of that era.

The block possesses an extraordinary number of extant historic features. Seventy percent of the buildings on the block are historic buildings. These cover an area of about 250,000 square metres. The block has 43 protected historic buildings and nine “Cultural Protection Units”, as well as hundreds of cultural relics and historic sites, including an ancient city wall and bridges, archways, wells, trees, streets and sidewalks, chambers, temples and gardens. One such garden is the Couple’s Garden Retreat, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000. The area historically served as a residential area and remains primarily so today. Currently, more than 10,000 families reside on the block, totalling about 28,000 people. Population density is high. Land use within the block includes commercial functions, however, as well as several factories, which account for 20 percent of the block’s land area.

The residential buildings are mostly of wood, and are prone to deterioration caused by termites and humidity. Many have been subject to neglect and inappropriate additions over time. Some have experienced total reconstruction and alteration. Many houses also lack modern amenities in kitchens and bathrooms. Prior to the restoration project, living conditions within the block were relatively poor, with many families sharing houses that were built to serve only one family. About 40 percent of the buildings on the block required conservation treatment at the time the project began.

Protection of the historic block from urban development has been a challenge for local planners. At the time the project began garbage bins and public toilets were typically located adjacent to the river, draining into and polluting the river. The factories on the block also contributed to air and water pollution. The streets and lanes within the block were too narrow to accommodate traffic, making emergency access and local transportation difficult. In addition, new buildings on the block, with incompatible heights and volumes, threatened the overall character of the area.

The conservation project began with the drafting of the Pingjiang Historic Block Master Plan, which aimed to preserve both tangible and intangible cultural heritage within the historic block. The holistic conservation plan focused on strategy, procedures and technical methods. The first phase of the project was the conservation and restoration of the block’s principal street, Pingjiang Road. This phase concentrated on repairs to, and conservation of, existing historic buildings along the street.

Conservation Approach

The project to conserve Pingjiang Road covered an area of 32,000 square metres, including 28,500 square metres of buildings. The conservation plan divided the process into six levels of intervention. All historic buildings were subject to repair and restoration to their original forms, with upgraded kitchen and bathroom facilities to meet present-day requirements. Heritage monuments with significant historical and cultural values were preserved in their original condition, with only minimal change. Non-historic buildings that did not disrupt the sense of continuity within the block and were in good condition were exempt from treatment. Non-historic buildings that interfered with the traditional character of the block, but could not easily be removed, were designated for façade treatment to bring their appearance more into keeping with adjacent buildings. Non-historic buildings that interfered with the traditional character of the block and were in poor condition were subject to removal. All temporary structures, many of which were located near Pingjiang Road, were also removed.

The team prepared a separate conservation plan for each building, measuring the property ahead of time and indicating areas of concern. Team members also made a detailed survey of all interior spaces. Additions were indicated and these were removed during the restoration phase. The project team ensured that all original structural and architectural elements were preserved wherever possible. Team members inspected significant elements, such as posts, beams, purlins and rafters. When aged and corroded components called for replacement, care and special effort were made to replicate these to match original examples. Substitute windows, for example, were made according to existing patterns to recapture the configuration of the historic streetscape. The conservation effort also included the application of a waterproof coating on the external walls of the buildings to protect against the effects of rainwater and rising damp.

The street paving of Pingjiang Road and other surface areas required materials such as black tiles, yellow paving brick and shell stone, covering a total area of over 10,000 square metres. For the paving of Pingjiang Road, workers utilized old stone slabs that matched the original surface units in size and shape. Construction crews also revived the waterways, including Pingjiang River. This process included dredging, repairing embankments and quays and reconstructing wharfs.

As part of the upgrade of the sanitation, water supply and other modern services, one of the principal challenges facing the project’s designers was the insertion of ten different kinds of pipes beneath Pingjiang Road. These pipes included conduits for sewage, rainwater, electricity, household water, gas, telecommunications and cable television. During the course of construction, workers discovered that the paved areas were too narrow for all the lines required; at its narrowest point, the sidewalk was only one metre wide. The team experimented with several different solutions and adopted a method whereby some pipelines utilized peripheral lanes, thereby reducing interference with road surfaces as much as possible.

Another challenge was laying pipelines across the 12 bridges along Pingjiang Road. Instead of using traditional approaches, such as attaching pipes directly to the bridges, either below the bridges or along the sides, the project team’s engineers decided to embed the pipes in the riverbed. This was a more expensive and time-consuming solution, but one that best addressed the special character of the area and the historic bridges.

Conservation and the Community

While drafting the conservation plan, the conservation team asked residents’ representatives to make suggestions, as they had the most to gain from positive results. In addition, the project’s designers invited many senior citizens to provide background information on the area and recount their own experiences there. The responses of these residents constituted a tremendous contribution to conserving the intangible cultural heritage of the block. A key lesson learned from the pilot phase was the extent to which the current social life of the community and its many different traditions contributed to the overall character of the area. This underscored the importance of intangible aspects of urban life in the Pingjiang Block, with the understanding that these help give meaning and a sense of cultural continuity to future safeguarding undertakings in the city.

In practical terms, a critical benefit of the project was the improvement of the community’s basic services, including water, sewage and electricity, and the provision of individual bathroom and lavatory facilities. These have enhanced the lives of local residents immeasurably and have helped bring their houses into conformity with modern standards.

Multi-disciplinary teams collaborated on this project. These included private companies, government agencies and professional construction crews. The project’s sponsors encouraged private house owners to adopt maintenance standards appropriate to their historic dwellings. Based on the experience from this initial stage, the project’s sponsors hope to gradually improve the quality of both repairs and maintenance and to increase the understanding of owners and occupants for future projects. The project also provided training for both older artisans and younger workers, introducing a new level of expertise to the area.

Quote from the Project Team

“As a dynamic cultural heritage site, Pingjiang Historic Block is a living community with constant development. This project, starting from the master plan of Pingjiang Historic Block, completely preserves the cultural heritage in the historic block, including the architecture, scenic environment and the cultural meaning.”