A house that doubt built

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am


A dilapidated courtyard house demolished in central Beijing last year was not the first to fall victim to a developer's bulldozers.

But its destruction sparked a huge public outcry because it was the former home of a man who had dedicated his life to preserving the mainland's architectural heritage.

The brick-and-timber home at No 24 Beizongbu Hutong that was levelled by a state-owned developer still bore the scars of a botched demolition attempt two years ago and the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Conservationists had campaigned for years for the former home of Liang Sicheng and his wife, Lin Huiyin, to be given full heritage status to ensure its protection as a cultural symbol.

'We do not look to the former residence of a famed person for architectural mastery but for the legacy he or she left with us,' said He Shu zhong, the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, a conservation advocacy group. 'Those in favour of the demolition are either ignorant or shameless in their pursuit of interests other than cultural preservation.'

Lin and Liang, who died at the age of 70 in 1972, lived nearly seven years in the courtyard house in the 1930s after they returned from the United States, where Liang had studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the years, the couple and their colleagues surveyed 1,823 ancient architectural structures in 137 counties, including the famed Anji Bridge - the world's oldest single-span stone arch bridge - in Hebei's Zhao county.

Liang, recognised as the father of modern Chinese architecture, petitioned the central government from 1949, when the Communist Party took power, to preserve Beijing's characteristic grid of hutongs and its landmark city walls, dating back to the Yuan dynasty.

The authorities largely ignored him, and many parts of old Beijing disappeared. Liang was later denounced during the Cultural Revolution.

Statistics from the third national heritage census, released at the end of last year, showed that 969 of the 3,840 newly discovered immoveable heritage sites in Beijing had been lost because of development or disrepair. Nationwide, 44,000 of 536,001 newly discovered sites were gone forever.

Liang's former home, in the capital's Dongcheng district, was marked for demolition in September 2007 to make way for commercial development. It and many surrounding courtyard homes were targeted after the land was sold to developers in 2003. However, public outrage forced developers to suspend demolition in July 2009.

It was eventually flattened in October by Fuheng Real Estate, a subsidiary of state-owned China Resources Enterprise. But Fang Zhenning, a Beijing architect, said conservationists did not discover the demolition until late last month.

After news of the demolition broke, mainland media outlets denounced the destruction as wanton disregard of the country's culture and lamented the lack of legal protection for cultural relics.

Dongcheng district authorities said on January 28 that the building was torn down because of safety concerns and would be rebuilt.

But Wang Yuan, an official with the district's Culture Commission, told The Beijing News last week that the demolition was unlawful because the developers had not sought approval from the city's cultural heritage authorities. Fuheng Real Estate has refused to comment.

Some pro-development officials said Liang's former residence had not been recognised as a heritage site. But that defence has more to do with bureaucratic foot-dragging and adds to questions about the government's sincerity when it comes to preserving the ancient capital.

He, of the heritage protection centre, said his group and several conservationists had lodged applications for heritage status for the site in accordance with the law since October 2009. However, municipal and district cultural authorities had not given any ruling on the applications or explained the reason for the delay.

He said Liang's former home had been widely referred to in government documents as immovable heritage, one step short of full heritage status. After public outrage over the previous demolition attempt, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage had advised its municipal counterpart to apply for heritage status for the site.

'There is no dispute that such demolition was unlawful, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice,' he said.

Hua Xinmin, a conservation activist in Beijing, said the demolition violated the spirit of the capital's blueprint for city planning, which stretches into 2020.

The blueprint, approved by the State Council in 2005, stipulated that courtyard homes in hutong areas should be protected in their entirety.

Hua said the latest spate of demolitions in hutong areas was not limited to the estates of famous people and was part of the ongoing destruction of ancient architecture in Beijing. Such demolitions could be traced back to the Cultural Revolution, she said, when the owners of courtyard houses were forced to hand over their land and estate certificates, and government housing agencies were given the task of managing the properties.

Most of the courtyard homes were recklessly leased to tenants and then sub-tenants who did not care about maintaining such architectural treasures, she said.

Tenants were even allowed to register their ownership of new homes built inside courtyards. The practice damaged original settings and led to overlapping ownerships that made properties susceptible to encroachment by developers.

A three-storey building was built within Liang's former residence in the 1980s, authorised by the city housing authorities. It was also demolished, and who owned it remains a mystery.

Hua calls the demolition of Liang's former home illegal. She also said the sale of the land to developers is unlawful because the government had never sought to buy the land from its private owners.

'A gross disregard of private ownership of the courtyard homes ... is the root cause for the continuing destruction we're seeing today,' Hua said. 'If governments want to preserve the ancient architecture, they have to address the ownership issue first.'

Original layout

Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, two of the most famous Chinese architects of the 20th century, spent seven years at 24 Beizongbu Hutong. Until 20 years ago, the building was a perfectly preserved example of a traditional siheyuan courtyard house.

Rooms facing the rear
Reserved for guests or as study rooms

Main building
On an elevated foundation, such buildings usually have three to five rooms. Used as bedrooms, a studio and a living room by Liang Sicheng and his wife

Wall facing entrance
Decorated with artwork symbolising happiness and prosperity

Side wing
Usually contains three rooms

Chuihua Gate
Divides the front yard from the inner part of the house and is the only way in

Wall facing entrance
Decorated with artwork symbolising happiness and prosperity

Before demolition

The last ruins of the northern building were demolished around Lunar New Yea
Last buildings demolished around Lunar New Year

The main building was demolished in the second half of last year

Western rooms demolished in June
Gate tower torndown in June

A three-storey building built inside the courtyard
Rooms on east side torn down

Sources: Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, Phoenix media, jwb.com.cn