Ming dynasty buildings preserved as part of Wuxi shopping mall complex

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 October, 2014, 10:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 October, 2014, 10:26am

Ancient Chinese cities had two things most urban communities could use today: protection (in the form of a deity) and spaces for gatherings. Both occurred in traditional Chenghuang temples, the place for worshipping the city-protecting gods.

As if the gods were looking out for themselves, a cluster of historical buildings known as the Chenghuang Temple Precinct in Wuxi, Jiangsu province has survived throughout the ages, and now stands preserved as part of a new mixed-use development, Centre 66.

Two Ming dynasty theatre stages, a hall and opera house were the only buildings left in the compound following two major renovations during the Qing dynasty (1859 and 1887), and partial demolition of the site in the 1960s. That was enough for Christine Lam and David Clayton, executive directors of Hong Kong-based global architecture and design practice Aedas, to adaptively reuse the historic buildings in a project comprising two modern office towers and Wuxi city's largest shopping mall.

Explaining the historical role Chenghuang temples have played in Chinese culture, Lam says that, apart from a place to worship the city-protecting gods, these sites were later developed into gathering spaces for local communities.

"Allowing locals to enjoy the historical buildings was one of the core objectives in the design of Centre 66," she says.

In keeping with the city's preservation philosophy, Aedas helped conserve the temple precinct and set it at the heart of a large public plaza within the development. As Lam explains, the modern-day building design also took a cue from the traditional elements in Chinese culture.

"The plan of the project was to use 'movements' to derive architectural forms - as expressed in Chinese calligraphy - enabling connections between activities, places, and destinations," Lam says.

While the mall is designed to make the best of its location, with entrances that draw people in from the busiest junctions, the two office towers create a gateway leading to the plaza.

The juxtaposition of the contemporary and the historical will be "a testament to how far the city has come without losing its connection with the past", says Lam. Rather than forcefully blending old and new, Clayton says Aedas created a dialogue between the surviving historical buildings and new urban space.

"The open plaza wrapping around the compound emphasises the buildings' historical resonance, while creating a contrast with their contemporary setting."

Aedas hopes the project can show that a contemporary development can co-exist in harmony with historical buildings.

The development is one of two major projects in China - the other being Guangzhou Commercial Showcase Complex - that have recently earned Aedas two of the highest awards in architecture, at the International Architecture Awards 2014.

Designed by Andrew Bromberg, the complex is part of the larger Nanfung Commercial, Hospitality and Exhibition Complex on Pazhou Island outside Guangzhou.

This is where the dialogue between the two separate sites begins. "Restoration and adaptive reuse allows the urban landscape to develop," Clayton says, adding that it maintains community history and strengthens sense of place and time.

In addition, he says, "it conserves carbon".