by Vladimir BelogolovskyDec 04, 2021
In the 1930s, architectural historian Liang Sicheng (1901-1972) and his wife Phyllis Lin (1904-1955) scoured China for traces of timber architecture built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Hailing from prominent families in a time of war and instability, the couple studied together at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become influential figures in modern China.
The wooden buildings they sought are all located in Shanxi province in central China. Of the four, the Temple of King Guangren, also known as the Five Dragons Temple, was the second oldest. Having sat on a muddy high ground for centuries, it was recently the subject of an upgrade by Vanke, China’s largest developer by market value. Wang Hui, a founding partner of URBANUS, an architecture practice based in Shenzhen and Beijing, was in charge of the design.
I visited the temple in June, when a taxi took me to a rather anonymous village. The Daoist temple was devoted to worship the Dragon Kings - deities who presided over weather (which in an agrarian context means life and death). The site appears to rest on clay sediment where a sliced cliff gives the impression of geological history. In it were several vernacular cave shelters known as yaodong, a common housing typology from China’s Loess Plateau, now preserved as part of the local heritage. One has to go up the mound via a flight of stairs where the new entrance is situated. With walls going above eye-level, it was an isolated, upward passage whose solemnity is enforced by how heavy everything appears. Turning into the compound, stretches of wall – rendered with a finish that mimics the region’s soil - began defining the whole space.
Rather than relying only on printed materials to introduce the history of the place, as do most culturally significant sites in China, diagrams are etched into the walls. These chronicle the construction of China’s oldest timber structures, dating back 1,200 years, when this particular building was raised. A section of traditional timber structure was literally engraved onto the floor, a text that is hard to ignore.
It is worth mentioning that the said pictorials were taken from the works of Liang Sicheng, who founded the architecture school at Tsinghua University in Beijing: the alma mater of the project’s architect Wang Hui. The institution has since been the most notable archive and guardian of China’s architectural legacy.
With a sharp turn along the labyrinthine walkway, I stepped onto the central axis. Earth-coloured walls flank my view towards the horizon, where the temple sits upon the raised foundation like an object of veneration, its roof ridge above everything within sight. Crossing a shallow pool of fine pebbles, I came to a perfectly demarcated plaza. Despite its diminutive proportions, the temple’s presence is enlarged by closeness and height. Its bracketed roof structure (known as dougong) is simple but solidly assembled. Its interior is austere, where only clay statues stand in a row.
The hall faces a sheltered stage constructed during the Qing dynasty. It is not difficult to imagine the intimate dialogue between the structures when they were surrounded by only weeds and debris. The cleaning-up that began in 2013 had everything on site leveled, and a series of ramps and stairs was added around the main structures. Like the way up from the village plaza, circulation around the temple square is also defined by walls – brick and adobe-like ones, stretching infinitely around a nexus. Steps led to a terrace looking out to a pristine landscape, where a display explains the archeological significance of the region (in particular the unearthed ruins and bronze relics belonging to the city of Wei, which existed as early as 11th century BC).
There is a courtyard around the corner, featuring several large models of Chinese brackets (mostly cast-concrete, save the largest, steel-wrought one that has not aged well). It is clear that the architect and masterminds behind the renovation intended to use landscape as a text, to educate visitors not only about the temple but the architectural tradition it hails from. The didactic aspect suggests greater significance of the whole venture – a rare collaboration between state conservation agencies, academia and private capital. In fact, there have been reservations and criticism about how refurbishment was carried out. Some prefer a more traditional methodology focusing on preserving the original building itself, without any ambitious work done around it.
As a matter of fact, expanding the temple’s footprint as a public space beyond traditional (and unfortunately, obsolete) ceremonial function was part of the project’s aim. The architecture firm Wang founded with partners Meng Yan and Liu Xiaodu has always emphasised the relationship between architecture and its context. Here a rural community was envisioned to utilise the temple ground as a place for congregation. Echoing the prominence of the old stage, stone benches were placed around the site. In one semi-enclosed space, a tiered auditorium is shaded by elegant ginkgo trees.
Materiality did not manifest only as textured walls - beautifully laden and geometrically assembled as they were - but also as floor paving. As one treads along the passages, shoes against grated tiles or smooth stone, silence is lent a texture. Each paved surface is used to define the change of a space’s program or its atmosphere.
Tiny white pebbles were scattered like soil to surround the square where the main structures sit and from where flowers sprout as if by natural occurrence. The genus ‘cosmos’ - a flower endemic to the Americas and popular in landscape design – was chosen, though not for the grand order its name insinuates. Trees are located strategically along the walls, each acquiring the stature of a small monument. I watched as the searing sun began to dip. Light refracted off vertical surfaces, throwing shadows of leaves. The temple ground felt like a ruin, so immaculate and without a stir that each object, whether a bench or a trash bin, attained a strange presence.
Encircling the stage, I came to a platform which overlooks the village. A group of visitors was approaching with a local guide - presumably official guests since there were hardly any other tourists. They came up to the entrance where the guide began her commentary while gesturing towards the etched diagrams on the floor. One after another, they touched the walls, visibly impressed by its heft and finesse.
I recalled at that moment reading an interview with architect Wang Hui, where he described the temple before renovation as unable to receive visitors due to its lack of scale and information, thus summarizing the intention behind a comprehensive re-structuring and thoughtful expansion of the original site and its purpose. Through winding walkways, sensorial spaces and embedded knowledge, the design slows down an otherwise direct journey (which was indeed lambasted by critics as distraction, and therefore a purported pilgrimage is turned into a tour). But the intention to justify and contextualize the project is felt in every corner – despite the humility of architecture as a substrate, veil, and canvas, to the treasure in plain sight, let alone the greater cultural tradition, the missing elephant in the room. History that has been drained from the country’s path to modernity now yearns to take form.
My taxi pulled over at the foot of the temple. Reeds, green and swaying on a summer’s evening, were transplanted from nearby rivers to the village square. They were grown on top of what used to be the ‘Five Dragons Spring,’ a once-vital source of water which dissipated over time. Nothing from a short visit reveals if some form of new life has been brought to the community or how much villagers enjoy spaces designed in their name. No one-liner generalisation can be drawn about the project that sets out with multiple, sometimes competing objectives, let alone the sensitivity involving a national treasure. But true to the architect’s intent, hours passed without notice as I took my time on a thoroughly pleasant walk. A dignified quiet remains undisturbed like nothing changed at all.