Surveying is the link between what is socially valuable and what is materially possible. These survey documents are my study of a farmhouse in Zhejiang’s Wencun Village, which is also the site of Wang Shu’s most recent village renovation. In this case the roof was deemed structurally beyond repair, but the sequence of courtyards that it served in a small block became integral to the design phase. Even if the roof is removed as a structure, its construction techniques and spatial characteristics can be retained in the renovation.
Women at work in Evora, Portugal. In the background, Alvaro Siza’s social housing project was under construction in 1978.
Siza’s building project for low-income housing residents who could no longer afford the city center has clear social and practical considerations. This image of the building under construction, with local women at work in the foreground, is a part of that social project. Rather than see them (building or resident) as complete subjects, we see only the details of their relationship. In 1979, Siza wrote,
Most of my works were never published; some of the things I did were only carried out in part, others were profoundly changed or destroyed. That’s only to be expected. An architectonic proposition whose aim is to go deep . . . a proposition that in- tends to be more than a passive materialization, refuses to reduce that same reality, analyzing each of its aspects, one by one; that proposition can’t find support in a fixed image, can’t follow a linear evolution. . . . Each design must catch, with the utmost rigor, a precise moment of the flittering image, in all its shades, and the better you can recognize that flittering quality of reality, the clearer your design will be. . . .That may be the reason why only marginal works (a quiet dwell- ing, a holiday house miles away) have been kept as they were originally designed. But something re- mains. Pieces are kept here and there, inside ourselves, perhaps fathered by someone, leaving marks on space and people, melting into a process of total transformation.
This image and project have both been powerful for me for a long time. It seems fitting to share it now given the current political situation.
Construction escalated quickly after the 2016 Chinese New Year, when millions of residents returned to Hangzhou after the annual visit to their ancestral villages. It was March, six months before Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit and its attendant fleets of polished black cars. In the downtown West Lake area, mazes of street-level scaffolding, looming dust-clouds, and provisional traffic barriers were the first signs of a strategy for city-wide intervention.
Teams of workers crashed through the city’s streets, hammering into Buddhist temples and hair salons alike. Within days, a road was repaved into a slick black surface without blemish or measure. Within a week, housing blocks had shed their scaffolding and debris nets to reveal reframed wooden windows, restored stone cladding, and uniform boxes concealing air conditioning units. Straddling a temple roof three stories up, workers let slip a replacement beam and shattered the stone sidewalk below. Pedestrians take note. Freshly hewn blocks (delivered daily) were hammered into place by teams of greyscale men and women emerging from clouds and mounds of stone dust.
The year-long preparations for the G20 rendered Hangzhou a construction site with 8 million residents. The muted surfaces of traditional grey-brick housing blocks were at once patterned everywhere onto local malls, and the temples had wifi and security checkpoints installed; where old and new buildings differed in activity and scale, fresh paint, cladding and stone pavers furnished the edge and closed the image gap. The irony is crucial: in September, when twenty world leaders and their finance ministers arrived, the year of construction had rendered the entire city and its population a political invisibly of architectural proportions.
The renovation of six hundred fifty-one infrastructure projects in less than a year is not the backdrop for a summit on the stabilization of global economic policy; it is an entry ticket, a form of authorization. The cloud of stone dust is not a visual metaphor for economic power floating into China, but is itself the material evidence of widespread political authority in action: the clumsy process of filling in, smoothing over, and taking away made manifest. Conversely, the image that is still seen by world leaders, TV cameras, and residents alike is that of the mythologized capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, where as much as been removed as has been preserved. In images as in global politics, not everyone is invited.