As you may remember from my last blog, during the month of August I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to China and take part in a charity conservation project. The project consisted of a British team of 8 people, and a Chinese team of 8 people, coming together to assist the conservation of a 100 year old Clinic in a small water town called Tongli. All of the participants were from a Conservation or Architectural background, ranging from student level through to a Project Manager. The result of such a diverse team of volunteers was an incredibly useful asset to the conservation project, and also made for a very beneficial and interesting two weeks for everyone involved, as they learned a lot from each other and their backgrounds.
I set out on the trip as the only member of the National Trust in the team and felt very privileged to be representing such a great organisation. The National Trust is not only important and influential to conservation in the UK, but it is well respected all over the world as I learnt on my trip. The Chinese team and media were very interested in the work I do for the Trust and the conservation methods and techniques that we have. Although the Chinese conservation methods varied greatly from our own, they continued to be very open minded and appreciated the knowledge and experience I was passing on.
The trip involved both the British and the Chinese teams staying in a hotel beside the building site in a small town called Tongli, this town is sometimes described as the Venice of the East and was a very beautiful place full of history. The town itself was a conservation area and while the implications of that varied from what we know as a conservation area, the local government still worked very hard to protect its heritage. One regulation I found very impressive was that no fuel powered vehicles were allowed in the town and battery powered vehicles were used as an alternative. As both the Chinese and British teams were staying in the same hotel we had plenty of time to interact and learn about the great and fascinating differences in our culture and even now a couple of months on from the trip I, and I’m sure most of the British team are still in touch with our friends in China.
My position with the National Trust in Mount Stewart allowed me to be involved in the very early stages of the project and this was invaluable not only in experience to develop my knowledge as a Joiner, but also to let me fully understand the project and the many issues it is facing. Now you can understand that for this reason and many more I was extremely pleased upon our arrival at Tongli to find out that the works side of the project had not been started and we were able to see the building in its derelict neglected state. The people of Tongli and the local government were extremely welcoming and the day we arrived comprised of an opening ceremony in the town square and then a tour of the project site. The next day saw the start of the works and you really got a feeling of excitement and anticipation from everyone involved.
Working on this project and listening to the various people involved, it became clear to me that the way the Chinese conservation organisations see a historic building varied to that of our conservation organisations here in the UK. When they spoke of the work that they wanted to carry out and the vision that they wanted to achieve, it painted a picture of renovation more than conservation. In the UK we like to embrace the age and character of a building and have a philosophy of retention of historic fabric where possible, this was something that I tried my best to put across while in China. At one stage we visited a similar project that had been finished in Tongli and were amazed to see that other than the style and structure, the building looked quite new. Although to us in the UK this method of conservation seems somewhat unthinkable, it is important to try and understand the reasons behind it. I tried my best while over there to figure it out and in the end an explanation that I and the rest of the team agreed with came from a member of the British team. The traditional buildings in China were all very similar in their construction, the general structure and style was one that had been developed over thousands of years and for this reason it worked and there was no need to change it. In the UK we have had many different Architectural periods with different structures, styles and different materials. This means that every historic building is different and with each comes different hurdles. As a result of the similar style and uniform structures in China the Chinese are able to replace material and even whole sections of building with the confidence that they will bring it back to what it was like when first built. This is why I think it could be described as renovation more than conservation.
All in all I had a great time in Tongli and learnt a huge amount not just from the project and the work, but from the people I worked with, people from all different backgrounds and from all over the world coming together to share skills and experience. I am very grateful that I was able to be a part of the world heritage scheme and once again thank the National Trust for the opportunities I continue to be provided with.