10 September 2016

Sichuan Summer Tour

There is another woodshop in Chengdu that is expanding its operation to a more centrally located space. I travelled there for an interview recently. At least according to my wife, from Nanjing it is better to fly into Chongqing and then proceed into Chengdu by railway. Coincidentally it was her goal to also taste authentic Chongqing hotpot. She explained that whenever she tried this style of hotpot in Nanjing with a colleague, she didn't enjoy it.

From what I can gather Chongqing hotpot is distinguished by copious amounts of red chilies and huajiao. The broth is further fortified with an inordinate amount of tallow that is, by many accounts, recycled after use. I didn't eat much of it and my wife learned that Chongqing hotpot is equally intolerable regardless of the city that it is served in.

transportation artery: cars and barges
Chongqing exhibits much of the excesses of development that have homogenized the majority of Chinese cities over the last 30 years. If it weren't for its steep sloped and twisting streetscapes, it would resemble any other repaved urban zone with towering apartment buildings and luxury departments stores hyping the same brands accompanied by the same pulsing soundtrack and frigid blasts through the  doors left ajar to lure in sweatweary pedestrians.
Brightly colored bridge against a drab cityscape
I did find that it was pleasant enough to walk along the riverfront, only having my nostrils assaulted twice by unprocessed effluent that is channeled directly into the river. The many joggers and strollers along the paths also must enjoy these relatively flat and cool stretches.  The one time that we were directed to an as yet unredeveloped slope of the old city, we decided that it was far too late in the evening to pass through safely, and too dark to see much at all.
Some of the hidden infrastructure of Chongqing's past
One distinguishing feature of Chongqing is that its subway system is a monorail that passes through the city on piers more often than underground. We used it upon leaving the Joseph Stilwell Museum since it was rather difficult to find, the taxi driver dropping us off first at the Song Qingling residence. The Stillwell residence was as good as it gets with most Chinese museums. There was a major rebuilding for a few diplomatic visits but it has fallen back into neglect and lack of attention since then. I was eager to move on to Chengdu after two days in Chongqing.

This image and his wikipedia page can teach more about Stilwell than the eponymous museum
The contrasting weather in Chengdu quickly lifted my spirits, atypically blue skies spanned the horizon. On our first night in the city, we found a Belgian ale bar in a converted apartment. Despite being fairly recently opened, the management had dropped about half the offerings on the sturdily bound menu. Negotiating back and forth with the unfazed waitress, we, nevertheless, both eventually found something to savor while looking over the city lights below us. The next day was scheduled for touring the new woodshop and meeting with the proprietor of the expanding enterprise. The newer woodshop is located on the groundfloor of a midrise as part of a economic initiative zone. I know that many IT nerds like to do woodworking, but I wasn't yet prepared to be working so close to them. I was also introduced to the manager of an incubator project that provides support for startups and research teams of established businesses. Consequently, there is a Starbucks around the corner.

And that's where the high-tech visions and my handcraft teaching skills encounter their first rub because the woodshop's description began to transmute into more of a makerspace and moreso something even more abstractly defined. The youthful entrepreneur had studied architecture at the University of Wyoming, I think, and was deeply impressed with his experiences there and the handskill level of his fellow classmates, already well established at the beginning of the program.  From his direct experiences, he understands the broad potential of a well managed and stocked woodshop, which is more than can be said for other woodshop startups in China. But in his present setup he had also had some positive experiences with team building, which he wanted to continue in the newer location. He also spoke about creating a space for prototyping which would require, at a minimum, lots of programmable CNC (4 axis?) and 3D printers, and whatever else might attract members with its novelty. The floorspace started to feel smaller, the more he spoke about future plans for the woodshop.

I had seen some photos of the original workshop from wechat and so I asked to be given a tour. After we left the main city, the car weaved its way through a winding maze of an industrial zone that was slowly being relocated, too. I gradually understood how its location hampered efforts to develop it as a school. Even local taxi drivers find it difficult to deliver students to the woodshop.

The original location has a high ceiling to dissipate the heat and provided enough space for a second floor loft that was closed in for quiet needs. Woodworking is a lifestyle movement in the PRC. This was made evident by the open hearth (!) and the wet bar at the main entrance. The lifestyle facility now needs to get closer to where the lifestylers work and work/live out the rest of their lifestyles. The more centrally located woodshop won't be opened until October of 2016.
Traditional ornamented bridge (rebuilt in steel and reinforced concrete)
Dujiangyan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of China's great hydraulic wonders. I've wanted to tour it ever since hearing about it although I was prepared to be disappointed. The results of having visited are mixed. As with all cultural relics in China, it's essential to understand as much as possible before arriving because there are very few explanations at the actual site. Dujiangyan is not as obtuse as that but there is not much of the original structure and only a brief demonstration of how the original system functioned until the 20th century when it was all rebuilt in concrete and powered sluice gates.

Modern sluice gates on the (岷江;  Mínjiāng)
There were replicas of the macha and zhulong, but only a very attentive observer might comprehend that this method required human labor to place and remove the barriers according to seasonal and meteorological waterflows. There is a brief panel that describes the use of fire and cold water to break through the rock harder than the bronze mining tools of the day could manage. I immediately thought of Livy's account of Hannibal's passage through the Alps. Even with this knowledge, it remains unclear where this process was put to use.

Despite my routine complaints, I wholeheartedly recommend Dujiangyan for anybody in China to pay a visit. It's enough out of the way that it's a destination world heritage site. For anybody who needs a break from Shanghai or Beijing, it's a refreshing getaway. The gardens associated with Dujiangyan ably complement the water features.
Garden Framing Feature

Topiary and Bonsai
The gardens are both built for pleasure and with a botanical program. The other botanical gardens I have toured in China have never lived up to the name. These gardens had species trees with QR codes affixed to the trunks, allowing smartphone users to get a link with information about the trees. The only problem that I saw with this is that for a few trees, the QR codes were set back so far from the path edging that a studious visitor needed to trample the planting beds to get within an arm's length of the posted QR codes.

Rustic gazebo
Joinery and Toenailing

The gardens have many well executed design elements as well as several examples of timberframe structures that are noteworthy. There was a rustic gazebo that at least had some mortise and tenon work in its braces. I didn't get a chance to observe the joinery upclose so I cannot say whether the braces are primarily functional or decorative.
Timberframed gate
There was an interesting example of a roofed garden wall gate. I passed under a similarly constructed colonnade. It was showing signs of water damage that might be due to improper installation or lack of maintenance.
Precarious tiles under colonnade roof
One difficulty that I have when looking over Chinese timerframing is not knowing what best practices are or even whether they ever have existed. Aside from the fieldwork and analyses done by Liang Sicheng, I don't know of any contemporary publications or ongoing research on the topic. Schools of architecture have their obligatory models of dougong roof brackets but the students can make little more than the models.
Meretricious Dougong
With the renaissance in timberframing in the USA, there have been a revitalization in certification for timberframing professionals and an inclusion in building codes. By contrast, on the mainland, qualifications for the building trades are generally unknown and building codes are only haphazardly enforced. If there are competent timberframers on the mainland, they are few in number and dying out.
Pendants and lanterns
I noticed one element in the buildings that I saw repeated that merits examination. I've not been able to find a definitive name in western or Chinese sources. I refer to it here as a pendant or eave pendant since it (ostensibly) supports the lowest purlin. I was able to photograph a closeup example of one on some commercial construction outside the gardens, which attempted to imitate the traditional wooden buildings and alleyways that, as a rule, have been razed.
Eave pendant closeup
Looking at this example above, I don't see much advantage to this element other than offering a decorative feature. There is very little grain at the top of mortise to support the weight onto the projecting beam. Its strength is further compromised by cutting out a cradle to receive the round bottom of the purlin, which is shimmed, reducing the surface contact. The pendant appears to only be held in position with nails. The wide fascia is also only held in place, in this example, with nails driven into the end grain of the rafters laid broadly to make channels to receive the unglazed barrel tiles. If there is a structural value to this element, this example, and indeed, this application undermines its utility. It is also used in other buildings. There are other examples of pendants used for decorative purposes.

Painted pendant elements
It's hard to see, however, whether they are necessary as structural components. It is also a feature with dragon beams where the joinery is decidedly more complex. In this example, it is easy to see how little the pendant does to connect the purlin to the beams. It rests almost directly atop it. The painted brackets are merely decorative as they are attached here with nails.
Octagonal Purlins intersecting pendant

Dragon rafter resting in pendant

Pegged pendant
Other examples show the same element integrated in different ways.
Examples with secondary beams.

In these two examples, separate beams are mortised into posts that are inserted into a low mortise on the pendant.I cannot see what this beam and lengthened pendant add to the overall structure. The mortise weakens the corner post with no apparent benefit and the through tenon is vulnerable to water infiltration being so close to the drip line. A 45* brace would certainly be better applied here. There is even this example showing a crippled beam carrying a pendant.
Questionably crippled beam
I cannot say whether this is considered a valid manner of dealing with short beams or a workman's attempt to cover up his mistake. As much as there seems to be no clear model of best practices for the timberframing, roofing tiles are also applied in an inconsistent manner. These tiles below might be recycled, which I have seen done elsewhere but mostly for repairing roofs, or a moss mixture might have been applied to create an instant aged look. While touring this commercial area, construction was ongoing and expanding.

Rusticated tiles and rusting nails
The main problems happen at the eaves, leading to the fascia rotting prematurely due to persistent dampness from precipitation. Again, it's hard to judge what best practices are but I think, at a minimum, dipped galvanized nails are in order.
Evidently misapplied roof tiles
I have never seen a metal drip edge applied on the mainland if it is known of. Since these are relatively new structures, it's likely that the workmen are making up the rules as they teach themselves.
Seemingly better applied roof tiles
Surprisingly, this length of roof tiles are on the same building, showing none of the water damage as further above.
The above example is also from the same building. Arboricidephobia is evidently not only a problem at historic sites in the USA. I wasn't able to photograph higher view due to glare, and this same tree's branches were also damaging the eaves of higher levels.
Despite the above negative examples, I am optimistic about the trend in Chinese timberframing. Unfortunately, this movement will probably be spurred to react decisively only when the losses are irretrievable and the intrinsic value of this craft are recognized outside of the mainland. I've seen a few examples of timberframe restoration, notably in Shanghai and Hangzhou. The main obstacles are the same as for the improving the skills in other building trades: low wages, and low respect for manual labor; and a paucity of information in Chinese (for those who can read). I did see some specific examples that offer some hope for the craft.
Finger scarf
The workman who created this scarf joint could have saved time by simply crippling this fascia board, but instead he spent more time laying out and joinling it. Only a diligent observer can appreciate the effort from the street level.
Recycled handicraft
This porch post is clearly recycled from a demolished timberframe application. While I disagree with its particular placement, its reuse shows a respect for the craftsmen who originally fashioned it.
Clever upgrade or hack job?
This last photo can shows something creative but it's not clear whether it's positive or less so.


14 June 2016

Praise the designers; pity the books

One might have thought that long ago the basic requirements as to what constitutes a bookshelf were adequately established. Evidently this is not at all the case. Eminently capable, selfcongratulatory designers are breaking new ground, boldly striking out to challenge that assumptions of book buyers, book readers, booksellers, stock clerks, and books. They are uncompromising in their visions. 
Golden triangles

Only books can fail a bookshelf's design

Visionaries, every one.
Form fails function...

18 May 2016

Some time spent discovering the middle of somewhere in the middle of nowhere

I was recently invited to LiuBaXian to visit with a gang of wheelerdealers about their plans to develop a poorly defined notion of a woodshop that would focus on educating local youth and drawing tourists to a very difficult to reach region of China and, youknow, other stuff that might get tacked on later at some time without warning nor clear explanation.
Mr Wei gives a tour of the woodshop construction site
The project is under consideration now in anticipation of a highspeed railway link, China's progressively expanding GaoTie, to the city of Hanzhong. Hanzhong is a reasonable 1 hour drive from site where the woodshop will be built. By contrast and to exemplify the distance of this region, the most expedient way to travel there now is by flying into Xi'an airport and trekking through the Qinling mountain range for five hours of twisting and winding narrow roads and perilous road construction zones. Much of this route follows the course of the Bao River.
This river also defines much of the path of the enormous paired piers that will support the railway lines above the valleys and through the mountains in an astounding number of tunnels. The degree of Hanzhong's isolation can be seen in this map of the proposed lines, situated at the hub of three spokes connecting is to the cities of Xi'an, Guangyuan, and Bazhong. In contrast to the well spaced cities along the other GaoTie routes, Hanzhong requires so much more poured concrete to connect it to its nearest neighbors. And as far away as Hanzhong is from other cities, this new woodshop is yet another hour away from that remoteness.
reinforced embankments

The elevated railway, tunnel, and temporary castellated guardrail

Turbulence and concrete facility

Circuitous and wending

Prefabricated concrete beds

Temporary railing overlooking valley

Confluence of railways and roadway, stop for a smokebreak

I watched only a few years ago these same design of concrete towers and lintels lay shadows across the Nanjing landscape under the route that now connects Shanghai and Beijing. They seem appropriate in an already densely inhabited urban landscape that was already getting reshaped with new multilane roads and subway lines. There is something jarring about seeing so much concrete repeatedly poured in such a wilderness area with so few people seemingly to benefit from its construction that stood out in my mind.
I was the only one of my peer group who bought a copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue and spent much of the idle time of my youth getting inspiration from its pages. To the best of my recollection, there was where I learned about nightsoil, perhaps from a review of Farmers of 40 centuries. There was a blurb that mentioned farmers who built roadside latrines to be availed by passersby in order to collect the valuable soil amendments. On this trip I finally witnessed one of these permacultural wonders. The only indication as to its function are the characters indicating that one side is for men and the other, for women.
Roadside service station
The landscape is ruggedly hilly with more trees than one sees in the rest of China and yet none of these trees appear to be very old. Even the hard to reach trees on the peaks seem to have only been recently restricted from indiscriminate harvesting as I witnessed in TianTaiShan. I learned later when asking about some very short sections of oak in a lumberyard that there were vaguely defined enforcement efforts and that I was looking at some confiscated samples that had been taken from a man fleeing on a motorcycle with the logs.
The purpose of this event, from the Chinese perspective, was to woo me into trusting the intentions of the organizers [sic] as they plied me with copious amounts of alcohol, toured me through their previous venture, and made lots of spoken promises. I am familiar with the methods. I wondered about the environmental damages resulting from so much increased silt due to mountain removal and distirbances to the riverbed so I asked whether there were still any giant salamanders in the region. They asked me, in turn, whether I wanted to eat one for dinner.
We were given a tour of a rather small village than the one in which we were put up for the night. Getting there required a white knuckle excursion up twisting mountain roads with scant enough space for two vehicles to pass each other. The previously completed project there appeared to be a kind of summer camp resort for schoolchildren although in their absence it was hard to understand with any precision. It seems that the success of this project is what motivates Mr. Xie, the most loquacious of the gang, to siphon off more from the governmental coffers to build the woodshop facilities.
I was indifferent to the barracks for student groups and the fairly new playground equipment that already appeared to need replacing. There was on display a large amount of recent heavy construction, especially along the riversides.
Rive Gauche

Rive Droite

I was however more interested in the remaining examples of rammed earth dwellings. I had seen what appeared to be examples of this building style along the journey. Upclose I could authenticate.
an agricultural building(?)

A residence in what might be the original downtown

With applied mortar shield at the foundation

I worry for their survival, however, as can be seen with this sign painted on one that still seemed to be in a sound state.
Awaiting its demise

This character, chai2, is one that one learns to spot early since it signifies that a building has been slated for demolition. According to my wife, this character, 拆, is miswritten, lacking a necessary stroke. I tried asking about the village: the age of these buildings, the occupations of its inhabitants, and its intended future. I didn't get any answers but that's not unusual.
I observed many examples of timberframed structures during this visit. The modern examples belie the loss of a practical skillset to produce these structures. The tradesmen are learning as they attempt to recreate their ancestor's technology. It's essential that they find steady employment in this field, which is the only way to preserve even a semblance of this vernacular architecture. Concrete construction has displaced nearly all other methods. In this case, even if anybody still exists who knows how to build and maintain rammed earth buildings, as long as nobody is willing to hire such workers, the buildings will be subsumed by nature or more expediently through demolition by directives.
Back in the main village, we were housed in a new hostel fronted by a bookshop owned by Mr Wei and managed by a sister on Lao Jie, or old street. This name usually means that this part of a city has been designated for tourism and to be subjected to minimal, by Chinese standards, changes to the original structures. At times, this can be complete razing and rebuilding according to modern methods merely to appear in an old style, which can be little remembered since so few authentic examples have survived and are seldom studied by other than amateurs.
Propane aged pine

Pastel portrait of the owner
Mr. Wei stood out among these gang members as both a competent businessman and concerned local activist. As the story was told to me, he was invited to open a branch of his bookshop chain which he had developed in Xi'an. I didn't see a lot of customers but there were a few small groups there to chat over a coffee and a few mothers brought in their sons to choose an early reader from a large selection in a children's section. The titles here struck me as more progressive and illuminating than what is typically found in China.
I confirmed my hunch about Mr. Wei when he pointed out to me an inscription on the front wall of the restored building, indicating the date and the authority by which the communist party had confiscated the house from its owners. 
"By order of the CPC..."

This can be read as a poke in the eye of the local party apparatchiks who helped fund this venture or an acknowledgement of the building's colorful history. And it can be both, which goes far to explain how such remnants are allowed to remain on display.

Maintained/ neglected urban fabric
Lao Jie does exhibit some good examples of urban architecture from days past. At least, the fronts of the buildings, newly built and older, maintain a unified facade. There is newly fabricated main gate that acts as an entryway into this walk of nostalgia that, perhaps ironically, diverts the eye from what is undoubtedly the last remnants of a city wall.
The new entryway to the old street

The citywall foundations

The view from the top floor of the newly built hostel behind the bookshop. The restoration and repurposing of the confiscated residence exhibited some attempts at sensitivity to traditional construction methods, (there is a section of the original interior wall that has been preserved behind a glass partition) but in many ways, the buildings weaknesses are even ore on display. The locally made windows failed to close tightly enough to keep out a species of stinkbug.
View from the 3rd floor of the hostel
Preservation efforts
I didn't take photos of all the rookie timberframing mistakes but I did want to highlight one problem that I saw in hopes that they don't build the same problems into additional construction.
The eaves of the buildings have no gutters and neither do they have any dripedges.
Miscut mortise on post top

Poorly protected fascia boards

This thin strip of metal delays much of the problems associated with rotting fascias. I don't think the local tradesmen have ever heard of it. It can very difficult to explain better ways of doing anything in China to workers who often insist that they have 5000 years of history to tell them how to do things. This is just one of the 5000 obstacles in my way.