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.