Paradigms of Adaptation – Foshan Lingnan Tiandi


This essay aims to interpret Foshan Lingnantiandi, as an adaptive reuse project in China based on the success of Shanghai Xintiandi. Then analyze the impact of the adaptation as well as determine what are the limitations and what can be applied to today’s urban environment.


Started in 2008, with the support of both Foshan and Shancheng District government, Foshan Lingnan Tiandi is a mixed-use redevelopment project features in shopping center, cultural facilities, entertainment, hospitality, office and residential. The developer, Shui On Land, together with the designer Ben Wood and urban planning consulting SOM, this project aims to build a quality city core integrated development. In this project, 22 heritage buildings and 2 national heritage areas are supposed to be preserved and 9000 families need to be relocated. The gross floor area of this project is around 2 million square meters.

1. The Site

The developer, Shui On Land, seeks to revitalize a downtown area that had become industrialized by developing a variety of temporary facilities for commercial, residential, office and entertainment. To start with, site selection was crucial to the project planning process.

1.1 why Foshan? Foshan is located in central part of Guangdong Province with population of more than 7 million. It has the third largest economy among Peal River Delta cities. In terms of traffic network, as shown in figure 1, Foshan is well- connected to cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. As the cradle of Lingnan culture, hometown of Cantonese Opera, traditional medicine,

pottery art and martial arts, Foshan is a popular touristic destination and attracts the tourists home and abroad.

Because of the lack of urban planning, the image of Foshan is dominated by urban sprawl and industry. Also, the decaying old city core, which lacks high- end services, is in urgent need of upgrade. Furthermore, the vernacular culture is overshadowed by modern life.

According to Shui On Land, there is need for a high-performance city center to enhance Foshan’s thriving economy. Besides, Lingnan cultures need to be revitalized to enhance the overall city quality and social sustainability.

Figure 1 & Figure 2

1.2 why Donghua Lane?

Shui On Land chose Donghua Lane, which situates in the center of the old Foshan city and 2okm from Guangzhou CBD (Figure 2), as the site, encompassing a mixture of buildings with traditional residences and historical values. Donghua Lane, used to be residence for the wealthy, is the most complete ancient street and best preserved neighborhoods of the Qing Dynasty in Pearl River Delta.

With the development of Foshan, Donghua Lane is threatened by high-rising buildings. The challenge for Shui On Land is that, because of the poor conditions of the existing buildings and amenities, they need to re-construct and adapt those buildings to meet the current requirements.

Also, as a national heritage area, Donghua Lane is treated as the rare study object of Lingnan-style architecture and lifestyle. In total, there are 22 heritage buildings on site need to be preserved, such as Zumiao, Jian’s Villa, a Confucius Temple and the Marriage House.

2.  Lingnan Architecture

The architecture in Donghua Lane area is typical Lingnan style. Different from architectural styles in other parts of China, influenced by its geographical factors, Lingnan architecture is characterized larger porches and archways, as well as special roof structure (Figure 3) to let air move through. (Christina Linortner, 2012) The pot-ear style fire-prevent gable (Figure 4) can help to decrease the impact if the neighbors were on fire. As responses to the hot and humid weather condition, materials that are resistant to molds and moisture were widely used in Lingnan Architecture. In terms structure, the most common one is three-room width with two corridors and may also have open structures like balconies and verandas. And aesthetically, Lingnan architecture is more likely to adopt pale colors like white and green and incorporate elements like carvings and sculptures.

why Donghua Lane?

Shui On Land chose Donghua Lane, which situates in the center of the old Foshan city and 2okm from Guangzhou CBD (Figure 2), as the site, encompassing a mixture of buildings with traditional residences and historical values. Donghua Lane, used to be residence for the wealthy, is the most complete ancient street and best preserved neighborhoods of the Qing Dynasty in Pearl River Delta.

With the development of Foshan, Donghua Lane is threatened by high-rising buildings. The challenge for Shui On Land is that, because of the poor conditions of the existing buildings and amenities, they need to re-construct and adapt those buildings to meet the current requirements.

Figure 3 Figure 4

3. Development Process

3.1 What have been preserved and restored?

3.1.1 Heritage Buildings

There are 22 historical buildings on site that have been fully preserved. There are basically two reasons for this preservation. One is for the cultural values behind those buildings. Take Zumiao as an example, it is a Daoist temple that was built during the Song Dynasty. Now, it has been converted to a museum and exhibition center for people to appreciate martial arts and worship the ancestors. It is the one of the main cultural relics and most popular tourist attractions in Foshan. Another example can be the Marriage House (Figure 5). Marriage ceremonies and celebrations as an important custom in Lingnan, according to the designer Ben Wood (2009), he wants to keep this custom and make it a wedding destination for couples in Foshan.

The other reason for its full preservation could be the physical condition of the building. It can be well exemplified by Jian’s mansion (Figure 6). Built in 1897 by a famous business man Jian Zhao, it is the largest existing western style architecture in Foshan. Though it mainly mimics architecture during the Renaissance period and the material is mainly concrete. It also delicately incorporate traditional Lingnan-style element such as the carvings of the window frame. It well expresses the owner’s recognition of western cultures and attempt to combine it with traditional Chinese culture.

Figure 5 Figure 6

3.1.2 Traditional architectural elements

Except from the 22 heritage buildings, more than 60 courtyard houses and

128 traditional buildings of the whole Donghua Lane area were partly preserved in terms of structure and reinforced to keep the characters of Lingnan architecture. As shown in Figure 7, the most obvious part that has not been changed but restored is the pot-ear style roof, which can be the symbol of Lingnan-style architecture. Together with the ornaments, carvings and sculptures, the roof has been restored by using the same construction method to keep the character of this great architectural style and well express the cultural identity of Foshan.

The cold alley, as another symbol of Lingnan architecture, has also been kept. There are basically two types of cold alley, the preservation of outdoor cold alley (Figure 8) can help to achieve good ventilation and keep the cool air as a respond to the subtropical hot weather. Another type is indoor cold alley (Figure 9), it can block the sunshine since it is being shadowed by the tall buildings, which can also cool down the temperature. Additionally, some of alleys are so narrow with the width of around 1 meter. This kind of scale makes it possible to run small business like arts crafts and bars for people to enjoy the tranquil environment.

Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9

3.3.3 Landscape

Not only old buildings have been preserved, but also most of old trees that are native to the region have been kept. Based on Shui On Land’s idea, Lingnan Tian aims be covered with as much green as possible to absorb gas emissions and to decrease noise level as well as heat radiation. Another important reason for the preservation is to keep the layout of Lingnan Garden, which is another important branch of Lingnan architecture. Since Lingnan Garden mainly utilize courtyard layout (Figure 10), surrounding the plants with buildings to protect them from storms and rain, the preservation of trees could help to mark courtyard space and return to the original condition.

Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12

3.1.4 Old Material

For creating an atmosphere of “culture, taste and history”, old materials from old demolished buildings have been utilized in construction of new buildings to obtain a unique aesthetic feeling and make the entropy of old material send out historical vicissitudes of life. (Yifeng Wen, 2015) To be more specific, the materials like grey bricks have been utilized to build new partition structures (Figure 11). Flagstone has been used for pavement and even the tiling has been creatively used for ornamentation on walls (Figure 12) and staircase, where people will be able to trace back the memory from the old buildings.

3.2 What have been changed and infilled?

3.2.1 Façade

As the function of most of the old buildings changed, from residential to commercial, it triggers the change in façade. Firstly, glass doors have been introduced to make the space more open to public. Original windows have been changed to glass curtain to introduce more natural light in and in this way, pedestrians will be able to see through each store while the customers could enjoy the street view. Besides, to provide more shade and reduce the use of air conditioning, awnings (Figure 13) have been applied to most of the stores. Especially for the coffee shops, under the shade of awnings, people can also choose to sit outside and enjoy their time. In terms of material, wood was widely used in this project, as shown in the figure 14, the door frame is now made of wood, which looks more elegant and increase more liveness contrast to the original gray color. And modern materials like stainless steel (Figure 15) can also be seen on the door frame as well.

Figure 13 Figure 14 Figure 15

3.2.1 Structure

For those old buildings which had been severely weathered and damaged, in order to reinforce the building, precast concrete roof truss and pillars have been added (Figure 16). As additional layer, it can also help to decrease noise level and avoid termites. Another scenario could be eliminating the columns to create more space for commercial usage. A good example could be Costa Coffee, in order to make the plan more free, the structures have been modified to meet the needs.

Figure 16

3.2.1 Infrastructure and Utilities

As it can be seen from Figure 17, the original amenities are obsolete and ruin the visual quality of the old town. To solve this issue, new utilities and infrastructure have been introduced to increase the quality of living. Fire- prevention system has also been upgraded to tackle the safety issues. Interestingly, in order to enhance the visual quality, equipment like air conditioner machines were hidden behind the brick panel (Figure 18) and even the garbage bin has been clad in the typical brick façade (Figure 19).

Figure 17 Figure 18 Figure 19

3.2.1 New townhouses and apartments Besides restoring the old buildings, new townhouses and apartments have been constructed to bring more residents into this area as the original residents had moved out. Take Foshan Lingnan Tiandi Lot 14 as an example, the new townhouses aim to re-interpret Lingnan Style architecture. As

mentioned by P-t Group, “From understanding and redefining the architectural languages of Lingnan Style, we have created a development that is contemporary whilst respecting the existing buildings in terms of scale and proportion.” Although they are reconstructed residential buildings, the Lingnan architectural elements of alleyways and arcades are well expressed (Figure 20).

Figure 20

3.2.1 Open space and green

As designer of Lingnan Tian, Ben Wood mentioned, “I want to change how people view public spaces and show them that not everything has to be a glass- roofed mall. Instead, we can appreciate the outdoors and nature.” Public open spaces have been introduced to increase the liveness of this area. Additionally, in order to make this area more walkable, as shown in the figure and figure, green corridors and pockets parks have been built (Figure 21).

Figure 21

To summarize, the adaption incorporates the restoration of existing well- preserved structures, removal of obsolete and incompatible structures and the introduce new compatible and modern structure. In this way, the essence of Lingnan architecture and Foshan’s tradition have been conserved and combined with fashionable and modern elements. The overall quality of the city core has been enhanced for consumption.

4. Comparison with Similar Projects

4.1 Shanghai Xintiandi

Compared with Shanghai Xintiandi, for the adaptive reused heritage buildings, there is more variety of buildings, including theater, pottery kilns, and pawn shop. In addition, the pure preservation area is larger than Shanghai. The whole Donghua Lane area, around 10,000 square meters in terms of area, has been preserved. Moreover, compared with Shanghai’s Shikumen, Lingnan-style houses have been better conserved. They are reconstructed of thicker, higher-quality bricks and they feature a high, curved and ornate roof. (Nancy Zhang, 2009)

Ben Wood (2009) thinks that Foshan Lingnan Tiandi is not just a repeat of the success of Shanghai Xintiandi, instead, with more effort paid to integrating local customs and areas of pure preservation, this project is partly a response to criticism of the Shanghai Xintiandi model, which was criticized as it is too commercial and does not preserve enough in term of the local cultures.

4.2 Dapeng Fortress

Dapeng Fortress, also called Dapeng Suocheng, is another adaptive reuse project in Guangdong province. It is a walled town which located 55 kilometers from Shenzhen. For the purpose of keeping the original status, structures of the old buildings were not allowed to modified, which makes it possible for certain types of business. Additionally, some original residents still live there, therefore it is hard to form a pure consumption atmosphere. Moreover, the obsolete amenities have not been upgraded yet so they can ruin the visual quality of this town.

Compared with Dapeng Fortress, this project moved out the original residents and all of the old buildings serve for commercial usage. It also changed the structures and facades of the old buildings as well as provided modern facilities, which makes this project more delicate, flexible and inclusive, and thus more successful with regard to attract people to operate business and consume here.

5. Limitations

It is not deniable that Foshan Lingnan Tiandi is a success for adaptive reuses that motived by consumption. And apart from Shanghai and Foshan, there also are similar Xintiandi projects developed by Shui On Land in cities like Chongqing, Wuhan and Hangzhou. However, whether this Xintiandi model can still be applicable to other cities in China or all over the world remains a question. Since this business model is based on the solid foundation of Foshan’s economy and large amount of consumption targets, it is hard to justify whether this project can still succeed if it were applied to a less developed or populated city. Meanwhile, due to the fact that the indigenous residents have been moved out, it causes gentrification and the marginalization of the original residents (Yifeng Wen, 2015). Lastly, similar to Shanghai Xintiandi, since the functions and structures of the old buildings have been changed and modified, whether the conserved cultures are still authentic becomes a problem.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, due to the rapid development of Foshan’s economy, the old low-performance city core needed to be adapted to for commercial use to motivate consumption. By considering the conditions, cultural values and functions, old buildings were preserved, restored, adapted and new structures and amenities were introduced. Although there still are limitations like gentrification, compared to similar adaptive reuse project in China, Foshan Lingnan Tiandi illustrates a good balance between old buildings preservation and private development。

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