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Amanyangyun, Shanghai: Deluged in History

Amanyangyun, Shanghai: Deluged in History
Capita Selecta: Cultural Heritage
Academic year 2019-2020 | Semester 1
History of Architecture and Urbanism (A&U)
Master of Arts and Culture
dr. Kees van der Ploeg
Amanyangyun Resort (2002-2018) set a monumental effort in revitalization projects in China. It
contributed to the synthesis of an ambitious plan committed with architectural and ecological
conservation. Opened in January 2018, the project was designed to create a pleasant environment,
providing sceneries from inside to the grove of ancient camphor trees. As an impressive
conservation project designed under multidisciplinary specialties, it achieved a high level of
technical excellence. Its intentions of bringing the essence of Chinese traditional culture blending
into the surrounding reforested woodlands rendered the building into a new aesthetic. This article
aims to discuss the Amanyangyun Resort project and analyze its historical, climatic, and cultural
backgrounds. The article also illustrates the general policies concerning cultural heritage
conservation in the context of China, where the project is located.
KEYWORDS: revitalization, architectural heritage, Amanyangyun, Shanghai, China
Figure 1. The entrance to one of antique villas at Amanyangyun Resort in the early morning fog.
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
(Confucius1, Chinese philosopher, 551-479 BC)
In 2018, the Chinese heritage villas in Fuzhou got a new destiny: a luxury resort. Amanyangyun
gets its name from the Chinese phrase Yang Yun, meaning ‘the nourishing of clouds,’ is a metaphor
for celebration of nature. The resort sits at the heart of an ancient forest of camphor trees – some
more than 1,000 years old and 100 feet tall – which have been transported 700km to Shanghai
from the Jiangxi Province in eastern China. As the proverb above from Confucius, the painstaking
mission describes a similar level of perseverance. Now, the houses and the trees have been restored
in their full glory.
The story begins in the early 2000s when Ma Dadong 2, a Chinese entrepreneur, returned to his
native village, Fuzhou in Jiangxi province on a routine visit home. He found that the government
had planned to construct the Liao Fang reservoir – a project that would imperil his neighborhood,
the area's historic residences. The dam project was a 15-square-kilometer reservoir in the
surrounding area of the village in order to prevent flooding and generate electricity. Consequently,
the project would involve cutting down thousands of millenarian camphor trees and forcing the
residents to relocate and leave dozens of Ming and Qing dynasties (1618 - 1683)3 homes to deluge
underwater. Meanwhile in Shanghai, buildings that date back to a century are listed as historical
artifacts. According to Ma, in his Discovery Channel documentary, those trees and houses in
Fuzhou were much older than that.
Reusing historic buildings has had a long history in cultural heritage conservation worldwide. As
a significant factor for a sustainable life of the heritage buildings, a suitable function which is in
line with the visions and needs of caretakers must be fulfilled. In most cases, the functions for
historic buildings alter over time through changes of ownership. Liu Tam (2018: 257), however,
has argued that the notion of revitalization is still very new in China. Moreover, due to dramatic
economic and political changes over the twentieth century, a great deal of historic buildings has
lost their original functions.
In the case of China, there are still very few people in the private sector that are capable enough to
carry out revitalization projects. Nevertheless, they mostly do not have access to subsidies or
professional support. As Liu Tam (2018: 251) further emphasis, without the financial support from
the government, the restoring task of heritage buildings requires much commitment from the
property owners. Since the adaptation may not undermine the elements that reflect its cultural
significance and supposes to bring vitality to the heritage buildings; thus, multidisciplinary
specialties involvement should be considered. Fortunately, in the Amanyangyun project,
challenges related to the matter of financial and professional support did not become obstacles.
In the 1990s, when the intention of conservation was first introduced in China, it mainly focused
on modern architecture heritage, such as colonial and industrial heritage. After the market reforms
in late 1978, a lot of state-owned factories closed down, leaving those gigantic buildings
abandoned. Starting in Shanghai and Beijing, contemporary artists attracted to turn those huge
spaces into art galleries or cafes. These new functions were popular due to its compatibility with
the colonial or industrial buildings. However, this issue becomes more complicated when it deals
with traditional Chinese architecture. Timber is the main character of traditional Chinese
architecture and very vulnerable to fire, which requires careful maintenance. Furthermore,
traditional Chinese architecture usually consists of many small buildings and open courtyards.
Those aspects limit the range of proper use and make adaptations problematic without undermining
the historic character of the buildings.
Through one thousand years of housing development, the courtyard house had been set up as an
“ideal model” of traditional Chinese architecture. A courtyard house, as described by Ying Liu
and Adenrele Awotona (1996), is a residential compound with one or a set of courtyards enclosed
by the surrounding buildings of high walls on four sides. This model practically protected
inhabitants from physical disturbance, such as climate environmental conditions and security
issues. It also expressed the Chinese philosophical ideology representing harmony between man
and nature. Those are primary factors that prescribed the growth of the courtyard house form and
its style development. With an awareness that the houses are crucial components, the
Amanyangyun project illustrates the challenges facing the revitalization of traditional architectural
heritage in China today.
Revitalization Legislative Background in China
Since 2011, revitalization has frequently appeared in the cultural heritage conservation policies
and strategies. At that time, a Temporary Management Regulation of Profitable Activities of StateOwned Protected Cultural Heritage Site was proposed. However, Liu Tam (2018: 249) mentioned
that the regulations only modulate projects that are used as museums, conservation research
institutes, or tourist sites as cited from State Administration of Cultural Heritage 2011: Art. 2. It
also emphasizes that the new profitable activities should be of public service and compatible with
the cultural attributes of the heritage sites. The three suggested functions, however, have limited
the choice of reuse and create difficulties among property owners and stakeholders. On the other
hand, the national law provided no guidelines for the compatibility of other functions. Finally, the
restrictions to the three functions have been deleted in the latest draft of the national law. The
national law, Government of PRC (People’s Republic of China) 2016, stipulates that more freedom
and elaborate regulation are given to the revitalization of the heritage buildings.
Figure 2. ICOMOS China, 2015. Principles for the conservation of heritage sites in China (revised
Today, China’s urbanization drive has resulted in traditional Chinese houses vanishing and being
replaced by modern high-rise apartment blocks. In Jiangxi Province, the place where several old
houses being restored by Ma Dadong into Amanyangyun project, more than half of the traditional
Chinese buildings have been demolished between the two nationwide cultural relic surveys in 1983
and 2012, according to China Daily USA. Meanwhile in Shanghai, the municipal government
determines to add more houses to the list of protected heritage buildings by ‘architecture census.’
While there is no official rule in projecting the traditional buildings as antique, Zhang Kegui, a
researcher in the Palace Museum’s Research Institute, proposed a benchmark reported in China
Daily USA. Any structure that is constructed by timber and built ca. 1911- the establishing year
of PRC – should be considered as an antique.
Although urbanization and other national progress plan have demolished many historic buildings,
tourism development and related businesses that are suitable for historic buildings boost and work
with those still left. However, due to the lack of research and guidelines, the content concerning
cultural heritage restoration is still limited even though many subjects are more responsive to
current issues. Yet in 2015, the recent revision of the ICOMOS ‘Principles for the Conservation
of Heritage Sites in China’ becomes the most comprehensive principle on that matter in China. It
defines the appropriate use of historic buildings in the Chinese context (ICOMOS China 2015:
Art. 40) and summarizes the criteria that a utilization should meet. Furthermore, it emphasizes
about two conditions: retaining historical functions and adaptive reuse. The adaptation should not
undermine the historic building value or character, should be reversible, and maintain its vitality
(ICOMOS China 2015: Art. 44-45)4.
Climate Adaptability and Cultural Implication
Situated in the Northern Hemisphere, mainland China, the country of East Asia is to the east of
Europe and on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean. This geographic position enables monsoon
circulation to form quickly, and as a result, a strong monsoon climate can be observed easily in
China (see Figure 3). At the different season of the year, however, the direction of the wind blows
changes periodically. Most of Central China, such as Fuzhou and Shanghai, two essential cities
for the Amanyangyun project, located in Central China within the warm temperature zone (see
Figure 4). The landscape in this region is a mix of mountains and plains, and dominant with a long
period of hot, humid summer and short cold winter. How the inhabitants respond through the
climate condition is represented in the vernacular dwellings, which indicate a warm and humid
Figure 3. China Topography Map. Two main air significantly affect the country’s climate: the dry and
cold winter monsoons in the north, and warm moist summer monsoons from the oceans.
Figure 4. China Climate Map with five climatic regions.
For a considerable amount of time, the remained typical of the traditional Chinese dwellings 5 in
this region is the timber brick courtyard. As the structural framework, it uses wooden beam, while
high white walls and shaded verandas are positioned to protect from solar rays, thus enabling it to
cool down during hot summer. As a small introverted world, the outer wall is closed without any
window except a front door in the southeast corner for access. Thus, the courtyard could be seen
as the inner openness, which serves as an extension area of the hall.
A hall plays a role as the central space of traditional Chinese houses where various family
activities, such as reception, dinner, gathering, and entertainment, take place. Showing features of
central orientation, the layout of a hall is generally symmetrical along with the central axis. To
provide comfort and privacy, many houses using partition doors with thresholds to separate a hall
from the yard, which can be fully opened during summer for ventilation but closed during winter.
It has been proved that partition doors with papers on both sides are thermos-technically effective
(as cited in Hui 2016: 144). The wooden lattice divides the air layer between the paper, retaining
warmth in the indoor area. Besides a hall as the central part, the courtyard house also consists of
side rooms that are generally used as bedrooms for rest and sleep. The bed is put in a dark area of
the bedroom and far from the door. Plus, curtains or screens are used as a concealed.
Figure 5. A typical Ming or Qing courtyard house with three yards: front, central, and back.
Figure 6. The remaining traditional courtyard houses in Jiangxi province.
Aside from the climate of hot summer and cold winter, the cultural and social conditions of
Chinese political history play essential factors that enhance an introverted quality of the courtyard
houses. Over the past 2,000 years, more than 20 dynasties have reigned and barbarous tribes
invaded several times to disturb the established order. Under such conditions, the people develop
the inward feeling to construct physical boundaries as defenses against outside forces, an enclosed
form of courtyard house as the safe barriers of their inner life.
The spatial organization and physical design of traditional courtyard houses are also rooted in the
ancient Chinese philosophy, Daoism and Confucianism. While Daoism stressed a harmony
between man, buildings, and their environments, Confucianism emphasized the importance of
hierarchical order, axis, and symmetry to control spatial organization (Liu & Awotona 1996: 3).
In the Feng-shui theory, an application of Daoist philosophical ideology, it was believed that an
ideal site should be surrounded by higher land, like the crook of the elbow in a curved arm, to
protect from outside forces. While under the influence of Confucian rules, the most honored
buildings were located in the north of a central axis, in the core quarter with the highest roof and
biggest size. The outer quarter were served for servants and guests.
Amanyangyun: History and the Revitalization Process
Every Aman6 has a story, but the Amanyangyun is especially impressive. For just outside
Shanghai, 1000-year-old camphor trees and traditional Chinese courtyard houses from the Ming
and Qing dynasty were transported more than 700 kilometers to what is now Amanyangyun resort.
This unique woodland village is the result of a 16-year conservation initiative which more than
200 employees – teams of botanists, engineers, Chinese architecture experts, and artisans – were
said to have been worked to carry out the resort’s owner, Chinese philanthropist and billionaire,
Ma Dadong vision. Dozens ancient houses and more than thousands of camphor trees were
relocated first into the warehouse, five miles from the resort. There, traditional artisans worked for
years, refinishing wooden structural beams and poles, repaired the decorative details to make them
suitable for modern living, as stated by Benoit Amado, Amanyangyun’s general manager
according to Bloomberg (2017, December 1). The job to rebuild the structures was carried out
meticulously about three years since traditional Chinese structures never used pins, screws, and
there are about 350 to 500 wooden pieces and 100,000 stones per villa (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. The warehouse, where bricks and detail fragments were numbered and taken apart.
Designed by Kerry Hill Architects7 with landscapes by Dan Pearson Studio8, the 26 restored
historic dwellings are now set within the flourishing relocated camphor forest, occupying 18
hectares in Shanghai’s Maqiao Village, a suburban area of Shanghai. Taking the courtyards and
the wooden structures of the heritage villas into account, the architect created the rest of the resort,
including 24 one-bedroom suites to expand the resort’s capacity. The estate also comprises nine
tea rooms and five restaurants and bars. All designed artfully blending Aman minimalism with a
solemn and elegant style of Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture. The aim of fully articulating the
"China-fir" pinewood structure of the houses is to guarantee the originate state of the traditional
Chinese architecture. The interior finished in an earthy palette with materials of wood, stone, and
bamboo to create a similar hued and light-filled aesthetic.
Figure 8. The Amanyangyun Resort masterplan.
From 26 ancient villas, which restored into restful luxurious pavilions, thirteen of them are now
hotel suites, while the rest has become residences to be sold to private owners. The 13 antique
villas, each ranging from 300 to 900 square meters, consisting of a sequence of rooms with two
stone courtyards and four reassembled rooms (see Figure 10). Not only built as a walled garden
and sandstone volume, the project also carries the same spatial hierarchy of the houses. The main
entrance is located in the south with the bedrooms, the most private space, in the north. The
bedrooms, facing the rear courtyard, each boasts with a dressing room, a sleek dark bathroom with
stone tub, and an outdoor shower. The rooms, filled with light and natural color of wood lattice
screen, are spacious, which a hall as the heart of the composition. The living and dining area
located in the hall comes with a private kitchen and a butler service tucked away (see Figure 11).
Figure 9. The front facade of Amanyangyun antique villa with a gray-stone pathway surrounded by
reflecting pools.
Figure 10. The floorplan of Amanyangyun antique villa.
Each Antique Villa is unique, with a few modern touches which work well with heritage nuances.
The team added contemporary twists to come in line with modern building codes and earthquake
resistant. Without losing authenticity, they had to develop new methods of the cross-bracing and
a high-performance insulation to keep partition walls thin. Large windows were added for better
natural lights, and spaces between pillars were enlarged for more dramatic proportions. The
ceilings are formed by timber panels, subtly dropped to integrate lighting and music systems. As
the design concept, the contemporary and the traditional are mixed but set each other off; thus,
guests could find legible the authenticity and the new interventions in the houses. For example, in
responding the paneling substitution, they reinstate like the original for the paneling that has rotted
away, yet they add a contemporary panel in a place that has no partition before. Moreover, to boost
a luxury experience and surprise for guests, the design concept also evolved to add a basement
with amenities for residents, such as art gallery, wine cellar, gym, or tea rooms, in addition to the
main living area.
Figure 11. The living and dining area with a natural palette of wood.
Figure 12. Left: The front courtyard with traditional wooden screens. Right: The bedroom area is
exposing ceiling to appreciate interlocking of the carving roof beams and blending with contemporary
minimalist furnishing.
Certain pieces depicted past family histories of each historic villa, such as ornate stone wall
carvings or reclaimed plaque displayed above a doorway, are retained as tributes to the resident’s
past. The decorative and structure-function were integrated, maintaining a connection with history.
Historically, according to Amy Fabris-Shi in DestinAsian (2018, May 14), Fuzhou was known as
the “Cradle of Talents,” an important center of knowledge and literature from the Ming Dynasty.
Thus, colorful cultural and artistic factor presented the hint of the former occupants’ passion for
literature, formed a vibrant cultural atmosphere. Structure, ornaments, and furnishing generate
three-dimensional harmonic space combination framing the resort with a unified style, clear layers
and ordered key points.
Figure 13. The ornament details of antique villas.
The Amanyangyun resort case illustrates the challenges facing the revitalization of traditional
architectural heritage in China today. Whenever a site is reused as a profitable space, it draws
attention from conservationists and the public. The lack of a clear legislative framework coupled
with a complicated ownership structure that in most cases, lead to conflicts and difficulties,
fortunately, did not become a problem of Amanyangyun like most other revitalization projects in
In a city that often feels lost from Chinese traditions, this hidden spot of suburban Shanghai with
its lush millenary forest, cultural experiences, and ancient courtyard stone residences recreated
with Aman minimalism polish, are treated to luxuriate. As a revitalization project, Amanyangyun
also has a sense of time while most successful hotels have only a sense of place. The result is
allowing guests a glimpse of China’s past with cultural immersion while experiencing all of
today’s modern luxuries.
While most of China hasty toward the future, replacing small villages with new high-rise
residences compounds, this project may also serve as an inspiration for innovative revitalization
at similar heritage sites in China. The tranquil and serene atmosphere of Fuzhou’s mountain
villages has been well maintained and visitors can enjoy the historic enchantment of the resort.
Moreover, the guests are each invited to nourish the tree with water when they arrive – an act
contemplating the importance of nurturing the past to enrich the future. This study thus argues the
importance of more transparent legislative frameworks and commitment from public and private
sectors for successful revitalization projects.
List of Illustrations
The entrance to one of antique villas at Amanyangyun Resort in the early morning fog.
Source: Aman.
ICOMOS China 2015. Principles for the conservation of heritage sites in China (revised
2015). Source: ICOMOS Open Archive.
China Topography Map. Source: Sun (2013).
China Climate Map with five climatic regions. Source: Sun (2013).
A typical Ming or Qing courtyard house with three yards: front, central, and back. Source:
Zhang (2017).
The remaining traditional courtyard houses in Jiangxi province. Source: kknews.cc, 2016.
The warehouse, where bricks and detail fragments were numbered and taken apart.
Photographer: Zhang Li Jun.
The Amanyangyun Resort masterplan. Source: Dan Pearson.
The front facade of Amanyangyun antique villa with a gray-stone pathway surrounded by
reflecting pools. Source: Cortesia de Prix Versailles.
10. The floorplan of Amanyangyun antique villa. Created by Khattiya Pannindriya based on
taobao.com, 2018.
11. The living and dining area with a natural palette of wood. Source: Kerry Hill Architects.
12. Left: The front courtyard with classic wooden screens. Right: The bedroom area is exposing
ceiling to appreciate interlocking of the carving roof beams and blending with contemporary
minimalist furnishing. Source: Kerry Hill Architects.
13. The ornament details of antique villas. Source: Kerry Hill Architects.
Confucius is considered as one of the most influential philosophers in China. The philosophy
of Confucius, Confucianism, sets personal and governmental ethics, which emphasizing the
correctness of social relationships with justice and sincerity. His principles are rooted in
Chinese traditions and beliefs.
Ma Dadong left his home city of Fuzhou, at the age of 22 years, to earn what would become
a fortune in advertising at Shanghai. Today, he is the chairman of the Shanghai Gu Shan – an
investment management company, and Shanghai Gu Yin Real Estate.
In Ming and Qing dynasties (1618 - 1683), the level of a house could be measured by its
location, dimension, roof style, color painting, and decoration style. They are also important
means of expression, besides details and styles of furnishings. For a comprehensive discussion
on house furnishing of Ming and Qing dynasties, see Wei (2015).
For a more comprehensive discussion related to legislative and history of revitalization in
China, see Tam (2018).
Over thousand years of civilization, China has developed a rich variety of traditional
dwellings. Besides courtyard type, traditional houses also divided into caved and wooden
storied. For a discussion on relationship between Chinese climate and vernacular dwellings,
see Sun (2013).
Aman Resorts, a luxury hotel group, is renowned for space and privacy. Adrian Zecha, the
founder, built the first Aman at Phuket, Thailand in 1988. Today, it has 34 destinations in 21
countries. In most of its projects, Aman concerns for natural settings and cultural preservation.
Kerry Hill (1943-2018) was a Singapore-based Australian architect. He moved to Singapore,
where he established Kerry Hill Architects to accomplish a commission from the hotelier
Adrian Zecha. At last, Hill designed nine of Aman resorts across Asia.
Dan Pearson (1964- ) is a British landscape designer, horticulturalist, writer, and gardener.
He was introduced to Ma and involved to the project in 2012. The project took two years of
collaboration with the Kerry Hill Architects.
Ekstein, Nikki (2017, December 1). How Aman Turned a Centuries-Old Chinese Village
into a Five-Star Resort. Bloomberg, New York.
Fabris-Shi, Amy (2018, May 14). History Brought to Life at the Luxurious Amanyangyun.
DestinAsian, Singapore.
Faculty of Architecture, the University of Hong Kong (2012). Hongkong Today –
Conservation & Revitalization of Historic Buildings. Hongkong: Hong Kong Institute of
Government of PRC (2016). ‘Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Wenwu Baohu Fa Xiuding
Cao’an’ [Public Consultation Draft of the Revision of the Cultural Relics Protection Law of the
People’s Republic of China]
Hui Wang, Xincheng Pu, Rongrong Wang, Yuting Zeng & Xiaofeng Qi (2016). A Study on
Closed Halls in Traditional Dwellings in the Jiangnan Area, China. Journal of Asian Architecture
and Building Engineering, 15:2, 139-146.
ICOMOS China (2015). ‘Zhongguo Wenwu Guji Baohu Zhunze’ [Principles for the
conservation of heritage sites in China], ed. by Beijing Shi: Wenwu Chuban She. Beijing: Cultural
Relic Press.
Liu, Ying, and Adenrele Awotona (1996). "The Traditional Courtyard House in China: Its
Formation and Transition." In Evolving Environmental Ideals - Changing Way of Life, Values and
Design Practices: IAPS 14 Conference Proceedings, 248-260. IAPS. Stockholm: Royal Institute
of Technology.
Pearson, Dan (2018, June 2). Amanyangyun. Dig Delve, UK.
Sun, Feifei (2013). "Chinese Climate and Vernacular Dwellings." Buildings 3, no. 1: 143172.
Tam, L. (2018). The Revitalization of Zhizhu Temple: Policies, Actors, Debates. In Maags
C. & Svensson M. (Eds.), Chinese Heritage in the Making: Experiences, Negotiations and
Contestations (pp. 245-268). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Xu Junqian (2018, February 10). To Preserve the Past. China Daily, USA.
Wei, D. (2015). Analysis on House Furnishings of Ming and Qing Dynasties and Their
Cultural Characteristics. Jinan: Department of Design Shandong College of Arts.
Zhang, Donia (2017). Courtyard Housing in China: Chinese Quest for Harmony.
Contemporary Urban Affairs Vol. 1, no. 2: 38-56.
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