THE FIVE DRAGONS TEMPLE, RUICHENG CITY, CINA
This exemplary architectural and landscape regeneration project has restored worth to China’s oldest surviving Taoist temple in a programme to renovate and conserve the historic site executed with the adoption of traditional building methods and in a perfect balance of nature, expertise, history and innovation
FROM THE ARCHITECT’S PROJECT DESCRIPTION
Situated in Ruicheng, Shanxi Province, the Five Dragons Temple (Guang Ren Wang Temple) is listed as a class A cultural monument by the National Cultural Heritage Conservation Bureau in China. Built in 831 AD during the Tang Dynasty, it is the oldest surviving Taoist temple. Sitting on a raised ridge above its surrounding village, the temple itself was segregated from everyday village life and the originally picturesque view of the temple had lost its charm with the increasing exacerbation of the environment. Furthermore, modern irrigation techniques have replaced the ritual of praying for rain, turning the Five Dragons Temple from a spiritual centre into a dumping ground. In 2015, the Vanke Group initiated a ‘Long Plan’ to raise funds and revitalise the surroundings of the Five Dragons Temple. This plan also helped raise public awareness of this historical preservation project. The initiative then went on to become the first time the government and private funds had cooperated to preserve a cultural ruin, as well as promoting cultural protection through the platforms of the Internet and the international Expo.
The environmental upgrade of the Five Dragons Temple was centered on two goals. One was a strong desire to create layers of overlapping spaces around the main building and narrate the history of the temple and ancient Chinese architecture. In this way, people would learn about traditional Chinese architecture and better understand the importance of preserving this heritage. The underlying goal was to return the temple to a place of public gathering in the village and provide an improved environment to encourage contemporary lifestyles consistent with the ancient architecture.
The upgrading of the environment began with the renovation of the Five Dragons Spring. With the transition from traditional to modern agriculture and the depletion of natural resources, the spring essentially became a dump but after the renovation, it was once again protected. The reeds transplanted from the banks of the Yellow River went well with the weathered monument and the muddy ground became a square frequented by villagers. The temple was reinvigorated and became the centre of the village once again.
The most typical human dwelling places in the area since ancient times — caves — had lost their relevance to the villagers’ lives but the project preserved several cave dwellings serving as livestock shelters at the foot of the temple hill. They were restored using the traditional rammed-earth method and turned into shaded rest areas for visitors. With the participation of local workers, the cave renovation helped the villagers re-master this traditional construction skill.
The entrance to the Five Dragons Temple was once a muddy slope, difficult to negotiate in the rain and snow. After renovation, this dangerous slope was replaced with convenient stone steps. These are paved along the original path and meander through the preserved vegetation. People entering the temple first see a front yard with prefabricated concrete blocks covered with rammed earth. The cladding, imitating the local soil colour, is not only reversible but also does not look artificial, blending well with the surrounding environment. A miniature temple carved on the ground and a timeline of Chinese architectural history on the wall clearly show the Five Dragons Temple’s place in history. As you venture farther along the narrow passage, the main structure of the Five Dragons Temple appears and this perspective presents the elegant structure to visitors, with people feeling a sense of excitement and reverence at this picturesque sight.
The original temple yard was empty, with nothing to see. After the improvements, the size of the yard was adjusted to make the temple seem bigger and a number of spaces were added around the temple to heighten the appreciation of the cultural monument. The area between the main structure and the theatre stage was enlarged and paved. The new ground also helps prevent the temple succumbing to water erosion, becoming an ideal place for villagers to organise activities and making the stage an important feature of the local intangible heritage.
To the north, behind the stone wall, is a new viewing platform overlooking other national treasures: the ruins of the city wall of the ancient Wei State and the distant Zhongtiao
mountain. The platform allows all the surrounding historical features to form an immediate and intimate connection with the Five Dragons Temple.
After the renovation, visiting the relics is like reading history through the views of the temple and a number of visual experiences around the temple enable visitors to further their understanding of this national treasure, triggering more thoughts on history.
The spaces around the main structure were refurbished to become open-air exhibition areas. The temple is now like a museum of Chinese architectural history or a rural architecture classroom. The ruin is revived, its value is manifest and its charm will endure.
Previous spread: the Five Dragons Temple seen in its surrounding context, become a protected area after the restoration. In the foreground is the large cultivated field that extends north of the site (photo: Jerry Yin). Opposite page, centre: the historic Five Dragons Spring site provided access to the temple from the village, but before the renovation project, it had become a dumping ground with a hard-to-negotiate stony slope. After completion (this page, above), the muddy slope is now a convenient route with a wide stone-paved path and a system of steps to link the different heights; this page, top: an axonometric view of the entire complex