The Xiangshan area in Wuzhong District of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, has inspired poets, lovers and writers for millennia. Many would walk along the banks of Taihu Lake, the third largest freshwater lake in China, whose near-perfect spherical shape was formed by a meteor impact millions of years ago.
Xiangshan continues to rouse creative passions. But where the poets once roamed, these days it’s architects who are drawing inspiration from the region’s unique natural attributes. Dubbed the “Xiangshan Band” architects, they are at the forefront of a new wave of Chinese draftsmen whose goal is to safeguard exquisite and complicated traditional Chinese architectural paradigms.
The forefather of the Xiangshan Band architects was Kuai Xiang, the designer of Beijing’s Tian’anmen Gate. Born in the 15th century, Kuai participated in and presided over the construction of many imperial buildings, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony in the Forbidden City; the Changling Tomb, one of the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty, and the palaces around the Beihai (North Lake), Zhonghai (Middle Lake) and Nanhai (South Lake) in Beijing.
For the past 500 years Xiangshan Band architects have passed their technique down from generation to generation. Their masterpieces, such as classical gardens of Suzhou and grand imperial buildings in Beijing, are on the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.
The distinctive architectural techniques of the Xiangshan Band were traditionally passed down through master-apprentice instruction. Very few technical books on the style are available. This is now changing, thanks in large part to the work of Lu Yaozu.
Lu Yaozu was born in 1949 into a Xiangshan Band family, and learnt architecture from his father in a traditional master-apprentice setting. His grandfather and great grandfathers were celebrated carpentry experts who ran successful workshops. Lu’s father, Lu Wen’an, gained a national profile for his maintenance and restoration of many historical sites in Suzhou such as the Maple Bridge and the Hanshan Temple.
Lu started to learn the family profession from his father at the age of 16. He worked with his father side by side on many projects until his father passed away in 1982. Today Lu continues to practice his craft. He specializes in building ancient-style wooden structures, in which a network of interlocking pillars, beams, columns and purlins forms a building’s framework.
In the past two decades China has been working to ensure its old traditions are passed down to the younger generations. Lu Yaozu has been appointed as a “custodian” of the Xianghshan Band architectural techniques. Many Xiangshan drafting traditions have been recognized as “national intangible cultural heritage,” meaning their preservation has the full support of China’s central government.
Lu subsequently participated in the renovation of the famous Hanshan Temple, the Letian Pavilion on the Tianping Mountain and the Bell Tower on the Lingyan Mountain in Suzhou. Other representative domestic works of Lu include the Bonsai Garden in the Tiger Hill Scenic Area and the Round-the-City Greenbelt Project of Suzhou.
In recent years, Lu’s work has been gaining popularity overseas as well. In 2004, he was selected to preside over the construction of the Mid-Lake Pavilion in Lille, France. It was to be a replica of the Mid-Lake Pavilion in the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai. The project was regarded as an important contribution to Sino-French cultural exchanges.