Interview with Professor Philippe Revault

revaultby Ma Kaidi –

Reconstruction and Preservation: An interview with Philippe Revault.

Professor Philippe Revault is currently a Fulbright Fellow at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and is a longtime consultant of the UNESCO, the European Union and the French Government. As a practicing architect and urbanist, Professor Revault has worked throughout France on the sensitive implementation of development plans within cities with historic centres, as well as many other cities across the world.

Professor Revault was at XJTLU to run a workshop to prepare students to formulate design proposals for the Taohuawu area (桃花坞, translated as ” Peach Blossom Cove”) in Suzhou.

groupProfessor Revault explained that his personal experience in Palestine and Iran (working with UNESCO) began with the very first step of trying to know the common heritage in the city; not just significant buildings and monuments but also the local housing and living conditions. The first year (or many years) of research) usually begins with a consideration of the lived experience of local people.

The working environment is something that really affects human value (and human values), says Prof. Revault. Even though many people might criticise – or even condemn – inadequate social conditions in the Underdeveloped Countries that he has studied and worked in, there is, he say, no use in just complaining about them. He suggests that it is actually more important to understand – and even to enjoy – the feelings that different social conditions generate within a given society. This helps architects to understand, instinctively, the practical possibilities of an area.

In terms of heritage protection, we discussed the role that architects play in this and Prof Revault considers that tradition has an intrinsic value and evolution. Tradition is changing with time, but the core ‘spirit’ does not change from era to era. Architects should pay respect to tradition, he says, but at the same time they should also be creative and not necessarily see heritage as a constraint. In other words, architects should follow traditions, it means that architects should maintain the local atmosphere. All the cities are evolving during the different ages, it would be useless to only rebuild buildings with antiquate style. The new buildings should be creative… as well as paying respect to the city’s soul.

T'ang Yin

Clearing after Snow on a Mountain Pass by Tang Yin (1470-1524)

In consideration with what happens in China, it is not difficult to find that many ancient buildings are being destroyed by the city’s growth. One example is the Taohuawu district in Suzhou, where the former home of ancient artist and scholar Tang Yin, one of the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty is scheduled for destruction by the government soon. It will then be renovated in concrete (not the original timber and brick) in order to attract tourists to the official TangYinMemorial Park. This is what is happening all over China. Not a particularly good example of heritage protection.

In terms of the reconstruction of the heritage and ancient residential blocks of Taohuawu District, Prof Revault pointed out that improving the living conditions of local people is the most significant consideration. In the meantime, maintaining the “pace of the city” is crucial, because people want to live in a dynamic neighborhood rather than and isolated world that has no communication networks or possibilities. A popular, dynamic community can provide people with an atmosphere to establish relationships and although grid patterns are widely utilized, Prof Revault is a fan of disorder in this neighborhood: a disorderliness that could give people more opportunities to discuss and interact with. Although providing more opportunities and communication, this kind of disorder refers to the random spatial partition and functional division in order to make the block more “vivid”.