Hangzhou Canal Food Town

In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, I went to Badaling to climb the Great Wall, which left a lasting impression upon me. It was ash-gray and dreary, like the gloomy people drifting down Chang'an Avenue. The Great Wall's mass overwhelmed me. They say it’s a symbol of the national unity of the Chinese people. This makes little sense to me, as it’s clearly the tears of blood and piles of bones of China’s working people. It demonstrates the formidable construction ability of the Chinese nation. So long as there is a tyrant, a Great Wall can be built.   For thousands of years, some great number of Chinese peasants' sons have been killed at this dividing line. All along, I never fully comprehended the grandeur of the Great Wall. I felt very stifled when I was standing in Badaling. The Great Wall silently and endlessly writhed into the distance.

The canals are different. Although the emperors of the ancient past dug the canal, they were not especially civilized. But after all, it brought profound development to Chinese civilization. Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty not only enjoyed amusing himself in the region south of the Yangtze River, but he also went to war there.  In the history of China before the era of modern transportation, the canal became the largest transportation route in the country.  Neither science, nor economics, nor culture, nor politics, nor any of China's greatest advancements, can be untangled from the swift, continuous current of the Grand Canal. I have always felt indignant on behalf of the canal.  Of course, from a philosophical and cultural point of view, the Great Wall and the canal represent yin and yang, firm and yielding, just stirring up the great and complex character of this nation.

At the end of the last century, I began to pay attention to the motives of establishing a market in Hangzhou. I traveled all over Hangzhou-- to every mountaintop, to every literary culture that revolves around the West Lake, to every remnant of the Southern Song Dynasty culture centered around Phoenix Mountain, to the Zen Buddhist culture that focuses on the Lingyin Temple. In Hangzhou’s West Lake region, every stone reflects the light of history.  Because of Hangzhou's cultural imbalance, I will look at the north of the city, and pay attention to the canal.

During the Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty, most of Hangzhou’s taverns, teahouses, opera houses and merchants were concentrated in the Gongshu Canal District. The agricultural and fish markets were there, too, and the river transportation and government also flourished there during that time.  I spent more than a decade sorting out and arranging the ancient canal, and started writing “The Grand Canal Manuscript: On the Yinhushu River.” The historic scenes of Hangzhou's Gongshu District, with its fish market, agricultural market, the Beiguan night market, and the Ancient Water Street, all constantly ablaze with lights, hearkens back to the glory days of the Qing Dynasty. Here, the flourishing of a grand past slowly unfolds before one's eyes. Thousands of boats, tens of thousands of people, rows of buildings, the Ancient Water Street’s mix of joyful chatter and sorrow-- a century of complexity along the canal, all expressed within this 15-meter long site. This north section of Hangzhou and its significance for the secular world, offers a unique artifact of cultural heritage. 

I am used to creatively expressing culture, turning culture into industry, and creating architectural works out my paintings. Then the architectural artworks were developed into tourism and cultural products. Finally, I recorded poetry in calligraphy. What I want to do is to see and use works that can be applied in academia and also enjoyed by the public, that contribute to the economy, and that will retain historical value.  So I do any architectural work and I always hope to make function or commerce the primary consideration. The design of the canal's architecture is not as natural and unrestrained as in my paintings: row upon row of uneven, irregularly sized buildings dot the canvas. It is perhaps not ideal for the modern commercial and tourism industries. I can only seek compatibility between vernacular architecture and modern commercial functions. Ancient Water Street, with its striking vernacular architecture and sense of color, as well as its infrastructure for transportation, fire prevention, heat flow and waste disposal, achieves a harmonious balance of ancient folkways and modern features. Tourists can enjoy the sights and sounds, and commerce can thrive along the Grand Canal. This is the ultimate aim of Ancient Water Street.

As a result, I used the ink scroll “The Grand Canal on the Yinhushu River” to produce an architectural design. In the heat of Hangzhou’s summer, I toiled away, “burning the midnight oil,” striving to create rational ideas, hand-drawn scroll sections, and illustrations of  architectural designs. The book was published during the Great Leap Forward, and, in one breath, its traditional Chinese painting evolved into the architecture of Ancient Water Street.

Ancient Water Street showcases both the culture of the Grand Canal and modern art, aspects that will always be emphasized in Hangzhou’s Gongshu Canal District. Bestowing future generations with fantastical dreams, endowing the city with rich memories, and waving the flag for cultural heritage. 

Zhu Renmin, Hangzhou, 2008

Story of the Ring House


looking out to sea


Lake villa, filled with longing

The sky opens to the ring house

We meet on the embankment


A chorus of heroes gathers

With hundreds of lanterns

And nary a trace of care


Market and homes crowd the way

Lives unfold on bridges and in halls

The great garden is just a little frail


Lines from a Jinghang poem

Saluting the villa

At the southern head


From today we sail back one hundred autumns

Acting the story of the ring house

A thousand brushstrokes, ten thousand touches

Dredge up one thousand wheel spokes

And a dense sea of goods


Ink of crushed jade fills the river

A bumper crop from the north

Glides down the river

Dragon boats race in the spring

The drunken bridegroom hurries to the city

Where Little Red washes her sleeve


I drew a circle at the confluence of the three rivers-- the Shengli River, the canal, and the red Jian River-- bringing them together at a single point, tempering the chaotic relationship between the sharp corners of the axis crossing the three rivers. This scene of ten or so meters unites the spirit of the city and its people. It has become the only circular complex on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, and a highlight of the Ancient Water Street (Gushui Street) on the Shengli River.  Creative Land Art. There is no similarly circular structure in the history of China’s Grand Canal, but I think that the times and the site need this symbol, as it appropriately represents the era. Hangzhou’s Grand Canal needs this ring of buildings imbued with individuality and the spirit of the city. 

“A babbling and twisting Ancient Water Street, a century’s worth of complexity.” I used this as a title when I submitted the illustrated plan of the proposed Grand Canal project to the government, and it was endorsed by the Hangzhou municipal government, particularly the municipal party secretary. I worked hard on this project this day and night, and within half a year, I had turned an ink scroll painting into an architectural landscape design. A year later, the most lively food street in the north of the city, the Ancient Water Street, was revealed on the Shengli River in the Gongshu District. "It provides memories for the city, wealth for future generations, and a boost to the Grand Canal's cultural heritage.” What is puzzling is that not long ago, the Ancient Water Street introduced a large amount of commercial industry. The canal architecture that I had so painstakingly designed was quickly distorted beyond recognition. For each meter, over ten thousand original boxwood carvings had been destroyed, all turned into large glass facades. This truly broke my heart. Preservation and use, these two opposing actions, are inevitably intertwined. Fortunately, the facades of restaurants in the district along the river are required to retain the original features of my design. 

The process of my creative practice developed from traditional Chinese painting to landscape architecture and drawings for architectural works, to sculptures. After mastering each of these skills, I finally wrote a historical memoir of each project. This is a rare form of artistic communication in the history of design, whether in China or abroad.


Q: Teacher Zhu, as a designer, how did you become involved in this Hangzhou Shengli River project?

A: Over the decades of my design career, in China and abroad, I hardly ever participated in any large-scale project bidding. Instead, I selectively fulfilled all of my design goals by relying on the proprietors' high level of trust and the government’s strong support. From the islands, deserts, wetlands, the Yellow River, the water towns, and the cities, for every landform that has been destroyed by human beings, I selectively produce a typical creative work. After several decades of work, I suddenly thought of the cultural heritage and protection of the Grand Canal. I was very concerned about it, and spent more than ten years collecting historical data on the Grand Canal. Manuscripts piled up. That is to say, when I discovered the state of the Shengli River, with its heaps of garbage, I was already quite familiar with the situation and had many ideas in mind. Ten years ago, at the time of the transformation of Xiawan Park in front of Fuyi Warehouse, I had already designed the circular complex on my own accord, because there was no other way to harmoniously solve the problem of the three rivers crossing right in front of Fuyi Warehouse. There is no better way to deal with the problem of sharp angles than to make them round.  This plan was conceived while waiting for the development of the canal protection project, so when the government began to transform the Shengli River, my plan came into being. It was also looked on favorably by the main leader of the Municipal Party Committee. “Great minds think alike.” Therefore my design was promoted thanks to luck.  Designers should have sensitivity for one’s own era, as well as a love for nature. They should cultivate long-term focus and consider things carefully. Once one has a project of one’s own, this will lead to a high level of proficiency with great confidence. 


Q: Why did you develop such an interest in the canal so early?  Why do the proprietors approve of your design ideas? 

A: I’m not just interested in the canal. I'm interested in all the landforms of China. In recent decades, I’ve almost finished doing all the typical landscapes in the country. The canal came later, because it involves a lot of issues. The proprietors were actually thinking about the same problem as I was: how to transform and protect the Grand Canal. It’s just that they never figured out a satisfactory idea or means to achieve it.  When I had the opportunity to tell them about the imbalance between the current cultural state of the Hangzhou section and its historical status, along with the amount of work I had already done, they were very touched. 


Q: Teacher Zhu, why do you particularly like the architecture of the ancient canal?

A: Chinese architecture and Western architecture are the same in this regard: architecture always clearly expresses the cultural context and historical heritage of a given era.  It’s only that Westerners are used to stone culture, whereas we are fond of wood culture.  Our ancestors possessed extremely advanced carving techniques, however, due to our historical culture’s consistent neglect of craftsmanship, along with the natural fragility of wood culture, as well as the destruction caused by wars, it has been very difficult to preserve our culture’s architecture in good condition. In contrast, Western stone culture reveals its strong advantage with regards to preservation. 

As we search for the Grand Canal's lost culture, its water has been a constant presence for a thousand years, and its trees have remained unchanged for a hundred years. Only the buildings and bridges carry the historical significance of the Grand Canal.  Fortunately, I experienced the former days of the period of reform and opening up. In my mind, that era evokes a scene replete with peasant culture and wood culture.  Besides people’s clothing and their long braids, the Grand Canal that I saw at an early age---- the buildings, boats, bridges, retaining walls, and local conditions and customs on both sides of the river-- remained largely the same as during the Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty.  I close my eyes and imagine while the hairs on my paintbrush sweep the paint down in one stroke, conjuring a scene from a century ago. 

All Chinese architecture can withstand historical critique and investigation, due to its unity and harmonious relationship with heaven and earth.  When these relationships unfolded on the opposing banks of the Grand Canal, the ancients did their best to add a variety of historical and cultural stories to the architecture, guided by customary propriety as well as faith in the gods. Brimming with the Chinese nation’s cultural orientation and creative ability, these stories permeate the architecture: one finds such stories on the building’s midline, on its brackets and corbels, beams and columns, on the inscribed horizontal board above a doorway, and in all other places that can express themselves through architectural style. Chinese architecture is actually a national philosophy, debated in a public forum. Our people asked: Teacher Zhu, why do you especially like the architecture of the ancient canal? Generation after generation of children grew up in courtyards and under the door eaves.  Because of this, the architecture has become exquisite, enduring, and elegant, fully constituting an artwork and cultural artifact. The buildings along the Grand Canal include a variety of ancient architectural structures. The wealthy Jiangnan region possesses an even richer variety of architectural forms. On the basis of their respective functional needs, all kinds of people spread out along both banks of the thousand-mile-long canal: the wealthy and the high status, bureaucrats, the public, along with the impoverished and low status. All around, the contrast is striking: uneven and irregular, noisy and sorrowful, ever-changing yet essentially the same. How can traditional architecture work without black tiles and white walls, wood and stone? These essential colors of black, white and gray-- a color scheme that is as natural in my heart as ink wash painting. 


Q: Teacher Zhu, how did you make the drafts of the canal plans into a reality? 

A: Like many other designers worldwide, I started excitedly from a blank draft, and almost instantly, envisioned the completed project. Working on such a task is especially powerful.  From the historical materials of the canal, we see similar types of historical scenes. Actually, these don’t differ much from the scenes I saw on the canal when I was a child, especially the architecture.  Relying on my own sketching abilities and understanding of history, I am able to create any rich historical scene.  Because we are designers, we need to possess knowledge of functional architecture, landscapes and history. For example, the scale of the canal, the actual space of the buildings, the specific stylistic features, the flow of traffic, the consideration of the quality of the materials-- these all must be sufficiently accounted for and reflected in this draft. Because at this time I was not a pure and romantic artist; I was an engineer first. Secondly, it was only in the creative process that I was able to bring into play the expressive ability and individual style of the painting, and even show off. 

First of all, I used a large number of conceptual manuscripts as creative material, and, just like symphonic works of music and the notes that comprise them, I incorporated them into the general tone of the project. According to the general needs of the symphony as a whole, each one of these materials expressed their own cadences and rhythms.

The draft of the design is usually made by computer. For me, the best current software for this design phase is Sketch Up. It is quick, intuitive, and easy to adjust. After completing the basic rendering, the material components are added. Even the dimensions of the materials are in the image. After the figure is completely rendered in Sketch Up, it’s given watercolor effects in Photoshop, and the designers have a much clearer indicator of the draft stage of construction. This method can be used for all the buildings, landscapes and bridges of the entire project. Its speed is very fast. In half a year, I independently completed all the architectural designs for more than three kilometers of the canal’s buildings, bridges and water discharge stations.

While working on a project, I tend to “trust the process”-- from the creative development of the manuscript to the early stages of implementing the plan, and to the site supervision. Finally, as the final step in the process, photography, I will take a picture of the completed work. 

Apart from the basic requirements for light and shadow, photography is even more important as a means with which to examine whether the project has met my original requirements as set out in the manuscripts. This overall process is one that reflects the value of my life. It makes me feel cheerful and inspired. 


Why did you embellish the canal buildings you designed with so many boxwood carvings? 

When I restored the present-day canal to its ancient appearance, I was conflicted.  Is it completely antique? Or completely modern? Or is it drawing on the elements of ancient times to become a present-day neoclassicism? This is an old, difficult problem that all architects have faced. Because I wanted to give the city a memory and highlight the canal, I prioritized its function above all else. First, it must be a multi-use site. If it doesn't have uses, the canal will not be protected. Protection and use are in conflict.  In this case, I hope that all architecture will both have ancient spiritual elements and meet modern functional requirements. In the early stage of fulfilling such functions as firefighting, sewage, heating and ventilation, distribution, and so on, I hoped to make the canal’s architecture into a work of art and restore the site’s lost culture. After the functional aspects of the building are completed, its decorative color scheme, coordination of materials, and spatial relationships are quite important.  Coupled with these meticulously etched boxwood carvings, the building appears especially literary, elegant and coherent. Of course the price is very expensive. Authentic boxwood is worth more than ten thousand RMB per meter. But the proprietors support this entirely. At a high temperature of around 50 degrees (122 degrees Fahrenheit), I took out a group of tenacious workers and led them to complete wood carvings based on the “Eight Scenes of Hushu.” I understand these works to be cultural artifacts of the future, that is, history. 


1 9 6 6年,文革大串连,我去八达岭爬长城,留下一个很沉重的印象,灰灰的、沉沉的,就像长安街上涌动着的灰色人流。长城以其体量征服了我。说是中华民族的众志成城的象征,我不明白,那分明是中国劳动人民血泪和枯骨的堆垒物,它彰显着中华民族强大的构筑力量,只要是暴君都造得成长城。几千年来在这条界定线内打来杀去,死了多少中国农民的儿子。一直没有明白长城的伟大,站在八达岭我很压抑,长城莫不作声,扭动着伸向远方,没有尽头。



康乾年间,杭城大半的酒肆、茶楼、戏文、商贾集中于拱墅运河一带,米市鱼市、漕运府晌生发于此。我将十多年来收集整理的运河旧事予以串联,开始动笔创作《大运河·银湖墅河上徒稿》。将杭城的晚清拱墅运河场景,鱼市、米市、北关夜市、十里水街昼夜灯火通明的康乾盛世历史场景逐一恢复展现。成千的舟楫,上万的人物,鳞次的建筑,一条嘈嘈戚戚古水街,百年错错综综河上事,表达在1 5米的历史长卷之中。这是杭州城北及其强大的一块世俗文化,一块可以申遗的文化。






望 海 潮

























设计图通常用电脑制作,对我来说,目前方案阶段的最佳软件是S k e t c h U p,快速直观、调整方便,基本成型后倒上材质,连尺寸材料都在了,本图就是SketchUp完成后用Photoshop水彩处理效果,使设计师在施工图阶段有个更加明确的指示。整个项目的所有建筑、景观、桥梁都可用这一方法,速度极快,半年间我独立完成了该运河三公里多建筑、桥梁、放水站的全部建筑设计。





答:当我在现时的背景条件下恢复一条运河的古貌时,我是矛盾的。完全仿古呢?还是完全现代?还是吸取古代的元素成为现时的新古典主义?这是所有建筑师都面临过的老问题,难问题。因为我想给城市一个记忆,给运河一个亮点,所以我选择的是功能第一,首先做液态,没有利用就没有保护,保护和利用是矛盾的对立。既然这样,我希望所有的建筑要有古代的精神元素,又要有现代的功能要求。在消防、排污、暖通、集散等功能满足前期下,我想将建筑做成艺术品,恢复场地佚失的文化。功能性建筑完成之后,它的饰面色彩、材质搭配、疏密关系就显得相当的重要。再加上这些精雕细刻的黄杨木雕,建筑就显得格外的文气、考究和耐读。当然价格很贵,正宗的黄杨木每米都上万元,但业主非常支持。我在5 0度左右的高温下,带着斗志高昂的民工们,硬将湖墅八景创作出来,制成木雕。我很明白这些作品今后就是文物,就是历史