Turning castles into kilns

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Architects and preservationists are denouncing ham-fisted restoration efforts as blunders

Mac Citadel before restoration

Mac Citadel is transformed into a new brick-kiln after restoration

Kim Lien Temple in Hanoi, which was restored at the cost of a mind-boggling VND36 billion (US$1.8 million) has preservationists up in arms against the lazy rebuilding efforts.

One of four sacred sites in Hanoi, the temple was restored in anticipation of the city's thousand year anniversary, earlier this year.

The massive restoration which finished just two weeks before the big celebration was undertaken to preserve the site's entrance.

Critics claim that the restoration turned out to be a huge waste of money and did more harm than good.

According to architect Doan Duc Thanh from the Vietnam Association of Architects, the project's contractor and investor demolished the original gate of the temple to build an entirely new one.

The original gate consisted of two pillars decorated with traditional artistic patterns and had been designed in relative proportion to the temple, Thanh said. The pillars were low and open to visitors, in keeping with temple tradition.

Thanh argues that the project transformed the relatively unimposing entrance into a massive barrier complete with five heavy wooden doors. The final product, he claims, turns out to be a virtual duplicate of the gate outside the town's famed Lang Pagoda.

 "It is not an exaggeration to say that relic restorers nowadays are very lazy in their design research," Thanh said. "They just copy a certain beautiful model and apply it to the restoration of many other relics. The new gate dwarfs the modest temple inside. They totally abandoned the traditional design."

Thanh noted that the temple's original architect had reserved the sacred image of rong chau mat nguyet (flanking dragons waiting for the moon) for the apex of the temple roof. The new gate, he pointed out, features the image above its doors.

"I don't understand why they had to demolish the old gate at the Kim Lien Temple, a very historical relic dating back to 16th century," said architect Le Thanh Vinh, director of the Institute for Relics Conservation. Vinh recently won first prize for heritage conservation (in the Asia-Pacific Region) from the Union of International Architects and he is not pleased with the current efforts.

"In my opinion, the construction of a new gate at Kim Lien Temple partially destroyed the historical value of the site," he said.

Bigger not always better

Nom Pagoda with new structures imported from foreign country, comparing to its first restoration in 1692

Critics have made similar claims about the demolition of two ancient towers in the garden of the Tran Quoc Pagoda. The original temple at Tran Quoc was constructed in the sixth century during the reign of Emperor

Ly Nam De (503-548) on an islet in Hanoi's West Lake. Its original name, Khai Quoc, translated to "founding the country."

The two original towers were replaced by an 11-story monolith. Today, the restored tower stands high above every other temple in the capital.

"That indeed [represents] the demolition of our ancestor's vestige," said cultural heritage researcher Tran Lam Bien. "The new tower not only destroyed the cozy, friendly atmosphere of the garden, but also violates the tower-building principle in Vietnam, which limits construction to five stories."

Bien also decried a bungling effort to maintain the eight Bodhisattva statues at the Huu Bang Pagoda. He claims that, when the project began, the 17th century statues had a beautiful, natural color. The pagoda's managers repainted the holy figures in new colors and gold trim. According to Bien, the restoration left the holy figures looking artificial.

Bien believes that the choices made during this restoration effort belie a total lack of cultural and historical sensitivity.

"The new paints ultimately make it more difficult for researchers to determine the age of the relics," said Trang Thanh Hien, a lecturer at the University of Fine Arts. "Covering the statues in gold trim reveals a poor understanding of Buddhist artistic traditions. Bodhisattva is the saint who volunteers to live on earth among humans; only the statues' face and hands are allowed to be trimmed with gold."

Turning wood into stone

Some restoration teams have gone one step further, employing entirely new construction materials in their restoration projects. In a horrifying restoration gone wrong, the team turned the wooden Bach Bridge in Thanh Hoa Province to stone.

A number of Le Dynasty's structures have been "restored" using totally different materials.

Recently, a half-million dollar restoration project, of the 418-yearold Mac Citadel came out looking like a new brick-kiln "decorated" with a fence made of iron and stainless steel.

According to writer Phu Ninh, former director of Tuyen Quang Province's Department of Culture, "restoration work should seek to preserve an object's original design, but, here they've completely remodeled a national relic."

Historian Duong Trung Quoc claims that the director of the Department of Cultural Heritages at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism didn't know anything about the blunder until he called their attention to it.

"The fact that this national relic is managed by the ministry raises doubts about its ability to supervise effective preservation work," Quoc said.

At Nom Pagoda in Hung Yen Province, a senior monk decided to order a statue of the goddess of mercy from China. The statue is now placed in the middle of their new goddess's tower.

Researcher Bien said that legitimate restoration efforts often cost more time and money than demolition and re-construction. In this way, these projects are highly susceptible to errors.

"Such blunders, in my opinion, are caused by three major factors: shallow or incorrect understanding of history and culture; budgetary constraints, including time and money; and, lastly, hiring contractors, who are only interested in turning a profit, to do restoration work."

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