'Architectural Heritage' in the modern sense is quite a new concept derived from the enlightenment modernity (abbreviated as modernity below). In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the European society started to phase out of the pre-industrial period and wished for a new and wholly rational era, how to deal with the physical remains of the past civilizations, such as architectural monuments and historic places, became an inevitable challenge. Presumably as a resistance to the radical social changes in this period, a heated debate on how to deal with the old and new districts in the city was raised among the architectural pioneers in the West. This debate lasted for more than a century, leading to the birth of modern architectural heritage conservation.
The essence of modernity lies first in the acceptance of evolutionary approach based on instrumental rationality. For this reason, the continued renewal of architecture seems a matter of course. Old buildings not suited to contemporary times should justifiably be replaced by new ones to embody the concept of material modernity in architecture. For example, in the mid-19th century, Haussmann Plan made fundamental changes to old Paris city in order to solve the political and social problems at that time. During this process over half of the old buildings built since the medieval times were removed. Such material modernization seemed as radical as the Great French Revolution happened more than half a century before at the same place. Ironically, the radical changes in Paris during this period awakened value rationality in architecture, leading to the birth of heritage conservation laws in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. From then on, drastic demolishment and reconstruction could no longer go unchecked.
A century later, the similar progression of city reconstruction took place in China. The 'curse' of material rationality swept across the country, and the radical reconstruction of the existing built areas has led to the disappearance of many historic places. However, it is worth noting that most architectural heritages conserved in Paris are earlier industrial artifacts from the Neo-classical period, whereas most historic places in the urban and rural areas of China are relics from the pre-industrial age and turned out to be too difficult to be preserved in today’s socio-economic context. Therefore, we have forever lost or been going to lose the local diversity of historical environment and 'native feeling' (F. L. Wright). Here lie three vital problems that we Chinese professionals need to encounter together. The first is how many heritages can we retain during the radical urban development? The second is how many today’s architecture could be turned into tomorrow’s architectural heritage? And the third is could today’s architecture preserve any identity of the time and place? In effect, all these issues are vital to the ‘soft power’ of a society.
Since the advent of the new millennium, the spread of globalization and urbanization has dissolved regional cultural differences with a higher speed and endangered local traditions to a greater extent. Yet the desire for local identity and heritage conservation is also becoming stronger all over the world. In China, we are happy to see that architectural conservation has gradually been accepted by the public, and has become one of the social values and moral doctrines. More importantly, people start to realize that many historic architecture and places are still in use in our daily life, and the purpose of architectural conservation is to efficiently control change rather than to restrain development. In this sense, conservation is composed of two equally important aspects. One is preservation which means keeping the original historic artifacts. The other is continuation which means the essential spatial addition to the preserved historic artifacts in order to achieve regeneration. Here regeneration refers to ‘revitalization’ or ‘adaptive reuse’ rebased on preservation and continuation. Thus, architectural heritage conservation should not be treated separately, but should be put in the context of regional economic and social development.
The history of architectural heritage research can be traced back to more than 80 years ago when Zhu Qiqian established the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture in 1930. Zhu’s research contributed to the discipline of Chinese architectural history established by Liang Sicheng and Liu Dunzhen and provided the academic foundation for the preservation and renovation of traditional architectural heritage. However, considering the socio-political atmosphere of the 1930s, the aim of their research is to organize, evaluate, and chronicle the historical documents and material remains in order to search for the national identity through architectural vocabulary. This led to a prolonged debate between traditional styles and modern styles lasted for several decades, whils