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New Conservation Architecture protects age-old carvings at Qianfoya Cliffs in Sichuan

by Nick Goodyer on Aug 15, 2017 in Top Story
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Part of the challenge for the conservation team was the cliff-face location

Part of the challenge for the conservation team was the cliff-face location

An innovative and conservation architecture in Sichuan is protecting centuries-old rock carvings at Qianfoya Cliffs from the elements

Sichuan Province in central China is well known for its many historical sites, such as the Leshan Giant Buddha and the ancient Buddhist temples on and around Mount Emei. Not quite so well known — at least outside China — are the inscriptions and figures carved into the Qianfoya Cliffs, near Guangyuan in the north of the province. Also known as Thousand Buddha Cliffs, the carvings dateto the 4th century and the North Wei Dynasty.

The site comprises dozens of caves and alcoves, on many levels

The site comprises dozens of caves and alcoves, on many levels

The figures and inscriptions are to be found in 23 caves and alcoves, stretching for 200m, and 45m high on the bank of the Jialing river. In some places they occupy 13 levels. Their location, chosen to impress boat travellers on the waters below, has also been to their detriment, exposed as they are to the extremes of the climate, including heavy rains in the summer and strong, erosive winds in the winter. Given the fact they're not only historically important but also a major tourist attraction, something had to be done to save them.

The cantilevered structure does not touch the cliff, or indeed the relics upon its face

The cantilevered structure does not touch the cliff, or indeed the relics upon its face

In 2014 the National Administration of Cultural Heritage began to explore methods of protecting the important 410 sq-m site. The initial phase of the project was concerned with environmental monitoring — establishing just how much rain, wind and sun the site gets, and how the natural stone reacts to it. This revealed something that came as a surprise to those involved: while it was beneficial to directly protect the figures, cutting them off entirely from the outside world would do more harm than good; it was crucial to maintain the prevailing microclimate yet shield the relics from direct exposure.

Grey roof tiles, similar to those used around the region, form the surface of the structure

Grey roof tiles, similar to those used around the region, form the surface of the structure

"The challenge was to provide a protective filter from the eroding agents, at the same time merging it with the natural landscape and using local traditional materials and construction techniques, yet keeping the visual memory of the Buddha caves when covered," says Andrea Giannotti of the Culture Heritage Protection Center of Tsinghua University's Architectural Design and Research Institute (THAD), chosen for the project. THAD was given the job due to its work on various high-profile projects in the country, including the Hebei Provincial Museum, Chengdu's Jinsha Relics Museum (for which it won a national award), and the Xuzhou Concert Hall.

This is an excerpt from the “Weathering history" article from the Jul/Aug 2017 double issue of Perspective magazine.

To continue reading, get your copy of Perspective.

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