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The Middle Empire.

jeudi 15 janvier 2009, par Frédéric COUSTOLS, Jean Landré

The adventure of 2 friends in search of their common passion, landscapes shaped by history and time

finding a Landmark

My aim was to find an old Landmark in China to add to the collection,
a beautiful landscape where I could work a few years on the architecture, design and landscape according to the principles of the Carta de Venezia and associating all the last technologies, to bring the place to modernity, while insuring its sustainability.

Denis had just showed me his first FACESCAPES to become a series of explorations into the commonality of the human condition in different parts of the world. I felt moved by his work and when I received an invitation to visit China we decided, at once, to go together. The Ying and the Yang of life ! This was our premise for joining forces.

First impressions in China

Images of multitudes, and memory of the Cultural Revolution washing out all beauty, fill your mind when you land in China. Your expectations are to find : Ruined monuments to failed ideologies. But your first impression, your first feeling is so rich, so far away from those clichés.

Urban landscape

The urban landscape in Beijing (Peking) and Guangzhou (Canton), the only two big metropolises we visited give the impression of being built by unknown giants. The huge buildings, that surround you in the far away, seem to have been dropped there, at random, for unknown users and definitively not inhabited by the people living there. Just as if things where not designed for manhood, as if they did not concern men.
There seems to be no centre, anywhere, to hold on to. But when you get out of the cab and focus your eyes at street level you suddenly perceive the beat of a massive, holistic energy. The offering and endless cornucopia of hospitality and giving.

Your immediate reaction is to spell aloud Lao-Tzu’s words written so long ago in the same China.
"“The Tao is always at ease
It overcomes without competing,
Answers without speaking a word,
Arrives without being summoned,
Accomplishes without a plan…”

And suddenly you perceive that the centre is not to be found anywhere else than where you are.

The Middle Empire.

In the 16th century, after a long history of more than 3500 years China (and India) where responsible for 75% of the world trade. China was called the Middle Empire (or Center of the World). Europe was at war most of the time, discovering the world known by the Chinese long ago. The USA was not yet born. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, after a long period of isolation that lasted almost 200 years China has become the manufacturer for the world. Almost all of today’s manufactured items made in China are produced under non Chinese International patents, according to specifications not for one moment concerned with issues of sustainability.

Consequently increasing pollution, the depletion of the land, consumption of non renewable resources at a much too fast pace, the destruction of the magnificent and alive biodiversity of our planet Earth. The complex beauty we inherited is at stake and, as we belong to the same reign, so is our own survival, and that of our children.

"Things will become really terrible if we do not take environmental pollution more seriously" just said Gong Li at the last CPPCC’s meeting in Beijing.

The world of oil and ink
Painting of ZAO Xian Feng.
Xanghai gallery Nov. 2007

Own Earth-Friendly Brands

Today, China may be the only country to have the knowledge, skills, power and economic, social and political structure to develop its own
Earth-Friendly Brands. Branded products that would use renewable energy, be non-polluting and biodegradable, which would magnify the image of China as being the country really serving the people in their best interest in complete harmony with the present knowledge we have of the System Earth. A system, in a majority of cases, which is rejected by leading international brands, (very often against their own will) driven as they are, by accounting and statistic principals totally obsolete.
Thus China would create a huge and powerful shift in the world exchange, at a plus cost with no real impact on its present level of exportation.

As Gunnar F. Gerlach likes saying :
History exists not in our memory of the past, but in the everyday. Now and then”.

Let us dream of China, long ago known as the Middle Empire, making this fundamental move, using its knowledge and skills to bring some balance to the way business is conducted. Let us hope, for the sake of all of us, that China makes this shift and write this new page of history.

Travelling around the country with our friend Qui Lan, reading, listening to people from all conditions, just brought confirmation of the feasibility of it all. And the discovery of a very old dilapidated Landmark, in the Guilin region, built in the middle of a beautiful landscape, confirmed our idea to develop a small show case project.

The foundations have been laid :

 The Guilin Community has already almost won the war against pollution and noise in the City by introducing the use of electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles,
 The Guilin City Surrounding Water System Construction and development Co. LTD has, already, thanks to their achievement, won, the China Human Settlements and Environment-Demonstration Award demonstrating by such actions their own awareness and commitment to these questions.
 The Longji District has understood the power of those concepts, preserving its magnificent landscape while developing its economy in harmony with the surrounding nature and it’s long age traditions.
 The CPPCC has been concerned with this issues for the 2 last years, and came this year with new efficient and interesting proposals
 Quality and freshness of all local products, that already supplies everyday all the big metropolis of the country
 Exceptional Beauty of that part of the Guangzi Province (the only one we have visited).
 The present level of the GNP in China
 The organizational structure of decision.
 The incremental cost for the shift required in the production process of all products in order to guarantee their sustainability would be really marginal for the consumers abroad if we consider the present huge discrepancy existing between the GDP per capita in China to the one of the countries to which those products are sold.
 The fast shift of the Chinese production process to Earth Friendly Products would increase China’s image and good will for many years and would constitute for the country itself a strong and lasting asset.

The Yangshuo’s Show Case Project that Denis Piel and myself with our team are interested in developing in the Guangxi Province marries perfectly with these initiatives


A DaST (Design a Sustainable Tomorrow) Project.

As in the rest of the world, in China many age old designs and techniques are being lost. Our objective is to rethink traditional methods and materials used in the Yangshuo district to make them relevant to modern needs. This work will not be done for the sake of nostalgia, but to move forward and participate, modestly, in a new chapter of China’s history by creating unpretentious, useful and simple products to improve people’s daily life At each level of the process we will adopt the principles of sustainable development.

With the help of Qui Lan and a group of students of architecture and Landscape design from the Universities of Beijing and Guangzhou, and with a group of professionals, we shall set up workshops initially to conduct a feasibility study to :

 Research the history of this very old Landmark (belonging to the Chinese’s Cultural Heritage of the Guangzi Province)
 Inventory all practices and traditional techniques used by the people living in Yangshuo
 Restore two houses and create gardens before extending the work to the whole Landmark and surroundings, and create a residence for artists.
 Create small family owned ateliers to craft specific products related to the land and the local traditions.
 Imagine and build a garden (100 hectares of which 90 are already beautifully landscaped farmland) in the surroundings, dedicated to the concept of sustainability.
 Calculate the footprint of the community before and after implementation of the project
 Denis Piel will produce his second a series of explorations into the commonality of the human condition in different parts of the world ; this film to be conducted through personal interviews and a series of intimate portraits, the first having been done of inhabitants of a village in France.

Artists residences

In addition, we will explore the possibility of opening the houses as a residence for artists and students from the Midi Pyrenées, Barcelona and Valence province, and Portugal for at least one month a year. Workshops could also be created in each of these countries, developing a reciprocal arrangement in Europe,

As an ongoing process we shall develop a website, monitor all steps and publish a book.

strongest allies

The Chinese endless cornucopia of hospitality and giving
The Quality of the People living in the area
Their Dignity, friendliness, education, professionalism.
A very old Chinese tradition to love and respect Nature


I would like to add, as a last word, that the Chinese motto :
"Truth, Kindness, Beauty”
Means in our today language “Sustainability.”
And quote once again Lao-Tzu’s writing 2500 years ago in the Tao Te Ching (translation by S. Mitchell, published by HarperCollins Publishing Inc) “always be aware when things are out of balance (53)“ isn’t it another very strong literary definition of the concept of sustainability ?
As you can see, China, with such a record, is ”the” country where the shift has all chances to come from.
All information and help are welcome

A DaST [1] (Design a Sustainable Tomorrow) Project.
August 2007
 Frederic Coustols
 Denis Piel

Websites :

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[1"Create links and value between Landscape, Architectural Heritage, traditional activities and social habits while introducing a sustainable and modern way of life."