Relive Matera – UNESCO experience dawns on conservation of China’s cultural relics

  1. What was Matera used to be like ten years ago? Why people are moving away from it?

Matera in the South Italy is a primordial dwelling settlement based on cave – houses carved in the stones and therefore called the “Sassi” (The Rocks). In the 50s this way of living was considered inacceptable for the he modernity. The Sassi of Matera was declared  “a national shame” and 20,000 inhabitants were forced to move to new quarters. The abandoned houses became State property and were walled in order to prevent people from living in the caves. Consequently, the Sassi of Matera became a desert town: the largest historic centre of Europe that was completely abandoned. The dwellings not inhabited and aired underwent a rapid degradation process as well as the rock–hewn churches boasting  beautiful medieval frescoes.

  1. What is the key principle in preserving Matera and what measures have been taken to make it work?

After the mass migration of the inhabitants of the rock dwelling city of Sassi di Matera, in the 1980s emerged the will to preserve it, but no one seemed to envisage how. Some wanted to leave the site as it was: abandoned, as a testimony of what had happened in the past. Others proposed to make the dwellings inhabitable again by a bold effort of reclamation with rehabilitation and all necessary transformation. In the first option the Sassi of Matera would have remained deserted: a museum city, impossible to preserve. In the second option the reclamation would have involved demolition and reconstruction with an addition of new construction. The solution would have only been caused by the return of the inhabitants after the necessary restorations compatible with the preservation of its character. We have used the principles of the new vision of the landscape that in those years the UNESCO elaborated. The landscape is build by the people. It is balance of nature and culture. It is movement and change. It is not possible to keep the landscape as a museum but it is necessary to propose those changes in harmony with the historical evolutionary process.

  1. Since when are people moving back to Matera? Are there any incentives and why they are moving back?

In order to realize the return of the inhabitants a new vision was needed along with a new interpretation, in order to bring back the memory, instigating passion and the interests of the citizens, with the involvement of associations, the commitment of intellectuals and volunteers, by stimulating the will and the pride of the community. It needed to present an image and a promotion as cultural and economic endeavor. All this was achieved with the inscription of the Matera as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the first such site in southern Italy. The inscription overturned the paradigm of Matera as a shame and generated the new vision of the site. It was also necessary to give the example. When I did the UNESCO candidature I have restored a grotto-house and I have lived with my family in the caverns. This has been possible inserting all the modern facilities in the houses without to alter the aspect. As incentive the State has paid 50% of restoration expenses. With the new image, the tourism and the increase of the value of the habitations more and more persons are returned.

  1. Who are the residents now living in there, and how has their life there contribute to a balanced ecosystem in Matera?

The residents are intellectuals, architects, working class, professors, students and young married. There are also many foreign people. We do not think that is a problem the change of the type of inhabitants. We consider citizens of Matera all those that are identified in the qualities and the meaning of these places. They promote the process of restoration reusing traditional technologies in an innovative way like rehabilitating the cisterns to harvest rainfall water, restoring terraced garden and inhabiting the cave dwellings using the internal microclimates. They became part of the brilliant Matera ecosystem saving water and energy, recreating the community, choosing a way of living slow, green and health, a model of sustainability.

  1. What is the status of Matera in Italy now?

Matera has become a national and international tourist attraction and has been an increasing demand to repopulate the city that has led to the valorization of houses and cave dwellings. At present, 4,000 people are come back and other houses are undergoing restoration works, the most important example of urban rehabilitation in the Mediterranean. It is the demonstration of resilience of the historical settlements and that the vernacular architecture and the traditional techniques are not something of surpassed but a genial knowledge system, which from the distant past points out new solutions. With this theme Matera has won the candidacy, against the most important and beautiful cities of Italy, for being European Capital of Culture for 2019. This crowns a success started with the UNESCO inscription and the new vision and narrative developed for the candidature.

  1. Are there any universal practices that China can borrow from Matera’s experience? Could you give us some examples?

In nature the elements water, air, earth, energy are related one another in a continuous recycling circle and nothing goes wasted but everything is continually renewed. This principle, at the basis of traditional knowledge, has determined in the past the proper management of ecosystem and the creation of landscapes. With adapted innovative techniques based on the traditions, it is possible to obtain water from the atmosphere, energy from the sun, soil and fertilizers from recycling: a harmonious human progress compatible with cultures and nature. The recovery of the villages does not only concern the architectonic aspect but these principles that make part of the ancient Chinese culture of the landscape. China has much good restored extraordinary places like Lijang in the Yunnan and Xehe in the Henan. Sometimes the rebuilding activities are too much heavy like in some ancient quarters of Beijing. Each situation is different but, when it is possible, it is better keep the authentic fabric and restore instead of rebuilding. Other situations, as the wonderful landscape of the terraced fields of Honge in the Yunnan, are of more difficult maintaining. To preserve this landscape it necessary to assure an economic return to the habitants. But if we increase the agriculture production with the industrialisation we destroy the places. The solution in Italy has been to increase the value of the typical products exalting the variety and quality, the organic characters and the brand as heritage place. The typical food production safeguards both the aesthetic and environmental quality of the landscape, since the old production systems are possible thanks to the maintenance of traditional techniques of soil management. Others revenues to the populations are derived from the echo tourism and the directed tourist hospitality in the families of the villages where light interpretation centers are created. These considerations are true even in other sectors ranging from quality articles, handicraft, materials for the bio architecture, haute couture and fashion, real estate and the building market. The most refined production houses are proud to list the traditional techniques they use in their manufacturing methods and the success of so many companies is actually due to the capacity to incorporate tradition into their processes or to be located in traditional environments or historical villages.

  1. You’ve travelled to quite a few places in China, are there any impressive places of interests? Do you think they need better preservation? If so, how?

China has the world’s largest and ancient heritage of Traditional Knowledge. For millennia local techniques and practices were passed on through the generations and used for water harvesting, soil management, use and protection of natural areas, rural architecture and for organising urban centres. The Chinese people historical knowledge allowed building architectures and landscapes with a universal value many of they now inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. However today, traditional knowledge is in danger and its disappearance would cause the loss of people’s capability to keep and pass on the artistic and natural heritage. With the abandon of the villages, mountain systems, being no longer protected by human interaction, have lost their ability to absorb water and mitigate climate. Landslides, rain-wash and flooding are becoming more frequent, with particularly dire effects on plains and coasts where watercourses have been cemented, contributing, together with urbanization, to the consumption of soil. A new environmental and urban design based on blue and natural engineering is necessary. We need to inventory, protect and reuse traditional knowledge as an extraordinary source of knowledge and cultural diversity from which appropriate innovative solutions can be derived today and in the future. Using traditional knowledge does not mean to reapply directly the techniques of the past, but rather to understand the logic of this model of knowledge to create projects based on innovative sound technologies. Starting from Matera UNESCO experience a methodology of inventory has been elaborated by IPOGEA and the International Traditional Knowledge Institute (ITKI) to gather and protect historical knowledge and promotes and certifies innovative practices and the modern reuse of tradition as well.

  1. In your opinion, what is sustainable development and how to achieve sustainable development?

The development is sustainable when not destroyed the natural resources and when it is oriented towards the wellbeing of the people and transmitted nature and heritage to the future generations. The climatic change and the economical situation demonstrated the errors done until now. We cannot face the global crises applying the methods that caused it: technocracy, waste of resources, undifferentiated approach for all countries, top-down approach. A new paradigm is required and scholars, researcher, international bodies, administrators, local activists and associations put forward various strategies: sustainable development; the green economy; a third industrial revolution based on alternative energy sources; zero emissions; zero km; the slow-economy; design for poverty; ecosystems harmonic management theories. These are all points of interest today. What is true however is that effort for change must involve, first of all, the Knowledge, and the answers must be fitting with each specific sites and draw from the material and immaterial heritage deriving from cultural diversity and from local situations. We need landscape as we need water, air, soil and energy: these are commons. Like all other resources, they are not substance but cycles. We propose traditional knowledge and its innovative use to underline wisdom and people. It is necessary be engaged everywhere in the comprehension of the pattern of signs, in the perpetuation of the meanings, to recovery the relation between nature and culture.

China Daily
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