by Doan Duc Thanh and An Vu
|Feat of engineering: Assistant professor Phan Y Thuan (l) at the completed Tam Quan gate. — VNS Photos
A communal house in Ha Noi's Long Bien District dating back to the 12th century has come under threat following the development of a new urban area.
One of its finest features, a 300-year-old gate, was particularly at risk from being waterlogged until Assistant Professor Phan Y Thuan stepped in.
The three-door gate forms the entrance to the Le Mat Communal House Complex, which also contains a temple, a pagoda and a shrine. The complex has been lovingly cared for over the centuries, with the first restoration work commissioned during the time of King Le Huyen Tong (1662-1671).
Thuan works for the Ha Noi Institute of Coastal and Offshore Engineering under the National University of Civil Engineering, and despite not being of royal lineage, he was determined to try and save the gate.
In 1998, the Le Mat Communal house complex Dynasty house was named a national historical site, and the gate in particular is one of the finest in Viet Nam.
It has two tiers topped by three watch towers, covered in dragons, unicorns, clouds and waves.
In July 2011, Long Bien District authorities started a project to repair and restore the 41,040 sq.m complex at an estimated cost of VND76 billion (US$ 1.583 million).
Initially, project leaders planned to rebuild the gate on higher ground, but then Thuan suggested a more radical approach: lifting the 80 tonne construction and building new foundations.
|Novel innovation: Thuan says he does not expect his method to be used widely, but hopes that his students learnt something from the project and their experiences can be shared.
By doing so, it would save VND600 million ($28,805).
After being invited to carry out the work, Thuan, his family and 40 students from the National University of Civil Engineering came up with a plan to put steel girders under the foundations of the gate to support the construction while it was being lifted.
On November 11, drilling started on the existing foundations, but having been exposed to water for a prolonged period of time, the bricks were soft and crumbled easily.
"When I accepted the project, I knew I was faced with several challenges.
It was a race against time because we had a deadline to meet, we started late, and the foundations were becoming more unstable," recalls Thuan.
But he was buoyed by the welcome he received from locals and the energetic support of his family and students. "They were like my right arm during the project, and I also had the help of two top engineers during the most difficult period," he adds.
After the weight of the gate had been spread across 46 jacks and an iron frame, it took the team a painstaking three days, lifting the giant structure millimetre by millimetre, before they got it to the required height of nearly 1.5m
"I think by applying a scientific approach, we improved our chances of completing the job successfully. Before me, well-known farmer Nguyen Cam Luy successfully moved the three-door gate of Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, and lifted Nai Am Communal house in Da Nang. However, I think his methods were a bit primitive because he lacked modern equipment, but take nothing away from him, he pioneered the idea of moving huge constructions in Viet Nam," says Thuan.
Thuan says he does not expect his method to be used widely, but hopes that his students learnt something from the project and their experiences can be shared.
"I think that any architect could have done it. It is a small contribution we have made to society. Do not exaggerate it in your story," smiles Thuan. — VNS