Preserving Huế's symbolic wooden houses

March, 13/2022 - 08:20

Wooden houses are the fine ancient buildings that form the typical architecture and are a key part of the historical and cultural heritage of the former royal capital city of Huế. But sadly, over the years, they have not always been looked after with due care.

 

Wooden house, or Huế’s traditional 'rường' house, is a structure with beams and pillars enforced by timber and bamboo connectors, without the use of any iron nails. Photo tcnhadep.com

Wooden houses are the fine ancient buildings that form the typical architecture and are a key part of the historical and cultural heritage of the former royal capital city of Huế. But sadly, over the years, they have not always been looked after with due care.

However, they are now set to become part of a programme that will restore the houses (locally called rường houses) to keep the city's heritage and promote tourism.

To preserve the cultural values of the houses, the central province of Thừa Thiên-Huế is aiming to build a brand associated with the city’s unique tourism, preserving their heritage and making them a symbol of the ancient royal capital, according to a Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism report.

Rường houses are Huế’s traditional wooden houses and have a unique structure with beams and pillars enforced by timber and bamboo connectors, without the use of any iron nails.

Phan Thanh Hải, director of the Thừa Thiên-Huế Department of Culture and Sports, highlighted the traditional accommodation, saying the houses were inextricably linked to the history of the city.

“It is a cultural space, a constituent and essential part of Huế culture. In the past, most residential areas in the imperial city of Huế, from the palaces in the inner citadel to the houses of the higher or lower classes, were built in the rường style,” said Hải, who was also a former director of the Huế Monuments Conservation Centre.

Hải said Huế’s wooden houses were respectful, solemn, but cosy private rooms mixed with the classical style of the imperial palace.

The houses were usually built with ornate gardens, often designed as elaborately as the houses themselves.

Although the architectural works occupy a modest proportion of the property, they manifest as a perfect space, with an entire complex including the main house, outbuildings, shrines, partition screens and gates.

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Despite the ups and downs of history, An Hiên House is a remarkable building that has stood the test of time. -- Photo silkpathhotel.com

The design and architecture are self-contained, and the main house is always in the central position, said Hải.

He said people only dared to build a rường house only when they reached the age of  fifties. The house and the attached garden would be carefully protected because they represented the owner’s identity, culture and social position.

Hồ Thắng, director of the city's Science and Technology Department, said that what made the houses unique was the construction materials, including jackfruit, hollong and vatica wood.

Huế is home to much typical 19th-century feudal architecture such as palaces, pagodas, temples, tombs and residences.

Compared to the wooden house style in northern Việt Nam, Huế’s rường houses are often thinner and different in style. Thin pillars and a roof decorated with dragons or stylised flowers and leaves can be found in such buildings, according to Thắng.

He was speaking at a scientific workshop themed “Conserving and Promoting Huế Cultural Values in Building the Brand of rường houses,” recently held in Huế by the Science and Technology Department.

The event was aimed at promoting the cultural values of Huế’s wooden houses, making them a symbol of the ancient capital.

Promotion and conservation

Based on the opinions of many experts, the branding of rường houses is expected to be conserved and developed along with other famous features of Huế.  

Rường houses are said to be the local 'intellectual products.' They resulted from people selecting optimal technical solutions and conveying an all-encompassing architectural style. However, many have been damaged over the years, with structures degraded due to ineffective conservation, too much tourism or poor management.

 

Decorative details on the roof of a wooden house in Huế. -- Photo tcnhadep.com

The People’s Council of Thừa Thiên-Huế Province in 2006 issued a resolution on protecting Huế wooden houses for 2006-2010 and continued it again 2015-2020. However, as the number for conservation was too large and supporting policies had not been appropriately applied, many owners, particularly those of large houses, faced difficulties in preservation.

Officials said many challenges appeared, including those relating to owners who were often co-heirs or inheritance representatives.

Experts say an action plan should be made to develop the rường house’s brand (geographical indication or shared label). Artisans, house owners, and businesses should be brought under “one roof” to protect and manage the famed houses.

To develop brand recognition and widely advertise across the country and abroad, some experts at the workshop suggested policies should be adopted to ensure the preservation and development of wooden houses by promoting sustainable materials in the restoration, vocational training and site planning for units restoring such old-style houses.

Surveys on the architecture, cultural and historical value of rường houses should be conducted to set up funding programmes for conservation and protection of heritage.

 

A corner in the wooden house of Lê Thị Túy at 2/3 Phú Mộng Street, Kim Long Ward, Huế City. Photo bvhttdl.gov.vn

A rường house museum is expected to be established to boost tourism. The heritage should be included in the tourism strategy, contributing to publicising Huế culture and generating income for owners.

Nguyễn Thị Ái Vân, vice chairwoman of the provincial People’s Council, said the conservation work must be practical to help promote heritage values.

“‘Promote’ here means to work with tourism so that to help rường houses ‘exist’ and be passed down from generation to generation, and avoid deformation and concretisation,” Vân said.

An Hiên garden house

Traditional wooden houses are a Huế cultural heritage, and among them An Hiên is one of the finest examples.

Located at 58 Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, Kim Long Ward, Huế City, not far from Thiên Mụ Pagoda and Huế Imperial Citadel, the famous rường house faces the romantic landscape of the Hương River, similar to other ancient architecture built on the northern bank.

It was cited in historical documents about Huế in the mid-17th century when Lord Nguyễn Phúc Lan selected Kim Long as a centre of Đàng Trong (the Southern Realm), during what was a golden period.

Under Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945), Phú Xuân became the centre of Đàng Trong and later, the capital of Việt Nam. More and more royals and noble families built residencies in Kim Long, and An Hiên house was among them.

People cannot avoid ups and downs no matter how powerful and wealthy they are, and so it has been with the owners of An Hiên house, with the residence passing through many different owners.

According to a document recording the history of An Hiên, its very first owner was the daughter of Emperor Đức Dục in 1883. By 1895, it was under the management of Phạm Đăng Khanh who started to renovate it.

The house passed through many hands from 1975 to 1997. For some time, it was known as Madame Tuần Chi’s house, belonging to Governor Nguyễn Đình Chi’s wife. Here, she received hundreds of delegations, including foreign VIPs, on their visits to Huế.

Inside a wooden house. Photo nhagothachthat.net

In 2018, the house covering 4,600sq.m was transferred to the Silk Path Hotel Company for management and restoration. Many Huế residents were worried commercial use would damage the old style of the house, but fortunately, the company restored the unique values effectively.

Provided the restoration of rường houses is carried out with due care and respect, these beautiful ancient buildings will remain the pride of the Huế people forever. VNS

 

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