By Kendra Tombolato
Indulging in the slippery goodness of oyster meat is not a novel concept. The salt-water molluscs have been a viable food source in China since the Qing dynasty, with globalization now raising their popularity and price tag to meet a new class of eager gourmands.
Beyond their meat’s culinary intrigue, though, the oysters’ outer shells are often discarded without a second thought. Shucked, sucked and on to the next.
In Fujian, however, the ornate shell-adorned walls of southern villages like Xunpu offer an alternate ending for these calcium carbonate bodily remains. At first glance, the shell walls of the village’s remaining 100 historic homes seem to offer mere artistic appeal, an homage to the area’s main industry – oyster farming. But this assumption denies these ancient builders their full credit, as the shells also provide structural integrity and weather-proofing to the buildings which they encapsule.
Oysters in their living form also have a valuable role to play in construction. New York-based architect Kate Orff coined the new English-ism “Oyster-tecture” to describe the use of oyster reefs in aquatic architecture, but in China the practice can be traced back to 1059. The first recorded (and, for that matter, still-standing) example of such is the Luoyang Bridge in the UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Quanzhou, Fujian.
The location of the Luoyang Bridge, fabled for its gusty winds and changeable water levels, demanded this innovation. Originally, a ferry existed between the two banks, but the poor conditions lead to unreliable crossings at best and devastating accidents at worst. Next, a pontoon bridge was installed, stone piers on either bank connected by a series of floating wood planks. This solution, however, faced the same fate as its predecessor, frequent and unavoidable obliteration.
Then, in 1058, the high-ranking scholar Cai Xiang came along with a new concept for the bridge: cultivating oyster reefs around the foundational piers. This method reinforced the piers structurally and the oyster reefs created a natural, sustainable defense against the formidable weather surges, bolstering them against storms.
Fast-forward nearly a thousand years and architecture firms in New York are using oysters in multi-million dollar projects like Living Breakwaters to combat climate change by mitigating flood damage, harnessing natural water filtration systems, and reintroducing marine ecosystems. It may have a new-fangled name in Oyster-tecture, but, in essence, it is a reimagining of Cai Xiang’s millennia-old method of cultivating oyster-reefs.
A Weekend in Historic Quanzhou
Embark on a voyage of legend and philosophy in the place where faraway lands meet, at the entrance of the ancient Maritime Silk Road: Quanzhou.