On Chinese Architecture
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From the four-thousand-year obsession with timber structures to the radical fascination of steel and glass in recent decades, in a Westerner's eye, Chinese architecture evolves either too slow or too fast. The current construction boom may seem parallel to Mao's Great Leap Forward in late 1950s, when the entire nation was taking radical action for socialist industrialization; this time, it is capitalist modernization. A polarized situation surfaces as some architects are willing to align with the government and drastically transform their architecture to keep up with the movement, while others are urging for an effort to connect the past and the present, so that traditions can continue to evolve along with technological advancement. Theories of modern Chinese architecture have birthed mainly from this debate. <br /><br /> The struggle with modernization began almost a century ago. After the fall of the Imperial Qing in 1911, foreign architects and local designers with Western academic backgrounds introduced formalism, functionalism, modernism, and traditionalism into the siheyuans (traditional courtyard houses) and imperial palaces of the capital city. The quest for a consciously "modern Chinese" architecture began. In the 1950s, China underwent a huge phase of reshaping along with the ascendancy of communism. The communist government adopted Soviet models to make Beijing a paradigm for social realism. They brought down ancient infrastructures and historical buildings to make way for monuments, worker apartments, and public squares. They advocated the idea of "national form and socialist content" to derive a new architecture. <br /><br /> From the 1980s on, Beijing and the entire nation began to enjoy the first-ever continuous twenty-five years of undisrupted time on urban and social development since the turning of the twentieth century. Under the open-door economic reform, the authorities began to transform Beijing into a cosmopolitan. The capital city was to perform not only as a showcase for political stability, but also to express the national image, values, and beliefs. They attempted to retain the tradition of Chinese order on one hand, and to welcome capitalist commodities and foreign technologies on the other. Citizens remain proud of their four-thousand-year heritage but are also overwhelmed by materialistic luxury from the economic boom. To the authorities, erasure of Beijing's physical past becomes legitimate under the reconstruction of selected heritage buildings and a rapid urban development. <br /><br /> Contemporary architecture in Beijing represents the chaotic phenomenon of today?s China. Bounded by its ghosted city wall, the rapidly changing capital epitomizes the conflict between the old and new. Pressures upon the shoulders of the local architects remain strong: political and economic constraints, legacies of the past, ambition to catch up with the world, and the urge of self-rediscovery in the globalized stage. What is the reality behind the ambition to catch up with the developed world? Is the desire to become modern and at the same time maintain their traditions only a <em>curl-de-sac</em> that leads to nowhere? <br /><br /> This thesis is a quest to revaluate the evolution of Chinese architecture from the classical Chinese curved-roof buildings to modern designs. In the making of modern Chinese architecture, a number of ideologies arise, along with political makeovers and societal developments, aiming to re-present past glories, to reflect present national achievements, and to reveal the dream of a utopian future. However, real living always comes second to political ideals on how the society should look and what they should head toward. The concern for humanity remains a nominal criterion after politics and economy in most of the construction projects. <br /><br /> This thesis focuses on a two-and-a-half-month journey in northern China. The journey is recorded in the form of a travelogue, which provides the narrative core of the thesis. In addition, the thesis includes academic research on Chinese architecture, embodied in four essays, to investigate its evolution, understand its relationship to the past, acknowledge its current dilemma, and search for the components that make up its identity for the twenty-first century. This thesis aims to give a sense of Chinese architectural development, both in theory and in practice, as well as including a collection of critical remarks on how the authorities manipulate architectural expressions and direct its development. The first two essays deal with urban symbolism in Beijing that the authorities have created to redefine the past and to construct an image of a bright future. Architects are only required to carry out duties, like civil servants, to realize governmental plans. The other two aim to make a contribution to the history of cultural fusion between China and the West, and the evolution of architectural theories that led to the current phenomenon, respectively. The former traces the evolutionary path of Chinese architecture and the latter compiles the concepts of Chinese architecture from the study of Chinese architecture to the realization of the buildings. <br /><br /> My journey begins with an exploration of ancient architecture in the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei, following the footsteps of architectural scholar Liang Sicheng. Liang and his team documented and studied 2,783 ancient buildings across the nation and wrote the first complete history on Chinese architecture. He then attempted to derive the principles of modern Chinese architecture from traditional essences. The Shanxi-Hebei experience enriched my knowledge in traditional Chinese architecture and showed me what had tempted the Chinese architects not to give up their traditions, despite a strong desire to move toward modernization. <br /><br /> My experience in Beijing, on the other hand, provided me the opportunity to understand the dilemma of Chinese architects of the twentieth century as they faced political pressures, economic restrictions, tense construction schedules, collective ideologies, and historical legacies. Their works play a crucial role of linking the contemporary with the traditional past, and unfolding possibilities to develop modern Chinese architecture. The quest for Chinese identity in architecture in the past few generations has imposed a complex layering of the urban structure of the city, which makes the capital a showcase for architectural ideologies of different eras. <br /><br /> In the current rapid "Manhattanization", Beijing has become an experimental ground for foreign futuristic ideas, as well as an open-air museum of imperial and socialist glories. The identity of the city is completely shaped by authorities and developers under a blindfold desire to pursue a global representation of modernization. Local architects receive little chance, time, and freedom to find their own path, make their own architecture, and develop their own profession. Societal criticisms remain scarce and creativity is limited by self-censorship. Yet, like their predecessors in the 1930s and 1950s, contemporary architects do not give up. Many of them still search for new design possibilities within the influences of traditions to innovations, and from local philosophies to Western ideologies. Although the pace of construction remains unbelievably fast in China, the development of local architecture struggles to find ways to evolve and express its societal significance. The maturity of the architectural profession remains an aspect that is unachievable through overnight transformations and one-time planning.
Cite this work
Calvin Chiu (2006). On Chinese Architecture. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/797