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Time-honored architectural traditions in China

Author  :  WANG HUIMIN and DANG QUN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-08-29

In Wuhan, a bullet train passing the Yellow Crane Tower, which dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280) in Chinese history Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

The dominance of the modernist architectural style across the global landscape can be attributed to the influence of Western natural science and the Industrial Revolution. In a recent interview with Wang Huimin, a PhD student from the Department of Philosophy at Renmin University of China, Dang Qun, a Chinese architect, shared his views on exploring the essence of Chinese architecture.

Wang Huimin: The concept of “Shanshui City” has been applied in many architectural practices. How do you understand this concept?

Dang Qun: The concept of “Shanshui City” [a humane form of development that would integrate nature with urban life] was first raised by Qian Xuesen [a scientist widely recognized as the “father of Chinese aerospace”]. Almost all cities in the world today, as long as they are touched by globalization and modern civilization, are modernist cities. Since Qian was educated in the West, I believe that his proposal of the “Shanshui City” was the result of profound consideration. The natural sciences that originated in the West have significantly impacted human lifestyles, behaviors, and, of course, urban construction and planning. This raises an intriguing question: does Chinese civilization, which has always evolved along its own unique trajectory, possess a distinctive urban planning philosophy? I believe this is precisely what Qian was seeking to explore.

We all know that various architectural disciplines and styles prevailing today are fundamentally rooted in methodological approaches and ideological branches of modernism. Upon deeper reflection, we will find it difficult to detach ourselves from modernist aesthetics.

Modernity and the scientific revolution have had an unprecedented impact on humanity. Obviously, people of insight have recognized the enduring uniformity that is hard to avoid or eliminate. Within a few years after returning to China, Qian began to reflect on the value of traditional Chinese gardens in modern cities, and proposed the idea of “Shanshui City” in the 1990s. The “Shanshui City” is an innovative concept in the context of modernism. However, our understanding and exploration of this concept extend beyond mere appearance and form [of urban design].

Wang Huimin: Contemporary Chinese architects need to face the reality that the lifestyle of Chinese people is not much different from that of Westerners. Modernism, for example, should not be simply viewed as a Western style, but be universally applicable, just like science.

Dang Qun: Speaking of function, I think architecture should serve to meet more than just basic human needs. For example, the lifestyle of an individual, such as how he/she lives and works, and how many bedrooms and living rooms are needed, belongs to the “private language,” and isn’t worth discussing. On contrary, I have found it interesting to draw comparison between the function and form of architecture.

Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture consist of roof garden, free design of the façade, pilotis, horizontal windows, and free design of the ground plan. In the era of large-scale industrial production, Corbusier deliberately diverged from classical architecture, advocating for the elimination of decorative elements and non-essential content. Later, his proposals were widely embraced by modernist architecture, although perhaps not fully embracing his original vision. For instance, the use of pilotis is seldom found in modernist architectures.

Wang Huimin: The pilotis seem to be more common in southern China.

Dang Qun: Yes, it is an architectural tradition in southern China. Chinese architectural design values how people feel within a structure. Individual buildings are often considered as components of a whole architectural complex, and are integrated with heaven, earth, and nature. In China, such beliefs have been implemented from urban planning to courtyard design.

For example, when walking into a siheyuan [a traditional Chinese residence type formed by inward-facing houses on four sides, closed in by enclosure walls], you are often greeted by a screen wall [a wall used to shield an entrance gate in traditional Chinese architecture] at first. Behind the wall is a yard, with a pomegranate tree standing in the center, side houses (xiang fang) on both sides of the yard, and a main hall (zheng fang) in the middle [usually positioned to the north of the yard and facing the south]. In the main hall, there are usually two chairs [facing the door], with a table between them…When thinking over these rooms and layouts, you may notice that each individual building and furniture is not particularly special, but their combination forms a very unique, constant experience and aura.

Take the Temple of Heaven as another example. When being discussed, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests usually pops up first. However, it is quite a complex of buildings: patches of woods line at both sides when one first walks up slowly along the ramp. Then comes a circular space surrounded by low walls. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the climax of the visit, stands ahead after that. From there, one may turn to other spots. This is like enjoying traditional Chinese landscape paintings. Distinct from Western landscape paintings, which feature a single-point perspective, Chinese painters prefer to “depict” the process of walking over the landscape. Therefore, Corbusier’s principles may not work in traditional Chinese architecture, as it is difficult to simply extract a few elements and “physically” piece them together as a paradigm of architectural design.

The essence of Chinese architecture lies not only in individual buildings, but also in their relationship with surrounding buildings and the environment. For example, when constructing a tower in ancient times, the surrounding environment of the tower had to be taken into account. “Borrowed scenery” [an ancient Chinese garden design technique where a designer takes a distant view, such as a faraway mountain, and incorporates, or “borrows” it into the garden composition] is not an exclusive design of Suzhou classical gardens. In the mountains, the design starts from a distance, leading you up. Designers pay close attention to the steps—what people will see when walking up. There may be a gate, through which visitors may find further steps in a courtyard. In the courtyard, ginkgo or ancient cypress trees are usually arranged in a symmetrical or dotted layout. Finally, the tower appears, borrowing scenery from the surrounding landscape, representing a dialogue with nature.

Wang Huimin: The lives of ancient Chinese people were built upon strict ritual and moral principle systems. Whether in music, architecture, or painting, one had to follow certain principles. However, common rituals and moral order no longer exist in modern life. Do we need to restore traditional order?

Dang Qun: China has experienced several crucial changes in its history, each with distinctive characteristics. We have to identify the elements that have remained consistent throughout history. These enduring elements undoubtedly possess remarkable vitality and embody important methods that we can learn from.

On the one hand, some architects today tend to label the traditional Chinese architectural spirit as the spirit of craftsmanship. However, observing traditional architectural techniques merely since the Song Dynasty may lead to the omission of the urban planning principles that have existed for thousands of years, as well as the profound influence of political systems, morals and rituals, attitudes towards nature and the universe, hierarchical order, and other factors behind architecture. On the other hand, some have abandoned Chinese traditions altogether and rely on their so-called “innovation” to prove there are no differences between China and the West. In reality, both groups draw heavily on Western theories. Although China has been largely “modernized,” I still believe that the Chinese people fundamentally differ from Westerners in terms of their inner world, ideological methodology, and historical development trajectory.

To explore the roots of Chinese culture, it is also essential to understand the origin of human civilization. I often go to museums, my favorite of which is museums of archaeological sites. These places inspire me across cultures and time. Being there is not only exploring the origin of China but also comparing and understanding the great ancient civilizations of mankind, such as the creation and transformation of cities and architecture in the early period of human civilization. I wish to observe the differences and continuity of history and regions based on a broad and distant perspective.

At the same time, we also need to overcome the limitations of modern education. Chinese modern architects mostly receive Western architectural education, so they tend to view architecture in an individual and anatomical way. In my opinion, this perspective is not deep enough. Additionally, disciplines are over-isolated right now. Those who study literature, history, and philosophy have no interest in science, while those who know science do not understand literature, history, and philosophy. Architecture, unfortunately, is caught in the middle. What’s worse, rather than serving as a bridge between the two sides, it is left unattributable to either side.

Editor: Ren Guanhong

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