Essence and Form6 min read

Chinese architecture struggles to find its identity – Matt Turner


When Xi Jinping called for an end to “weird buildings” in a 2014 speech, journalists raced to point out their favorite offenders, from showpieces of contemporary architecture like Beijing’s massive CCTV tower or the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium, to less known (but no less striking) examples: buildings shaped like coins, sages, various teapots, and even the USS Enterprise. In comparison to these architectural oddities, Xi praised traditional Chinese architecture and the values it inspires (primarily loyalty to the state).

But while it’s not hard to read between the lines of his speech, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly Xi means by traditional Chinese architecture. Most Chinese cities are hodgepodges of styles: not only the showpiece buildings and skyscrapers nestled next to old courtyard homes and lanes, but also shopping and office complexes, such as Taikoo Li Sanlitun in Beijing (site of the infamous Uniqlo sex video that surely violates traditional values), or the SOHO complex across the street from it, which looks like a set from Logan’s Run. There are also the gaudy new apartment complexes for the nouveau riche, with flashy English names like “Yosemite” and “Long Beach New Money.” And filling in much of the space between these notable buildings are the soviet-inspired socialist housing compounds – danwei – often left in states of disrepair.

At present, the Beijing government is forcefully removing much commercial activity from its old neighborhoods in order to “beautify” them. When Qianmen boulevard – a gritty, vibrant commercial hub just south of Tian’anmen Square – was beautified in 2008, much of that street was torn down before being reconstructed in imitation of what Qianmen boulevard is supposed to have looked like during the Qing dynasty – except without the grit, vibrancy, or even people. If Qianmen boulevard is any example of what’s to come, “no more weird buildings” might be a  license for the government and real estate developers to construct their own versions of the Chinese past.

In his recent book A Philosophy of Chinese Architecture, David Wang sees much of the confusion about “Chinese style” architecture having originated in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when China sought to modernize – largely in response to invasions by hostile and technologically advanced foreign powers. During that time intellectuals, including architects, framed architectural modernization in terms of ti, Chinese essence, and yong, technical application. This allowed for the architectural fantasy of improving buildings’ structures while at the same time keeping their Chineseness intact, usually through stereotypical features.

This is still a popular way of thinking about architecture in much of China, and is in part the reason for the destruction of old neighborhoods and their subsequent reconstruction: old neighborhoods often lack sufficient sanitation facilities, so they can be razed and rebuild as modern structures retaining traditional-looking façades. In contrast to Western architectural practice, which Wang argues modernized with much less effort, Chinese architecture developed a near-obsession with technical features of Western modernism that had little to do with the legacy of Chinese architecture. The result was a confusion of essence and application.

According to Wang, traditional architectural practice in China was not overly focused on the appearance of buildings, but instead on their social application. Traditional building methods “formalized Chinese imperial construction as an expression of social hierarchy,” meaning that, taking the Forbidden City as a model, homes and commercial districts would have been built in the same manner, though on a smaller scale. Their layout would mirror the hierarchy of the palace: as one moved from chamber to chamber to garden, from inside to outside, the individual would walk through social rank, “conforming to the Confucian social order.”

Wang’s work stands in contrast to Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City, edited by Michele Bonino and Filippo Di Pieri. Tracing the development of the socialist housing compound from an organizational tool for work (having been expressly made to distribute hierarchy) to its architectural style, the editors of Beijing Danwei see the danwei as a cross-pollinated effort of traditional Chinese housing models with Western modernism. Bornini and De Pieri and their contributors even go so far as to argue that danwei socialist housing compounds are a better encapsulation of modernism than some of their European counterparts: “Existing danweis appear particularly capable of … serv[ing] as a matrix for the construction of a new type of contemporary city.” They depart from the old to forge something much more modern and “Chinese” than a re-imagined architectural past. The blocky danwei compounds may not look particularly Chinese, but they expressed the new social hierarchies of socialist China.

Of course, even in today’s “socialist” China few people want to live in danwei compounds — often in a state of disrepair, they seem overly utilitarian and outdated. Siheyuan courtyards are more appealing, but only when outfitted with modern facilities and removed of their current residents. The question of how to reconsider which – if any –  hierarchy architecture should express is central to rethinking how Chineseness is architecturally conceived. Bonino and DiPieri suggest that danwei could be renovated into culture-and-arts districts, much like the successful 798 arts zone in Beijing, allowing socialist housing projects to adapt to the demands of international capitalism through rezoning and renovation.

For Wang, on the other hand, the critical issue is the preservation of  traditional construction practices. These include the “calligraphic lilt,” which Wang characterizes as superimposing “fluidity” over material function, i.e. social use literally goes through form. This is exemplified by the siheyuan courtyard structures of the past, which were designed with social function in mind, but it can also be seen in contemporary buildings, such as Wang Shu’s Pritzker Prize-winning design for the Chinese Academy of Art. By re-using stone and brick from demolished buildings, Wang is able to create structures very different in appearance from traditional Chinese dwellings, but with much of their original aesthetics preserved.

This points to the fact that Wang, and the architects he praises, think of Chinese architecture as a chiefly being a question of style. In contrast, Bonino and Di Pieri, believe that danwei compounds are aesthetically significant because they are an experiment in modernity. For Wang, the Chinese architects should serve as administrators and educators. Ironically, more than Bonino and Di Pieri’s edited collection, Wang’s book has the tone and feel of a modernist manifesto, similar to those overly prescriptive Western programs that Chinese architects grappled so much with during the twentieth century.

What Wang is interested in is modernization, but not modernism as such – and danwei compound are an example of this contradiction. Unlike Xi’s vision of traditional China, in which society and the individuals within it exist to serve the state, what both books suggest is that by reconsidering neglected forms of Chinese architecture, there may be a way to meet the demands of a more international and technologically sophisticated world, while also paying tribute to China’s complex past. ∎

A Philosophy of Chinese Architecture: Past, Present, Future, by David Wang (Routledge, 2017)
Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City, edited by Michele Bonino and Filippo De Pieri. (Jovis, 2015)