The Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors, is a masterpiece in terms of layout and stereoscopic effects
The architecture of a civilization is an expression of its culture at a specific time and place. Chinese architecture itself has a distinctive position in the world’s architectural heritage, developing in parallel with Western architectural traditions originating from ancient Greece and Rome. While Western architecture generally puts emphasis on the size, shape, and space of an individual building, often conforming to religious prescriptions, Chinese architecture is usually composed of several buildings whose layout and design are based on the oriental culture’s own conventions.
Approaching China Through Its Architecture is an ambitious book, attempting to introduce the full spectrum of Chinese architecture from ancient to contemporary times. It covers everything from imperial palaces to government offices, folk residences to temples, and gardens to bridges and pagodas, explaining not only their functions and physical structure, but also the general culture, aesthetics and philosophies that underlie them. It provides the general information alongside selected examples from throughout history, the first of which is, inevitably, the Great Wall.
The Great Wall is an iconic and impressive structure. There is no comparison before or since, which makes it an ideal starting point for the book. Not only does it possess unique characteristics and an irreplaceable status in world architecture that puts it among the Seven Wonders of the World, but it has also greatly influenced Chinese history. The book then moves on to Beijing’s imperial palaces and gardens and a handful of contemporary edifices before heading south to Suzhou’s private gardens.
The Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors, is a masterpiece in terms of layout and stereoscopic effects. Covering an area of 720,000 square meters, the palace has over 9,000 rooms, connected by three vertical axes. Encompassed by a 10-meter-high, 3,400-meter-long red wall, the palace can be divided into two parts. The front part, logically named the Front Court, was used for ceremonial purposes. The rear part of the palace, the Inner Court, was the residence of the emperor and the royal family, and its gardens, studies and other features provided a luxurious setting for imperial life.
Besides the royal garden in the Forbidden City, the private gardens in Suzhou in southern China are also a representative feature of traditional Chinese architecture. Suzhou has long been known for its economic and cultural wealth. In its heyday from the 16th to the 18th century, it boasted over 200 private gardens, dozens of which have been preserved to this day. As their owners were educated literati or retired officials, these gardens are greatly influenced by traditional Chinese landscape paintings. In the most famous Humble Administrator’s Garden and Lingering Garden, for example, the names of halls, the words on plaques and couplets, sculptures and even the location of flowers and trees were carefully selected, reflecting the spiritual pursuit of their owners as well as preserving a large amount of historical, cultural, ideological and botanical information.
Affected by political, economic and cultural status of the creators as well as by different physical conditions, royal and literati gardens varied in terms of scale, layout, style and color, making them a perfect example of how architectural works reflect the distinct natural and cultural environments in which they are created.
But this book does not focus solely on the grand and elegant feats of the elite. The final chapter of the book is dedicated to some of its most distinctive folk residences, namely the Beijing quadrangle courtyard, ancient Huizhou dwellings, and the earthen buildings of Fujian. These structures, spread over China’s vast territory with its dizzying array of local physical and climatic conditions, demonstrate both the pragmatism and rich aesthetic sensibilities of the country’s pre-modern agrarian era.
The basic form of the Beijing quadrangle, for example, is a courtyard surrounded by houses in four directions, which are connected with verandas. A standard Beijing quadrangle courtyard faces south, with the principal house on the north side, wing houses on the east and west sides, and the gate to the south. This layout reflects the meteorological conditions of Beijing as well as the city structure. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the city took its checkerboard layout shape, with north-south streets used for transportation and commerce linked by east-west lanes lined with residential houses. It was convenient to open gates to the south. The southward direction of the gate also protected the courtyard from the biting wind that would blow in from northwest in winter and welcomed refreshing southeastern breezes in summer. It also helped control fires that were a threat during Beijing’s long and rainless winter months, as any blaze that caught would not be able to spread to the principal house on the north side.
Largely concerned with traditional architecture, the book only briefly introduces contemporary constructions. In an era of globalization, Western architectural thought and design have flooded into China. However, this current is not one-way. It is important to understand the great and indelible contribution China has made to architectural techniques and aesthetics, and its traditional aesthetics are becoming an increasingly important source of inspiration for contemporary architecture around the world.
Last year, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded to Wang Shu, illustrating the rising status of Chinese architecture. “Unlike modern buildings that focus on abstract space,” he said in his acceptance speech, “the Chinese type of building focuses on creating a sense of place and connection with the past. Compared with buildings carrying a strong human imprint, traditional Chinese buildings are closer to nature, taking architecture to a whole new horizon. It is an entirely different world of architecture that I have never seen or learned of elsewhere, but it contains something more valuable than what modern buildings can offer.”
Approaching China Through Its Architecture, in describing gardens, historic buildings and traditional dwellings, creates a picture of exactly what Wang Shu is talking about.