Vernacular Architecture refers to a built environment formed by considering the regional climate conditions, construction materials available, local builders’ skills and environmental factors. Therefore, this form of architecture differs from region to region and cannot be copied anywhere else. Today, many architects and designers who are interested in creating sustainable buildings examined these vernacular structures as they are said to be environmentally friendly. China has the third-largest land space and is the world’s most population nation with approximately 1.4 billion people in 2019.
With a long history that dates back to c.2070 BCE, China has many types of traditional vernacular architectures that manage to be preserved among its contemporary urban landscape today; few of them are discussed below:
Chinese Terms: 四合院
The Siheyuan is a traditional residential dwelling found throughout China. These historical housings are commonly found in Beijing and rural regions of Shanxi where tourists pay a visit to get an immersive experience of the old Chinese cityscape. The basic pattern observed in the Siheyuan dwelling influenced the layouts of the palaces, temples and government offices later on. The Siheyuan consists of 4 important buildings. The implementation of the Feng Shui ideology results in the whole building to be orientated along the north-south and east-west axis.
The Main House (Chinese Terms: 正房) is placed to the north with the main entrance facing the south direction. The Side Houses (Chinese Terms: 厢房) are joined to the ends of the Main House and are usually located in the East and West regions. The Main House and the Side Houses have a common pathway (Chinese Terms: 抄手游廊) that links the three units together. These walkways are sheltered against sunlight and they are beautifully ornamented for the residents to enjoy the view of the central courtyard comfortably at night. There is also the Opposite House (Chinese Terms: 倒座房) which faces the north direction and a separated two-story building called the Backside Building (Chinese Terms: 后罩房) located behind the Main House. According to the traditional construction method, the Backside Building is the only structure within the Siheyuan that is two-story high.
The structure of a Siheyuan takes careful consideration of the local weather conditions. In Northern China, the height of the Siheyuan’s northwestern wall is higher to protect the dwelling from harsh winter winds. The roof eaves are also designed to bent downwards to allow rainwater to flow smoothly along the curve without dripping straight down. The ridged rooftop helps to regulate temperatures by providing shade during hot summers and warm during cold winters.
2. Fujian Tulou
Chinese Terms: 福建土楼
The Fujian Tulou is one of the historical vernacular dwellings found in the rural region of China. They are found in the mountainous areas of the southeastern Fujian Province in China. The residents living in these unique structures are the Hakkas (Chinese Terms: 客家). The formation of Tulou dates back as early as the 12th to the 20th centuries. The form of Tulou can come in rectangular or circular shapes. One of the most outstanding features of this building is the large and enclosed wall that is made from rammed earth. The thick block of rammed earth forms the load-bearing wall which enables the dwellings to reach up to five stories high, housing up to 800 people. The Tulou’s structure is said to resemble a small fortified city.
Within these large walls, there are smaller interior buildings such as the halls, storerooms, water wells and living spaces built within it to cater to the daily needs of their residents. The materials used to construct these Tulou are readily available in the region for the locals to source from. The outer fortified walls can be 1.8m (6 feet) thick and they are usually made from a mixture of compacted earth, stone, bamboo, and wood. Tulou’s form results in the dwellings having good natural sunlight, air ventilation system and thermoregulation. Therefore, residents can experience cooler summers and warmer winters.
Furthermore, the Tulou is said to be windproof and earthquake resistant. Tulou usually has one main gate made with an iron-plated wooden door. The top level of the Tulou has gun holes to defend their dwelling against external threats. Therefore, UNESCO declared 46 Fujian Tulou sites as the World Heritage Site in 2008. They added that the Tulou are “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defense organization (in a) harmonious relationship with their environment”.
Chinese Terms: 窑洞
Also known as the “House Cave”, the Yaodong is a form of earth shelter residence that is found in the north region of China, mostly in the Loess Plateau. The Loess Plateau has a complicated topography with valleys, slopes and ridges. Therefore, to counter the harsh environmental condition, the Yaodong has developed three different forms which are the Cliffside Yaodong (Chinese Terms: 靠崖窑), Sunken Yaodong (Chinese Terms: 地坑窑) and Hoop Yaodong (Chinese Terms: 箍窑). The records of Yaodong can be dated back to China’s bronze age in the 2nd millennium BC and the Xia Dynasty according to Chinese traditions. The most common type of Yaodong is the Cliffside Yaodong which is built along the edge of the cliff and valley to fit dwellings into the mountainous landscape. The locals form a concave hole with a rectangular floor area with an arched ceiling at the edge of the cliff.
The main structure of the Cliffside Yaodong is the soil wall. The traditional construction process of the Yaodong is to use rocks as the wall base and have the top tile made using clay. The wall is later finished with clay on the inside and stone on the outside to strengthen the dwelling and reduce the cost of constructing the cave. The interior spaces of the cave are supported by wooden piles. To further prevent the cave from collapsing, beams and columns are used to bear the loads too. The cave has an open space in front to allow good sunlight and air movement to create a more comfortable housing experience by preventing residents from feeling depressed or claustrophobic.
4. Xidi and Hongcun Ancient Villages
Chinese Terms: 宏村，西递村
Xidi and Hongcun are two villages that are found in the Southern Anhui Province in China. Both villages have a range of well-preserved ancient architecture and cravings that originates from the Ming and Qing dynasties. They have some dwellings that are open to the public for viewing. To bring prosperity into the village, the village townscapes believed and adopted Feng Shui ideologies in its town planning where the village sites are orientated facing a water body and its rear ends against a mountain.
The two villages showcase a localized architecture style that is unique to the region: The Huizhou Architecture Style. The Hui Style Architecture is classified as having white walls, dark roof tiles, horse-head gables, stone drums, mirrors and having an open central courtyard. These two ancient villages have well-preserved street plans, buildings and a comprehensive water system despite the major urban development experienced by the country. Therefore, Xidi and Hongcun are designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 as they are “a living ancient residential museum” for tourists and experts to visit.
5. Mongolian Yurt
Chinese Terms: 蒙古包
The Mongolian Yurt, or Ger in Mongolian, is a round tent made with a wooden lattice frame and animal felts. It is a residential dwelling for the nomadic tribes found in northwest China of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region and these tents can be found in places as far as Turkey. The Yurt is adapted to closely assist the daily needs of the nomadic tribes. The nomadic tribe usually travels across the Mongolian highlands, enduring the cold Siberian wind to find new water sources and pastures for themselves and their livestock. Therefore, the yurt is built to be lightweight and portable so that it can be easily transported and assembled in many places along their journey. The tents are also created to be able to withstand the strong winds and low temperatures, keeping the whole family warm during winters.
When the nomadic tribe moves to a new area, the builder will draw a circle on the ground to mark out their settlement. They then set up the wooden frame in an accordion manner using the marked circle as a guide. After setting up the framework, layers of animal felt are attached to the structure. Sheep’s wool is the common choice of felt used by the nomadic tribes to insulate the house from the cold exterior temperature. The builder will then cover the tent with a layer of waterproof canvas to finish the construction process of the yurt. The tribe ensures that their felts and canvas are securely attached to the wooden frame structure. Once constructed, the tent can be used for many years. The interior spaces of the yurt are usually finished with flowers, carpets, and mirrors. Today, the residents add in furniture and electrical appliances into the yurt to make their lifestyle more comfortable.
In conclusion, the vernacular structures introduced above have attracted people from around the world to explore the potential design benefits these infrastructures have that can be implemented to contemporary buildings today. With the protection from international communities and the local organizations, these scarce forms of architecture will be preserved and maintained for future visitors to reflect, inspire, and develop new innovative and environmentally friendly designs for future living spaces.