Chinese architecture can be broadly distinguished into two parts: Traditional and modern. While the ancient traditional Chinese architecture has a distinct style and defining characteristics, modern Chinese architecture is still finding its rhythm. Chinese architecture has gone through a drastic change in dynamics owing to the western influence post the Opium war in 1842. There is a multitude of learnings from both eras as well as from their failures along the way. 

Some distinct features of traditional Chinese architecture are symmetry, hierarchy in the built environment, the cosmological influence of Feng Shui, horizontal expansion rather than vertical, gardens, courtyards, and a distinct construction system. Let’s look at them in detail further.

1. Symmetry

Symmetry has been one of the oldest and influential ordering principles in architecture and it helps unify various elements together. Symmetry in architecture is widely used because unlike other applications, it is not only visually pleasing to look at, but we can also experience symmetry by moving through it. 

It is closely linked with repetition of mass and void to dictate movement and experience which results in the axial relationships. 

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A typical plan of a traditional Chinese dwelling 

The foursquare layout of the plan is rigorously symmetrical and is derived from ancient traditional Chinese philosophy. Laterally symmetrical along a north-south axis, a Chinese complex is strictly orthogonal. The resultant organization adheres to the “pavilion concept”, in which each building is perceived as a freestanding rectilinear structural unit. Repetition of this unit allows for overall flexibility in design. The entire system is hence, modular and highly standardized under an elaborate sloping roof with curved edges. (Qiyi, n.d.)

2. Chinese gardens

Chinese gardens are a distinctly evolved landscape style that is based on three kinds of conceptions: aspire, immoral, and natural. Each of these is found in different classes of society: royalty, temples, and scholars respectively. Looking beyond the class division, it becomes evident how the aspects of the theories of philosophy, politics, virtue, and aesthetics are reflected in these gardens. 

The balance of the relation of all the elements; water, architecture, vegetation, and rocks, is gracefully integrated into these gardens to become a paradise for humans amongst nature. In a modern world, these hold the potential to become powerful places of relief from the claustrophobic growing urban density in the cities. Placed intelligently, these could ironically become equalizers across different classes of society and be a peaceful and calming place for all. (Chinese architecture – Wikipedia, n.d.)

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Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, China. 

3. Indigenous construction system 

Traditional Chinese architecture was built using a wooden frame structure. Wood is easily available in this region and can easily adapt to varying climates and is suitable in earthquake-prone regions such as this. 

The dry timber construction was erected through structural joineries and dowelling alone. Instead of nails and glue, interlocking elements like the Dougong are used. This would prevent buckling and torsion under high compression, and allow for the building to absorb shock vibrations from earthquakes. (Chinese architecture – Wikipedia, n.d.)

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Schematic abstraction of Dougong bracket 

4. Siheyuan 

Siheyuan is a courtyard typically found in traditional Chinese dwellings. The degree of enclosure defines the level of intimacy of the open. While it is a concept popularly used in housing typology, variants of it can be seen across all kinds of buildings and complexes. 

Courtyards are beneficial for more than just spatial reasons, they are used to regulate temperature and ventilate the building. These courtyards are traditionally open and face towards the south to allow maximum exposure to the sun while blocking the cold northern winds. Frequently, the scale of the courtyard is so small that it just serves as a light shaft that serves to collect and harvest rainwater from the sloping rooftops. Moreover, they also serve as vents to allow hot air to rise up and out, and cool air to enter the building. (Chinese architecture – Wikipedia, n.d.)

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Typical siheyuan dwelling

Courtyards act as binding agents between different buildings and provide for a place of pause or rest in the progression of a series of places to go through. It becomes a threshold to an important space like a place of worship or of royalty becoming the agent that would draw people to the space. 

At larger scales, a courtyard acts as a staged spectacle that draws people out of their homes and into the public sphere tending to the human need of seeing and being seen. They become important spaces of urbanity and encounters at a city level. 

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Courtyard as a threshold at the entrance of Forbidden City 
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Courtyard as public space at Forbidden City 

5. Feng Shui

Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese concept of geomancy derived from Chinese cosmology, Confucianism, and Taoism. These dictate the organizational principles and construction layouts from simple dwellings to imperial structures. Some of the architectural principles are mentioned in the image below.

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Feng Shui cardinal compass 

It is believed that embodiments of evil and their energy travel in straight lines. Hence, a screen wall usually faces the main entrance of the house. Moreover, talismans, images of gods, Fu Lu Shou  are displayed at the entrance to ward off evil spirits. Certain colors, numbers, and cardinal orientations are believed to reflect a type of immanence. 

The larger orientation of the building is along its north-south axis with its back facing elevated landscape to ensure that water collects in the front. Moreover, the back of the structure is usually facing north with minimal or no openings to protect the inhabitants from the harsh northern winter winds. 

Bodies of water like pools, ponds, wells, are typically built into the structure as a way to indicate the self-sustenance of the household. Moreover, a body of water is said to nourish the soul through its calming effect and hence is a celebrated element in Chinese architecture. 

While a number of these beliefs are contained to Chinese history and tradition, many of these are at their core simply responses to the environment, topography, and climatic conditions of the context which could be applied anywhere in the world. These cosmological concepts are applied at every scale including the urban planning level of certain cities like Beijing and Chang’an. (Chinese architecture – Wikipedia, n.d.)

6. Urban Planning 

Chinese political power as well as their reflection of the built communities was articulated by the boundary defining the outer and inner. Cities were built by creating a progression of gated communities that allowed the owner of the household of the ruler to feel safe inside. 

As one would enter the gate the buildings on the periphery would be public in nature and as one moved towards the inside, it became increasingly private and secure. The movement from one building to another was through intervening courtyards and hence limit access to the core of the complex. One such example is the emperor’s palace which due to this reason was named the “Forbidden City”. (Cartwright, 2017)

These gated communities eventually created the need for interaction between citizens and a dire need for urban space. An attempt to break the introverted nature of the cities was made in Liaodong Bay where Tianzuo Studio proposed 80 public buildings while retaining the traditional structures of the houses. While it was not an attempt in vain, it was only a surface-level proposal to solve the urban planning issue prevalent. (KAMMERBAUER, 2019)

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Liaodong Bay New City Master Plan 

Another example is the city of Anting, planned and designed by Albert Speer and Partner, a Frankfurt-based firm. Anting was initially a ghost town in which a European model of a city was implemented with a central marketplace, city hall, place of worship, which was surrounded by mix-use buildings oriented in every direction. However, the traditional aspects of Chinese architecture of Feng Shui were not taken into consideration, and hence the city was turned into a spectacle debacle and ironically back into a ghost town. (KAMMERBAUER, 2019)

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Anting New City Master Plan 

While the western influence is necessary to educate concerning technology and create awareness of the possibilities, it is important to understand and learn from one’s ancestors. The western influence didn’t stop at the urban level but brought many distinct yet alien contemporary buildings at an architectural scale to China. 

Recently, however, contemporary Chinese architecture is moving on; it is now referring inwards to itself rather than outside to others. This coming of age phase in architecture brought about many iconic buildings that are an example of the perfect blend of traditional and contemporary architecture. 

7. Traditional elements in contemporary architecture 

After the late 1970s when the Chinese economic reform initiated a new period in China, where Chinese architects began reconsidering the international architectural trends led by the West. A particularly revolutionary project built by an American Chinese architect I. M. Pei was the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing. He created an influential masterpiece by combining his knowledge of the modern styles from the west and his deep-rooted Chinese culture. 

Following the tendency of horizontality, the hotel is a low-slung building set in a natural landscape. It reflected the vernacular language of white walls and grey tiles with a central atrium. To top it off he also created a Chinese garden maze using multiple vanishing points leading to a delightful surprise at every turn. (I. M. Pei’s Ground-breaking Fragrant Hill Hotel, Revisited – M+ Stories, 2017)

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I.M. Pei’s Fragrant Hill Hotel 
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Central Atrium of the hotel 

While traditional Chinese architecture is iconic and well defined in its own way. Many aspects of it need change to accommodate the needs of the people and to keep up with current times. There are strong concepts that China has incorporated from the west that can be implemented with its variations at a global level. 

8. Mixed-use buildings 

Traditional Chinese architecture was strictly differentiated typology based on its programmatic functions. However, learning from the western influence, an increasing number of buildings and complexes have adopted a mixed-use approach. The Water Cube is one such example, that was built to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics but is now a place to shop, eat, and socialize. 12_(Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles, 2016)

Water cube Elevation 

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Water Cube Interiors 

9. Open floor plan

Modern Chinese architecture takes on a sleek and futuristic appearance with buildings that are more streamlined and open concept rather than the traditional modular pavilion concept approach. This allows for a free flow of form and large open spaces that make their mark in the public sphere of China which was earlier posing to be a significant issue. The National Grand Theater of China is one such example of Chinese modern architecture. (Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles, 2016)

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The Egg Building, Beijing 

10. Verticality 

While traditional Chinese architecture was largely horizontal and low-rise, the massive population growth has forced the country to build upward and not outward, creating iconic skylines. (Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles, 2016)

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Skyline of Beijing 

References

Qiyi, L., n.d. Chinese architecture. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-architecture> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Chinese architecture – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_architecture#cite_ref-25> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

Cartwright, M., 2017. Ancient Chinese Architecture. [online] Ancient. Available at: <https://www.ancient.eu/Chinese_Architecture/#:~:text=Walled%20compounds%2C%20raised%20pavilions%2C%20wooden,in%20modern%20architecture%20across%20East> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

KAMMERBAUER, M., 2019. How Chinese are China’s planned Cities? – Topos. [online] Topos. Available at: <https://www.toposmagazine.com/chinese-cities/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

Stories.mplus.org.hk. 2017. I. M. Pei’s Ground-breaking Fragrant Hill Hotel, Revisited – M+ Stories. [online] Available at: <https://stories.mplus.org.hk/en/blog/i-m-peis-ground-breaking-fragrant-hill-hotel-revisited/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

Study.com. 2016. Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles. [online] Available at: <https://study.com/academy/lesson/modern-chinese-architecture-design-styles.html#:~:text=Modern%20Chinese%20architecture%20takes%20on,%2C%20sectioned%2Doff%20spaces).> [Accessed 4 April 2021].

Image Citations

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Author

A fourth year architecture student from CEPT University, Nechal uses the literary world as a medium, to delve into every nook and cranny of architecture.

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