How many U.S. architecture professors know that there is a Chinese treatise equivalent to Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture? Very few, I suspect. I taught architectural history for more than 20 years before I discovered the marvelous Yingsao Fashi, a Song Dynasty book by a prominent court official who, as far as we know, was not an architect or builder. In fact, prior to the Ming Dynasty no prominent temple, palace, or shrine in China was designed by an architect because the concept of a single mastermind in charge of a building project was foreign to the East Asian way of designing environments of any kind.
Though architectural history courses and texts now feature prehistoric, native, and non-Western architecture, as a rule, time spent on the rich, longstanding tradition of East Asian building arts is scant in undergraduate curricula. As our society reevaluates its reliance on so many white, Western, and elitist assumptions about culture, it is no longer acceptable to ignore one of the most important artistic contributions of the world’s largest nation, and many surrounding countries that followed its lead in timber building, for centuries, persisting even today. Nor is it beneficial to students who must adapt historic buildings for modern uses to be ignorant of beautiful, earthquake-proof structures that have stood through every kind of weather event with only minor maintenance—buildings constructed without nails, bricks, or glass windows.
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True, it is daunting for Western architects to gain any significant knowledge of the vast corpus of material that Chinese scholars have unearthed, especially since the end of the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. As with much of their culture, the Chinese have been protective of their ancient artistic practices and have generally followed Western, modern methods of building for most of the last century. Still, there are several recent publications in English that allow any curious architect or landscape architect to appreciate the magnificent achievements of the period between 1000 and 1500 AD, which many scholars believe was the golden age of building throughout what we now know as China. Only a rudimentary knowledge of Asian history is a prerequisite.
One of the fascinating aspects of early Chinese building is its reliance on rammed-earth platforms and hollowed-out spaces dug out of the earth for shelter. Only after timber harvesting proved feasible did the earliest builders develop their unique methods of joining wooden logs and fashioning “bracket sets” to support overhanging roofs. Fu Xinian, the greatest historian of Chinese buildings, has published research that literally excavates the history of his country’s architecture from caves, mountainous shrines, and long-lost cities. Comparing archaeological evidence to extant structures, he documents a building tradition that matured rapidly and remained unchanged for more than a thousand years.
Nancy Steinhardt, for decades the only American scholar with widespread publications on the subject, has a new book that provides a good summary of all the research undertaken by China’s corps of architect-archaeologists over the past 40 years. Using her guide, architects can dip into the specialist literature that provides a deeper look into a fascinating building tradition, one that is a continuum, not a culture obsessed with novelty and passing fashions.
By the year 1103, when Li Je created the official treatise on imperial buildings for the Song rulers, a complete proportional, structural, and constructional system for making buildings of any size and type was fully understood by carpenters and other craftsmen throughout the provinces, with minor variations from north to south. Li was simply recording the current wisdom (as was Vitruvius). The system is close enough to Greek classical buildings to invite direct comparison, something only one architect attempted from the 1920s until the 1950s. Liang Ssu-ch’eng, a student of Paul Cret’s at the University of Pennsylvania, spent his life measuring great monuments, and, with his wife, Lin Whei-yin, created the amazing Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, published in the West only in 1980. Like Francis D.K. Ching’s famous Architectural Graphics, it tells its story primarily with annotated drawings. With notes in both Chinese and English, Liang created a masterpiece of erudition that could easily be used to teach Western students the rudiments of the Dou Gong bracket system. Today, on the internet, one can see Chinese architecture teachers making models of bracket sets to demonstrate the intricate, but ultimately simple, means by which cantilevered eaves were balanced on slender, round columns. There is also a demonstration of seismic forces on shaking a small timber building.
The point here is not to downplay the challenges that Western architects face when trying to understand a tradition so opaque to many who were trained to revere Corbusier and Wright. It is simply to indicate the wealth of material now available to those who are curious about Chinese architecture and to suggest that educators take a good look at what they are missing. I know I was embarrassed to recognize my ignorance. I was lucky enough to have one or two Chinese students who challenged me during the last decade, and I am grateful for their tutelage.
One thesis student was interested in preserving Beijing’s distinctive courtyard houses, the siheyuan, within hutongs, that were rapidly being destroyed by officials before and following the Olympics. He was concerned that the central government did not have the tools used by European and American planners to control development in historic urban quarters. Following a year of research, he was able to assess the crisis and return home with some new ideas for how to stem the tide of destruction that has besieged the Imperial City for decades. So it is not just Westerners who need to understand the richness of Chinese building, but also the officials who now manage historic resources in a rapidly developing nation.
Though I have never visited Beijing or Shanghai, I long to see the intricate, and surprising, buildings I have studied in these superb books and videos. The buildings and gardens on my bucket list expanded recently to include at least 50 sites in China, a few in Korea, and many in Japan. Several U.S. universities, including USC, Kean University, NYU, and Yale, have Chinese or Asian campuses. More will follow, and all should emphasize the study of Chinese architecture. The world needs lessons from builders who used forest resources and native clay to make some of the most remarkable environments on earth.