You may not know much about Chinese architecture unless you’ve been there, but there is a fascinating history, and striking but subtle beauty to the buildings there. Join me in learning about all things architecture in China!
You may have an image in your mind of Chinese architecture that looks like the temples and ancient buildings, which are undeniably a large part of the landscape. However, the architecture there has also developed over time and modern and contemporary Chinese architecture has made its own mark on the region. Chinese architecture is a style that developed over millennia in China, before spreading out to influence architecture throughout East Asia. Since the solidification of the style during the early imperial period, the structural principles of Chinese architecture have remained largely unchanged, the main changes being only the high diversity of decorative details. Starting with the Tang dynasty, Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the architectural styles of Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam, and a varying amount of influence on the architectural styles of Southeast and South Asia including Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
The first communities that can be identified culturally as Chinese were settled chiefly in the basin of the Huang He (Yellow River). Gradually they spread out, influencing other tribal cultures until, by the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), most of China was dominated by the culturethat had been formed in the cradle of northern Chinese civilization. Over this area there slowly spread a common written language, a common belief in the power of heaven and the ancestral spirits to influence the living, and a common emphasis on the importance of ceremony and sacrifice to achieve harmony among heaven, nature, and humankind. These beliefs were to have a great influence on the character of Chinese art and architecture.
The History of Chinese Architecture
Because the Chinese built chiefly in timber, which is vulnerable to moisture, fire, insects, and the ravages of time, very little ancient architecture has survived. This may be surprising, when you think of the Great Wall, but structures like this were actually built throughout time, starting in the 7th century and extending through until the 1600’s. It is from these later times that the most prominent and well known sections of the wall are from. The oldest datable timber building is the small main hall of the Nanchan Temple, on Mount Wutai in Shanxi province, built sometime before 782 CE and restored in that year. Brick and stone are used for defensive walls, like the Great Wall of China, the arch for gates and bridges, and the vault for tombs. Only rarely has the corbeled dome (in which each successive course projects inward from the course below it) been used for temples and tombs. Single-story architecture predominates throughout northern and much of eastern China, although multistory buildings constructed around a central earthen mound (qiu) date to the late Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE).
The Basic Elements of Historical Chinese Building
The basic elements in a Chinese timber building are the platform of pounded earth faced with stone or tile on which the building stands; the post-and-lintel frame (vertical posts topped by horizontal tie beams); the roof-supporting brackets and truss; and the tiled roof itself. The walls between the posts, or columns, are not load-bearing, and the intercolumnar bays (odd-numbered along the front of the building) may be filled by doors (usually doubled in larger, institutional buildings) or by brick or material such as bamboo wattle faced with plaster, or the outermost bays may be left open to create peristyles. There are a lot of technical details to this building style, but they’re necessary to understanding what it is, and looks like, so stick with me! Typically, the intercolumnar filler of bricks or plaster leaves the structural wood exposed in a half-timber manner, turning function into visible geometry. The flexible triangular truss is placed transverse to the front side of the building and defines a gable-type roof by means of a stepped-up series of elevated tie beams (tailiang, “terraced beams,” for which this entire system of architecture is named; also known as liangzhu, or “beams-and-columns”); the gable-end beams are sequentially shortened and alternate with vertical struts that bear the roof purlins and the main roof beam. The flexible proportions of the gable-end framework of struts and beams, vertical rise and horizontal span, permits the roof to take any profile desired, typically a low and rather straight silhouette in northern China before the Song dynasty (960–1279) and increasingly elevated and concave in the Song, Yuan (1206–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911/12). While there is a lot of uniformity, there are evolutions on a theme in Chinese architecture. The gable-end framework is typically moved inward in a prominent building and partially masked in a hip-and-gable (or half-hip) roof and completely masked in a full-hipped roof. The timber building is limited in depth by the span of the truss, with the weight of the roof growing three times with every doubling of depth; structurally, however, the building might be of any length along the front, although in theory it ought not to exceed 13 bays and may never actually have exceeded 11 bays in the more recent dynasties.
2. Curving Roof
The origin of the distinctive curve of the roof, which first appeared in China about the 6th century CE, is not fully understood, although a number of theories have been put forward. The most likely is that it was borrowed, for purely aesthetic reasons, from China’s Southeast Asian neighbours, who cover their houses with atap (leaves of the nipa palm [Nypa]) or split bamboo, which tend to sag naturally, presenting a picturesque effect. The upswept eaves at the corners of the Chinese roof, however, do have a structural function in reducing what would otherwise be an excessive overhang at that point.
The domination of the roof allows little variation in the form of the individual building; thus, aesthetic subtlety is concentrated in pleasing proportions and in details such as the roof brackets or the plinths supporting the columns. Unused to any major variation, the Chinese became unusually sensitive to subtle architectural differentiation. Tang architecture achieved a “classic” standard, with massive proportions yet simple designs in which function and form were fully harmonized. Architects in the Song dynasty were much more adventurous in designing interlocking roofs and different roof levels than were their successors in later centuries. The beauty of the architecture of the Ming and Qing dynasties lies rather in the lightweight effect and the richness of painted decoration.
3. Pavillion Concept
In the “pavilion concept,” whereby each building is conceived of as a freestanding rectilinear unit, flexibility in the overall design is achieved by increasing the number of such units, which are arranged together with open, connecting galleries skirting around rectilinear courtyards; diversity is achieved through design variations that individualize these courtyard complexes. In the private house or mansion, the grouping of halls and courtyards is informal, apart from the axial arrangement of the entrance court with its main hall facing the gateway; but in a palace, such as the gigantic Forbidden City in Beijing, the formal halls are ranged with their courtyards behind one another on a south-to-north axis, the state halls building up to a ceremonial climax and then receding toward more private courts and buildings to the north. Ancestral halls and temples follow the palatial arrangement. The scale of a building, the number of bays, the unit of measure used for the timbers, whether bracketing is included or not, and the type of roof (gabled, half- or full-hipped, with or without decorative pent roof and with or without prominent decorative ridge tiling and prominent overhang) all accord with the placement and significance of the building within a courtyard arrangement, with the relative importance of that courtyard within a larger compound, and with the absolute status of the whole building complex. The entire system, therefore, is modular and highly standardized.
The radical standardization of Chinese architecture was best expressed in its system of measurement, which by the Song dynasty had developed eight different grades of measure, depending upon the status of the buildings and of individual buildings within a given compound. The unit of measure (a given inch) was larger for a more important building; the buildings flanking and facing it would use a slightly smaller unit, and so forth. By that measure, as a building expanded in status and scale, each part of it expanded accordingly; the structure of a larger building was better supportive of the weight it had to carry, while visually and aesthetically, consistent proportions were maintained from one building to the next. Modular in the extreme, buildings were designed to persist through the repeated replacement of parts, so that any given building has not only an original construction date but may belong to many different periods in between.
This entire system of regularity produced an architecture that changed but little and therefore could be “read” with great clarity by all. It defined, with little ambiguity, who could go where and shaped a world that told everyone their place in it. On the one hand, its restrictiveness may account for why the names of so few traditional Chinese architects are known. On the other hand, a system so neatly integrated in all of its features from a very early time, from the Han period on, seems to have needed little improvement and never underwent periods of radical redefinition like that which left Europeans with Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. The Chinese architectural system was not considered to have been man-made at all but essentially to have been revealed by heaven. With so little change being possible, and only slow, nearly invisible evolution taking place, with no one to take credit for it, it is understandable that until the late 1920s, with the research of Liang Sicheng (1901–72), Liang’s wife, Lin Huiyin (1904–55), and Liu Dunzhen (1896–1968), no one even knew which buildings were truly old and which were new.
Contemporary Chinese Architecture
A distinctively different engineering system for supporting the roof appears today mostly in the southwestern region of China, using tall, thin roof purlin-to-ground columns along the full length of the gable end and horizontal tie beams that penetrate these timber columns. Known as chuandou, this system allows for endless possibilities in the geometrical design upon the gable wall, unlike the more standardized tailiang system. In place of column-top bracketing, slanting wooden struts extend support for the eaves purlin diagonally downward to the columns. It is possible that chuandou architecture was once standard throughout much of China before the Han dynasty and that it retreated to that region with the disappearance of tall timber in the north and with the arrival of the timber-saving bracketing system that gradually came to characterize most traditional Chinese architecture.
An experimental phase in Chinese architecture emerged in the early 1990s. Independent practices headed by Yungho Chang, Wang Shu, and Liu Jiakun, among others, resisted the prevailing attitudes of contemporary Chinese society and mainstream forms of construction attributable to state-owned design institutes. Confronted with a complex social and cultural mileux, the current generation of Chinese architects is made to negotiate the categorical polarities within which they operate, oppositions ranging from architectural autonomy and social conditions, globalization and localization, to politics and form. In handling the realities of building and realizing their designs in the Chinese context, today’s practicing architects are tasked with engaging practical concerns as well as speculative modes of thinking. The tension between the predominating uniformity and many creative and innovative people’s desire for change has produced many interesting and unique buildings. In China, the general development of architecture, which had been crippled by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), is now overwhelmed by an economic boom that its outmoded institutional practices are often unable to handle. With regard to modern architecture, most foreign visitors to China might have a chance to see only “elitist” architecture that is sprawling in the major cities, and which consists either of creations by famous Western architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid or Steven Holl, or of quick imitations of the “international style” without manifesting much input of originality. “Postmodernism” represents the choice of grasping something of China’s lost cultural identity, which has been manifested by some marginal architects like those practicing “critical regionalism” in the style of Wang Shu, who won the Pritzker architecture prize in 2012. So much has changed, socially and economically in China over the past 20, 50, and 100 years, and the landscape of China and its built environment show it.
10 Most Distinctive Buildings in Chinese Architecture
Over the course of the last decade there has been a growing interest in the handcrafted buildings, as well as in the application of local and renewable materials in building construction. Under the concerns about the heavy environmental and economic expenses caused by construction, nowadays urban planners are embracing the concept of sustainability, which refers to “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. China, with the world’s largest population base and fastest economic development, has encouraged their architects to consider methods of construction that are more responsive to local conditions. This article will offer some insights on how sustainable construction have shaped the contemporary Chinese architecture, by examining the reuse of local materials such as wood, tiles, stones, bricks, bamboo, rammed earth, and recycled kiln bricks. There is a fascinating mix of ancient historical buildings, rebuilds in that style, as well as hyper-modernist skyscrapers and new takes on sustainable architecture. Here is a list of some of the most interesting and renowned buildings in China, from ancient to contemporary times.
1. Beijing Daxing International Airport
With vaulted ceilings, flowing forms, and tons of natural light, the Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) is a welcome breath of fresh air. With China set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest aviation market, Beijing needed a new airport that could not only handle high-volume traffic, but also stand as a symbolic gateway in and out of China’s capital. Drawing from principles of traditional Chinese architecture, the airport’s famous “starfish” design not only boosts the number of aircraft and cargo that funnel through, but also cuts down distances for travelers. Passengers can walk to their gate within eight minutes while enjoying the light-filled interior studded with stores and amenities, reducing the stress of travel. Like many other great works of architecture, the Daxing airport goes further to integrate into its surrounding environment. Design elements such as sun shading and natural light filtration not only brighten up the space, but also reduce the building’s overall energy consumption and carbon emissions by approximately 50%. Powered by solar panels, the airport hosts a complex heating system and an impressive rainwater collection and water management system not only to reduce its carbon footprint, but also to store and purify water from nearby ecosystems to prevent flooding and manage the local microclimate.
2. Lizigou Red Brick Ceremonial Hall Building
Ceremonial Hall Building in the rural countryside near Luoyang in Henan province in China. An ensemble of buildings and public spaces, which consists of a ceremonial hall, spaces for contemplation, living and farming, shaping a new community place for visitors and villagers alike.The low lying brick buildings blend and interact with the trees and grass, which are integrated into the semi-indoor semi-outdoor spaces. The architects said: “We see our challenge in preserving domestic knowledge and traditions with a new function for the villagers and future visitors. Through numerous dialogues and researches in the neighborhood area, we found a common archetype of house – the earth cave house in the form of an arch. The later forms combine houses with red brick elements with more arches. We continue the common language of arches and red bricks combined with new functions and new spatial dimensions. ”
3. SanBaoPeng Art Museum
Sanbao Art Museum is located in Sanbao village, a scenic place not far from the Central city of Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China. In the past decade, porcelain artists were attracted here to build their own studios. Thus a nascent, dynamic, porcelain-centric hub is thriving and magnetizing even more talents to migrate here what comes along is their great passions and dreams in inheriting the tradition of porcelain art. Most of the industries here are porcelain related, causing a highly competitive environment, it will take great ingenuity and endless efforts to be the best. The architects said: “Major materials used in Sanbao Art Museum, such as rammed earth, titanium zinc panels and travertine, will be eroded by time. We’re expecting this process of erosion, like the fermentation of wine, time gives its unique flavor. In addition, Sanbao village naturally produces unique soil, slightly red in color, so we decided to build the continuous loam walls with local clay, it delivers certain familiarity and tension.”
4. CCTV headquarters
Not your average skyscraper, the contorted form of the CCTV headquarters offers a unique addition to Beijing’s skyline. The battle for more space led the design team to imagine a new structure, as opposed to a straight shot skyward. Two main towers are knitted together by a perpendicular, 75-meter cantilever, forming an eclectic shape of sharp angles and diagonals. The design is the result of long-term collaboration between European and Chinese engineers to rethink the concept of a high-rise. Rem Koolhaas, one of the leading architects, has always been interested in making structures that expose conflicting energies at work in society. The bones of the building are seen from the outside: Irregular webs of darker, triangulated steel tubes draw out the forces at work on the building’s facade, condensing in areas of stress and opening up in areas requiring less support. As one walks around the building, it changes form, animated by the viewer’s perspective. The end result is a dynamic challenge to modern architecture’s dogma of structural purity. Koolhaas has defended the design of the tower after Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2014 criticized the construction of “weird architecture” in the country.
5. Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces in Beijing. It was an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty. Inside includes Longevity Hill Kunming Lake and Seventeen Hole Bridge. It covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three-quarters of which is water.Inspired by the gardens in South China, in the Summer Palace there are over 3,000 various Chinese ancient buildings that house a collection of over 40,000 kinds of valuable historical relics from each dynasty. First built in 1750, and largely destroyed in the war of 1860 the palace was restored on its original foundations in 1886 – is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The Summer Palace in Beijing integrates numerous traditional halls and pavilions into the Imperial Garden conceived by the Qing emperor Qianlong between 1750 and 1764 as the Garden of Clear Ripples. Using Kunming Lake, the former reservoir of the Yuan dynasty’s capital and Longevity Hill as the basic framework, the Summer Palace combined political and administrative, residential, spiritual, and recreational functions within a landscape of lakes and mountains, in accordance with the Chinese philosophy of balancing the works of man with nature. Destroyed during the Second Opium War of the 1850s, it was reconstructed by Emperor Guangxu for use by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace. Although damaged again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 it was restored and has been a public park since 1924. The Residential area comprises three building complexes: the Halls of Happiness in Longevity, Jade Ripples and Yiyun, all built up against the Hill of Longevity, with fine views over the lake. These are linked by roofed corridors which connect to the Great Stage to the east and the Long Corridor to the West.
6. Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum
Located in the center of a historical area, the site of the Museum is adjacent to the Imperial Kiln ruins surrounding with many ancient kiln complexes. Jingdezhen is known as the “Porcelain Capital” in the world because it has been producing pottery for 1,700 years. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Jingdezhen exported a huge amount of porcelains to Europe. In an interview, the architects said: “The materials of the museum are dominated by bricks, recycled old kiln bricks are mixed with new bricks together to reflect the local culture of construction. This interweaving of two different historical phases proposed by the combination of new and old bricks must arouse interest, curiosity, create new questions and give new answers by interacting with the mind of people who inevitably evoke memories and enjoy a unique experience. The past cannot be erased but rewritten by recounting a new awareness and maturity, a sort of contemporary archeology.”
Jingdezhen was growing naturally fitting in the valleys surrounding rivers, hills, and mountains because of the porcelain industry. The early settlements of the city developed around kiln complexes which included kiln, workshops, and housing. The street pattern was generated by nature and the porcelain industry. Most of the small alleys in between kiln complexes have always approached to Chang river in order to transport porcelain products to the river, the main streets have always been along with Chang river to bring all businesses and commercial together.
7. Temple of Heaven
The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor of Ming Dynasty, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It is currently located in Dongcheng Beijing, China. The complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the 16th century. JiaJing also built three other prominent temples in Beijing, the Temple of the Sun in the east, the Temple of Earth in the north, and the Temple of Moon in the west. The Temple of Heaven was renovated in the 18th century under the Qianlong Emperor. By then, the state budget was insufficient, so this was the last large-scale renovation of the temple complex in imperial times. The Temple of Heaven was inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1998 and was described as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations…” as the “symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.”
8. Shaolin Temple
Shaolin Temple is a renowned temple recognized as the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu. It is located at the foot of Wuru Peak of the Songshan mountain range in Dengfeng County, Henan Province, China. The name reflects its location in the ancient grove (林 lín) of Mount Shaoshi, in the hinterland of the Songshan mountains. Mount Song occupied a prominent position among Chinese sacred mountains as early as the 1st century BC, when it was proclaimed one of the Five Holy Peaks. It is located some thirty miles southeast of Luoyang, the former capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534), and forty-five miles southwest of Zhengzhou, the modern capital of Henan Province. The Temple’s historical architectural complex, standing out for its great aesthetic value and its profound cultural connotations, has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Apart from its contribution to the development of Chinese Buddhism, as well as for its historical, cultural, and artistic heritage, the temple is famous for its martial arts tradition. Shaolin monks have been devoted to research, creation, and continuous development and perfecting of Shaolin kung fu.
9. Harbin Grand Theatre
Nestled along the Songhua River’s north bank in Harbin, the Harbin Grand Theater appears as if carved from wind and water. Made to house Harbin’s famous 100-year-old Symphonic Orchestra, the two-theater complex can house up to 2,000 people within its billowing walls. Though music may be the initial attraction, the building stands as its own artistic feat. An exterior of smooth white aluminum panels echo the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate. Visitors who enter are first greeted by a grand lobby space lit up by a soaring glass diagrid ceiling, then guided toward the grand theater, a warm and cavernous space carved out of a rich wood — a stark contrast to the icy entrance. “We envision Harbin Opera House as a cultural center of the future — a tremendous performance venue, as well as a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of human, art and the city identity, while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature,” said Ma Yansong, the lead architect and founder of MAD Architects.
An icon of Jiangsu Province, the Lìyáng Museum draws on the region’s culture and traditions. Inspired by the jiaoweiqin, a Chinese musical instrument and one of the region’s cultural symbols, the museum’s organic form translates the spirit of the seven-stringed zither into the shape of a building. Sitting at the base of a low green hill, the museum features multiple entryways and gaping spaces, allowing visitors to seamlessly flow through indoor and outdoor spaces. With no exact points of exit and entry, the fluid shape welcomes visitors arriving from all sides as a symbolic reference to opening all the doors of culture. “From the Asian point of view, architecture is seen as part of the whole of nature, which contains both inner and outer space; space that connects humans, earth, and everything in the universe,” the architects stated. “A key driver in this design was the connection between inside and outside, both visually, in terms of lines and overall flow, and physically, in terms of access points and routes.”
Chinese Architecture is a quickly evolving form, responding to rapid growth and massive populations especially in cities, while also in some pockets returning to ancient materials and techniques. The result is a pastiche of styles that represent vastly different socio-economic conditions, and possibilities for the future of the country.