|Design Library / Forum/ Culture|
|Righteousness is ‘me’ under the ‘Lamb’
John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
|Analysis on Architecture and Interior Design From the view of the Chinese Character|
Key words: Chinese characters, pictograph, geometrical characters, decorative characters and identification space.
Reviewing carefully the Chinese characters, we can see that the Chinese character has been closely related with the architecture and interior design. They share the same foundation of hieroglyph and the same rule of aesthetics, and have been practiced in our life for a long time. The calligraphy in particular has exerted even more profound influences on it.
Resemblance in “Figure” between “Chinese Characters” and “Architecture and Interior Design”, which are likely to be transformed into each other.
The Chinese character is a symbol originating from “resemblance in figure”. It is even said that “writing is drawing”. The Chinese character is usually called “squared character” or “hieroglyph”, just because the “square” resembles a figure in some way. It bears some hieroglyphic features and some elements of modeling aesthetics while it stands as a record and communication. How does the Chinese character demonstrate the images of a building with its own “image”? Let’s trace back to the primitive era. Our ancestors employed 2 types of constructing a shelter: “nest-like shelter” constructed with wood and “cave-like shelter” based on a cave. Let’s take the “nest-like shelter” as an example. A bronze article called “Dun Yu”, unearthed in Sichuan Province, bears a ______, a hieroglyph which suggests a hung shanty. According to Mr. Xu Zhongshu, it suggests a hut supported by two trees. Mr. Yang Hongxun interprets it into the hieroglyph for “nest-like shelter” --- a shelter constructed in 4 branches (Aesthetics in China’s Architecture); and this single character is quite enough to re-present the image of a building constructed in the primitive era. The ancient inscription ______ on bones and tortoise’s shell for the current character “京”, which means “capital city”, suggests a building erected highly on poles and can be taken as the hieroglyph of “干阑”. Some other hieroglyphic characters also suggest rather clearly an image of a building or a room, including “穴” (which means “cave”) and “宫”(which means “palace”). Reviewing these characters, we may see that, with our ancestors’ replacing the natural trunks with manly erected poles, the “nest-like shelter” was developed into a pole-supported building, which was internally structured with wooden beams and wooden pillars. This is the foundation of the wooden structure system, which is the theme of China’s architecture and interior design.
Since a single Chinese character can demonstrate the image of a building or an indoor space, is it possible to construct a building or an indoor space by imitating a character? Let’s try to integrate a design with Chinese characters. Therefore we simplify the outline of the “squared Chinese characters” into some pure, simple geometric figures. These characters are called “geometric characters” hereinafter. For example, the character “日”, which means “sun”, is simplified into a “O”, the character “金”, which means “gold”, into a “△”; and the character “四”, which means “four”, into a “□”. Such simple “geometric characters” are exactly the “basic languages” often employed in Chinese architecture or interior design. “Courtyard with buildings on the four sides in Beijing” and “Four Golden Points in Guangdong” are the two traditional configurations in China’s architecture. The reason why they contain a “four” in their names is that the Chinese character “四”, which means “four”, is a rectangle in outline while the strokes inside actually symbolize the layout of the rooms inside. The layout of an ancient architecture was constructed on the basis of the character. May a modern design has been based on the character, too? Mr. I. M Pei, a well-known American designer of Chinese origin designed the glass “Pyramid” for the Louvre; did he have his design based on the Chinese character “金”? If not, is it just a similarity by chance that he offered for the vertical face cover of Singapore’s Overseas Chinese Central Bank a design which definitely suggests another Chinese character “贝”(Mr. I. M Pei)? It may not be denied that the geometric character may exert some exclusive effects on the modern design. It does not only create many masterpieces with exclusive features, but also endows these buildings with rich cultural connotations.
The art of Chinese character and the art of Architecture and interior design share the same artistic configuration and the same rule of aesthetics.
Calligraphy is the No. 1 artistic configuration of Chinese character. It shares the same aesthetic requirements with fine art and the art of design; they pursue an artistic configuration of balance, symmetry, harmony between host and guest, harmonious contrast and appropriate density.
First of all, they all highlight the balance and symmetry, which are the major forms for presenting the beauty and are included in the structure of an object. A man’s four limbs and a bird’s wings all present a relation of precise balance and symmetry. The case is the same with calligraphy. According to the rules of calligraphy, “a character shall look stable, upright and plump as an entirety, with its strokes of appropriate length well arranged; the thickness and length of the strokes shall be arranged in such a way that the character as an entirety looks balanced and symmetric” (Ten Rules of Calligraphy). As a matter of fact, this rule of beauty has been practiced since the ancient era either in the art of calligraphy or in the art of architecture and interior design. Oriented by this rule, an axial symmetry has been highlighted in the ancient architecture. According to “Lu’s Spring and Autumn”, “Found a nation at the center of a land and erect a place at the center of the country.” The layout of a palace was usually symmetrized to a virtual central axis. For example, the Forbidden City and the Palace Museum in Beijing all employs such layout. However, a balance consists of a symmetric balance and a non-symmetric balance, just as a balance is reached when the total weight of the weights on the scale is balanced with the sliding weight of a steelyard. This is also the basic rule for regulating the balance in size and weight in the art of architecture and interior design.
Secondly, they pursue a harmony between the “host” and the “guest” (i.e the primary and the secondary). This has been an order of aesthetics that everything includes something primary and something secondary, which shall be fulfilled in an appropriate sequence. The configuration of a group of buildings implies an affiliation between the main building and the auxiliary buildings; so does that of an indoor space comprised of the main hall and the rooms. There is a “theme” in a melody while there is also a “host-guest” rule in the calligraphy. This is a means of art to distinguish the primary from the secondary and make an emphasis highlighted in contemplation. Mr. 布颜图gives a vivid metaphor as below, describing the relationship between the host and the guest: “the main hill stands among other hills just as a grandfather sits among his children; the main hill need look noble and kind while the other hills need look prudent, obedient and respectful. The art of design is the twin sister of the calligraphy, because they generate mutual influences upon each other in the field of structural layout while they deliver the same tastes and intentions. Hence, as a designer, it needs to be highlighted to study and handle correctly the host-guest relationship in an entirety, so as to have both the host and guests properly seated.
Thirdly, They pursue a harmony of contrast. Contrastive buildings look much more interesting and meaningful. An object can not have only one side; no contrast means no contradiction; and no complete object can be constituted without contradictions. Everything in this world is in a permanent movement and must have differences of contradictions. The calligraphy attempts to achieve a harmony based on changes by comparison among characters. The architecture and interior design attempt to achieve a harmonious effect based on changes, too, by contrast between shapes, colors and quality. Goethe said that “a subject and the approach to describe it must be related with a distinct law of art.” Contrast and harmony make up the foundation of everything enjoyable; the calligraphy can not be an artwork without harmonious contrast. A building or an interior design will be as dull as a pool of backwater without harmonious contrast. In Mr. Kuro Kisho’s design for Japan Modern Art Gallery and for the Museum of Utayama County, simple geometric patterns were widely employed: the lobby at the entrance is a plane shaped like a new moon; to make the two buildings more distinct and more contrastive the exterior surface of the Art Gallery is veneered with black tiles while the Museum is veneered with white tiles (Kuro Kisho), so as to achieve a harmonious effect.
Fourthly, they highlight a moderate density. A density is the contrast between concentration and deconcentration, i.e between the large and the small. Some empty white walls are conserved in purpose in the interior design, only to present a big plane, against which other small artificial figures stand in contrast. Just like writing a calligraphic piece, the calligrapher takes the openings left out by strokes into account for the modeling of the character. The openings among strokes and characters are equivalent to the planes in an interior design while the compactly arranged strokes are equivalent to the artistic modeling in the interior design; and a complete artistic image must be composed of point, lines and planes. The sense of space implied in the specific structure and images of a character may be different from calligraphic style of calligraphic style, from era to era and from calligrapher to calligrapher, just as a palace, a garden and a house may suggest different sense of space on the basic of their differences in nature and structure. So, the art of calligraphy and the art of architecture and interior design share the same rule as far as the density is concerned.
Chinese character has been widely applied in the architecture and the interior design. It’s an integration of literature, philosophy, calligraphy, carving, craft, fine art and architecture.
The Chinese character has been widely applied in the architectural decoration. It extends a philosophy to a further depth and breaks through the limits in the time and space of a building; it leads the appreciators into a philosophic illumination about life, history and the cosmos, from the angle of psychology. We can find in the treasury of Chinese literature numerous poems and prose describing buildings. These literary works are usually reproduced implicitly in the architecture and the indoor environment on stone tablets, cliffs, screens and paintings on hardened gauze. We have 2 types of tablets: tablet inscribed with a poem and tablet inscribed with an essay. A Tablet may either be vertical or horizontal. A tablet is usually embellished in the forehead and the body with patterns of dragons, phoenixes, deer, cranes, flowers, trees and figures of various derivations. Such patterns, figures and characters inscribed on the tablet decorate the tablet and turn it into an artwork of architecture (Aesthetics in China’s Architecture). Characters inscribed on steep cliffs cast some mysterious, cultural light on hills and peaks. We might as well classify the “screen inscription” and “paintings on hardened gauze” under indoor design if tablet inscription and cliff inscription are classified under external landscaping architecture. In the Hall of Swallows in the Forest of Lions in Suzhou City, just at the midmost of partition fan in the Hall of Mandarin Ducks, stands a screen-wall, which consists of eight screens inscribed with an essay titled “Record about Mr. Bei’s Restoring the Forest of Lions”. This large inscribed screen, together with the plaque and couplet, enriches greatly the implied cultural connotation in the indoor space inside the hall. Many halls and rooms in the Palace Museum in Beijing are furnished with elaborate partition fans and hardened gauze-screens, which are mounted with small-sized calligraphic works and paintings. This is another high-tasted way in which the character is merged into an indoor environment.
Simple, short and meaningful epigraphs have been introduced into the architecture and indoor spaces since the ancient era. It’s widely known that a plaque endows an architectural space with a sharp theme while a couplet is another exclusive form of art, both literally and literarily. Featured with monosyllable and one meaning, the Chinese characters can be organized flexibly into couplets, either long or short, which are widely applicable to the indoor space or outdoor space of various sizes. There are 3 types of couplets: next-to-doorframe couplet, post-on-column couplet and wall-embellishing couplet. Couplets can be integrated with the door, the pillars and the wall into an entirety, which turns to be an architectural carrier; the couplet then is developed into a school of architectural decoration. The post-on-column couplet, for example, which is generally called “column couplet”, is the most popular among the three. Many well-known historic buildings are usually furnished with several couplets, both inside and outside. Left over as comments through different historical times by famous historical people or scholars, they are an embodiment of the cultural deposition in the architecture. The plaques and couplets are transformed into architectural components, achieving a natural welding of an approach of literature and an approach of architecture.
In addition, characters used to be reproduced as a decoration in the eave tile, ridge tile, bricks and figured characters. As an architectural carrier, they introduced vitality into a motionless building and enriched the architectural space with personality and exclusive manner.
With the rapid development of this information era, the world is being increasingly integrated towards an entirety; people have less and less barriers when communicating in language or in words. With the development in technology and craft, the art of architecture and interior design is being developed towards an internationalized simplicity; and different traditional cultures are more likely to be replaced. To conserve and inherit the essence of the magnificent traditional cultures, the ideas about the traditional cultures must be taken into consideration while handling the modern design, so as to achieve attractive and competitive works of architecture and interior design and to create a space of with identifiability sharp personality in the world.
List of Reference Books
Toward the essential
what does it mean? A fashion?, a cultural tendency?, an ideological movement
of artists?, an aesthetic definition? a philosophical school?
I would say that is everything or maybe nothing of what has been mentioned. It is a phenomenon that has been reassumed by architects, artists, musicians, writers in a very insistent manner in the last years, and since frequently categorised with the word “minimal” or “minimalism” has been traduced into a fashion, a contemporary artistic ideological movement, a way of thinking.
As a young student of architecture I met by the first time the masters of the modern movement, (Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright), and at the moment I felt a radical transformation on my vision of everything. I started assuming life in a very different way.
I realised that what those modern architects have in common with the artists, philosophers, and musicians of the same generation (understood as the real generators of the XX Century changes), is the search of the essential, the true value of the objects, materials, forms and space. Every modernist, in his very way of expression, was searching the same thing: the purity, the essence. It is to remark that I have used the verb “to search” not to invent but to look for, to discover what has been there, always but eventually hidden or covered under the influences of other movements.
For me, the life changed so much that I even started seeing the woman beauty from a different perspective. Until that very moment, I thought the female beauty depended on the production, the action of being perfectly decorated, dressed and made up. As in the past, the architecture was evaluated according to its attachment to the canons of the five classical orders and the paraphernalia that was enclosed to them.
Adolf Loos cried out for the end of decoration, in his famous book “Decoration and Crime”.
Le Corbusier defined architecture as “the marvellous play of the volumes under the light” and with his five principles of Architecture, he only asked for freedom, to flee from every single thing that prevent the space and forms to be themselves, and the human being to fully enjoy them. Nevertheless, the master Corbu did make a few concessions to some decorative elements, as the “brise soleil”, only with the sincere excuse of its functionality.
Mies Van Der Rohe (who divulge the phrase coined by his master Peter Behrens: “less is more”) was the most radical from his modernist colleagues, and although being less prolific than Le Corbusier, was more revolutionary, in the sense of not letting any room to reinterpretations or misunderstandings. Less would be nothing.
In the pick of every civilisation and culture, in every period of history, the man has tried to free himself from what was unnecessary and superfluous. We can see this phenomenon in architecture, art, music, even technology. To achieve the freedom from the excesses has been always a synonymous of maturity and sophistication. On the other hand, during decadent period the society and its artistic expressions frequently undergo in the opposite way, and succumb to the temptations of decorate instead of create.
The great Italian painter, Fra Angelico, once said: “the real wealth consists on knowing how to be happy with little”, and 400 years later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “the difference between a good and a poor architect is that the poor architect succumb to every temptations, and the good always resists”.
In this way of thinking, we can assert that the oriental culture has reached its highest level when searching for the essential, stimulating the contemplation, the calm. The traditional Chinese painting, for instance, discovered the worth of emptiness as an element itself.
Also, Japanese called “wabi” the quality of being in poverty willingly. This is a moral and aesthetic principle, that values the beauty of the simple and austere, to achieve the serenity and transcendence that is implicit in this state of mind.
It has become the goal of the creators from the most diverse disciplines to achieve the highest expressiveness through the minimum expression. “When the simple is shocking, it talks about the excess of noise that has invaded our landscapes” said Peter Zumthor. Indeed, in a time over saturated (of images, forms and sounds), to reduce, to filter ends up being the most eloquent gesture.
However, this fight against the matter in architecture is plenty of paradoxes and contradictions. From a very complex simplicity, the simple forms are due to a very constructive difficulty. The more apparently simple architecture requires the more careful design, singular finishing and frequently even the work of artisans. The minimal architecture need, in fact, more time to be built.
The formal schematism of minimal buildings, its visual lightness, contrasts with the presence of some of its elements, such as thick walls, big pieces of wood, etc.
The minimal design moves itself among the most sophisticated technology and the use of the natural materials in their primitive form. Is a sensual and intellectual approximation to the materials, then the construction comes back to be construction.
The minimal architecture is convincing and emphatic. From its discretion and simplicity it reaches its massiveness. And the paradox is that while being huge, massive, its conservation is very simple. In a building without frames, cornices, friezes, the absence of elements is translated to the building commitment to the future. The precision in the construction, that makes the building more expensive at the beginning, is its sword to defend himself from the wear and passage of time.
Eliminating frames, gates and partitions, the space, without decorations or distractions, become the protagonist. The missing decoration, the reduced detail, leads forward constructions that reveal the meaning of architecture as a pure value, the value of the simple space. Because of its conscientious care of interior design, the minimal architecture is connected to the traditional way of making architecture, when the architect designed every detail and phase of the project.
More than explain the minimalism as a tendency or a fashion, this idea, of an universal vision of the building and the way architects get close to its concept, is what leads us to talk about a minimal architecture.
Today, for me, the beautiful woman is the one that is austere and natural, able to resist the temptation of fashions and artful devices. The one to be defined by her spirit and interior world, not by artificial decorations.
Contemporary Chinese Architectural and Planning Practice: Aspirations and Challenges
By Joe Carter,
"[I]f we want to preserve our national characteristics,
we must first make sure they can preserve us. Distinctive things are not
necessarily good, so why must they be preserved? Why keep a carbuncle
just because it’s Chinese? [ii]
The pace of development in China is so intense it presents both enormous potential and threat. Most of urban China has been built in the past 25 years, at a rate of over 150M m2 per year, often in huge single projects. This rate of urban expansion is unprecedented and is contributing to serious physical and cultural environmental degradation. Along with increased water and air pollution, diminishing water resources, and desertification, the physical remnants of China's urban cultural wealth are collapsing from neglect or being brushed aside. A World Bank (2001) report praised China for handling severe environmental problems over the past 10 years but warned that spending on conservation was being outstripped by economic growth, and urged a more pro-active approach.
Although China's urban population is still relatively poor, a rising standard of living and the accompanying rising expectations of material prosperity are challenging the sustainability of development. Will increasing prosperity lead China to embrace the same consumer-driven and unsustainable growth patterns of wealthier countries or to benefit from their mistakes? An even more disturbing threat to sustainability is the emergence of corruption, economic crime, opportunism and a renewed disparity between rich and poor.
Chinese children now are eagerly learn English, science, math, and engineering to enter a global society. About half of China's urban adults own mobile phones and the information highway has been adopted whole-heartedly. Ten percent of urban families now own a private car and Chinese cities are beginning to choke on this new traffic where once there were mainly bicycles. China is proving to be outward looking and eager to adopt Western science and technologies. These are often regarded as panaceas for all social and economic development ills and are not necessarily subjected to critical examination for their appropriateness or economic, social or environmental implications. The nature and still relatively low level of education and management experience inhibit the proper application of western ideas and methods. While many are aware of the opportunities to leap over the older technologies or planning errors and paradigms of “developed” countries; this happens by legal necessity or economic opportunity more than it does by considered choice.
Currently, the opportunity exists to build in order to improve living standards, accommodate large migrations into the cities, and allow for further industrialization. As the cities absorb tremendous population pressure and demand for shelter, existing urban fabric and traditional ways of life are under threat. Thus the questions arise: Which solutions to apply? What should be retained? What should be discarded?
With the rapid supply of high volumes of the built environment, little time exists to learn from the lessons of the past, or from other countries, and weave them into present practice. Moving a culture forward, when the shadow of the past on the present is so large, can make it more a burden than a rich source from which to borrow. In 1949 Towns and Buildings of the World by Rasmussen, rates Beijing as pre-eminent. Of "Peking, the capital of old China", he asks, "Has there ever been a more majestic and illuminative example of sustained town-planning?" The past can be a hard act to follow.
In terms of a contemporary national architectural style, China is still struggling to progress beyond the ten monumental structures built to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 1959, including the Great Hall of the People, the History Museum, the Beijing Railway Station, and the National Art Gallery. These structures are dignified and have some Chinese motifs, but they are still just preliminary steps toward reinterpreting China’s architectural and urban design heritage in modern terms. The new Beijing West Railway Station, designed in the early 1990s, tries harder than its 1950s predecessor to be a modern prototype, but lacks the dignity of the original station.
Liang Si Cheng, the founder of China's premier school of
architecture at Qinghua University said, more than 50 years ago:
The real estate boom that began in the early 1990s saw the construction of many office and apartment towers that either had foreign designers, some of whom have never been to China, or local designers experimenting with and emulating western design. For foreign-invested, high standard office and residential buildings, the design is usually a wholesale import from the West. Local architects also made attempts to make some new buildings "Chinese". The references to historical styles, often quite literal, look uncomfortable on modern building types. Just as uncomfortable is the awkward imitation of western detail. The resulting built environment at best lacks an architectural and urban design language and at worse is deemed chaotic and even "barbaric"[iv]. This gives renewed urgency to answer the question, "What is modern and Chinese?" Every developer's design brief still asks for "modern with Chinese characteristics", but its realization is elusive. The result is fragmentation, a clash of old-new, east-west, and thoughtful-immature design.
When the boom started the mayor of Beijing attempted to protect the city from over-Westernization. To counter the concerns that too many new tall structures with flat roofs were being built in Beijing, he insisted that all new towers wear a Chinese pavilion roof "hat" and parapets with glazed Chinese tiles to create a more Chinese-looking skyline. Although this aspiration was admirable, the result was unsatisfactory. Locals recognize the artificiality of such roofs and refer to the strip of tiles applied to the parapet as the "watermelon rind".
These issues have been the focus of soul-searching by all of China's leading planners and architects. Their aspirations are entwined with China's desire to modernize and become a contributor to the modern world after so many centuries of isolation. However, challenges exist at many levels:
l Reconciliation of economic development with social well-being
and cultural continuity
The argument for the compact high-density city is that density of buildings and people will optimize exchange, access to services, and opportunities for mutual support. Higher density should enable a more equitable and accessible distribution of community resources with walking access to shopping, schools, services, and more efficient public transportation. The density should not be so high, however, that the system becomes paralyzed and suffocating, nor so low that it needs unsustainable infrastructure to support it. No definitive numbers exist for "optimum" sustainable urban densities, so further research is needed to inform policy and practical levels. Indeed, the recent and emerging experiences of urban density in China would also inform such research. If the compact high-density city is a valid sustainable urban form, then, in this aspect at least, Chinese cities have the potential to be more sustainable than most North American cities.
However, the reason for creating compact high-density cities has been limited means rather than a conscious policy of sustainability. Chinese pragmatism, moderation, a frugality learned from poverty, and limited land resources result in new construction with a relatively high urban building density and a Spartan lifestyle. Most urban Chinese people cycle or take a bus to work, wear long underwear in winter, turn off lights when they leave a room, live in small spaces, and are sparing in their use of water and cooking gas. With rising wealth, the advantages of optimum density city construction and energy-saving lifestyles can erode unless there is increased environmental awareness and education. Gains in building envelope performance, for example, may be outpaced by rising standards of comfort. If the socially acceptable and affordable limits of comfort increase, then the gains in building performance will be countered by expectations of higher indoor temperatures in the winter, etc. China cannot afford the West's sprawling very low-density suburbs resulting in expensive infrastructure. While sustainability was not a conscious goal, the results nonetheless achieve sustainable characteristics.
While favorable arguments can be made for the new higher density Chinese city, from the point of view of architects and planners, some major problems exist.
l First, there is a lack of a satisfactory urban design
language for this new level of density. New densities far exceed former
densities and therefore threaten the existing traditional city.
While it can be argued that the densities of Chinese cities may be at a sustainable optimum, a fortuitous conformance with some aspects of sustainability will not be enough. A more conscious policy of sustainability, affecting more levels of urban life, will become an increasingly critical need. Chinese architects and planners can play a decisive role to help retain the current unconscious eco-habits and sustainable development patterns by making them conscious. One available instrument is China's Agenda 21 Program. Its "constitution" is The White Paper on China's Population, Environment and Development in the 21st Century. This clear and informative 1994 document is a blueprint for coordinated action on many fronts. Among other things, the Agenda, especially Chapter 10, The Development of Sustainable Human Settlements, could become part of the curriculum for architectural and planning education, and a guide for foreigners interested in any aspect of sustainable urban development in China [vii]
Within the above criteria and constraints, until recently, most housing in China was six-story walk-up apartments with plot ratios between 1.0 and 2.0. Even at the edge of many cities, six story residential buildings are typically built across the road from farmer's fields. More recently the plot ratios, within the property lines of a 10 to 30 hectare housing estate, have risen to 2.5 - 3.0. The population density on these sites can exceed 1000 people/hectare [viii]. When the plot ratio in a residential area goes over 1.0, the house-type disappears and the apartment-type predominates.
Most mid- and high-rise housing in China is now free-market housing, not social housing. People are willing to buy high-rise housing because it affordable and provides more interior and outdoor (communal) space. These building densities are not perceived as over-crowded, because people have usually moved out of even more crowded conditions (as low as 4 m2/person) in older parts of the city to a new apartment with 15 - 20 m2/person.
If the current densities for the new Chinese compact high-density city are sustainable, then the village-like one story, old courtyard city with its plot ratio of around 0.3 will not be preserved unless it is recognized for its high cultural value. An alternative urban multi-family dwelling type, with three story apartment blocks forming small courtyards and a plot ratio of approximately 1.0, was created by Professor Wu Liang Yong at Qinghua University, Beijing in the late 1980s. Despite being awarded a UNESCO Habitat prize, much publicity, and thousands of visitors, the model has not been replicated. This is mainly because land values have risen and the project's density is now too low to be affordable. It also appears to matter little to the average family to live in a quintessential Chinese courtyard environment. The six-story, higher density slabs are perceived by Chinese consumers to be better because they provide more light and air to all the units, and perhaps, more importantly, enough distance between buildings to provide some privacy.
There is also a lack of vocabulary for public space, as its use was not encouraged in China's old cities. Old cities were mostly administrative centers, not centers of trade. Consequently, there is a lack of a semi-private, and semi-public space in the spatial hierarchy. In addition, there are no precedents for modern building types such as office towers, airports and railway stations.
Only when other values are strong enough to intervene at policy and implementation levels, such as the value of heritage preservation, that such districts will be preserved. If the policy of higher density is viable, then lower density areas have to be preserved and sustained by internal cross-subsidy from areas of higher density. However, this often comes with the cost of gentrification.
Another design challenge is China's current scale and pace of development. A ten-hectare site, in urban China, with a Plot Ratio of 2.0 has 200,000 m2 of buildings and is not considered a large-scale development. Christopher Alexander's idea of healthy, piecemeal, organic growth is in development sizes with an upper limit of about 10,000 m2[ix]; only a twentieth of China' s smaller scale developments. A typical New York city block for example is about 80 x 270 m, just over two hectares, one-fifth the size of China's smallest.
For security reasons and to obtain more protected green space for residents, these ten-hectare and up housing projects tend to be "gated communities" with no through streets. This tends to contradict the rationale for higher density, namely, to improve accessibility. The rich grain of small-scale urban street blocks advocated by Jacobs and Alexander are not found in New China. Chinese planners would be challenged by Cliff Moughtin, Emeritus Professor of Planning at the University of Nottingham, who says:
"The larger and more homogenous the street block the greater will be its power to destroy the social, economic, and physical networks of the city. The large-scale single-use, single-ownership street block is the instrument most influential in the decline of the city: its effect together with that of its partner the motorcar are among the real causes of the death of the great city."[x]
Along with city size, and population and building densities, street block size is another area of useful international comparative research.
If the higher density compact city is an aspect of sustainable urban development for China, then the recent appearance of single-family home, suburban developments, in larger Chinese cities is a threat to sustainability. This niche market has attracted foreign developers with some promoting the use of wood frame structures for this housing. Flammable wood construction cannot be used in China's higher density cities; its use must be confined to the "unsustainable" suburbs. Although traditional Chinese structures were all timber-frame, this was only possible in a lower-density one-story traditional city. Timber has also become a scarce resource in China. Its harvesting is a major contributor to flooding and soil erosion. Importing timber violates the sustainability principle of using local materials. Fortunately, a perception that repairs and alterations would be too expensive inhibits Chinese developers from pursuing the use of timber.
While this method achieves the desired speed and volume of building construction, its centralization discourages diversity. Top-down organized "mass housing", built according to national standards works against the use of regional pattern languages. There is also a tendency toward the "majesty" of monumental symmetrical facades, and impressive wide streets cleared of outdoor markets, sidewalk peddlers, and small private shops. This hurts street life and reduces the stock of valuable, older, low-rent, "incubator" buildings[xi] so useful to China's budding entrepreneurs. The overall result can be a numbing homogeneity, and a rough coarsening of the urban grain. The process is understandably simple given limited management resources, a shortage of design professionals and an authoritarian social condition.
Property management, no longer the responsibility of the government, is undertaken by a subsidiary company of the developer. Early attempts are being made to organize residents' management committees but two difficulties are encountered: the vast size of housing developments contain 2-3,000 families and passive habits acquired during five decades of state care inhibit the realization of self-management.
Implementing a more decentralized process will take time. Although China has gained valuable experience implementing national policies, such as the Housing Reform Policy, where local government interpret guidelines according to local conditions, the size of the cities is still so large and the authoritarian mode so prevalent that urban development is still controlled from toward the center.
Valuable international precedents for alternate urban development models exist for China to look at. The St. Lawrence Market Neighborhood in Toronto, for example, is a multi-tenure, multi-developer, multi-architect housing estate (with some other uses mixed in) built around a common municipal plan. Only the overall development guidelines were centralized. This project has a scale and density consonant with China's needs, but with greater complexity and diversity of organization and building design. Another is the Berlin IBA (Internationale Bauaustellung). It involves public funds, public interest, private development, and some of the most prominent architects in the world, all used for urban renewal and rehabilitation in an open process.
The Harvard University sinologist, John Fairbank, calls China a latecomer to modernity, especially since the Open Door Policy of 1978, and asks whether it has emerged from isolation just in time to participate in the demise of the world or, with millennia of survival experience, to help rescue it?[xii] James Yen, a Chinese pioneer in rural development in the 1930s, suggests the latter possibility:
[T]hrough the last forty centuries China must have matured her thought and learned many lessons in the art of living. Surely, with China's four hundred million people [in 1930], four thousand years of culture and vast resources, she must have something to contribute to the peace and progress of mankind. [xiii]
One of the main reasons the Chinese have a nagging sense of being "behind" is because the "modern" is so often defined in narrow terms of technical and scientific progress, comfort and wealth, and the predominant but non-sustainable Western consumer society. If "modern" were defined as achieving the next stage in an evolving society, the family of man in a functional "neighborhood of nations",[xiv] then China would sooner find its voice. Distracted by the Western material development paradigm, China's spiritual, philosophical and artistic potential and resources are underestimated. China's appreciation of transcendent understandings is inhibited by an over-emphasis on material development and further slowed by a cultural self-deprecating nature. If the next stage in cultural evolution is the establishment of a transnational community, and if that is the purpose of globalization, then Chinese concept of "Tian Xia Yi Jia" (All under heaven is one family), for example, is an obvious congruence of thought. The essence of Chinese thought is harmony, unity of opposites, reciprocity; its heroes and champions of justice are poets and philosophers. The spirit of China's art, much of its poetry, and especially its garden design prefigure one of the essential concerns of sustainability, harmony between man and nature.
The more China locks itself into a material definition of modernization, the less it will see its own potential value and the harder it will be for it to find its heritage of any relevance to modern life. The current architectural "barbarism", including superficial borrowings from the West, is more the result of a lack of China's own development than emulation of the West; more a bowing to a mechanistic, technical view of development than a consequence of foreign stylistic domination.
As Dr. Farzam Arbab says:
"..[T]he pattern of economic growth being replicated has proven so detrimental to the environment as to call its viability into question. The challenge of bringing prosperity to all the peoples of the world through a process of sustainable development will not be met solely by the application of technology and the expansion of current schemes of organization. It demands a radical departure from the materialistic philosophies that have created today’s concurrence of abject poverty and irresponsible wealth.[xv]
The efficacy of this emphasis on functionality is called into question. Historic parts of cities are destroyed; valuable farmland and environmentally protected areas are consumed by expanding cities; the advantages of a frugal lifestyle and compact cites are abandoned in new suburbs; and the vast scale of the projects frequently contribute to the 'barbaric' and 'chaotic' nature of the urban landscape. In the developers' race to make money, the more thoughtful architects and planners often keep their scruples and doubts to themselves.
As a consequence of China's current rapid change toward a market economy, Chinese people are questioning the relevance of their heritage. It has been difficult to focus on global issues such as sustainability when even young architects and planners are loaded with commissions to design large tracts of the city. The prestige and remuneration, along with the entailed overwhelming workload, leaves little time or energy to contemplate a larger view.
The current architectural 'barbarism', including borrowings from the West, is the result of a lack of China's internal development. An endogenous process of re-evaluating the emerging Chinese city and urban life will be a necessary part of the solution. There are aspects within China's philosophical and artistic heritage that may contribute to a radical departure from the current materialistic philosophies and the culture of consumerism, which have proven so detrimental to the environment. The more the viability of the current paradigm is questioned, the more China might find itself scanning its own resources and traditions. This will entail redefining 'modern' as sustainable in cultural, economic and aesthetic terms and seeking solutions that are both modern and Chinese.
The most potential to positively influence sustainable ideas resides in the first generation of Chinese architects and planners educated after the Cultural Revolution who may be able to integrate principles and concepts from China's past with contemporary needs. Many in this group have greater theoretical depth by virtue of their travel and exposure to the West and are best equipped to guide its application (or not) to modern China. This generation is also the first to be aware of the environmental challenge, and the need to integrate ecological criteria into human settlement design.
A deeper search for the relevance of China's heritage may be lengthy and follow an uneven course, but it would be wise to commence a program of research now in order to develop internal and appropriate capabilities and a vocabulary for questioning and adapting external technologies to China's needs. Strategies are needed for deciding whether to adapt generic principles, specific ideas or adopt proven foreign technologies. Research into urban sustainability could include:
? Form issues such as density, urban design for higher densities, block size, the relationship between density and transportation, etc
? Process issues involving urban development over time, e.g. less authoritarian and more participatory methods of urban development, and the application of Agenda 21
? Practical techniques now being developed in several Western countries to integrate natural processes and urban development
The complexity and scope of the problem suggests additional support is also needed. The process of forging a Chinese identity of place cannot depend solely upon the inspiration of a few well-travelled architects. The process will have to engage a variety of stakeholders in the built environment from occupants to planners and economists. The significance of 'top-down' decision making in China suggests high-level leadership must also be committed before effective change can be implemented. Therefore, part of the process must include an expansion of persuasive arguments. A review of skills and capabilities within the higher educational system is needed to assist designers to understand and appreciate regional culture, regional identity, and sense of place. Architects, developers and other decision-makers in the built environment will need new capabilities to filter the growing possibilities presented by international trade and local aspirations.
This research would provide a practical focus, but in addition
would ultimately strengthen the voice of the 'seekers' among China's architects
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[ii] Lu Xun, quoted by Ruth Weiss, Lu Xun, A Chinese Writer for All Times, New World Press, China, 1985, pp.85.
[iii] Liang Si Cheng, A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, MIT Press, 1984, p.3. Chinese classical architecture has a post-and-beam wood frame structure connected with complex nail-less joinery. This frame structure, while almost obscured by walls of brick and roofs of clay tile, is independent of them, and, in this sense, contains a basic similarity to frame structures with curtain wall.
[iv] Phyllis Lambert, head of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, used the term 'barbaric' to describe China's modern urban landscape in a lecture at Beijing University, 12 November 2001. Qi Xin, a 42 year old Chinese architect, educated in Beijing and France has described the character of China's modern architecture as 'chaotic'.
[v] Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design: Green Dimensions, Architectural Press Oxford, p. 53.
[vi] Plot Ratio or Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is the number of square meters of building on a given site compared to the size of the site. For example, a ten-story building with 1000 m2/floor has a building area of 10,000 m2. If this building were placed on a 1 hectare site (10,000 m2), the Plot Ratio would be 10,000 m2 of building /10,000 m2 of land, or 1.0.
[vii] See www.townsnet.com/agenda2.htm
[viii] We can compare these two ratios to determine a third ratio, building space per person. In the above example, typical of new urban China, the ratio is an average of 20 m2 of building per person.
[ix] Christopher Alexander, A New Theory of Urban Design, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.32
[x] Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design: Green Dimensions, Architectural Press Oxford, p.138.
[xi] Jane Jacobs, the author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, refers to a city's stock of older, low-rent buildings as essential for economic development, as places where budding entrepreneurs can experiment, with lower financial risk, to establish new businesses.
[xii] John K. Fairbank, China: A New History, Harvard University Press, 1992, Preface ppxv11.
[xiii] James Yen (Yan Yang Chu), Mass Education Movement, Ding County, Hebei Province, 1930s.
[xiv] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abridged one-volume edition, p.44.
[xv] Dr. Farzam Arbab, The Lab, the Temple, and the
Market, Edited by Sharon Harper, IDRC, Canada, 2000, pp.1-2.
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