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History and Design of Chinese Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4220 words Published: 7th Sep 2021

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“A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of a cultivated, enriched heart” according to Frank Loyd Wright

In other words, architecture and culture are closely linked to each other, as they represent time, space and history. In addition, to what extent has China’s traditional architecture been transformed or influenced by the modern society and has this affected the values in society over time? Noticing this, I have a curiosity to find out to what extent China architecturally shows its cultural identity in modern architecture.

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Traditional architecture can be defined from various aspects, according to William Miller, “Traditional buildings respond to a multitude of concerns relating to the particulars of place: geography, climate, economy, available materials and skills, cultural conventions, mythical beliefs and metaphysical aspirations.” Chinese architecture has developed over 5000 years through several dynasties and centuries, undergoing social, economic and political transformations. In particular, over the past ten years, modern Chinese architecture has been developing rapidly.

After the start of the Opium Wars in the 1840s, Chinese architecture started to mix Chinese style and western architectural characteristics together. Buildings like restaurants, hotels and stores began to incorporate western construction elements. Chinese architecture gradually introduced more different styles of western buildings; examples of these include foreign consulates, banks and clubs. Since the late 19th century, China has adopted European styles of building; unique and structured in multiple styles. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, China entered another era; the planned economic system accelerated the development of modernization. Since the 1980s, Western trained Chinese architects have attempted to incorporate traditional Chinese and modern design together. However, the traditional skills of Chinese architecture are still applied to the construction of local architecture. As a result, Chinese architecture entered the modern era, a new historical period and the style became more open and outstanding.

The adjective “Modern” is defined as something new and has been accepted by society nowadays; it is different from traditional styles. New types of building elements, e.g. theatres, hotels, restaurants, performance halls, offices and departments blending western and Chinese elements can all be defined as ‘modern’. This was a result of the introduction of foreign materials and equipment, foreign design, and architectural theory extensively abroad; as well as further activity in the construction of academic ideas and building creative ideas. New architecture was presented with a variety of patterns in very different styles. Contemporary architecture has opened a new chapter of Chinese architecture in emerging new architectural forms and grouping composition e.g. use of glass walls, tooth walls, translucent halls, revolving restaurants, landscaping and other new constituent elements. From ancient and imperial China to today’s People’s Republic, China has become more open and creative which correlates with other countries architectural development.

Chinese’s architecture has lost its cultural identity

Shape and form

Looking at ancient architecture and modern architecture in China, the facade of the architecture is the most significant part as it is the first thing we notice about a building.  Elements that directly appeal to our senses are space, line, shape, texture, colour, light and dark; these are used as a form of composition in an architectural design.  Line is often used in structural materials as it helps to create a basic structure, just like sketches of lines drawn on paper. How we distinguish the style of a cultural architecture is by the shape and structure of the architecture. Architecturally, when we take away the colour, take away the materials what remains would be the simplest structure of the building. Lines can be thick or thin, straight or curved, jagged or smooth, light or heavy. Shape is created when lines are enclosed together. Imagine drawing four equal lines on paper to create a square, that is a shape but in a two-dimensional surface. A three- dimensional shape is formed by perspective which is applied to architecture.

 Firstly, ancient Chinese architecture focuses on the width of building and contemporary Chinese architecture tends to build in height and depth instead. The building format ancient Chinese architecture is mainly rectangular and the structure is supported by axes. All the houses are linked together into a whole and form a village. The principle of the building structure has been carried over several dynasties. Some of the ancient Chinese buildings are still well conserved nowadays. For example, traditional rectangular Chinese housing buildings are divided in to several rooms. Commonly, the center of most housing would be a shrine for the deities and the ancestors, the surrounding area provide for living. The two sides next to the middle area are for the elders, and the other rooms are for the junior members of the family, the living room, dining room and kitchen. The size of the residence house depends on the size of the family; if the family size is big, there were even two extra pairs of wings built.

Tsang Tai UK is an example of ancient Chinese housing, it is a Hakka walled village in Shatin Hong Kong, one of the best preserved located in Hong Kong. It was built in 1867 by Tsang Koon-Man for his family’s use and now it is listed as Hong Kong grade 1 historic building.

The complex of Tsang Tai UK is rectangular with total size of 6000 square feet. It consists of three rows of houses enclosed by grey brick walls. The middle part of the houses is an ancestral hall where family meetings and ceremonies took place and in front of the main building is a massive courtyard where villagers dried their harvest and winnow. The four corners of each of the three-storey guard towers have opening holes in the wall through which guns could be fired acting the role of defense during war time. From the example of Tsang Tai UK, the house is well designed; the structure of the house illustrates how traditional Chinese architecture had its unique building style and how this is recognized as one element of Chinese cultural architecture. Tiang Tai Uk shows the structure of position two wings on side to form the main rooms and yard. Chinese combines units of space by the principles of balance and symmetry which is tradition Chinese typical constructing.

As the Chinese population is growing rapidly, modern buildings are built to maximum height in order to meet the needs of such large capacity. Comparing modern construction style to ancient architecture style, the façades of modern architecture are built in multi-style as there isn’t a specific way of building façades. As contemporary architecture has already become multi-disciplinary the facades are all identical to others. In term of structural systems, services and technologies, the field of architecture is unique and structures are no longer framed by certain ways of constructing. The processes of design are gradually becoming more complicated; the architecture requires durability, sustainability, quality, value and compliance with local laws, as well as considering the needs of people, society and technology design aspects to make a liveable environment. This illustrates how the arrangement of modern architecture is complex and the development of society requires architecture to change its form and shape.  


Even if the structure of the building looks appealing, the choice of materials used is important because it directly affects the aesthetic of the building. As different materials have different properties, each of them give out sensory effects on humans, for example, use of glass allows light to enter the building and create a brighter interior area. We recognize the qualities of different art media and understand the processes used by artists and the materials and techniques they used to execute the work. Architecturally, the choice of construction materials and techniques to create a comfortable space reflects the culture of that period and the technological advances at that time.

Wood is one of the main traditional Chinese construction materials which have been utilized for thousands of years in China. Most Chinese buildings are built with timber frames (name given to the whole wooden construction), and this is how the Chinese build houses. Most of the Chinese architecture utilizes wood and stones with pillars and beams to support the whole weight of the building, which illustrates their essential qualities. Timber frame construction has a long history; its use dates back to two thousand years ago.  According to Chinese tradition, wood has a metaphorical meaning behind it- “life” symbolizing the lively living environment. The main door and window are built in the front and the other three sides are surrounded with walls.

The Emperors’ Palace in Beijing is one of the example architecture that is composed of hundreds of thousands of timber pieces based on geometry and logical order. The Forbidden City construction began in 1460 which was completed 14 years afterward which was used as a palace for twenty-four emperors from the Mong and Qing dynasties (1644-1911).] Another official name for the Forbidden City is the Imperial Palace museum; it is the world largest and best-preserved palace among all ancient architectures. The construction materials are glazed roof with coloured tiles, woodwork finished with paint, white marble and jade, bricks and golden brick, timbers and wall facing of glazed terracotta; lacquer and gilding unite to create an effect of exceptional richness. It is structured with 10 meter high City wall and a 52 meter-wide moat surround the Forbidden City. The building of the Forbidden City fully illustrates the style of ancient Chinese palace architecture; it is one of the biggest palaces with cultural relics in the world.  Just from looking at the exterior, it illustrates the traditional style of ancient building structure. 

In addition to the use of wood, Chinese architecture uses materials which are sustainable over hundreds of years. For example, the building materials of Tsang Tai Uk in Hong Kong are original granite, bricks and solid timber which are still well preserved today. These show how ancient construction is well conserved and that materials used are sustainable.

We can tell how a material feels just by visualizing with our eyes. As technology has developed over time, different types of materials are created to create aesthetic architectural work and to suit human needs. Architects use materials to create texture in building, for example, the heavy, jagged stone used in Tsang Tai UK gives it a rough texture whereas carved woods give a light feeling. Texture suggests the rich layering of shapes and forms of architecture.

In modern, architects have a tendency to use glass as the façade of architecture. The China Central Television (CCTV) building is a good example of modern use of materials. The CCTV building facade is two leaning conjoined towers. It is seen as a masterpiece design which creates a new image of China. The architects, Rom Koolhaas ad Ole Scheeren, designed the building as two L-shaped high-rise towers linked at the top and at the bottom form a loop. The building is 234m high and is described as a “Z criss-cross” and “a twisted doughnut”. The whole tower is covered with glass to illustrate pattern format. The use of glass gives a modern image and an aesthetically pleasing which completely opposite the way Chinese tradition constructing.

The characteristic of Chinese architecture is it use of rectangular form and the shape of building are similar when it comes to housing, temple, palace; they are all form from the base rectangle shape. The deep of interior shape is determined by use of wooden timber frame. Beside form, the use materials in ancient Chinese are also different from the modern architecture. Traditional housing and palace use wood, stone and bricks for constructing while modern architecture mainly use metal and glass on window in multi-style. This illustrates the most significant part modern architecture lost is its cultural identity is on the form and materials use.

Chinese architecture has not lost its cultural identity

Culture and architecture have a close relationship as architecture is the carrier of culture. From prehistoric time to the present day, Chinese has always employed the original system of construction that retains its Chinese characteristic principle. While China is importing elements from western countries, to some extent Chinese architects also have conserved its Chinese style through architecture. 

The combination of units of space in traditional Chinese architecture is according to the principles of balance and symmetry(how and explain). The styles of ancient Chinese architecture seen in palaces, Temples, Tombs, gardens and residences reflect strong Chinese ethical and social values. For instance, the ancient vernacular architecture shows the expression of social patterns and religious beliefs and the aspirations of people by its laying structure. The culture of China is one of the world’s oldest and most complex, its traditions varying between towns, cities and provinces. For instance, the function of the roof in Chinese houses not only to shelter the building structure, it also serves to shelter interior from the elements. The curved part at the edge is designed to help ward off evil spirits from a Buddhist perspective. The roofs of temples are made of glazed ceramic tiles and there is an overhanging curve distinguished by a graceful upward slope. This shows how Chinese traditional building structure is related to spiritual belief. The metaphorical means of traditional architecture shows why ancient Chinese architects built in such way.

 Even contemporary architects also choose an idea or mental image, then express this metaphor in the design of architecture. We derive meaning from art works based on our sense, mood and experience to interpret the architectural design. This is how an art work shows what the artist is trying to illustrate to the viewer, it is the same as architecture but used in a larger scale format.

In modern architecture, what architects try to do is include elements of Chinese culture along with modern ways of thinking, theory, philosophy and conception in contemporary architecture to form a new state of architecture in China today. As many buildings were neglected and destroyed during the rule of Mao, nowadays modern architects want to preserve, restore, and reconstruct traditional Chinese architecture. On the other hand, China is a civilized society and it is developing toward modernization, so architects are struggling to present cultural traditions through architecture. The way architects present Chinese’s cultural idea when designing architecture for China is either hidden in the façade or the design concept of architecture. Nevertheless, without knowing any Chinese history, it would be difficult to understand the metaphor behind certain buildings due to the fact that the façade of most contemporary architectures are all built with modern formant materials.

Looking back to the Forbidden City, why is it a purple city sitting at the centre of the town? Certainly there are meanings behind it. In Chinese tradition, the lord of Heaven resided in a purple enclosure which was believed to the constellation formed by 15 heavenly bodies and then turned into the polestar. According to Chinese cosmology, purple is a symbol of joy and happiness, also with the meaning of the polestar. For this reason, the Forbidden City is also called “the purple city” and is situated at the center of the temporal world. It was called “the middle kingdom” leading to the idea that the Forbidden City is at the very center of the world. This shows that ancient emperors had used Chinese tradition in meaning behind this palace. Also, the north side was regarded as a bad direction because the north represents evil spirits, as cold winds blow from the north in China . Hence, all of the buildings in the Forbidden City are facing south, the direction which is believed to be holiness and protection from icy winds and also catches the sunlight. This idea is called Feng-shui which is a Chinese philosophy theory; it is used to help harmonize buildings with natural sprit. Architecturally, Feng Shui is a set of rule which combine complex practical advice and mysticism given by masters. Chinese tradition places the major building along axes which allow an asymmetrical element. It is used to gauge a building’s prospects for success or failure according to whether the building’s shape and location are pleasing to supernatural forces. Feng-shui was applied to the design and construction of the Forbidden City. All of the five materials used in the Forbidden City represent the five natural elements of nature (€¦) which enhanced the emperor’s glory.  

But how can tradition be applied to on to modern building? The bank of China in Hong Kong is one of the examples of eastern ideas applied onto western style of construction. It was built in 1988 at central Hong Kong, china. It has a total height of 315 meters. At the time when it opened in 1990, it was the tallest building in Asia and it still remains as one of the most significant icon of Hong Kong.

The site of the China Bank was used to torture scores of local prisoners by the Japanese military police at their headquarters during the Second World War. Due to the bloody history, there were not any Hong Kong companies who consider building on that site. IM Pei is the only architecture firm who accepted this project. 

Pei invoked the geometer form of bamboo pushing upward with each joint which is a metaphor for strength and endurance in china ethic theory and which has won the support of tradition-conscious Chinese. The building site has involved element of Feng shui. The traditional culture of mysticism was applied onto the building in order to be accepted by the local population and also to be well-suited in that place. Although Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China and with sovereignty under the “one country, two systems” principle and was heavily influenced by western styles as it was under British rule for 100 years during 1842 to 1997, Hong Kong naturally leans towards eastern culture since the majority of the local people are regarded as Chinese. Hong Kong architecturally has a trend toward the western tall, glass made, aesthetic structures. However, the bank of China represents an atheistic society due to the building’s structure. The outer layer of the building is covered with reflective glass, and IM.Pei expresses the aesthetic structure by highlighting the building with aluminum cladding, and has created a façade in an X shape. The bank of China Hong Kong demonstrates the modern style of architecture including the use of materials, the use of multi-pattern on the façade. However, the meaning behind the building and the use of Feng-shui show how modern architecture can still contain Chinese cutlural element.

Wang Shu’s architecture also shows Chinese Cultural along with modern form of building structure. He is the first Chinese citizen who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 2012. “The question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future,” the jury said in its citation. Wang’s architectures shows the role of china’s architectural development, how to mix the Chinese tradition with the modern architectures to create a new fresh contemporary building. The major projects in China are the Mingbo Contemporary art Museum, completed in 2005 and the Ningbi Historic Museum, completed in 2008 illustrates a form of mixture of culture to modern form of architecture. Wang Shu salvaged over two million of tiled from demolished traditional houses to cover the roofs of the campus building. “Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials,” Mr. Wang said in an interview. “They just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory – many things inside. So I think it’s for an architect to do something about it.” From Wang Shu Architectures, the structure format represents the culture as well as the modernization of architecture. His architectures unlike other modern architectures’ materials use, glass and metal, Wang Shu applies stone and wooden construction onto his design. The form of the buildings is built in width rather than height. It also base on Chinese traditional rectangle shape and create a new form of modern architecture.


By examining different type of ancient and contemporary architecture, what I found is that Chinese started adopting western modern building structures after China was under communist rule. Modern Chinese architecture has shown China is constantly changing its system, structure and motivation which are influenced by western culture, science and technology. Facing the new society priorities and new institutions, the historical tradition seems generally disappeared since the 19th century. The historical tradition does not offer a platform to address new demand. Architecturally, contemporary architecture is designed to suit modern human’s needs. The development of humans, buildings have generally become more effective rather than full of cultural colour.  

This trend has been very impressive; for example the CCTV buildings in Beijing and The Bank of China in Hong Kong. After entering the western style of architecture, traditional Chinese style architecture has generally diminished in the society. To some extent Chinese architecture has lost its cultural value which is on its form and shape. As ancient architecture focuses on wide but modern architecture focuses on height and depth. The use of available and valuable resource is how modern architecture built in multi-style. Unlike ancient housing, modern building is identical; it do not have any fix form of structuring facade. As China is entering urbanization, the development of contemporary architecture certainly has lost its traditional aesthetic. Secondly, the construction materials used in ancient are mainly wood and bricks while modern architecture uses multi-style of modern type materials (e.g. metal and glass) combine together. 

While China is importing elements from western countries, to some extent Chinese architects also have conserved its Chinese style through architecture, the metaphoric meaning of the architecture and the use of Chinese ancient traditional culture of mysticism, the way they build the architecture according to the rule of Feng Shui.

The development of culture shows a good example of how old and new can be interpreted and combined. They demonstrate strength and relevance of ancient and modern aesthetic in this 21st century. 


Primary source

Interview with Corrin Chan, director of Axis of Spin Architecture, Hong Kong

Visited the site of Tsang Tai UK and The Bank of China.


Image 1 (Skyline of Shanghai) http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2011/04/26/luxury-mkt-pushes-shanghai-homes-to-record-prices/

Image 2 (Ancient Housing)


Image 3 (Tsang Tai UK)

Taken at site

Image 4 (Tsang Tai UK)

Taken at site

Image 5 Timber Frame


Image 6 (Forbidden City)


Image 7 (CCTV )


Image 8 (The bank of China)

Taken at the site


* Architecture: Wang Shu – 2012 Pritzker Prize Winner – For First Time, Architect in China Wins Top Prize


Building on Tradition, Wang Shu


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