, ,

Years ago I named my personal portfolio “Filling the Gap”, referring to the gap between traditional Chinese architecture and contemporary architecture. Of course that was just a gimmick. Years passed, and apparently I was not able to bridge that gap in any way – not even close, but at this moment, I’d like to say I’ve found how that gap came along, and why.

First I wish to define what I mean by traditional Chinese architecture in this discussion. There’re regional differences of course, but under most cases, traditional Chinese architecture refers to wood/brick buildings built according to 《营造法式》. 《营造法式》is an evolving book containing rules on how to build appropriate buildings for both emperors and citizens, first published in 1103. It dominates how buildings should look like – buildings are important social tools too – and how they should be put together, hence eliminating the need for real architects. Instead, they were builders, or匠. Known features of this type of architecture is symmetrical planning, wood structural supports, large swooping roofs, beautifully carved doors and panels. The exterior wall materials vary depending on regional weather.


These buildings spread all across the ancient Chinese landscape and cityscape. They did change in form over the years, but very minimally, until the foreign settlers came along in 1845. The first settlement in China was the British settlement in Shanghai. Together with the soldiers and missionaries came arches and flat roofs. Many buildings built by the foreign settlers in Shanghai are today’s landmarks. With the total collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912, there was no emperor-style architecture (官式建筑) whatsoever, and there was no need to stick to 《营造法式》either. Of course the average citizens couldn’t afford to build their homes any more differently from before with the new materials and techtonics, but the investors could. Multi-story buildings rose up from the ground with elevators, just like the landmark buildings we know of today in New York City. The new building styles brought modern day conveniences and new materials; wood was running scarce more than ever for the ancient style. The balance started to tip, a lot. And that gradual death of traditional architecture paired with the rise of Western architecture makes up the majority of many settlement cities’ landscape. Fast forward to the current times, no new buildings are constructed in real traditional styles anymore; instead we see various electic styles. This is what I call “the gap”.

A historic view of the British settlement in Shanghai, 1930s

Now here is the why question. It seems pretty simple – because the traditional style couldn’t accommodate the modern uses. But think about Western architecture. That was a long time in history as well, but those styles made the transition pretty smoothly in comparison.

My take on this is that the traditional Chinese architecture does not separate the core from the shell. By shell I do not mean the exterior facade only; I mean building forms, styles and materials. The core, however, I believe is what has been neglected all along (or at least by me). The HVAC systems. Architects tend not to fall crazy for MEP, yet this is what sets our modern buildings apart from ancient ones. Drainage, cooling/heating, ventilation, transport. The traditional Chinese buildings depend on the architectural elements to achieve all this. We didn’t have gutters and downspouts, instead we have swooping roofs that shed water away. We didn’t have radiators or A/Cs, instead we orient the rooms to control heat intake. We didn’t have forced air; instead we place windows and doors in such ways to allow natural ventilation. We didn’t have elevators; instead we don’t build multi-stories (pagodas are not included in this discussion – it is indeed an adapted form from India). Essentially we didn’t have dedicated MEP systems; everything is skillfully integrated into building forms or avoided altogether. This brought forseeable trouble when the building shell is faced with changes, like around 1900s. We could’ve improved on building planning and materials, but we couldn’t easily transform the building style because it was so closely knit with the HVAC of a functioning building. That was a pretty wide and painful gap.

Western architecture, however, was different from the very start. Drainage system was utilized as early as Ancient Rome. The precursors of modern HVAC systems date back to the Industrial Revolution, also roughly when Greek architecture was finally accessed and re-discovered. Once an independent HVAC system was invented, the shell took on changes much more comfortably. Be it Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival, Neo-Classical, or Zaha Hadid.

You could argue that this was because the Qing China was dwindling and falling behind the rest of the world, but I tend to believe that even given an extra century, Chinese architecture wouldn’t develop an independent HVAC system ingeniously. This boils down to how we view the relationship between nature and human. Having spent five full years in the U.S. makes me more aware than ever of how secular we were, and have been. Born out of Taoism from the very start, the secular attitude covers vast fields, from architecture and religion to daily life and food. We go with the tide, not against it. And this is basically the essential concept of Feng Shui (风水). To be more precise, we build houses in the way that best suit the natural forces. HVAC and Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, aim to change natural forces. Hopefully this gives you an idea of the distinction.

Ancient Chinese people had progresseded amazingly in many fields, but science was not one of them. And there is a reason for that. We followed the tide. Admittedly there was an intense spark of new cultural and scientific awareness rising from the 1910s to the 40s. But a closer look at the sparkling young generation will reveal they were almost all graduates coming back from foreign universities. Had those gentlemen (and a handful of ladies) been more influential, the world would be a different picture today. But that’s also the beauty of history – always unknown, never reproducible.

The inexactness and leisure that derives from Taoism is even carried down to this day. Matt, a close friend of ours, pure white American, enjoys Chinese food and also cooks. What has bothered him is that when adding sauces and spices to the pot, we never quantify it. Ask any Chinese and he/she will agree. Instead we say things like “an appropriate amount of salt”, “some sugar”, “a little vinegar”. Matt cannot cook this way. And he uses his kitchen scale and measurement cup. Well, I’m glad food is not an exact science.

OK. Back to buildings. The integral system of architectural elements and its core systems has brought huge difficulty in preservation. The buildings are hard to adapt for modern uses because the core is locked in the shell. You can’t imagine Waldolf Astoria in NYC without central A/C and internet, or Palmer House in Chicago. But the traditional Chinese buildings could not get MEP updates so effortlessly. Some of them, now used as residences, have no planned or thought-out MEP system that doesn’t undermine the historic integrity; some of them never lived a modern life, and probably will not in the future; some of them were struck down for new buildings with modern facilities. And a lot of them simply deteriorated away with time. Buildings under Western influence in settlement cities ire luckier. Because they could look forward. And any preservation activity is for our future, looking forward.

Pingyao, an exploited UNESCO site packed with tourists. But what the local residents need is cars.

Pingyao, an exploited UNESCO site packed with tourists. But what the local residents need is cars.