Traditional Chinese Architecture in the 21st Century

The reincarnation of cultural elements in modern buildings

Lon Y Law
24 min readNov 12, 2022

Where modernism is evolved from the West, it was introduced to the East. This introduction in the 20th century marked the start of rapid urbanisation in a lot of Asian cities, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, building modernist skyscrapers one after another. Its steamrolling development left little to no room for reflection on how its culture, especially cultural elements of Chinese philosophy (cultural ideas) and traditional Chinese architecture (cultural forms) should be incorporated into these new buildings. The lack of research and discussion around the topic led to a lot attempts that failed miserably or being too far-fetched in its claims. This study aims to investigate the attempts that have been done and compare them to people’s perception towards these buildings to see elements translated, what is accepted and future trends.

Based on reviews of different literature that analyse the buildings that translated these cultural elements, an online questionnaire survey was distributed to ethnic Chinese people living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China or Malaysia. This article will only introduce and identify the elements of traditional Chinese architecture and examine how contemporary architects approach the issue. The full study along with the results can be found here.

Introduction: The origin of modernism and its Eastward migration

Modernism, regardless of its factions and sub-branches is product of the West. From the École de Beaux-arts in Paris to Le Corbusier’s 5 points of architecture, architecture in the west developed and evolved alongside its technological advancements, allowing taller, better performing buildings and faster construction. This makes it the go-to choice of style when developing cities around the world in the late 20th Century. However, modernist architecture was introduced to the East. The adoption of this style made cities look alike, stripping itself of local culture and identity.

Some cities quickly found ways to fuse western influences and local architectural practices to create its own fusion architecture, like Japan and Hong Kong.

Japan, while adopting the western influences, actively evaluate it and inject traditional Japanese architectural elements into creating a new type of contemporary Japanese architecture, one of the most praised regional architecture, with various Pritzker prize winner as well notable names such as Kenzo Tange and Kengo Kuma. Fig 1 shows a masterplan of the Hiroshima peace memorial park designed by Tange (Figure 1. Japan MILT, 1981:online), fusing the architecture of the west and Japanese space planning practices as early as 5 years after WW2. Similarly, Hong Kong embraced British architectural cultures early on and created an architectural fusion that is special to itself, for example the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui St Mary’s Church (1937) (Figure 2. Author, 2020) in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

Fig 1 (Left): Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park masterplan by Tange Kenzo, showing post-war modernised Japan with a traditional Japanese space planning in 1981. Fig 2 (Right): Sheng Kung Hui St Mary’s Church (1937), showing a Chinese style roof and front gate with a brick construction using an English bond.

China did manage to create its own architecture when it was governed by the Republic of China (1911–1949) (now Taiwan) as the first generation of western-trained Chinese architects return from the states with ambition to create new architecture (their works called “Chinese Renaissance architecture”). However, in 1949 the Chinese communist party rose to power and initiated the Cultural Revolution soon after, destroying history, architecture, relics and killed an estimate of 20 million people (Pye, 1986), with strict rules on knowledge imposed until its economic reforms in 1978 to open the country up, followed only by small scale architectural experiments that fuse Chinese and western architecture, such as the Fragrant Hill hotel (1982) (Figure 3. Pei,1982:online) in Beijing, designed by legendary architect I.M. Pei.

Fragrant Hill hotel in 1982. The bright white stucco walls of the hotel were inspired by the traditional architecture of central China

Only as China became more open in recent decades did it manage to nurture architects that reconsidered the future of Chinese architecture in the westernised China, such as Ma Yansong and Wang Shu. However these architects face a different type of challenge — creating architecture in the tight urban fabric of modern cities.

As these new generation of architects design a new generation of contemporary Chinese architecture in dense urban cities, the question of how should it be done became relevant once again. How should traditional Chinese architecture be translated on to the contemporary and how should it look like? These questions will not only shape the architecture today but also how these cities will look like in decades to come. But first, we need a lesson on traditional Chinese architecture.

A brief history of Chinese architecture, from ancient to contemporary

Fig 4: Chinese dynasties timeline.

Common knowledge puts the historical length of China at approximately 5000 years, with 13 dynasties before the establishment of the Republic of China (now Taiwan) and then the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the Chinese communist. Among these dynasties, 3 are the most powerful — The Han dynasty, Tang dynasty and the Qing dynasty due to their widespread influence, culture, trade and expedition as well as military, also lending themselves a direct association with the word “China”. In the architectural world, these 3 dynasties drew rough boundaries that shows the different periods of traditional Chinese architecture throughout the centuries,

1) The early period (XiaHan dynasties)

The early period is the times where the indigenous people of central China first created the system of dynasties, its architecture and artefacts are mostly practical, simple in design and lack ornamentations. Its architecture is only visible now in writings, stone tablet carvings and a limited number of tombs, chambers left from the Han dynasty.

2) The Buddhist influenced period (Wei/JinTang dynasties)

This period and the pinnacle period are that of what people associate to when mentioning traditional Chinese architecture. The famous Tang dynasty was one of the most prosperous in the world at that time, being the central hub for technology, education, commerce and ideas exchange. Widespread expedition West brought ideas and culture as well as Buddhism from India. Due to its influences, its architecture saw a complete overhaul in style and design in architecture. The architecture saw colours, ornamentations, curves, a lot of pagodas and Buddhist tombs that are still identifiable now. It is also visible in Japan, as traditional Japanese architecture many recognise today originated from the Tang dynasty.

3) The Pinnacle period (SongYuan dynasties)

Following the prosperity of the Tang dynasty, the pinnacle period saw more variations in style and colour due to influences from the Mongols during the late Song and whole Yuan dynasty. Yet they are mostly destroyed due to wars and disputes. It is also visible in Korea, as traditional Korean architecture are mostly influenced by the Song.

4) The Western influenced period (MingQing dynasties)

Architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties are what we see today, from the Forbidden city to royal gardens to houses of common people. In terms of style, although mainly following the traditional way, influences from the West started to play a role in coastal cities of China, creating regional architecture that is quite different from the usual looks of traditional Chinese architecture.

Elements of traditional Chinese architecture

Regardless of style and dynasty, the collective of traditional Chinese architecture is built on 2 foundational elements — the cultural forms and the cultural ideas. Cultural forms usually guide the structural and general look of the building and cultural ideas guide the ornamentations. Cultural forms are the physical building elements of the architecture, which is the structure of the building and includes mainly the big slanted roof, the frame timber and the Dougong. As for cultural ideas, they are the philosophies and culture that Chinese scholars, artists and philosophers have gathered over the course of 5000 years, therefore only the cultural ideas from buildings that would be analysed in the literature review would be touched upon.

Cultural forms

The 5 points of architecture, mainly the free plan and pilotis that Le Corbusier proposed in the 20th century had actually been in practice in China for at least 7000 years (Fu, 2003). Using a timber frame that utilise a post and lintel system and to support the building, it frees up the walls to not be load bearing. There are 3 types of structural frame in buildings: Tailiang, using columns, beams and struts; Chuandou, using columns and tie-beams; and Jinggan, a log cabin type of structure that was not very mainstream.

Fig 5: Tailiang (left) & Chuandou (right) type timber structural frame.

The Tailiang type (Figure 5 left. Google images, unknown:online) functions by erecting pillars on the foundation with a fixed spacing on the side of the house. Then lintels are fixed between them creating a foundation for the second set of lintels to be placed on top and then the third set and so on, repeated for the length of the house. As for the Chunadou (Figure 5. Google images, unknown:online) type, it is used more in smaller houses and everyday construction. The system erects multiple columns to support evert lintel, spanning the appropriate distance until the next set of columns. To ensure stability, small tie-beams are inserted into the columns to hold them in place. The Tailiang type is considered the official type, used in constructions of royal buildings, ceremonial halls as well as large mansions. The interior spaces are defined by the space enclosed by four columns, called a bay. The size of the house depends on function and can range from 1 or 2 bays up to 15 or more bays (Fu, 2003).

Fig 6: The Dougong and Ang system.

Dougong (Fig 6. Google images, unknown:online) is a special system of interlocking timber brackets that are placed on the edge of the building to support the overhanging roof. The word is actually 2 words that each describe a component of the system. The Dou sits on the column to provide the base of the interlocking function of the system and the Gong, which is a reversed U shaped arm that extends out and support the beam called Ang that locks the system in place. The uniqueness of the system allows it to be repeated indefinitely if the column and base Dougong are thick enough.

It was already widely used during the Spring and Autumn period in the early period defined above, and slowly reached the peak during the pinnacle period. However, as it kept evolving, it lost most of its structural function and by the late Qing dynasty it was almost only used as a decoration integrated in the building.

The roof of the building is where ornamentations and cultural traditions are showed. To form a roof, a ridge beam is laid on the top of the building with purlins spaced out evenly to the end of the roof. After that, timber boards would be put on top of the purlins, with a mixture of mud, dirt and dry grass to bind the timber and the roof tiles. Often times, the roof is used to signify power and authority. For example, some colours are dedicated to royals and officials. The use of yellow tiles are strictly limited to the palace, green is used for government officials and religious purposes (green roof tiles on Fig 7), blue is only used in buildings that are used to perform ceremonies of worshipping the heavens and black is for local officials and affluent families. Heavenly creatures are also used on the edge of the roof, a superstition to protect from fire, thunder, rain and other disaster; and the more creatures there are, up to 9 of them normally and 11 for the King, the more important the person residing in that house is (Figure 7. Google images, unknown:online).

Fig 7: Green colour roof and heavenly creatures.

Cultural ideas

Flowers blooming, prosperity blossoming (Faa Hoi Fu Gwai 花開富貴)

This is a traditional new year greeting phrase in Chinese culture, wishing the person one is greeting good luck and to be prosperous. In this phrase, the flower is specifically describing peony, which has a floriography meaning of prosperity and affluency.

To have great prospect (Zit Zit Soeng Sing 節節上升)

Same as the previous phrase, this is also a phrase that is used to wish the person one is greeting. Taking the floriography meaning of the bamboo plant, this phrase wishes great prospect similar to that of bamboo, growing and rising up fast but steadily, node by node.

Leaving the negative, mountain-water philosophy (Lau Baak Saan Seoi 留白山水)

Different from the 2 previous phrases, this is not a new year greeting. It started as an art style, where parts of a drawing would be left blank intentionally and then slowly evolved into an elevated way of living one would reach, to leave a certain degree of emptiness and calmness in life to allow space for imagination as well as peacefulness, where silence is more expressive than any sound.

These three cultural ideas are used by one or more of the buildings that would be analysed in the literature review. Although easy to grasp their idea, they were derived from poetry, philosophy and art that is a thousand years old and have deep and powerful meaning within each four characters.

There are much more to discover and discuss in both cultural forms and ideas with the 5000 years of history of China, in how each King in the dynasties have a slight change in styles and artistic sense that result in a ripple effect down history and how the introduction of Buddhism and the ideology of Confucius had a profound change on Chinese society. This section is however, to give a brief introduction and explanation to the concepts and elements that would be touched on and translated by contemporary Chinese architecture and serve as a reference point that the architectural analysis in the literature review chapter would heavily refer to.

Contemporary interpretations — cultural forms & ideas

Research, books and other likewise investigations into Chinese architecture, contemporary or traditional, had been scarce. (Shi, 2006; Loo, 2010; Zhu, 1998) In this scarcity, most investigates into a specific topic or era of China’s long history, resulting in a fragmented historical understanding of Chinese architecture. During the China’s republic period, Liang Sicheng (architect, scholar, known as the father figure of contemporary Chinese architecture) made a tremendous effort in collecting, documenting and analysing these old architectures. He played a huge part in the strategic decisions towards the preservation and establishment of a new style based on traditional Chinese architecture in the early years of the PRC (Kalman, 2018), only to have the 1966 cultural revolution destroy all his work. Distrusted by the CCP, he was targeted in the revolution being scholar and academic authority. Being denounced with his house constantly raided and his deteriorating health, he finally died on 9 January 1972 at the age of 70. (Kalman, 2018)

The cultural revolution (a bloody choreographed power grab) was a dividing point for contemporary Chinese architecture as it largely “reset” China’s architectural development, with consequences intensified by the worldwide adoption of internationalism and China becoming the “testing ground” for western architects. The gradual rebuilding process of contemporary Chinese architecture afterwards was a slow and inefficient process due to everchanging but tight policies of the CCP, but ultimately it moulded a new type of regionalism in China that draws inspiration from traditional Chinese architecture — its cultural forms (Wong, 2009:presentation) and cultural ideas.

Fig 8 (Left): “A high-rise building of thirty-five stories”. Fig 9 (Right): Grand Hotel Taipei, Taiwan in 2006.

Although Liang’s works were destroyed, most of his ideas lived on, including the style he promoted — the Da wuding style (big roof style) (Rowe and Kuan, 2002; Lin, 2013; Wang, 2011). It takes contemporary appropriated structure and facade but built in a language of traditional Chinese architecture (Lin, 2013), an imagined building for the newly instated power in Beijing, first showed in Liang’s 1954 book Zuguo De Jianzhu (Figure 8. Liang, 1954). Similar in practice, the Grand Hotel Taipei (1973) by Yang Cho-cheng (Figure 9. Rehfeldt, 2006:online) takes the grammar of traditional Chinese palaces but uses contemporary technology. If it is to be judged by its function, which is a best in class hotel used to serve leaders, celebrities around the world and to represent Taiwan, the hotel succeeded in every aspect of the translation. Same as the imagined tower by Liang, the hotel’s double-eave hip and gable roof is highest in its class in traditional Chinese architecture (Shum, 2011), signifying a building of highest power. The use of yellow colour for its roof, which only palace architectures were allowed to use, and its use of dragons as ornamentations throughout the building (Figure 10. Zairon, 2016) all suggest the importance and power. Therefore, in this aspect the building’s translation of traditional Chinese architecture has succeeded, until the building is analysed on a city scale. Figure 11 (Peter, 2009) shows the building being placed in context. Even though the building is in the best possible location suggested by one of the Fengshui phrases “backed by the mountains and facing the sea”, where the building is located on the hillside and faces a river, it stands out from surrounding buildings, with its height dwarfing them.

Fig 10 (Left): Taipei Grand Hotel Vordach covered with dragon ornamentations every bay. Fig 11 (Right): The Grand hotel Taipei on a city scale, showing dissonance to the city.

Different to Liang’s imagined building (Figure 8), which was imagined in 1954 when CCP-ruled China had only been established for 5 years and surrounding buildings as well as most of Beijing was still built in the traditional way, the Grand hotel Taipei was designed and built in the contemporary setting of Taipei in 2006 surrounded by modernist buildings and nor in colour or style does it match with the contemporary urban setting.

Fig 12: The nine-story Chinese YMCA Building was regarded as “a first successful attempt in which Chinese architecture is incorporated in high structure” in 1931.

The Shanghai YMCA building (1931) on the other hand, showed a more conservative approach in the use of the Da Wuding style with more link to contemporary architecture than traditional. Similar to other buildings that translated traditional Chinese architectural features around that period, which were mainly churches built by Christian missionaries, for example the Sheng Kung Hui St Mary’s Church (1937) (figure 2) and Figure 13, a Christian church (1914) built by a French missionary. (Yang, 2008). The YMCA building’s architect, Lee Gum Poy took western building styles and technology and only adding a traditional Chinese roof acting as ornamentation. Comparing the Grand hotel Taipei (Figure 11) and the YMCA building (Figure 12), the latter is perhaps a more sensible choice in the contemporary cityscape even though it was built in an earlier time.

Fig 13: Christian Church built by Emile Cyprien Mondeig (a French missionary), Cizhong village, Deqin country in Yunnan, China in 1914.

As Zhong pointed out in his review of the book Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing, a seminal book that recorded the shaping of modern China planning and architecturally, the adaptation of a particular building style can have long term consequences to a city. The Da Wuding style, while might be the obvious path of development might expose itself to criticism and attack as “aesthetics and cultural merits can be a matter of personal preference” (Zhong, 2012). With more technological and architectural influences from the West, later translations started to steer away from a literal translation in search for a more abstract reinterpretation of elements in traditional Chinese architecture.

Fig 14: China pavilion of the Shanghai World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China.

A new generation of contemporary Chinese architecture was arguably started by the 2012 Shanghai Expo, showing to the world a New China and its new technological advancements. One of the examples is the Shanghai World Expo China pavilion (Figure 14), taking the Dougong as a translating element. Mimicking the nature of the Dougong, which support a huge roof with a relatively small bracket and enlarge its size every layer, the building sits on 4 “columns” and enlarge its footprint as it extends upward. Compared to both the Grand hotel Taipei and the YMCA building, this is unarguably a direction towards the abstraction of traditional Chinese architectural elements as well as a clear advancement in contemporary building technology. The enlarged Dougong takes a more uniform division and stack the same way as how timber beams would. Technologically, the reversed pyramid requires modern reinforced concrete to support cantilevered parts from the central columns and designed systems to distribute loads. However, even though it looks different, the underlying philosophy is similar to the Da Wuding style and the rest of the buildings that translate cultural forms, or physical elements of traditional Chinese architecture.

In the 5 buildings touched on above (The imagined tower, Grand hotel Taipei, Shanghai YMCA building, Christian church in Yunnan and the China pavilion), they all have a central purpose — to showcase a monumental piece, to establish power, innovation and shift in era.

The imagined tower hope to establish a new architectural language (Lin, 2013), the Grand hotel wanted to display its finest hospitality and culture, the YMCA building and the church wanted integration into the Chinese society and The China pavilion signified the technological advancements of China to the world (Bracken, 2012; Liu, 2014). Using cultural forms allow an architecture to connect to the 7000 years of history of China, and no matter personal preference these building signifies importance, they carry the weight of the Chinese civilisation.

Fig 15 (Left): Kaohsiung 85 Sky tower (1997) looking from afar. Fig 16 (Right): Taipei 101 tower (2003).

Where cultural forms succeed in creating a monumental piece and signifies importance, cultural ideas allow a freer canvas for architects to explore and experiment and pardon the weight of the long Chinese history. There are many ideologies and approach in using cultural forms, therefore only that of significance, where the ideology had shaped or is shaping contemporary Chinese architecture would be discussed, mainly C.Y. Lee’s theory of Life architecture and Ma Yansong’s Shanshui city.

C.Y. Lee was a pioneer of contemporary Chinese architecture in Taiwan. Rather than translating cultural forms, his architectural practice is based on Chinese philosophy. To him, western philosophy seeks to reach the heaven, man and heaven is on opposite side and their architecture, from multi-level churches to skyscrapers, aims to reach the heaven. Chinese philosophy however, is the opposite, man live with his surroundings, the idea of heaven–man–earth exist as a circular relationship and therefore Chinese high rise should be an ever growing plant, growing flowers to bring out the heavens. (Yuen, 2020) This was his idea behind the Kaohsiung 85 Sky tower (1997) (Figure 15. Aranas, 2015). While it was argued that the building also translated physical forms — Toi (terraces) to symbolise the saying of Dang Gou Mong Jyun (farsighted vision), seen when standing on the side roofs (Cheng & Shih, 2008), the official explanation, also the more compelling was Faa Hoi Fu Gwai (flowers blooming, prosperity blossoming). With the roof shaped like petals, the tower mimics the growth of a flower with branches born from other branches and a bud ready to blossom. The building acts like a flower to set off the heavens, completing his circular theory to achieve the notion of completeness and unity (Jat Zing Tai).

Similarly the Taipei 101 (2003) (Figure 16. Liao, unknown: online) took the same approach, but in the 6 years Lee had fully realised his theory. Cultural form translations are minimised (Figure 16. Ornamental circular totems near the base of the building) to allow the cultural ideas to speak for themselves. The building draws inspiration from the bamboo plant, which have a meaning of Zit Zit Soeng Sing (to have great prospect). While the building shoots up, the expression in height is not done through enlarging the massing, a typical western practice, but through the stacking of units; the 8 numbers of stacked unit/ nodes also symbolise the traditional blessing of “Faat” (prosperity). Again, drawing from the circularity and completeness of all matter (Maan Mat), which is the ultimate way (Tao) of Chinese philosophy, the building serves as a connection between the earth and the heaven. It does not seek to “win” over the heaven but to exist alongside, where its space is an informational connection (Mui Gaai) from man to earth to heaven, sensed by man and vice versa. This is the essence of his theory Life architecture, drawing from Chinese philosophy and base itself on the essence of traditional Chinese architecture (the unity of all matter) (see glossary for explanation). The combination of cultural ideas and forms created a connection to its land and neighbour. “The entire building is a play of created images with traditional connotations and metaphor” (Cheng & Shih, 2008).

The translation of cultural ideas allowed the architecture to merge into the contemporary setting while having elements of Chinese philosophy in it. However, as would be seen even having the same idea, but in a different time and location can yield a vastly different result. Aiming to translate the same cultural idea, legendary architect I.M. Pei, who designed the Louvre pyramid, designed the Bank of China tower (1990) in Hong Kong (Figure 17. Author, 2021).

Fig 17 (Left): Bank of China tower. Fig 18 (Middle): Bank of China tower roof broadcasting masts that were accused of having bad Fengshui as they resemble 2 chopsticks sticked in a bowl of rice, which have a meaning of death. Fig 19 (Right): The “X” sign that resembles a wrong answer for a failing student, or worse, a man waiting to be beheaded.

The year was October, 1982 when I.M. Pei was approached by the Bank of China to design a new building in Hong Kong (Pei, 2017). Ongoing around that time were also the talks between Britain and China about the handover of Hong Kong, making the construction of the building more sensitive and symbolic. Recalled by Sandi Pei, “My father and I sat down and started reviewing the site plan, its constraints and opportunities. As we were talking, he drew a square, and then diagonal lines to divide it into 4 sections. He suggested me to make a physical model using 4 sets of triangular prisms… We then played around with the heights to allow the massing to show a stepping up motion, with each roof pointing towards the center.” (Pei, 2017:interview) Same as Taipei 101, the design translated the cultural idea of Zit Zit Soeng Sing (to have great prospect), showed through the stepping massing (Pei, 2017:interview; Huppatz, 2005). However, the time had been proven wrong. Although the design is compelling and somewhat resembles the bamboo plant, Hong Kong people’s distrust in the CCP and subsequently the bank of China was high. Another issue was Feng Shui, Hong Kong is one of the Asian cities that take it very seriously, where almost all projects would consult a Fung Shui master. First, the 2 broadcast masts on top of the building were accused by Feng Shui masters of being hostile, as they resemble chopsticks in a bowl of rice (a symbol of death) (Figure 18. Bank of China tower broadcasting masts. Author, 2021). Then the shape of the building was said to be shaped like a knife cutting into its neighbours. At last the “X” pattern (Figure 19. Author, 2021) were said to make the sign of a failing student or a condemned man waiting for his head to be slashed. Along with a massive population that escaped the cultural revolution (1966) only 2 decades earlier, the fear from June 4th Tiananmen square massacre of 1989 and the site’s former use as a torture house during Japanese occupation, the building was outright rejected out of fear towards the handover back to China. There was a large banner put up outside the building during construction that read “Blood must be paid with blood” and even I.M. Pei responded in a New York Times article “China won’t ever be the same” (Huppatz, 2005). All in all, despite the great design and futuristic looking building, there were massive criticism from people, which simply reacted from their perception and the general atmosphere at that certain time; but 30 years proved the building to be a masterpiece, standing among Hong Kong’s skyline even as she deteriorates into abyss.

Fig 20: Example of Shanshui painting. The difference between Chinese Shanshui painting and western painting is the lack of perspective and the negative space being left out.

More recently (the 2010s) China saw a new generation of architects who completed their education abroad and started their own practice, seeing the concrete jungle that many cities in China had become. Different from previous generations of architects who translated cultural forms and seek to revive, they seek to reimagine these cities from a planning level, drawing inspiration from Chinese Shanshui (mountain-water) paintings (Figure 20. Example of a Shanshui painting. Author, 2018). One of these examples is the Ningbo history museum (Figure 21. Ningbo history museum aerial view. Baan, unknown:online) by Wang Shu — who with the same building won the 2012 Pritzker prize.

Fig 21: Ningbo history museum from afar.

The building takes the form of a mountain with 3 “valleys” and 4 “caves” (Yan, 2012) in where its heaviness will be a collective memory to the people of Ningbo. Wang not only translated the cultural idea of Shanshui, but also the old local craftsmanship of the people of Ningbo, which is a far more important asset. This opened up new fronts to the definition of the translation of cultural elements, not only physical and philosophical but also practices that is not widespread enough to be preserved in the first place. Working with local craftsmen, he was able to reuse a local building practice for rammed earth buildings and translate it and use it in a contemporary way. The end result was the thousands of layers making up the building façade. His interest in the vernacular led him to pay more attention to the ordinary, “Wang asserts the importance of houses, rather than buildings.” (Yan, 2012) and allowing the translation to happen not only on monumental and powerful buildings but ordinary ones too.

Since the bloody massacre of the cultural revolution, each generation of architects and buildings further the translation of traditional Chinese architecture, creating a new and special type of vernacular architecture, up to the newest generation, only in his thirties but already world renowned — Ma Yansong. His design has exploded in popularity due to his design approach, his use of curve profile and his bold designs, including Huangshan mountain village (Figure 22. Huangshan mountain village aerial view. Crow, 2017:online) and Chaoyang park plaza (Figure 23. Chaoyang park plaza, a masterplan designed by MAD: Ma Yansong’s practice, with a main high rise as its feature building and shaped like a mountain. Baan, 2017:online).

Fig 22 (Left): Huangshan mountain village aerial view, showing the building merging into the landscape and becoming part of the mountain ranges in the counrty. Fig 23 (Right): Chaoyang park plaza, a masterplan designed by MAD: Ma Yansong’s practice, with a main high rise as its feature building and shaped like a mountain.

Both of his buildings translated cultural ideas — the Shanshui painting ideology. The Shanshui ideology was first proposed by Qian Xuesen, an aerospace engineer and mathematician who played an important role in China’s development of ICBN, hydrogen bombs and satellite (dubbed the two bombs, one satellite in China) (Changanjie zhishi, 2018) in 1990. He stated that, “(the future city should be) combined with Jyun Lam (traditional Chinese garden) architecture and Shanshui paintings, to create a mega-Jyun Lam-city.” (Aaron, 2012) The theory combines traditional arts and nature, allowing people to leave nature but also simultaneously returning to nature. Along with its manifesto, it also provided a guide to analyse the Chinese garden on different scales, first is the smallest scale of centimeters, the miniature sceneries, then the balcony plantations, of a meter. The third is a courtyard from 10–100 meters, fourth is a royal retreat in kilometres, fifth is national parks such as Huangshan, a few kilometres. At last is country ranges of a dozen kilometres.

Fig 24: Chaoyang park plaza viewed from the lake behind, resembling a Shanshui (mountain water) painting.

In Huangshan mountain village, the idea was to extend the mountain range, to create architecture that merges into the landscape. Though not a new idea as C.Y. Lee also seek to unify architecture and land, the size of project and site was different. When designing Taipei 101, Lee was aiming for it to be the tallest building in the world, which it did upon completion until being surpassed in 2008 by the Burj Khalifa in 2010 (Skyscrapercenter, 2021), and the architect was only given a small site compared to Ma’s vast plot of land, both the goal and constraints are different. The design imagines an extension of the mountain ranges being sliced up, each crest has a different height, enabling different views and connections towards the lake and mountain ranges. The village had succeeded in creating unity between the landscape and the architecture. The relationship that it established, and the way that the architecture adds to the site non-intrusively is arguably the most successful element of the whole architecture, showing the essence of Chinese philosophy.

Completed around the same time is the Chaoyang park plaza in Chaoyang, Beijing China, which aims to create a Shanshui scene in the urban city. Ma imagined the site to be a miniature garden with different elements such as fake mountains, rocks, bodies of water and so on, bringing the park nearby into the city, an extension of nature. It bridged the harsh boarder in between the park and high rises, combining the Chinese garden and modern high rise. It also brings out the negative spaces that had been a central idea in Eastern philosophies, echoing the ideas of Taoism and the unity of all matters.

This chapter, laid out almost chronologically, provides a timeline to the development of translation in contemporary Chinese architecture. From the early days of Liang Sicheng aiming to translate the roof and holding on to physical forms of traditional Chinese architecture, to then more and more adoption of western forms and technologies, requiring architects to translate elements of traditional Chinese architecture in cultural ideas, to the newest chapter of translation of Qian Xuesen’s Shanshui theory. Showed in both the Imagined tower and Grand hotel Taipei, cultural forms carry China’s accumulated heavy history and can be a double edge sword in using, attracting criticisms from others. However, the China pavilion gave a fresh look on utilising cultural forms that was welcomed by many. Nonetheless, through the examples shown it can be concluded that cultural forms are more suitable as a statement piece in the contemporary setting.

Cultural ideas on the other hand, are more malleable, allowing its philosophies and ideologies to be adapted and moulded into different vessels, from residential homes to soaring towers, and each theory and practice have their strength and weaknesses. Although there are many directions taken by different architects on the how, where and what to translate in cultural ideas, one thing can be agreed on is the unity of matter. Regardless of ideology, the reoccurring theme is the completeness and unity between man, land and heaven, which is the essence of Chinese philosophy, namely Taoism. The Tao states that only by living with everything harmoniously can one attain peace and nirvana and that humans are only a part of the cog that actually is one thing. Although not many cared about the theory or philosophy behind, the aesthetics and beauty from it has proven to be successful, with Chinese architects, and also Asian architects, gaining more attention on the world stage.

Cultural forms and ideas alike, ultimately is subjected to the people. People’s perception can play a huge part in their opinion, for example the Bank of China tower built near the handover of Hong Kong led to a massive reject from the general public as well as Fengshui masters in Hong Kong. On the other hand, both the Ningbo history museum and Chaoyang park plaza received great comments from everywhere.

The study goes on to investigate the way that the general public think about these buildings, I am not going to go into the details, if you are interested in the study you can find it here.

Thanks for reading. I now work in digital innovation in the architecture field. Feel free to get in touch or check out my website.