Chinese modern times (jindai ) is a specific concept referring to the period between 1840 and 1949, characterized by unprecedented intellectual and material communication with the West. It is in this period of time that Chinese architecture developed from traditional timber structure to modern system consisting of distinctly different architectural theories, styles and technologies, and the introduction of foreign materials, technologies and construction techniques played a crucial role in the profound transformation and modernization of Chinese architecture.

Modern Chinese architectural history became a field of scholarly inquiry in the mid-1980s in China, and, in its development in the past three decades, emphasis has been put on stylistic evolution with field survey as major method while transfer of western technology and adaption in China has been largely left out. It is clear that a close examination of modern Chinese architecture from a technological perspective is a necessary step to deepen the research of this field. Methodologically, as modern Chinese architecture emerged at a time when China was incorporated into a world system dominated by the West (and later joined by Japan), more and more scholars in recent years started situating modern Chinese architecture in the global context to better understand various forces of nature and of man which mold the built environment. Through a technological lens of view, the increasingly global movement of ideas, technologies, and professionals between China and the outside world will be more evident than just ornamentation and stylistic shift.

Aware the place of technology in the field of modern Chinese architectural history, the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University called on a conference on this subject in August 2013, the very first of its kind in China, attended by a dozen of scholars from major research universities throughout China. Thanks to the journal of Frontiers of Architectural Research, we selected two pieces of papers from the conference (Keming Liu and Yishi Liu), and invited two West-based scholars (Kathleen James-Chakraborty and Thomas Coomans) to contribute to this panel underscoring technological advancement in modern China since the encounter with the West in the first Opium War.

The use of concrete and cement in institutional buildings by different political regimes in modern China was a physical statement of modernity. Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty׳s paper on the application of concrete traces how this material was imported and used in India and Pakistan, which can be compared to Chinese situations. First introduced to India in 1905 (1901 in China), a few engineers and architects employed concrete to build grandiose buildings with sophisticated abstract aesthetic, and Louis Kahn added to the list only in the 1960s due to his famous project of National Assembly in Dhaka (1962–1983). The use of modern material and Kahn׳s reputation as a preeminent American architect not only epitomized concrete architecture in South Asia, but also contributed to representing national identity and modernity.

Coomans׳ article contributes to the rich literature on missionary architecture in China. He focuses on a largely neglected handbook produced by French Jesuits in North China in 1926, and reveals the attitudes of missionaries towards Chinese building traditions and the situations how they dealt with local workers to make transfer of Western techniques of construction possible. “Inculturation,” or combining Chinese elements in church buildings which aimed to produce what Coomans calls a “new Sino-Christian style”, signaled the shift of Catholic religious policy in the mid-1920s, which corresponded to the rising nationalistic sentiment of a series of patriotic movements, such as the May Thirtieth Incident in 1925. The French handbook indicated how the new policy could be materialized through construction techniques, while many objected to the idea of a hybrid style.

Focusing on Shi Xue and Qi Xiang Xian Zhen , two landmark books of drawing produced in the high Qing and mid-19th century, Keming Liu׳s paper outlines a development of representing perspectives in the Chinese tradition. Theories of construction drawing and representation of perspectives are not only the foundation of Western descriptive geometry and architecture, but also the first challenge confronting people to develop engineering industry in China. Liu׳s paper not only compared continuities and of the two books – both readily drawing on the theories of western perspective, first from the Jesuit painter and then preeminent Western scholars such as; he also makes it clear that in the middle 19th century it was more imperative to systematically learn from the West to implement machinery and manufacturing industry, and this focus in turn presupposed the need to learn western mathematics and developing instruments for graphic communication.

Yishi Liu׳s paper is based on his archival work on a famous American architect, Henry K. Murphy, who practiced what he called “adaptive architecture” in China since the 1910s until 1935 when he returned to the U.S. The campus design and schemes for Four Grand Buildings of Tsinghua College (present-day Tsinghua University) were Murphy׳s second project in China but not much detail was ever discussed. The Auditorium Dome at Tsinghua University may be the only dome in China׳s 20th century architectural history to have been designed with the express intention of using the “Guastavino Ribs and Dome System,” the most popular construction techniques to build neo-classic domed buildings in American cities, according to the drawing notes of its Yale-trained architect Henry K. Murphy. The campus׳ American architect appears to have played a pivotal role in establishing this special East-to-West association through introduction of Western techniques of both design and construction. Though Guastavino system was replaced by concrete shell in the end, it was one of the earliest examples of building a concrete hemispherical dome in China, and probably in Asia as well.

The papers in this panel, by focusing on architectural technology and material, offer a rich and complex picture of changing circumstances on the modernization of Chinese architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They underscore the point that there have been intimate connections between technological advancement and nation building as exemplified in educational reform and nationalistic movement. Being the first step in a long path of research on history of modern Chinese architectural technology, many questions remain unanswered and invite further explorations. For example, regarding concrete, who was the engineer/architect responsible for the substituted concrete shell design and the wood frame suspended plaster dome construction? Was the change initiated and executed by the local Tsinghua College builder/designer, relying on the available Peking based construction methods and local concrete shell fabrication capabilities? We hope this panel will induce compelling questions as such, and more importantly, engage more scholars to work on the subject of modern architectural technology in China.

Finally, we would thank contributors of this panel as well as anonymous peer reviewers, for their collaboration, knowledge and comments that have made this a better panel.

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Published on 12/05/17
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