China’s architectonic legacy goes back 3000 years in time. The early buildings were made of wood and paper and have hence long withered and vanished.
Beijing’s architecture today is a quirky mix of old and new; in fact, three architectural styles are somewhat dominant in the cityscape of Beijing. The style of imperial China, the boxy Soviet manner of construction and finally a modern style influenced by Western architecture but still to a certain extent affiliated to old Chinese tradition and craftsmanship.
The traditional architecture can very well be exemplified by the imposing landmark edifice complex of Tian’anmen which combines the time-honored principles of monumentality, symmetry and rich colour. Regarding monumentality, it is important to notice that the complex expands its grandeur horizontally rather than heavenwards as it would be expected in Western architectural understanding. In fact, the traditional architecture of China does emphasize the horizontal axis and in that way consciously stresses the visual impact of width in buildings rather than their height. Tian’anmen is also constructed on a North-South axis according to the rules of axis symmetry. Also the Summer Palace may be called a prime example for traditional Chinese architecture.
Due the vastness of the country, one might presume that many different architectonic styles would have developed, interestingly that was not really the case. In fact, even a codex was established to guide the erection of buildings leading to and consciously aiming at a sort of uniformity in the architectural legacy. This codex ‘Ying Zao Fashi’ was written by an architect Li Jie in the early 12th century and the validity of its maxims – by and large, the employment of standard elements reproducible everywhere, a certain colour pattern and earthquake protection – stretched through many centuries.
In the past the famous Silk Road connected China with the world. But not before the late 18th century Western influences first became evident in China’s architectural culture; it was then that Europeans began erecting trading stations and banks in China. However, only in the 20th century Native architects began to adapt their construction methods to Western standards, evidence of which were for instance the sleek steel and glass buildings especially common in the 40s.
In the 50s China oriented itself towards the Soviet Union and hence not surprisingly also the architectural style was taken over. An example of this trend is the ‘Peace Hotel’ erected in 1953.
A stringent revival of Chinese architecture never really took place due to economical reasons.
In the 90s the first construction boom broke free and struck over Beijing like a horde of ants; the second one can be witnessed nowadays as the city is once again filled with the throbbing sounds of jack hammers preparing Beijing for the Olympics and unfortunately also tearing down part of the old charm to make way for progress and newness.
Hence today Beijing’s cityscape amazes its spectator with postmodern buildings such as the gigantic Z-shaped tower designed by architect Rem Koolhaas. The headquarters of the Chinese broadcasting company CCTV are situated in this stunning edifice, which has indeed led to some discussion due to its unusual design. Some critics felt too much reminded of a kneeling human being. But still whatever you decide to see in it, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Or another somewhat debated building, the National Grand Theatre. Egg-shaped and too foreign in its appearance to some people, the indeed spacey and very unusual looking edifice was designed by Paris-based architect Paul Andreu.
More interesting buildings have been erected in the course of the Olympics, for instance the National Stadium. Its shape is dominated by a sort of latticed net of shiny steel bands. Some people think of a bird’s nest here and indeed one cannot help but notice a certain resemblance.
And finally the shiny ‘floating water cube’ which houses the National Swimming Center created by the Australian company PTW. The exterior is certainly very fitting to the institution it holds.
Finally, no article about Chinese architecture would be complete without the mentioning of Feng Shui. The ancient principle of ‘Wind and Water’, as Feng Shui roughly translates to, has been vital throughout the centuries and has also noticeably spread around the world. The complex, cosmological principle of design entailed, aims at fitting buildings into the preexisting natural order of the universe in a harmonic way.