architectural criticism and theory


architectural criticism and theory
Forced to dance to the government’s tune during the Mao era, architectural writing since the 1979 reform has gained freedom but is also dominated by Western concepts. Pre-reform China shunned modern Western theory in its struggle against the capitalist world. The Soviet doctrine of ‘national form with socialist content’ was borrowed in the 1950s and embraced by most leading Chinese architects, due to their nationalist feeling and beaux-arts education in the 1920s USA. Liang Sicheng of Qinghua University even proposed a theory of using traditional forms as vocabularies in any architectural composition. The doctrine, too expensive to implement, was replaced in 1959 by an architecturally meaningless principle which stated that buildings should be ‘functional, economic and aesthetic when conditions permit’. A few lone Modernist voices did exist in this period, such as Feng Jizhong at Tongji University in Shanghai. Trained in the Bauhaus system, Feng discussed the four basic space types and their functional implications in An Outline of Spatial Principles (Kongjian yuanli shuyao, 1964). This period also saw the completion of several excellent surveys of historical buildings and gardens under the direction of Liu Dunzhen. After 1979, the state no longer tightly controlled architectural discussions. However, architects generally lost interest in theory in an increasingly market-oriented China after the 1990s. Development since the reform can be outlined in four aspects.
First, Western architectural theory is being translated and published in architectural journals and books at an unprecedented pace. Chinese scholars, some of whom have been educated in the West since 1978 (e.g. Wang Tan, Xue Qiuli and Shen Kening), have also produced competent analyses of new developments in Western architectural thought. Such were the most popular reading among architecture students until the market replaced theory as the guiding light in the 1990s.
Second, numerous research monographs on traditional architecture have emerged. They provide systematic analysis, fresh perspectives and methods, and substantial new data, especially the work of Chen Congzhou, Guo Husheng and several younger historians. Many of these projects study vernacular architecture, scenic area planning and village forms, topics previously ignored by the academy.
Third, in the search for a direction for today’s Chinese architecture, the debate between traditional and modern styles again dominated the scene until the mid 1990s, at which time the consensus shifted towards the latter. Using methods borrowed from the West, Xu Ping and Miao Pu examined the deep structure of traditional architecture rather than its superficial styles. There are also writings attempting to construct frameworks for general theories of architecture and for new fields of research. Many of these efforts could be improved by introducing more original concepts, rigorous methods and updated data. Surprisingly, few works have been done in quantitative research on basic functional and technological issues, much needed in a developing country.
And finally, in a culture which values personal connections and sees academic criticism as a form of disrespect, architectural criticism is largely eulogistic. Nevertheless, a few critics, such as Zeng Zhaofen and Chen Zhihua, have broken the taboo. Their sharp diagnostics, especially Chen’s Notes at the North Window (Beichuang zaji), attack both the revivalist and market-oriented design approaches and call for a return to the true Modernist tradition.
MIAO PU

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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