China's pavilion for Expo 2010 Shanghai
China's pavilion for Expo 2010 Shanghai

AUS academic Marcus Farr discusses how preserving China's traditional building techniques can benefit its rapid urbanisation

According to AUS academic and Fulbright Scholar Marcus Farr, preserving China's traditional building techniques can positively impact the country's rapid urbanisation.

Currently studying China's traditional architectural practices, materials and their relationship to contemporary tectonics, Farr's research aims to create a deeper understanding of how architecturally specific heritage can inform new buildings and address the loss of cultural identity due to the incorporation of Western building practices and the faltering sustainability of local projects.

Marcus Farr, AUS academic and Fulbright Scholar

Through interviews with important architects and academics based across China, Farr's research further explores the importance of enhancing the dialogue around buildings that speak to context, place and materiality, and that are locally influenced.

"This dialogue is incredibly timely in that China is still urbanising at an incredible rate," he said. "Much of the academic discourse is responding to improvements relative to village life. Local building traditions from villages and country sides are being forgotten and replaced with Western ideas, which at times are not appropriate and do not get built correctly.”

Here, Farr details some of China’s traditional building techniques, as well as how they could help inform the response to modern development issues.

You’re looking at traditional building techniques related to the Silk Road in China – can you list a few, and discuss your concern for their gradual disappearance?

Dougong evolved out of a need for load bearing structures. During the 10th century, many buildings were constructed with curtain wall techniques, meaning that the outer walls were fundamentally non-structural and non-load bearing. These structures were commonly made of wood and because of the lack of structural capacity in the system, they were commonly split or cracked, compromising their lifespan. Dougong came about as a reaction to this problem. The Chinese were masters of wood construction, and this allowed them to create larger projects and longer lasting structures that could be continuously maintained. You can see this architecture in sites such as the Forbidden City and Summer Palace. This is a technique that has been noticeably translated to contemporary architecture. One of the defining traits is interlocking wooden joints that develop into a network throughout the architecture. They join columns and vertical members to ultimately allow for roof construction.

The Dougong method

Another technique is wapan masonry. This is a tiling technique that has evolved into a hybrid construction process involving brick, stone and roof tiles. This is a technique well known by Chinese masons and is becoming more common in the architectural discourse of China since traditional bricks are being banned due to environmental degradation concerns.

Wapan masonry was traditionally used in villages as a way to utilise materials that were readily available, such as left over roofing tiles and broken bricks, but it is now becoming part of the new architectural language of China as designers start to use it in new ways.

The technique was brought to light by architects such as Wang Shu and his work in Ningbo. It’s been used for centuries in Chinese villages and as these villages are being demolished, the wapan is offering itself as material for new projects giving life to new structures. Shu did this by combining new and old materials in his Ningbo project as a way to feature the historic technique and re-present it to modern China, he also gave a great deal of freedom to the masons as they constructed the buildings. This is a technique that many architects in China had labelled as being too low tech and unbefitting for modern constructions, but as demonstrated by certain architects, it offers an important reminder of the profound potential between past and present. 

While not specific to the Silk Road, these are both examples of heritage construction techniques that are currently an influence on contemporary architecture in Asia. Both of these techniques are also associated with integrated ornamentation and detail.

How is China adopting western architecture principles, styles, etc, and how is this affecting its urban identity? Is it creating a uniquely Chinese interpretation of western architecture? Is there a growing disconnection between heritage and modern development (for example)?

The connections between the village and the city in modern day China are linked by architecture. China’s population is around 1.4 billion people and it is quickly moving toward a more educated, urbanistic society. The country is working to provide more opportunities for people in its mega-cities and as this happens, village life and villages are being absorbed by other ways of living. 

Wapan masonry, a tiling technique that has evolved into a hybrid construction process involving brick, stone and roof tiles

Unfortunately, with urbanisation, the villages disappear. Along with this goes the history of place, the landmarks, and the architectural examples built by previous generations. As cities are being constructed the vast need for housing is being met with modern high-rise towers, modelled after those in the West, made from glass, concrete and steel.

The identity of the city is connected to its architecture. As China incorporates more and more western style buildings into its cities, the character of China’s cities begins to largely resemble those of the West. It’s unfortunate that cities with vastly different histories and cultural heritage look the same. Understanding the processes by which local buildings were previously made helps to create a healthy vision for future projects so that the city can remain unique due to its architecture and its past.

The connections between the village and the city in modern day China are linked by architecture. China’s population is around 1.4 billion people and it is quickly moving toward a more educated, urbanistic society.

Do you think that traditional building techniques can respond to China’s current-day urban challenges?

I think there is an opportunity for traditional techniques and materials to influence the character of the city and the tectonic presence of architecture in any situation. The continued proliferation of the mega-city and the exodus from traditional village life in China offers an opportunity to demonstrate the role of the building in a uniquely Asian urban environment, in addition to the current model of city making – one that is not exclusively subject to modernism but unique to craft and sensitive to regional life.

This has already happened in certain cases. I think that what’s important is that we design for place and understand regional context and tradition. Architecture has a transformational power. Not all architecture can realise this potential, or is intended to. Cities thrive on diversity, but designers should be open to exploring the contemporary via the opportunities given by heritage.

The continued proliferation of the mega-city and the exodus from traditional village life in China offers an opportunity to demonstrate the role of the building in a uniquely Asian urban environment, in addition to the current model of city making – one that is not exclusively subject to modernism but unique to craft and sensitive to regional life.

What could China gain from preserving/recovering/adapting its traditional architecture, rather than aspiring to/applying Western architecture?

Any country gains from preserving and recognising its past, gaining diversity and enlightenment. An example of this is how China has at times placed contrasting buildings next to residential developments. This is in response to a preconceived masterplan where buildings such as government facilities, parks and residential areas come together in a public manor. The focus here is on landscape and nature, keeping buildings low. In ancient China, the architects designed the landscape, not the building.

China's pavilion for Expo 2010 Shanghai

The other contrast is in materiality, creating opposition to shiny glass and metal, consciously avoiding reflective materials as these were not part of their history. Architects such as Wang Shu have done this by incorporating reclaimed materials from villages and the rural countryside. This allows the architecture to be a reminder to the public realm and provides a moment of awareness, generating a critique of the modern city by revealing a loss of identity and memory.

Chinese architecture has a history of building on its past. Wang discusses this by saying, “If you take a part a house from the Qing dynasty, you can find tiles from the Ting dynasty. In that, we see that history continues to add layers. That is life.”

Any country gains from preserving and recognising its past, gaining diversity and enlightenment.

Similar conversations regarding the preservation of traditional/vernacular building techniques and methods exist here in the UAE and greater Middle East. How do you think the two conversations compare or contrast?

I think the UAE is offering more and more projects that discuss heritage, as well as contemporary venues for disseminating culture. It’s very important. There is a fascinating history of material use in the desert.

For so many years, the culture was transient, always moving to find better temperatures, water, trading, etc. This was supported by an architecture of means, light-weight fabric architecture that could be moved easily and became a shelter against dust and sun. The architectural technologies of the desert such as areesh, mashrabiya, and wind towers still exist. New projects are becoming more innovative by reinterpreting these systems and presenting them back to the city. The architecture of the desert has focused more on climate, while in China it is more about re-presentation for cultural awareness.

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