In the early twentieth century, China’s period of modernisation was also one of ‘foreignisation’
First published in July 1947
In China, the conception of architecture as an art in the Western sense followed on the introduction of occidental styles into the cities about the time of the 1914-18 war. The Republic was still in its infancy. But a new nation was emerging from the decadent rule of the Imperial dynasty. It is understandable that, stimulated by this new spirit, young China should have felt urged to discard whatever was archaic and to welcome everything new and likely to help the nation in coping with so changed a situation. What was left behind appeared a heap of old rags from which no salvage was deemed possible. So we chose to start all afresh. Since the “new” must come from the West, the period of “modernization” was also the period of “foreignization ” to use the popular term of the day. A “foreign-styled” house was the coveted possession of the wealthy.
“What was left behind appeared a heap of old rags from which no salvage was deemed possible. So we chose to start all afresh”
Public buildings in foreign styles were a sign of enlightenment. Students began to go abroad to find out about Western achievements. As regards architecture that implied not only the study of Western styles in Western art schools and academies, but also a total change in the attitude to architecture as such. Architecture as an art, not as a trade, came to China at the moment, and as a part, of foreignization. This explains the paradoxical fact that the beginning of an interest in architecture in China coincides with a complete eclipse of creative architecture. Buildings by young Chinese architects were soon as inappropriate and alien as those designed by Westerners. The consequences were sad but unavoidable. The first outcome of a revolution will always be chaos. The architectural chaos lasted indeed just about as long as the civil wars after the revolution. The attainment of architectural consciousness had to be paid for as dearly as the birth of the nation.
The parallel between the recent development of Chinese architecture and Chinese political history is surprisingly close. When the Kuomintang succeeded in unifying the country and made Nanking the capital in 1928, a true national spirit was prevalent through the length and breadth of the country. This new spirit, more evolutionary than revolutionary, led to a new conception of what the nation’s first city should look like. No longer were “foreign” styles the ambition of the Government, but a revived “palace style.” The forthcoming official debut of this Chinese architectural Renaissance took place in Peiping in 1925, when in the regulations governing the competition for a new National Library it was stipulated that the style to be adopted was to be that of a Chinese palace. There were already, it is true, before the Peiping Library, many examples of a superficially similar style to be found in Chinese University buildings, but these were, as Prof. Liang Shih-Cheng said, nothing but “foreign buildings with curved roofs put on.” The Library, though designed by an American architect, shows a more sympathetic understanding of Chinese architecture and is undoubtedly a notable example of recent trends.
“The parallel between the recent development of Chinese architecture and Chinese political history is surprisingly close”
The most important building scheme carried out by the National Government in Nanking in the first few years of its administration was the completion of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum at the Purple Mountain near Nanking. It was designed by the late Li Mei-Ch’e. Prof. Liang Shih-Cheng’s comment on it is that ” with all due respect for the late Mr. Li’s great industry and imagination, his design still shows some lack of understanding of Chinese architectural principles.” However, even if Li had applied still more scholarship to the execution of his work, would it really have been possible to recapitulate the feeling which is in the tomb of Ming Tai Tsu in the same neighbourhood? Just look at the vast flights of steps and the formal planting of trees. Surely they derive directly from occidental classical monumentality and are wholly alien to our traditional conception. The Ming Tomb, on the other hand, although with its simple and unassuming forms it is far less imposing at first sight, has a quiet dignity and rightness lacking in the modern work. It is approached by a broad avenue paved with large flagstones and flanked on either side by the statues of armoured warriors and ministers in full court dress. At the top of the avenue is a group of buildings laid out according to the requirements of ceremonies. The tomb is erected at the bottom of the hill in the form of a mount over which pine trees grow in great profusion. While this Ming Tomb is hidden away among the trees in the Purple Mountain, Dr. Sun’s Mausoleum stands out boldly, trying to dominate the whole of the scenery.
It is really no more Chinese than a Gothic Revival church by Goodwin or Barry is Gothic. In 1928, a plan for the development of Nanking was prepared under an American architect, Mr. Murphy. Although very little has been heard of this plan, we can form an idea of the shape of things to come from some perspectives prepared by a Chinese architect working with Murphy. One of these perspectives shows a traffic crossing alarmingly like peace-time Piccadilly Circus dressed up in Chinese clothes as tawdry as a music hall mandarin’s. Maybe the plan will work well, but spiritually and visually the idea of a pseudo Chinese capital of China is most incongruous and depressing.
“Most of the world’s great structures cost millions to build; Shanghai, limited by its financial difficulties, could not hope to build on a scale to rival with them in magnificence”
In 1930 another page was written in the annals of Chinese architecture when the Greater Shanghai Plan was worked out. The finally approved plan was chosen from an open competition won by a Chinese architect Chao Sing. “York was begun the next year. Among the public buildings erected in the first year was the Mayor’s Building. It is, needless to say, in the style now popularly known as “Chinese Renaissance.” The City Planning Commission gave a number of reasons for its adoption. The Mayor’s Building, being the most important municipal building in the City and the centre of interest for visitors from home and abroad, should, they said, employ an architectural style representative of Chinese culture; the use of a foreign style would make a laughingstock of China. Moreover, only a style characteristic of the nation’s character could inspire national spirit, while buildings designed in European or American idioms (such as those recently put up for commercial purposes at Shanghai) could only do damage to national development. Besides, the City Planning Commission added, most of the world’s great structures cost millions to build; Shanghai, limited by its financial difficulties, could not hope to build on a scale to rival with them in magnificence. These reasons may be regarded as typical of the ”Renaissance” mentality.
Shanghai’s Civic Centre is a large formal garden, strictly symmetrical, with various buildings of completely unrelated design lined up along its fringe. Its sources are obviously American. But whatever the functional soundness of such layouts in the United States, in China they are nothing but abstract patterns devoid of any real meaning. They have nothing in common with the administrative centres in ancient cities, which were based on their grouping of roads and buildings, on the ceremonies, rites and manners of the times responsible for them. The old Chinese planning patterns were arrived at by regarding buildings as an expression of a social order. The new American pattern in China is only an empty shell, pretty though it may be. The result of such socially and nationally unsound individualism can be but chaos. Of the style of buildings in the Civic Centre, the Mayor’s Office is certainly an outstanding example. The design seems to consist of the three principal parts of ancient Chinese structures: the platform, the frame structure of the main story, and the roof.
But the architect, as anxious to adopt a traditional style, as he was to meet modern requirements, decided to cast to the winds all the logic of the past and be satisfied with appearance instead of principles. The platform in ancient buildings is a solid base upon which the light frame structure is erected ; it gives the feeling of security to the superstructure and also provides an interesting contrast between strength below and lightness above. In the Mayor’s Office, on the other hand, the platform with its numerous windows is not really a platform at all but only a European ground floor in a threadbare disguise. Admittedly, the offices needed light. But the architect’s compromise between this contemporary need and the basic composition of the national past is of the most superficial nature. The result is neither a true continuation of the cultural heritage nor a satisfactory expression of the contemporary spirit.
These Shanghai buildings and plans are among the most characteristic examples of the architectural spirit of about 1930. Then came 1937, and China found herself faced with an aggressive and bloodthirsty enemy. No consistent building could go on, while the good earth of China was being scorched. Architectural activities had to be suspended for the time being. These mournful years, unproductive of building, were, however, productive of thought, so that one may reasonably look for most important developments from the future of Chinese architecture.