The development of architecture in 20th-century China followed closely its political evolution. Starting out as an imperial regime nearly colonized by Western powers, China was declared a republic in 1911, only to fall into the chaos of the warlord period a year later. With the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the country was engaged in eight years of warfare. When the Communists first took power in the country in 1949, after four years of civil war following the Japanese surrender, China enjoyed ten years of stability. A series of political campaigns took place between 1959 and 1976, disrupting the normal functioning of the country. In 1979 China adopted an economic opendoor policy; foreign and multinational companies were invited to invest and trade in the country. This resulted in a booming economy and strong foreign trade in the last decades of the 20th century. Architectural style, spatial conception, architectural symbolism, the choice of architect, and construction technology were all directly influenced by the country’s political, commercial, and cultural development.
Up until 1911, most buildings constructed in China were of the distinctive traditional style with a timber post-and-beam structure supporting a heavy and curved tile roof. In-filled wall between the timber frames was of timber, brick, or pounded earth construction. Buildings were normally of a single story; only an exceptional structure such as a pagoda or a town tower was of two- or multiple-storied construction. Several buildings were arranged around a courtyard, and a few courtyards lined up along a central axis or two or three axes made up a complex. Building types were extremely limited in traditional China, which included palaces, princes, and official residences, government offices, temples and altars, shops, academies, ancestral halls, houses, and gardens all sharing the same form, construction, and spatial layout. Western architecture appeared in China with the introduction of new building types from the West. These included churches, custom houses, railway stations, and commercial offices. Fine examples of churches include the neobaroque Catholic South Church in Beijing of 1657 and the neo-Gothic Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and constructed in 1866. A small railway station was built outside the imperial gate of Beijing in 1900. The introduction of Western-styled buildings at the beginning of the 20th century set the scene for Chinese architecture and more dramatically, the International Style had by the end of the century completely obliterated the traditional architectural environment in the cities. The remaining Chinese characteristics are seen only in the buildings of nationalistic style. The architectural development can be divided into four periods: the introduction of Western-styled architecture (1900–28), the Modern movement or national style (1929–49), a period of pragmatism coupled with the search for a new national identity (1949–79), and a period of intense internationalization (1979–2000).
With the signing of the Nanjing treaty with Great Britain in 1842, five port cities were designated for foreign trade where Western merchants could set up trading houses. In 1850 the British set up the first concession in Shanghai, and Western-style buildings and city planning began to appear in major cities of China. Most Western-style buildings in China in the 19th century were neo-Gothic and neoclassical churches, arcaded shop houses, embassy buildings, and industrial buildings. Many houses, shop buildings, and offices were also built in the Colonial style first seen in the British colonies of India and Southeast Asia. After the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the influence of Western powers in urban China became more apparent, expressed visibly through the increased number of foreign concessions filled with Western-styled buildings. These buildings were designed by foreign architects and engineers following closely the stylistic development of European architecture. These foreign professionals brought with them the specialized discipline of architectural design, which hitherto had been carried out by master builders of the craft tradition.
Church buildings were designed according to denominational preference. The twintower Xujiahui Cathedral in Shanghai was completed in 1910, designed by British architect W.M. Dowdall in French Gothic for a Jesuit missionary. English redbrick Gothic Revival style can also be seen in many Protestant churches throughout the country. The Catholic church in the former French concession in Tianjin was built in the French Romanesque style and completed in 1916. These buildings with tall spires dominated the low skylines of traditional Chinese cities. In prosperous trading cities, however, more and more bank and commercial buildings reached greater and greater height. Many early bank buildings were in the neoclassical style, as in the West. The first bank building to be erected on the Bund in Shanghai was the St. Petersburg RussoAsiatic Bank, completed in 1901 and designed by H. Becker. This was the first building in China to be constructed with reinforced-concrete, equipped with modern conveniences and an elevator. However, the most impressive of bank buildings in this age must have been the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building designed by British architects Palmer and Turner and completed in 1923. This seven-storied steel-framed building was decorated in the neoclassical style surmounted by an imposing dome.
Apart from these buildings that are shadows of their European prototypes, ecclectic-style buildings mixing traditional Chinese architecture with the Western style were also attempted. The earliest example in this style is the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, designed by Harry Hussey between 1916 and 1918. The scale and proportion of these buildings are clearly Western classical in inspiration, whereas the details and the gigantic roof are Chinese. Many foreign architects adopted this style for residences, churches, and colleges, among whom the most accomplished was American architect Henry K.Murphy (1877–1954), who completed many university campus projects in what he called “Adaptive Chinese Renaissance” style (Cody, 1989).
This period of modernist nationalism in architecture is significant in the development of 20th-century Chinese architecture in that many Chinese architects trained abroad returned to make important contributions to the architectural scene. Among these were Zhuang Jun, who returned from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1914; Liu Dunzhen returned from Japan in 1923; and Yang Tingbao, Tong Jun, and Liang Sicheng all graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to China between 1927 and 1930. These architects either taught in the first architectural schools in China, worked for foreign architects in China, or formed partnerships in private practice. Their monumental designs with minimal decorations were a direct result from their monumental training in the Beaux-Arts tradition in the West. In this they followed the Hungarian architect L.E. Hudec, whose modernist architecture was first seen in a church completed in 1925 and some residences. The Chinese architects were increasingly given major commissions, such as government buildings, banks, hotels, commercial buildings, and academic buildings. Some high-rise buildings along the Shanghai Bund are also modernist in spirit. Chinese architects influenced by the Bauhaus also designed buildings with clean lines and devoid of decorations.
The other architectural style seen in this period was developed from the Chinese ecclectic style of the foreign architects working for foreign missions. With the Chinese style roof as the prominent feature of the style, it was considered as a national style promoted heavily by the newly formed national government at the end of the 1920s. Many government buildings were constructed in this style in the new capital, Nanjing (designated in 1927 and the planning of which was undertaken by Henry Murphy). In 1929 a competition for the mausoleum for Sun Yat-sen, the father of nationalistic China, was organized, and the brief clearly asked for a nationalistic style. The winning design submitted by Lu Yanzhi displays a symmetrical monumentality based on the Lincoln Memorial while incorporating distinctive Chinese elements, including the roof, bracket system, window surrounds, and decorative architrave. Just as the foreign architects saw in the style the representation of Chinese tradition, the government used the style for nation building. However, the style was increasingly criticized by the advocates of the Modern movement for being wasteful in material and for not representing the spirit of the modern society China was moving toward. Heated debates were fully argued in architectural journals for many years in the 1930s, only to be abruptly cut due to the Japanese occupation of eastern China between 1937 and 1945.
After the setting up of the People’s Republic of China, institutional buildings were designed following closely the Russian Monumental style. Between 1949 and 1957, Russian experts helped in building the new China by promoting the principle of neoclassicist monumentality with Chinese characteristics. Together with the first Fiveyear Plan, many new functionalistic buildings were constructed for the new social order. Invariably, these buildings are symmetrical both on the facade and in the internal layout. Over the central entrance is usually a high tower. This form had a long-lasting influence on the modern Chinese architectural style right through to the end of the century, due partly to the influence of the centralizing symmetry of traditional Chinese architecture. Two good examples are the Sovietdesigned Beijing and Shanghai Exhibition Halls of 1954.
With the Communist rule also came the reform of architectural practice. Replacing the private architectural and engineering offices were many state-owned design institutes, which are comprehensive professional offices surviving to this day (Lin, 1988). At the end of the 1950s, Russian experts were expelled from China, and the leading design principle adopted was essentially nationalistic. However, unlike the earlier Chinese Renaissance style of foreign architects or the national style of the 1930s, the nationalistic style of this period was much restrained, using less of the massive tiled roof and relying more on minor traditional decorative elements. The ten major projects to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic are important examples of this style. Completed in 1959, some of these buildings are located at the heart of Beijing, such as the Great Hall of the People (Zhao Dongri) and the Revolutionary and History Museum (Zhang Kaiji). And others served important political and infrastructure functions, such as the Cultural Palace of Nationalities (Zhang Bo) and the Beijing Railway Station (Chen Dengao). Other examples of this nationalistic style can be seen in other parts of the country, such as the Great Hall of the People in Chongqing (Zhang Jiade, 1954). Soon after the tenth anniversary, the country was thrown into turmoil again with many political movements culminating in the Cultural Revolution—all normal social activities stopped until 1976. However, there were also pragmatic functionalist buildings constructed even in this period, such as the extension to the Beijing Hotel (Dai Nianci, 1974).
With the liberalization of the Chinese economy in 1979, the nationalistic style continued to be adopted only for political purposes during this period of internationalization. This is particularly apparent in buildings along the main east-west boulevard of Beijing, Chang’an Jie, which are required by city officials to adopt national characteristics in their form. This is accomplished by adding small Chinese pavilions on otherwise multistoried modern buildings. However, there was also more genuine integration of the two forms, such as the Beijing Library (Yang Yun, 1987), the Beijing West Railway Station (Zhu Jialu, 1996), and the Peking University Library (Guan Shaoye, 1998). In these attempts large tiled roofs appeared again on top of tall buildings, much like the examples from the 1920s. The search for a new Chinese architecture had found a new interpretation in the Fragrant Hill Hotel completed in 1982. In it I.M.Pei used traditional elements from southern China, such as diagonal windows and whitewashed walls, integrated in modern and yet distinctive Chinese spaces. Similar examples designed by Chinese architects include the Queli Hotel in Qufu (Dai Nianci, 1984) and a housing design in Ju’er Hutong in Beijing (Wu Liangyong, 1990).
However, the most significant development of the period was the return of foreign architects to the Chinese architectural scene in the last two decades of the century. They were involved in joint ventures with local design institutes in the design of new hotels operated by major Western hotel chains, such as the Beijing Jianguo Hotel (1982), the Great Wall Sheraton of Beijing (1983), the Nanjing Jinling Hotel (1983), and the Crystal Palace Hotel (1987). These buildings served important purposes of introducing the International Style and modern construction technology to China, rapidly updating China from its 20-year isolation from the rest of the world. In the 1990s other commercial and cultural projects also benefited from international designers. These included the Beijing Chinese-Japanese Youth Center (Kisho Kurokawa, 1990), the Shanghai Center (John Portman and Associates, 1990), the Shanghai Grand Theater (Arte Jean Marie Charpentier and Associates, 1998), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Building, Beijing (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1998), and the Bank of China, Beijing (I.M.Pei and Partners, 1999). Some of these were the first facilities built to international standards in China. The Shanghai Grand Theater has successfully utilized the curtain wall both as a symbol of modernization in the day and a bright jewel at night. The curved roof soaring into the sky is reminiscent of the traditional curved roof of south China and is a source of inspiration for many buildings in China. Although some architects were particularly sensitive to the local context, the majority designed massive curtain-wall buildings totally out of context with the surroundings. Sadly, these buildings became the icons of modernization and were copied all over China in a lesssatisfactory manner.
With the development of Pudong district in Shanghai, imposing skyscrapers, unseen before in China, started to dominate the generally flat skyline. The two most notable examples from this district are the 421-meter-tall Jin Mao Building (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1998) and the 460-meter World Financial Center (KPF Associates, 2000). These projects were mainly won in an international competition, which was becoming the norm for larger and joint-venture projects in the late 1990s. The foreign designers of these projects were clearly sensitive to the Chinese tradition within which the buildings are located. They often incorporated Chinese elements, motifs, or symbolism in their design. For example, the tallest building in China, the Jin Mau Building, was conceived as a Chinese pagoda with a shimmering curtain wall, whereas the Word Financial Center was designed to invoke the Chinese conception of the heaven as round and the earth as square.
Other than the nationalistic and International Styles, there are Chinese architects who boldly attempt architectural symbolism in building form. The Shanghai Museum is designed in the shape of an ancient bronze cauldron (Xing Tonghe, 1996), and the Memorial to the Victims of Japanese Massacre used a stark granite surface and dry landscape to evoke the extreme horror of the massacre (Qi Kang, 1985). However, the most controversial project that epitomizes the tension between internationalism and nationalism in architecture is the winning entry of the design competition for the National Grand Theater of China in Beijing. The design of Paul Andreu consists of a gigantic glass dome covering three separate theater structures. Located next to the Great Hall of the People, the heart of political China, this project has generated heated debates in the local architectural community and was put on hold in 2000. The stark contrast of the ultramodern structure with nationalistic architecture at such an important site and the cultural symbolism of the glass dome are two major objections to the scheme. On the other hand the supporters argue that China needs national icons of this sort to launch itself into the new millennium. This is perhaps a clear indication that Chinese architecture was standing at the crossroad at the end of the century. The desperate search for a Chinese identity has so far yielded no satisfactory answer. In the meantime, the pressure of commercial development has produced two extremes: well-conceived buildings designed by international offices and big design institutes in major cities, and mediocre buildings by the thousands all over the vast country.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.