By Wonbin Sohn ‘13
[Wonbin is an international student at Swarthmore College from Seoul. This piece is the second in his series about Asian cities and is an abridged version of a paper he wrote for a class at Swarthmore. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the bibliography.]
National and social revolutionaries both seek ‘to assert and make good their claims to state sovereignty.’ Then, it could be asked, what was the role of Chinese architects under China’s modern struggle for a nation-state? The Confucian metaphysical philosophy devalued material artifacts, and as a result, architecture was not traditionally seen as a scholarly field throughout pre-modern China. Architectural study as a formal academic discipline began only in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it was introduced as a field of study by Westerners. For example, the Old Summer Place, known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese (圓明園 Yuánmíngyuán), was an extensive collection of imperial gardens and eighteenth century neoclassical mansions, constructed by Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were employed by the Qianlong emperor to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects (the initial construction began in 1707, during the reign of Kangxi emperor). The garden was destructed during the Second Opium War, when British and French expeditionary forces marched to the imperial capital of Beijing. Since then, on the strength of substantial foreign influx of Western presence to China, Chinese scholars have produced a significant body of architectural history that has helped shape the way that Chinese people think of architecture and urban planning.
Following the historic opening of China to the Western world, and the turn of the twentieth century, foreign architectural and planning influences started to appear in Chinese urban landscapes, mostly imported directly from the West. As in Shanghai, a prototype of cosmopolitan modern cityscape in China, foreign architectural firms, such as Palmer and Turner, Spense Robinson and Partners, and Atkinson and Dallas, made an appearance. Since the signing of the Nanjing Treaty, Shanghai had been the most open and lucrative economic entity in China during the period, and the city has consistently encapsulated foreign influences and progressive modernism, as the formation of the politically autonomous areas (i.e. the international concession and the French concession) and the forest of Neo-Classist and Art Deco architecture epitomizes. For example, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Cooperation headquarter in Shanghai, the quintessential example of Chinese neo-classicism architecture, was acclaimed as the most luxurious building from the Suez Canal to the Bering Strait.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Shanghai. Source: Peter G. Rowe, and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China.
Besides the direct foreign presence in architectural employments, by the early twentieth century, Western-educated Chinese architects had returned to the motherland, and joined the projects for modern institutions and new commercial enterprises. Most of the so-called China’s First Generation of modern architects, including Zhuang Jun, Liang Sicheng and Dong Dayou, had theoretical and empirical origins in the Western Beaux-Arts tradition, and furthermore, the architects incorporated ambidextrous building designs that amalgamated different styles and methods. Corresponding to the return of Chinese architects, foreign engineers in China had already experimented with incorporating Chinese architectural features into their designs, as Henry K. Murphy’s Yenching University project in Beijing exemplifies, and during the 1920s, there arose the ‘Chinese Form’ movement (中國固有形式 zhōngguó gùyǒu xíngshì), which was characterized by the use of a Chinese roof on a steel and concrete structure, and the use of traditional decorative motifs and sometimes of traditional spatial organization. According to Jianfei Zhu, this was an attempt to restore traditional cultural values and Confucian learning in modern Chinese architecture, and this practice was further promoted by the republican government in the Shanghai and Nanjing planning proposals in 1929. For instance, the Mayor’s Building in Greater Shanghai Civic Center, which was designed during the 1930s, had neoclassical proportions and adhered to the Western compositional principle, while employing decorative elements from the palace and temples of ancient China in its façade and interior spaces.
Henry K. Murphy’s Design of Yenching University, Beijing. Source: Jeffrey W. Cody, Henry K. Murphy’s “Adaptive Architecture,” 1914-1935.
Dong Dayou’s Mayor’s Building in Greater Shanghai Civic Center. Source: Seng Kuan, Between Beaux-Arts and Modernism: Dong Dayou and the Architecture of 1930s Shanghai.
At the most superficial level, the primary issue, which confronted the nationalist officials was that of constructing a bound polity drawn together by a set of grand symbols, shared cultural legacies and moral consciousness of political unity. As a result, the architects of Nanjing attempted to promulgate a set of horizontally universal values via their building designs, which could effectively replace the hierarchically stratified values of a previous cultural order under the Qing Dynasty.
The Ministry of Railways, Nanjing. Source: Charles D. Musgrove, Building a Dream: Constructing a National Capital in Nanjing, 1927-1937.
Thus the architecture of Nanjing can be summarized by an amalgamation of the cultural spirit of Chinese culture – curved roofs and traditional interior ornaments – and the modernity of Western civilization – Beaux-Arts influenced imperial design with modern construction materials, which would result in an ostentatious display of national dignity and the political authority of the regime. Through the hybrid of Chinese culture and the Western concept of architecture, the new city-designs of Nanjing focused on a promotion of ‘societal consciousness’ (民主意識 mínzhǔ yìshí) to create a sense of national community under the nationalist regime. Republican China saw the popularization of the term “monumental”(紀念 jìniàn) within the public domain, including its use in such phrases as jinian hui (紀念會; defined as commemorating gathering), jinian guan (紀念館; defined as museums), and jinian youpiao (紀念郵票; defined as a commemorative stamp), and for example, when inviting public participation of architectural designs of the city, the government stipulated competition guidelines, such as a requirement to have “classical Chinese style with distinctive and monumental features (獨特而有具有紀念性意義的 中國古典形式).” Thus, through emphasizing “monumental features” of its cityscape, the nationalist government promoted both visual monumentality and the profound psychological memories of Nanjing, associated with modern political sovereignty. In addition, with the influence of the City Beautiful Movement that emphasized the creation of large-scale public spaces and elaborate public buildings along wide parkways, the architects of Nanjing attempted to benchmark the layouts of other capital cities in the world, mostly those of Washington D.C. and Paris. Therefore, the planners envisioned the new capital with wide boulevards, malls and parks, resembling the National Mall of Washington D.C. In short, Nanjing’s main streets and districts were an extravaganza of Chinese cultural consolidation and nationalist displays.
Top-ranked plan for Nanjing’s central administrative zone. Source: Charles D. Musgrove, Building a Dream: Constructing a National Capital in Nanjing, 1927-1937.
Through Nanjing’s architecture and city layout, the nationalists attempted to reorder society through the imposition of an ideological and aesthetic discipline, and to foster ethno-nationalist pride and development. As Zhu summarized, Nanjing as a republican capital can be explained in ideological, spatial and social terms: (1) Ideologically, the architectural style of Nanjing was the consequence of Lenin, Sun and Chiang’s varying but consistent support for constructions of national independence from colonialism and imperialism; (2) In spatial layout and construction, the overall nationalist social order was pervasive in all cities and regions ruled by the party; (3) In social terms, a Chinese bourgeois space and cosmopolitan society had already existed before 1927, and the KMT’s imposition of a new layer of urban order and meaning – with a nationalist ideology and modern state-building – was not only visual and symbolic, but also real and instrumental. As discussed earlier, the nationalist government in Nanjing was a result of the prolonged geopolitical revolution against the anachronistic Qing Dynasty and Western imperialism, and as the KMT regime sought to openly inculcate a modern cosmopolitan urbanism, with the new national pride and sense of “Chineseness”, a vibrant aesthetic and architectural culture appeared in Nanjing. Certainly, as Figure 4 demonstrates, the urban landscape of Nanjing was an amalgamation of Chinese-style architecture upon modern configuration. The capital plan of 1929 displays a civil construction of a modern city with a set of commercial buildings and private industries as well as the KMT’s government and municipal complexes. The forms of government offices and public buildings were required to adopt a Chinese architectural design, with the prolonged tradition of pre-modern imperial palaces included, while the city layout adopted a Beaux-Arts composition of diagonals in a grid of orthogonal lines. In addition, the distinctiveness of a large and open space, specifically aimed at holding a large-scale public gathering, should be noted.
A large “open” space in front of the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Architecture of Modern China: A Historical Critique.
While proclaiming a Chinese cultural heritage and ethno-nationalist legacies, the architecture in Nanjing was also an exchange of ideas, designs, construction and engineering technologies between the West and East. The Capital Plan of 1929 advocated a combination of “principles of European-American science and technology” with the artistic tradition of China. Influenced by the early-generation of Chinese architects, who were trained either in Western Europe or in the United States, and with the presence of Western architects in China (i.e. Henry K. Murphy and Ernest Goodrich), Nanjing’s urban landscape was a hybrid of the imperial architectural tradition from pre-modern Chinese dynasties, with European Beaux-Arts and neo-classical compositions. Therefore, Nanjing’s architecture and urban planning were an active “reinterpretation” of Chinese culture in a modern, republican setting: diverse constructive elements were alloyed to promote a hybrid synthesis of Western science and technology with Chinese culture and values, thus demonstrating a progressive and modern ideological politics of the nationalist regime.
The People’s Republic’s national embodiment (國粹 guócuì) includes some of the Confucian and Taoist legacies as well as some selections of Mao’s revolutionary ideals, with a central focus on filial piety and the qualified extrapolation of these principles to the communist political arena – that is, the need for socialist peace, harmony and stability in China. As in Nanjing, the state-centered architecture of Beijing has been in charge of guarding the guocui and the day-to-day workings of the government coincide with the core ideological symbol. Thus, during the early and mid-1950s, at the pinnacle of the nascent nation-building process of the People’s Republic, the second wave of Chinese nationalism in architecture and urban planning made an appearance. Under the title of Socialist Realism, the architecture of Beijing during this period was a part of strong upsurge of national pride and optimism over the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and to some extent, over the “defeat” of American imperialism in the Korean War. Within this framework, modernism and the international style of architecture were condemned as expressions of Western imperialism, capitalism and bourgeois culture, and as a result, streets in Beijing openly demonstrated communist ideology, which proclaimed that public architecture should embrace socialist content and should adopt a national form. The architect Liang Sicheng, one of the early-generation Chinese architects, integrated the popular symbolism of the Chinese Revolution in 1951, and this architectural composition has served as the aesthetic basis in many projects of the period, including Zhang Bo’s Friendship Hotel.
Friendship Hotel, Beijing. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Beyond Revolution: Notes on Contemporary Chinese Architecture.
Attesting to the magnitude of engineering feats accomplished in China, the communist architecture reached its pinnacle in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, when the central government commissioned ‘Ten Grand Projects’ for the celebration of the tenth National day on 1 October 1959. As noticed before, the buildings employed Chinese roofs and traditional decorative motifs within a Western classical composition. Moreover, the contemporaneous architects intended to incorporate modern Soviet building designs by devising the impressively massive and clearly functional designs of buildings. The Ten Grand Projects connoted the highest political and symbolic importance in Beijing, and the buildings dominated and defined the landscape of the capital of the People’s Republic. As Zhu summarizes, the plans for the ‘Ten Grand Projects’ were strictly symmetrical and hierarchical, and the architectural styles were comprised of a very particular combination of eclectic, historicist and ‘classical’ compositions. For instance, some of these buildings, such as the Beijing Railway Station and the Cultural Palace of Nationalities explicitly display traditional architectural themes of China, while others incorporate Chinese decorative motifs within a Western classical composition. Pivoted around the Tiananmen, the Museum of History and Revolution, and the Great Hall of the People stand, flanking the east and west, respectively. Furthermore, as a part of political symbolism, communist slogans, iconographic images of the red torch and stars, sculptures depicting the ‘revolutionary masses’ and even portraits of Chairman Mao himself appeared in buildings of Beijing.
Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.
Beijing Railway Station. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.
The Museum of History and Revolution. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Beyond Revolution: Notes on Contemporary Chinese Architecture.
The Great Hall of the People. Source: Jianfei Zhu, Architecture of Modern China: a Historical Critique.
Through this practice of pervasive influence of communist ideology on the central landscape of Beijing, the government of the People’s Republic envisioned a monumental urban layout that could both represent its zealous communist pursuits by adopting Soviet architectural models, and its instillation of nationalism and patriotism by embodying a traditional cultural identity. However, it should be noted that there exists a persistent trend across the architectural conventionality of the first and second waves of Chinese architecture. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the political ideologies of the nationalists and communists, architecture in both Beijing and Nanjing displays a Chinese roof set on a modern building structure, a continuing legacy of the 1920s Beaux-Arts model. In regards to the communist architecture along Tiananmen Square, Jianfei Zhu briefly outlines the historical development of political symbolism in the People’s Republic.
“Here, against the background of the historical imperial city, the legacy of the École des Beaux Arts intersected with the aims of the Chinese Communist Revolution: the Western classical approach, already localized and tested, was used in the representation of the revolutionary state…In the evolution of the Chinese Beaux-Arts model, the ten projects as a whose marked a transition from the tradition-based National Form to an ideologically based political symbolism.”
In sum, nationalism not only was effectively inculcated throughout this period; its content was very much manipulated to serve the government. The new sacred symbols of nationhood that were taught all served as instruments both for the new Chinese nation and the communist party-state. The socialist cause, the party leadership, and the Chinese nationhood all merged into a set of architecture, representing a unified identity. As the prolonged continuity of Beijing and its traditional concept as an imperial heartland of pre-modern China was overwritten by the juxtapositions of the newly erected communist government buildings and memorials, this newfangled symbolic structure of Beijing attempted to represent an egalitarian combination of history and people on a spatial plane. Indeed, Beijing, and its central plaza at Tiananmen Square have been frequently used as a space for massive public demonstrations, often praising the rule of the CCP and agitating people against the common enemy – the “bourgeoisies” within the Chinese society and the foreign antagonists, namely the United States and later the Soviet Union. The city even endured a series of severe domestic upheavals from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Although both incidents had casted a mortal blow to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chairman himself, the revolutionary future that Tiananmen Square promised eventually survived the turmoil and remained upon the resilient Chinese public, all until the principles of market economy and Western-style liberalism made an appearance during the late 1970s.
A Bird’s Eye View of Tiananmen Square in 1977. Source: Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.
Contemporary Cityscapes of China. Source: Terry Hill, Solutions for a Modern City: Arup in Beijing.
So far, the study of nationalism and the subsequent political symbolism in architecture and urban planning have examined the top-down nation-building process through Nanjing’s nationalist era and Beijing’s Maoist period of the People’s Republic of China. Unlike when both leaders of Nanjing and Beijing struggled to accomplish their nationwide dignity, China is in the midst of an unprecedented economic growth since the 1980s, and the country seems to be gradually evolving toward a fuller realization of the concepts of nation and political citizenship, not to mention the increasingly confident perception of its position in the world. Considering the increasing demands for greater participation and inclusion in the polity by various elements of the population, as epitomized by the erection of the Goddess of Democracy during the June Fourth incident, the architectural scenery of China may be gradually redrawn by private, and more creative civilian influences from below. Rather than the old dichotomy of traditional and modernist approaches, architectural scenes in China are being influenced by a fusion of regional, contextual and even late modern-formal compositions. The retreat of the radical communist ideology of the past made possible a renewal of interest in both the traditional and early modern Chinese culture as well as Western architectural composition, and as a result, the contemporary buildings in China are less dictated by the government and more pluralistic in its artistic expression. Certainly, on the strength of open and dynamic socioeconomic developments, Beijing’s architectural scenes and its prolonged cultural tradition of socialist realism have recently undergone a significant commercialization – a reflection of the increasingly heterogeneous urban culture. For example, Soho China Limited, a private real-estate developing corporation in Beijing, has worked to develop commercial properties in China, and the firm has incorporated internationally renowned architects to produce modern iconic architecture. Also, through open design competitions, many Western and Chinese architects have won the commissions of state or state-related buildings with new and radical architectural modernism.
By modern iconic architecture, I mean projects that do not involve a systematic state-centered building plans or construction decrees, and architectural designs that deviate from the outmoded combination of Chinese roofs and Soviet-style buildings of the 1950s and the 1960s. Thus, with the presence of aesthetically motivated international architects, and the gradual dissolution of “state-centered” architectural decrees, the contemporary Chinese cities have witnessed the convergence of different ideas and approaches in designing its own skyline. After a century of struggles, China is approaching a new plane of aesthetical consciousness, opening up new possibilities for the commercialization of the architectural tradition; the fast-developing economy of China has contributed to the unprecedented collages of traditional elements mingled with the ultra-modern signs and screens. In sum, China is leaving behind not only its past legacies of the Maoist Revolution, but also the hybrid modern tradition of Beaux-Arts composition with the traditional design motifs in which both the nationalists and communists were bound for so long to express their political legitimacy.