Bloomsbury Architecture Library - China since 1914
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Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture
Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture

Murray Fraser

Murray Fraser is Professor of Architecture and Global Culture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, UK and Vice-Dean of Research for The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. He has published extensively on design, architectural history and theory, urbanism, post-colonialism and cultural studies. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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(ed)

Bloomsbury Visual Arts (UK), 2018

Subjects

Peoples and Cultures:

Chinese

Place:

China

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China since 1914

by

Edward Denison

EDWARD DENISON is an independent architectural historian, writer and photographer, and also an Associate Professor in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474207775.096
Page Range: 1126–1163

History and Geography

In 1914, China was little over halfway through its ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers and Japan, a situation that had begun with the First Opium War in 1839. The year 1914 is, of course, a Eurocentric milestone, directing attention to the epicentre of what became the First World War. However, it was the experiences of countries far from Europe, like China (which joined the war in 1917), that justified the global scale of this sombre sobriquet. Within weeks of the outbreak of war in Europe, Japan invaded Germany’s leased territory in Shandong province and the port city of Qingdao. Buoyed by their military success, Japan pursued an aggressive diplomatic policy towards China that included the ‘Twenty-One Demands’. Beleaguered and unable to resist, China’s acceptance of most of these demands provoked national outrage. Further humiliation at the Versailles Conference incited student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1919 that launched a popular uprising against foreign imperialism fuelled by nationalism and a widespread cultural awakening. The May Fourth Movement defined the age.

As China struggled to slowly assert its new role in the modern world, the cosy existence of foreign residents grew less stable. For architecture, this unsettling of the status quo was effected not only by the first Chinese architects returning home from an overseas education in the 1910s, but also by a new wave of foreign architects arriving in China, many of whom were weary of war and disillusioned with Western civilization’s uncivilized behaviour. Their favoured route was across Russia on the recently built Trans-Siberian Railway, through Manchuria, to China’s pre-eminent treaty port, Shanghai, which was the heart of the country’s architectural community and the epicentre of its encounter with modernity. Throughout the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, architects in China enjoyed a period of creative freedom and productivity that would not be experienced again until the end of the century.

Figure 96.1.  Coal advertisement poster, Shanghai (1930s). Architecture was often used as a potent form of imagery to convey modernity in China, and especially that of Shanghai, as depicted in this coal advertisement, during the 1920s and 1930s when the city’s urban development reached its pre-war peak.


In 1927, for the first time since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, China was united under a single, albeit fragile, government in the form of the Kuomintang (Guo Min Dang, or Nationalist Party), led by Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi), who reassigned the nation’s capital to Nanjing. The domestic agenda was dominated by nation-building and nationalism, both of which found prominent expression in architecture and urban planning. For Chinese architects, the ‘Nanjing Decade’ was a golden era of opportunity cut short by foreign imperialist ambitions, not from the West, but from Japan to the east.

On 18 September 1931, Japan orchestrated the ‘Mukden Incident’ on the South Manchuria Railway outside the city of Shenyang, providing the necessary pretext for their occupation of the whole of Manchuria. Reverberations were felt across Asia, and eventually rocked the entire globe. On 1 March 1932, Japan named their new imperial realm as Manchukuo, although few countries beyond Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy acknowledged its national status.

Figure 96.2.  South Manchuria Railway advertisement poster (1930s). As the backbone of Japan’s imperial project in Manchuria, the South Manchuria Railway was among the most significant pieces of infrastructure developed anywhere in the first half of the 20th century, effecting a complete transformation of the region throughout this period.


Manchukuo (Manchuria) became the site of some of the most concentrated architectural production in the world during the 1930s. For Japanese architects and city planners motivated by the possibility of designing the future, it bristled with opportunity. The Japanese urban plan for the new colonial capital, Hsinking (Changchun) (see Capital Planning), was one of the largest and most ambitious ever attempted. Government buildings, commercial premises, modern infrastructure, public services and housing were designed and constructed in a matter of months in an architectural manner the Japanese called fast-ism. In an era of Japanese ‘Ultra-Modernism’, architectural production and urban planning in Manchukuo were soon accompanied by modernity’s perennial bedfellow: militarism.

For China, the Second World War started in July 1937, when Japan launched a full-scale invasion. An era of construction was now overwhelmed by destruction. The Japanese army occupied Nanjing, bringing an end to the ‘Nanjing Decade’ and rattling China’s foreign community. The Chinese government withdrew to the interior, where state institutions, including architectural schools and practices, reconvened in the proxy capital of Chongqing. In China’s treaty ports, foreign residents maintained an uneasy rapport with Japan, hoping tensions would ease. These fanciful hopes were dashed in December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and simultaneously occupied all foreign settlements in China, including the seizure of Hong Kong, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown in the Far East.

The end of the war in August 1945 eliminated the common enemy that had bonded those in China’s Communist and Nationalist parties. Both resumed mutual hostilities in 1947 in a civil war that concluded in 1949 with Communist victory under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and the Nationalists’ ignominious retreat to the island of Taiwan. For China’s foreign community things were never the same again. Any foreigners who had not already been displaced by war or returned home were forced to leave China.

Communism fundamentally changed Chinese society, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China definitively marking the end of the ‘Century of Humiliation’. For architecture, private practice and individual creativity were subsumed into the collective, as the profession entered a turbulent period from the 1950s to the 1970s, as part of the Cold War, beginning with the Korean War (1950–53) and ending with Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The diversity that had characterized China’s architectural landscape in the first half of the twentieth century was now replaced by uniformity. From 1952, the influx of aid and advisers from China’s new ally, the Soviet Union, transformed architectural theory, practice and education. Utility, economy and, if possible, beauty, became guiding principles amid changes implemented over a five-year period that were so fundamental, their impact would last decades.

In 1972, a thawing of East and West relations began when the United States President Richard Nixon visited China in what he described as ‘the week that changed the world’. In a warmer political climate, architecture became more agile. Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, initiated the ‘Open Door’ policy, a scheme of market-based reforms that completely transformed the nation’s physical, social and economic landscapes over subsequent decades. Architectural theory and practice began to cast off its Soviet cloak standards and instead looked westward for guidance. Foreign architects were welcomed back to China to revel once again in the country’s potential, though only if partnered with a local institution. A new generation of Chinese architects tentatively embraced freedom of artistic expression and, like their predecessors, grappled with the reconciliation of tradition and modernity.

Events such as the brutal suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Hong Kong’s return to Chinese ownership in 1997 continue to serve as reminders of the enduring tensions inherent in a singular vision of the one-party state. Despite many challenges, architects in China have participated in a construction boom that, in size, scale and scope, is unprecedented in human history. China’s record-breaking prosperity since the 1990s has delivered millions out of poverty and in the process has created a playground for architects of all nationalities and calibres, but the consequences of the world’s largest ever urban migration are as yet unknown. As with China’s previous ordeals, the effects will be felt globally.

Culture and Society

The early twentieth century was a period of major social and cultural transformation for China. Within a few years, the ancient and prejudicial system of writing, Classical Chinese, its literary formulae and the Imperial Examination System, which collectively excluded all but the educated from reaching the highest echelons of society, were abolished as the ‘New Culture Movement’ swept through society. Education was reformed to encourage modern scientific and technological subjects, including engineering and architecture. The written language was replaced by Vernacular Chinese, which exposed it to the masses and removed the scholars’ monopoly on literacy. A publishing revolution, mirroring that which occurred in eighteenth-century Europe, resulted in the proliferation of newspapers, journals and novels written in Vernacular Chinese by a generation of modern writers. In 1932, China’s architects launched the country’s first professional journal, Jian Zhu Yue Kan (The Builder), followed in 1933 by Zhong Guo Jian Zhu (The Chinese Architect).

Japan’s Twenty-One Demands in 1915 and the Republican Government’s failure to confront foreign interference presaged the May Fourth Movement, which claimed, paradoxically, that China’s salvation lay in Westernization. Raging against Chinese paternalistic tradition, the May Fourth Movement was China’s first mass intellectual movement and represented the flowering of a new modern consciousness derived from the chaos of preceding decades.

The imperatives of cultural enlightenment conflicted with the rising tide of nationalism. Many intellectuals feared nationalism, believing it would kill the individualism underpinning the enlightenment movement. The contest between individualism and nationalism culminated in the latter’s victory and the suppression of the former by the Nationalist Government’s ‘New Life Movement’, launched in 1934, which had important implications for architecture in promoting and prescribing national characteristics, known as Chinese Revivalism.

Following the chaos of China’s experiences in the Second World War and then its subsequent civil war, politics continued to shape architecture’s relationship with society and culture. Individual creativity was stifled not merely by nationalism, but also by the collective imperative of communism. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, political dogmatism condemned different architectural approaches at different times. As China accepted Soviet-style Socialist Realism, International Modernism was branded imperialist and Chinese Revivalism was accused of being profligate. China staggered from one national crisis to the next before reaching a nadir during Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For a decade, creativity ceased. Independent thought was forbidden. Universities were closed. Architecture stalled.

The economic revival since the inauguration of the ‘Open Door’ policy has been exceptional. Fuelled by massive economic growth, architectural production in China has been prolific, though cultural, social and environmental imperatives have lagged behind. Consequently, there is an increasing expectation within the profession and throughout society generally that architecture must begin to address China’s profound cultural, social and environmental problems rather than just servicing the singular pursuit of economic growth.

Architecture

The comparatively early arrival of the Second World War in China in 1937, due to widespread Japanese invasion, brought an end to what had the potential of being a golden age for Chinese architecture. The country’s first trained architects who had the good fortune of enjoying this period can be divided into two groups, based on the means and prospects of their country and of their families.

The first generation of architects comprised a diminutive band of individuals trained in architecture or engineering that returned to China before the mid-1920s. Unlike their immediate successors, these pioneers were neither supported by the state nor had an established profession to return to. The lucky ones started as apprentices in foreign firms before embarking on private practice. The professional institutions they were expected to lead were nascent and fragile. Theirs was a generation characterized by individual, disparate and often desperate attempts to receive a foreign education.

Architectural education came first from the East, not the West. Until Europe and America became realistic destinations for significant numbers of Chinese students, which did not happen for architecture until the 1920s, the cultural and geographical proximity of Japan made it an attractive choice. Architectural education in Japan was more technical than artistic. Liu Shiying, for example, attended Tokyo Higher Technical School (which later became Tokyo Institute of Technology) in 1914. Six years later he returned to China to set up the country’s first-ever architectural course in Suzhou. It opened in 1923 and was conducted by four graduates of the Tokyo Higher Technical School: Liu Shiying, Liu Dunzhen, Zhu Shigui and Huang Zuomiao.

China’s first generation of architects included the engineer-turned-architect, Shen Liyuan, from Hangzhou. Shen had studied engineering at a technical school in Naples, Italy, in 1909 before switching to architecture. In 1915, he returned to China and founded Hua Xing Architecture and Engineering company in Tianjin, designing the Central Bank (1926), the French Club (1931; fig. 96.3), the Sin Hua Trust Savings Bank (1934) and the Jin Cheng Bank (1937). Another early Chinese architect was Guan Songsheng, who studied at Andover Academy, Massachusetts, from 1907 before enrolling at the University of Boston in 1914 and completing a Master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1919. In 1924, Guan founded Kwan, Chu and Associates with Zhu Bin, the first Chinese student to enrol at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture in 1918. From 1918 to 1941, twenty-five Chinese architecture students duly enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Collectively, they were the largest group of Chinese architectural graduates from a single overseas institution before the end of the decade.

Figure 96.3.  French Club, Tianjin (1931). The elaborately stepped entrance to the French Club in the multinational Treaty Port of Tianjin was designed by one of China’s earliest architectural students, Shen Liyuan, who had initially trained as an engineer in a technical school in Naples, Italy, before switching to architecture.


The close relationship with the University of Pennsylvania reveals one of the distinctions between the first and second generation of Chinese architectural students. The second generation enjoyed the benefits of an increasingly organized state that needed their skills and could support their ambitions. Upon returning home, many became influential figures in architectural education and practice. Budding Chinese architects were encouraged through scholarship programmes funded by the Boxer Indemnity (the reparations scheme set up after China’s anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901). In 1911, the United States of America founded Tsinghua Xuetang, the forerunner of Tsinghua University, to channel Chinese students, including future architects, over to American universities throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1921 two Chinese students, Yang Tingbao and Zhao Shen, left Tsinghua Xuetang to enrol at the University of Pennsylvania and became classmates of Louis Kahn, who went on to become one of America’s most influential architects. Both Yang and Zhao became leading partners in two of the most prolific private architectural practices in China before 1949: Kwan, Chu and Yang, and Allied Architects respectively. Based in Tianjin, the work by Kwan, Chu and Yang in Nanjing included the city’s main stadium (1931), hospital (1933) and the Grand (Da Hua) Theatre (1934; fig. 96.4); while in Shenyang they designed the railway station (1927) and some buildings of the Northeastern University; and in Shanghai, the Continental Bank (1932) and the Young Brothers’ Banking Association (1937). In 1933, the firm took on Liang Yen – another University of Pennsylvania graduate and the first Chinese assistant to another great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (see Chapters 89 and 102) – who then designed Shanghai’s Sun Department Store (1933) and the International Club (1936) in Nanjing.

Figure 96.4.  Grand (Da Hua) Theatre, Nanjing (1934). The architect of for this theatre, Yang Tingbao, was among the most accomplished architects in China in the 20th century. The modern appearance of this theatre was deceptive; its minimal and boldly geometric Art Deco-like exterior masking a highly elaborate Chinese-style interior.


The nucleus of Allied Architects was formed of Chao and Chen Architects, established by Zhao Shen and fellow alumnus Chen Zhi – the latter an easy-going character who had quickly assimilated to life in Philadelphia, forming a jazz band that played in the university’s Glee Club. Chao and Chen Architects became Allied Architects in early 1933, when they were joined by a third University of Pennsylvania graduate, Tong Jun, a prolific architect and writer. Allied Architects’ work included the Metropolitan Hotel (1932), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1934), Sun Yat Sen Cultural Education Hall (1935) and the Geological Survey Institute (1937) in Nanjing; the Lyric Theatre (1934), Metropol Theatre (1934), Shanghai Merchants’ Bank (1933) and Zhejiang No. 1 Commercial Bank (1948) in Shanghai; and also the Nan Ping Cinema (1939; fig. 96.5) in Kunming.

Figure 96.5.  Nan Ping Cinema, Kunming (1939). Allied Architects were among the most prolific architectural practices in China before the Second World War. Most of their work was in Shanghai before the Japanese invaded China in 1937, forcing a comprehensive retreat to unoccupied territories, where they continued to work, designing this elegant cinema in Kunming in 1939.


Chen Zhi had arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in 1923 from Tsinghua Xuetang, with Liang Sicheng, son of the reformer Liang Qichao, and Liang’s fiancé Lin Huiyin (see Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin). Liang would make his name by almost single-handedly writing the first modern account of China’s architectural history, an obsession that started at the University of Pennsylvania when his father sent him a reproduction of the legendary Ying Zao Fa Shi (State Building Standards), an ancient building manual that had governed the principles of Chinese construction. The fabled manuscript had recently been unearthed in Nanjing’s Provincial Library by a retired official, Zhu Qiqian. As the historian Wilma Fairbank records in her 1994 book on Liang and Lin, before sending a copy to his son, Liang remarked: ‘A thousand years ago to have a masterpiece like this … what a glory to the culture of our race!’

European universities were no less popular than their American counterparts for China’s budding architects. Liu Jipiao attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and Lin Kemin studied at the Architectural Engineering School in the Université Franco-Chinoise in Lyon. Xi Fuquan studied in Dresden and Berlin; Shen Liyuan studied in Italy and in Britain; Chen Zhanxiang enrolled first at Liverpool University and then at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London; Wang Dahong trained at Cambridge; and the Architectural Association in London accepted Chen Xinshou, Luke Him Sau (Lu Qianshou) and Huang Zuoshen.

Luke Him Sau was from Hong Kong and attended the Architectural Association from 1927 to 1930. In 1929, he met Zuyi Pei, a senior official at the fledgling Bank of China (and father of future architect Ieoh Ming Pei), who was in London to open up the bank’s first overseas branch. Pei invited Luke to lead the Bank of China’s new Architectural Department. Luke accepted and embarked on a six-month tour of Europe and America to research bank architecture before settling in Shanghai, from where he designed offices, warehouses and residences for the Bank of China all over the country. Many of these buildings still remain, in cities as far afield as Shanghai (1939), Nanjing (1934), Qingdao (1934), Suzhou (1934, since demolished), Chongqing (1937) and Hong Kong (1950). However, the building with which he is most famously associated is the Bank of China’s ostentatious office headquarters on Shanghai’s Bund (1939; Key Buildings, fig. 96.6), carried out in conjunction with the ex-colonial practice of Palmer and Turner.

Figure 96.6.  Bank of China Headquarters, Shanghai (1939). Combining contemporary and traditional Chinese elements, the towering headquarters for China’s main bank was the first building on Shanghai’s quasi-colonial riverfront owned by a Chinese institution and displaying Chinese characteristics. A graduate from London’s Architectural Association, Luke Him Sau (Lu Qianshou) designed it in conjunction with Palmer and Turner.


For China’s young architects, opportunity was abundant in the 1920s and 1930s. Various nation-building projects were promoted by the new Nationalist Government and supported by business. The first public commission of Nationalist China was the competition in 1925 to design Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum overlooking Nanjing (Key Buildings, fig. 96.26). Lü Yanzhi, a graduate of New York’s Cornell University, won first place, and University of Pennsylvania graduate Fan Wenzhao came second. Both made many important contributions to Chinese architecture, although Lü’s death in 1927 cut short a promising career that started with the Shanghai Bankers’ Association Building (1924). In 1926, Fan Wenzhao won a second state-sponsored competition to design the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Auditorium and Monument in Guangzhou, which Lü also won. Fan established a practice that employed many returning graduates and was responsible for many buildings throughout China before the Second World War, including the Yafa Apartments (1936) and Majestic Theatre (1941) in Shanghai and the Zhong Hua Bookstore (1936; fig. 96.7) in Guangzhou.

Figure 96.7.  Zhong Hua Bookstore, Guangzhou (1936). Fan Wenzhao (aka Robert Fan) was among the first generation of Chinese professional architects. Having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 and returned to his native Shanghai thereafter, he became a prolific architect, designing buildings all over the country, including this Modernist bookstore in Guangzhou in South China.


The relocation of the capital to Nanjing in 1927 hastened the city’s modernization, something that had been mooted since the early 1920s. The National Capital Construction Committee was established in January 1928 and published the first draft plan for Nanjing, known as ‘The Great Plan of the Capital’ (see Capital Planning). Foreign advisers, including the American architect Henry Murphy, together with Lü, worked on a scheme that envisioned a Chinese version of Washington, DC.

Map 96.1. The Great Plan of the Capital, Nanjing, (1929). Foreign residents in China’s numerous Treaty Ports were disinterested in modern urban planning, but the Chinese keenly embraced it after the formation of the Nationalist Government in 1927, among the most important of which was plan for the new capital, Nanjing, prepared by Henry Murphy, Ernest Goodrich and Lü Yanzhi.



Map 96.2. The Capital Construction Plan, Hsinking (previously Changchun) (1932). Following the Japanese occupation in 1932 of China’s northeast territory formerly known as Manchuria, the Japanese established the puppet-state of Manchukuo and planned over 100 towns and cities. The largest was their chosen capital, Hsinking (previously Changchun), among the most ambitious urban plans of the early 20th century.



The most prominent buildings completed as part of the Nanjing Plan include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1934), by Allied Architects; the Supreme Court (1933), designed by Guo Yangmo; and the Central Agricultural Laboratory (1934; Key Buildings), by Su, Yang and Lei. In 1931, Kwan, Chu and Yang were commissioned to design there a national sports complex . The Nanjing Plan paralleled a similarly ambitious attempt to assert Chinese control over the country’s leading treaty port, Shanghai. In both projects, a prevailing sense of national self-confidence found architectural expression. In 1929, the Shanghai Government’s Bureau of Public Construction invited architects to submit plans for a new urban centre to the north of the foreign settlements. The winning design was used as the basis for the City Planning Commission, headed by Dr Shen Yi, with Dong Dayou as Chief Architect and Adviser, to complete the masterplan.

The Greater Shanghai Plan comprised new administrative and business districts, port and wharves, and railway terminuses. The Civic Centre, in the heart of the axial scheme, was a cruciform plan containing ten government buildings, a pagoda, spacious parks and gardens, and a modern system of roads. The Mayor’s Office designed by Dong Dayou was completed first, in 1934. The modern building in a Chinese style became the benchmark for the generic term of ‘Chinese Renaissance’ architecture, a term liberally applied to any building constructed with modern materials, topped with a tiled Chinese-style roof and decorated with Chinese motifs. Other buildings completed in 1935–36 included a new museum, public library, hospital, Sports Centre and the idiosyncratic offices of the China Aviation Association, designed in the shape of an aeroplane.

Map 96.3. Shanghai Civic Centre, by Dong Dayou (1929). Located to the north of the former International Settlement, the Civic Centre was part of a Greater Shanghai Plan designed by the Chinese architect Dong Dayou and implemented by the local municipality in anticipation of the day when foreign control of the Treaty Port would cease.



In August 1932, at the height of these nationalistically minded projects, China’s young architects formally established their first professional body: the Chinese Society of Architects. Its first incarnation, Shanghai Jian Zhu Shi Xue Hui (Shanghai Architects’ Society), had been formed in October 1927, but a change in the law in 1931 prohibited skilled workers, including architects, from establishing groups engaged in scholarly activities, hence the need for reformulation. Their published objectives were now ‘to unite the architects of China so that they will combine their effort to uphold the dignity and standing of the profession and to render support to the public authorities in their civic developments and improvements’.

In November 1932, China’s first domestic architectural journal, Jian Zhu Yue Kan (The Builder) was launched, the title, contents and scope of which reflected the Society’s international and cross-disciplinary outlook. The following July another journal, Zhong Guo Jian Zhu (The Chinese Architect), was launched focusing almost exclusively on Chinese architecture. Both journals, like the careers of those whose profession they represented, were to be cut short by conflict. Final editions were published in early 1937 as Japan prepared to invade China.

The Foreign Architect in China

Throughout the 1910s the trajectories of the foreign architect in China and of the Chinese-born architect were separate, but by the 1930s they had almost converged. The coalescing of the two, in so far as was possible in China’s complex quasi-colonial condition, was a key characteristic of the age.

The era started with some foreign architects and builders pursuing an approach that for different reasons and various motives sought to revive the traditional character of Chinese building. Christian missionaries had been the first to exercise this strategy, using architecture to encourage assimilation through the design of churches, schools and hospitals dressed in a Chinese style. In 1916–17, the Canadian architect, Harry Hussey, used the Qian Men Gate in Beijing’s city wall as the inspiration for his design for the Beijing Union Medical College, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The YMCA in China adopted a similar architectural approach, exemplified by the nine-storey Ba Xian Qiao YMCA (1930) in Shanghai by an American architect of Chinese descent, Poy Gum Lee, under the supervision of chief architect Arthur Adamson. The rather crude application of traditional Chinese eaves is reflected in Poy Gum Lee’s design for the National Quarantine Service (1934) in Shanghai, which combined a horizontal body in a Modernist style and a miniature tower topped with a Chinese roof.

The American architect Henry Murphy built his career out of the search for a modernized Chinese architectural style. His firm, Murphy and Dana, began working in China in 1911 with the Yale in China programme founded by that august US university. Murphy was so awed by Beijing’s early fifteenth-century Forbidden City (see Chapter 67) during his first visit in 1914 that he devoted himself to the pursuit of reviving and modifying China’s building traditions to meet the needs of contemporary scientific planning and construction – an architectural philosophy that he called ‘Adaptive Chinese Renaissance’.

Henry Murphy opened an office in Shanghai and designed many educational institutions throughout China, including the aforementioned Tsinghua Xuetang (1914) in Beijing; Yale in China (1914) in Changsha; Fujian Christian University (1918) in Fuzhou; Wayland Academy for Chinese Boys (1919) in Hangzhou; Jinling College for Girls (1921) in Nanjing; and Yenching (Yanjing) University (1926) in Beijing.

While some foreign architects in China were inspired by the past, such as Murphy, others looked firmly to the future. The horrors of the First World War and the revolutions that followed sent large numbers of disillusioned or exiled Europeans and Russians to China. The exodus transformed the social and physical fabric of many of the Treaty Ports, such as Tianjin, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Wuhan and, in particular, Shanghai. Britain’s hitherto dominance of the Chinese architectural community was irrevocably weakened by new arrivals, including the Slovak, László (also known as Ladislaus or Ladislav) Hudec (fig. 96.8); the French pair, Paul Veysseyre and Alexandre Léonard (fig. 96.9); the Austrian, Josef Alois Hammerschmidt; the Swiss, René Minutti; and the Hungarian, Charles Gonda.

Figure 96.8.  Grand Theatre, Shanghai (1933). No architect helped to transform Shanghai’s urban landscape more than the Hungarian-Slovak, László Hudec, who arrived in China’s largest Treaty Port after the First World War. Overlooking the former racecourse, this European-style Modernist theatre was among his most celebrated works and inspired a generation of Chinese Modernist artists.


Figure 96.9.  Ecole Rémi (Rémi School), Shanghai (1933). Léonard, Veysseyre and Kruz was the most prolific architectural practice working in Shanghai’s French Concession district, and became particularly renowned for their Modernist designs employed in a wide range of building types, from high-rise apartments to schools, such as the Ecole Rémi.


László Hudec had been in the Hungarian Army and was a prisoner of war in Siberia. Like the thousands of White Russians, he eventually made it to China. Veysseyre had been in the French Army and was seriously wounded twice. After the war he travelled to Poland, then on to Shanghai in 1921 and met Léonard in Shanghai’s French Volunteer Corps’ Armoured Car Company. Hammerschmidt had been in the Austrian Army and was captured in the Carpathian Mountains in 1914 and incarcerated for three years before being released. He travelled to China and in 1921 settled in Tianjin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, British influence on Chinese architecture remained strong. Palmer and Turner, for instance, the Neoclassical/Art Deco firm that practised both from Hong Kong and Shanghai, were brought in for an ambitious scheme by the leading Shanghai-based tycoon and property developer, Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon; the result was the Metropole Hotel and Hamilton House as the twin gateway elements for a new urban circus located just off the Bund, and completed in 1933. Bright Fraser, a British war veteran from Liverpool, and designer of Shanghai’s enormous Broadway Mansions (1935; Key Buildings, fig. 96.11), had been in the Artists’ Rifles and taken prisoner in France in 1917, prior to moving to China in 1923 and then becoming the chief architect for the Shanghai Land Investment Company.

Figure 96.10.  Metropole Hotel (1933) and Hamilton House (1932), Shanghai. The hotel and adjacent apartment block, both by Palmer and Turner, were commissioned by the trading house owned by Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon – Shanghai’s most celebrated celebrity. These twin fifteen-storey stepped towers formed half of a dramatic urban circus created just behind Shanghai’s famous riverfront, the Bund.


Figure 96.11.  Broadway Mansions, Shanghai (1934). The 22-storey apartment block overlooking the former Suzhou Creek was once Asia’s largest residential structure. Designed by Liverpool University graduate, Bright Fraser, in collaboration with Palmer and Turner, it displays a stepped profile on a curved plan that takes the form of the auspicious Chinese character for the number eight.


In 1924, China’s growing foreign architectural community launched the first professional publication, the China Architects and Builders Compendium. The first edition alluded to the community’s fragmented condition: ‘China is one of the few countries in the world where no attempt has been made to collect and classify in book form the mass of local information that should be at the elbow of every architect, builder and civil engineer.’ The publication was timely, as parts of China began to experience a construction boom from the early 1920s. Nowhere was this more architecturally explicit than in Shanghai. The number of building permits issued annually by the Municipal Council had risen from around 3,500 to above 8,900 from 1920 to 1925, and remained above 8,000 each year throughout 1930 and 1931.

Figure 96.12.  Cartoon by unknown artist in 1934 of Shanghai’s nightlife. As shown in this caricature, Shanghai’s intoxicating nightlife was a source of inspiration for Modernist writers, poets, artists and architects. The city’s urban environment hence served as an essential landscape in which modernity could be experienced in all its forms.


Shanghai was the epicentre of China’s encounter with modernity. Despite being the world’s fifth-largest city by the 1930s, it had no overarching government, no constitution, and no universal legal system or judiciary. The absence of such institutions was not only constitutionally peculiar, but it also had a significant impact socially and physically (fig. 96.12). The city’s separate territories fuelled rampant malcontent, culturally, politically and criminally. Insignificant financial regulations encouraged economic laxity. And the absence of immigration controls created one of the most cosmopolitan populations in the world. These conditions gave rise to very particular architectural outcomes.

The large Shanghai merchant villa had become impractical and financially burdensome by this period. Expensive to maintain, these once ubiquitous residential leviathans of yesteryear were sold and their expansive gardens subdivided. Shanghai became a dense, teeming metropolis carpeted by conventional and economical low-rise li long terraced houses, and also studded with a new architectural typology: the high-rise. Fewer foreign families settled in the city for life, and still fewer needed or could afford spacious residences. As land values rose and new technologies and methods of construction were introduced, foreign residents and wealthy Chinese favoured purpose-built high-rise apartments. They were the perfect solution – simply decorated, fully furnished, and equipped with modern conveniences. Comfortable, but not capacious.

Figure 96.13.  Commemorative cover celebrating the opening of the Joint Savings Society (JSS) Building (1934). The front cover of a booklet published to mark the arrival of the (JSS) Building depicts an ‘Oriental Skyscraper’ towering over Shanghai’s famous city-centre racecourse. The JSS occupied the first two floors and the rest was given over to the luxurious Park Hotel.


By this time Shanghai had more Chinese architects, professional practices, trade journals and professional societies than the rest of the country combined. Both the Chinese Society of Architects and the foreign Shanghai Society of Engineers and Architects were based in Shanghai. By the mid-1930s, their membership was equal. The only part of China that was architecturally more productive than Shanghai was Manchuria, Japan’s policy over which was to contribute decisively to the rapid deceleration of economic and architectural activity in China in the later 1930s. In 1932, the dual impact of the ‘Great Depression’ and Japan’s aerial bombardment of the Chinese areas of Shanghai left the construction industry, according to the China Architects and Builders Compendium of that year, ‘practically dead’. By 1935, the journal lamented: ‘The past year, so far as the building trade is concerned was one of the worst experienced for some considerable time’.

The Japanese Architect in Manchuria

The establishment of Manchukuo on 1 March 1932 not only opened up a new territory in China’s architectural landscape, but also crystallized Japan’s ambitions in Asia that would lead inexorably to domestic turmoil and global conflict. Before the full extent of that horror unfolded, Manchukuo bristled with opportunity. For Japanese architects and planners, the new state was viewed as a blank canvas onto which they could project a vision of a brighter future. In the words of the Japanese architect, Masami Makino, writing in the Journal of the Manchurian Architectural Association in October 1942, Manchukuo was ‘a new country with no cultural legacy needing to be preserved and a mixed race country requiring a new architectural style’.

Weary of the bureaucratic and economic obstacles at home and lured by a combination of willing clients, copious land and ample funding, Japan’s architects and planners travelled to Manchukuo to be able to realize their dreams. An army of construction workers, which doubled throughout the 1930s and included in its ranks over half a million Chinese migrants, was vital to Manchukuo’s rapid physical transformation (fig. 96.14).

Figure 96.14.  Ministry of Education and the Capital Construction Bureau, Hsinking (1934). Behind a forest of steel reinforcement bars that vividly convey the feverish construction activity in Hsinking during the mid-1930s appears the massive Tatung (Datong) Circle and, in the background, the Ministry of Education and the Capital Construction Bureau as designed by a Japanese architect, Kensuke Aiga.


Japanese state-funded organizations also committed huge resources to research into traditional Manchurian buildings and their responsiveness to local conditions and the continental climate, which were entirely different from back home. This considerable corpus of work, far removed from the scant interest paid by other foreign nations in China and larger than anything undertaken by the Chinese during the same period, was carried out under the auspices of architectural offices in state departments and professional bodies such as the Manchurian Architectural Association (Manshu Kenchiku Kyokai), which published its own journal from 1924 to 1944. Climate and geological studies informed architectural responses to the comparatively drier climate, extreme temperature variations and lack of earthquakes, while research into indigenous building traditions found expression in Manchukuo’s emerging national architectural style. ‘Manchurian architecture needed to be unique’, asserted Masami Makino in an October 1942 article in the Journal of the Manchurian Architectural Association. This reflected the views of another architect, Shinsaku Tsutsui, in a piece in the May 1938 Manchuria – Special Manchoukuo Economic Number: ‘Manchurian construction came to possess qualities and characteristics peculiar to the country [and a mode of building] that represented Manchuria finally emerged.’ Architectural modernity in Manchukuo thus arrived not from the West, but from the East, and at such speed that Japan’s version of ‘Ultra-Modernism’ was termed fast-ism.

Japan invested heavily in Manchukuo’s industrial and rural development, but architecture remained a largely metropolitan undertaking engaged in two main spheres of activity: state buildings (e.g. government offices, schools, hospitals, fire stations, railway buildings, industrial facilities and public housing) and private projects (e.g. department stores, shops, cinemas, hotels and private housing). Exhibitions and other media outlets were used to broadcast the new Japanese vision of modernity now being pursued in the colony (figs 96.15 and 96.16).

Figure 96.15.  Front cover of the Journal of the Manchurian Architectural Association from July 1933 featuring the Manchuria Expo. This front cover of a special edition of the journal shows the different, even bewildering, architectural designs for the various pavilions at the Manchuria Expo in Dalian organized by the Japanese colonists.


Figure 96.16.  JQAK Radio Station, Dalian (1936). The lack of precedents for Modernists building typologies often encouraged more innovative architectural designs. In the western suburbs of Dalian, the Japanese radio station, JQAK, commissioned this ‘ultra-modern’ headquarters from which they broadcast their programmes all over the newly established puppet-state of Manchukuo.


As part of this imperialist policy, town and city planning served as the fundamental precursors to Japan’s subsequent architectural endeavours, and, as such, were a priority for the government of the Kwantung Leased Territory and the South Manchuria Railway, which both administered urban planning. China had first encountered modern city planning when Russia aggressively occupied Dalian and Harbin in the late nineteenth century. It tended to be overlooked in other Treaty Ports, where metropolitan administrations tended to be self-interested and fragmented, yet town planning became an important feature of Manchuria’s urbanization under Japanese jurisdiction. The plans for Dalian and Harbin were hence the foundation for their transformation into modern cities before the Second World War. Although China finally embraced modern urban planning in Nanjing after 1927, the trend was to reach its apogee not in China’s new capital but in the ‘Ultra-Modern’ centre of Manchukuo, Hsinking (this being the Japanese name for Changchun between 1932–45) (see Capital Planning).

Forming the main north–south axis through Hsinking was Tatung (Datong) Boulevard, an urban stage on which the drama of this new city was carefully choreographed. Architecture played a leading role, fashioning major public departments, offices and commercial premises. The Kwantung Army Headquarters (1934) was housed in what the Far Eastern Review described in April 1940 as a ‘magnificent castle-like structure bearing the Imperial crest of the chrysanthemum’. The eight-storey Hozan Department Store (c. 1934) offered a rooftop garden from which customers could admire the rising modern city. Nearby were the Minakai Department Store and the Kotoku Kaikan, both also from around 1934, and the latter a large four-storey crenellated block with rounded corners and turret rising above the main entrance, evoking the battlements of an old city wall. Across the road stood the ‘Ultra-Modern’ Nikke Gallery (1938; fig. 96.17), an affiliated concern of the Nippon Woollen Textile Company and the self-styled ‘Oasis of the Capital City’. In the smaller streets behind these major outlets were two of Manchukuo’s most modern cinemas: the Asahiza (Morning Sun) and Feng Le (both 1936; architects unknown).

Figure 96.17.  Nikkei Gallery, Hsinking (c. 1936). Standing proudly on Hsinking’s central axis adjacent to the Kotoku Kaikan department store, the Nikkei Gallery’s roof terrace, ground-floor piloti, white façade and fenêtre en longueur were characteristics of a Modernist design that was as close as Manchuria’s eclectic modernism got to adhering to Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of Architecture’.


Interrupting the axis of Tatung (Datong) Boulevard was the annular, or ring-shaped, form of Tatung (Datong) Circle, a vast urban spectacle at the heart of the city plan. Six roads radiated from Tatung (Datong) Circle, between which were some of Hsinking’s most important buildings: the headquarters of the Telephone and Telegraph Company (1934) designed by Kensuke Aiga, the Police Headquarters (c. 1934; architect unknown), the Capital Construction Bureau (1934; architect unknown), Hsinking Special City Hall (c. 1934; architect unknown), and the headquarters of the Central Bank of Manchu (1938; architect unknown).

Directly west of Tatung (Datong) Circle, the town planners proposed a new Imperial Palace for the reinstated Emperor of Manchukuo, and former Qing Emperor, Pu Yi – ‘The Last Emperor’ – but this was never completed. Another major urban boulevard, Shuntian Highway, ran south of the palace compound and hosted many government offices. The ‘oriental’ roofs and decorative treatment contrasted with the pragmatic commercialism of Tatung (Datong) Boulevard. Among this group was the most important civic building in Manchukuo, the State Council (1936; Key Buildings, fig. 96.18), and governmental headquarters. At the other end of Shuntian Highway, where it joins the South Lake Complex, was the Manchukuo Mixed Court (1939), a monumental steel-framed structure clad in brick and topped with an ‘oriental’ roof.

Figure 96.18.  State Council, Hsinking (1936). The design by Tatsuro Ishii for the most important political building in Manchukuo, with its Teikan Yõshiki or ‘crown-topped’ style, was based on the controversial National Diet in Tokyo. Displaying both Japanese and Westernized architectural elements, the building reflected one approach to modernize Far Eastern building traditions.


In 1939, the South Lake Complex was the site of a new suburban district for wealthy Japanese residents and businesses commissioned by the state. Junzo Sakakura, an employee of Le Corbusier at the time, was invited to design the scheme. However, the project, like so many utopian visions, remained only on paper. Its fate symbolized the fate of Hsinking’s ultra-modernity more broadly. Japan’s dream of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere turned into a global nightmare. In 1937, when construction in Manchukuo peaked, Japan invaded China. Japan had invested heavily in Manchukuo and gambled on a favourable outcome. By the time that America joined the Second World War in 1941, five cities in Manchukuo – Dalian, Shenyang, Hsinking, Harbin and Mudanjiang – all had over 50,000 Japanese residents; and a second tier of cities – including Anshan, Fushun, Andong and Jilin – each had more than 20,000.

To some, Manchukuo was the illegitimate offspring of the non-consensual liaison between China and Japan – the bastard child of imperialism delivered into a dysfunctional and violent domestic environment doomed to fail. To others, it was a window on the future and one that provided valuable experience for some of the most celebrated Japanese modernist architects of the post-war era: Junzo Sakakura, Kenzo Tange, Kunio Maekawa and Arata Endo.

Communist China, 1949–89

The Second World War fundamentally and permanently altered China’s architectural landscape. Members of its diverse community were scattered by the conflict and only a fraction would return. During the war, treaty rights were rescinded by the foreign powers with settlements in China, removing, for many, the attraction of residency. And, as noted, victory over Japan in 1945 brought only temporary respite before the Communist and Nationalist parties embarked upon a bitter civil war.

Chinese architects, most of them having spent the war in and around the wartime capital of Chongqing, returned to cities along the east coast and resumed their posts in universities or private practice. Some notable buildings are a testament to this fleeting interval between conflicts, such as Yang Tingbao’s villa for Sun Yat Sen’s son, Sun Ke (1948) and the offices for the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company (1947; Key Buildings, fig. 96.19), both in Nanjing. In 1943, another Architectural Association graduate, Huang Zuoshen, established the Architectural Department at St John’s University, Shanghai, attracting a group of Modernists after the war, including the local architect Eric Cumine, Richard Paulick from the Bauhaus, and former Bank of China architect Luke Him Sau.

Figure 96.19.  China Merchants Steam Navigation Company offices, Nanjing (1947). Among the best examples of architectural progress in China in the brief period between the end of the Second World War and the Communist victory in 1949 was the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, designed by the talented Yang Tingbao, which successfully and innovatively combines Chinese and Modernist design principles.


None of these endeavours, however, had time to flourish. In 1949, the Communist victory and the Nationalist exile to Taiwan diminished China’s architectural community. Japanese architects had been expelled from Manchuria in 1945. Foreign architects had left the former Treaty Ports during the war and few returned afterwards. Those that did return had to leave again. Joining the exodus were Chinese architects who were distrustful of Maoist Communism and fled to Taiwan or Hong Kong, or further afield. Only those sympathetic to Communism remained. From 1949, China’s architectural community, greatly reduced in size and experience, entered a new and uncertain era.

Under Maoist Communism, the architectural profession was completely reorganized, structurally, theoretically, and professionally. For the first few years more pressing concerns occupied China’s new rulers, not least the Korean War of the early 1950s, which brought economic recession and American sanctions. Liang Sicheng and his wife Lin Huiyin courted power with their successful designs for the new National Emblem in 1950 and then their Monument to the People’s Heroes (1952) in Tiananmen Square. In 1950, Liang was also invited to submit a new Beijing Plan, which he undertook with Liverpool University and University College London graduate, Chen Zhanxiang (see Capital Planning). The Nationalist Government’s invitation had come to Chen in 1946, while he was studying urban planning in London under Sir Patrick Abercrombie (co-author of the Greater London Plan, 1944). The prospect thrilled Abercrombie, knowing that Chen’s assignment would make a perfect doctoral thesis. However, Chen was retained for three years in Nanjing simply as the Chief Engineer in the Department of Construction. In 1949, ‘out of despair’, he wrote to Liang, who by then was in charge of Beijing’s new city plan, to explain his desire to work in the reinstated capital. By October, Chen’s family moved to Beijing where he spent what he would later describe (in a 1980s document in the Fairbank family archive) as ‘the most memorable time in [his] life working together with Liang’.

Throughout the 1950s Cold War, the pernicious impact of politics on architectural affairs intensified. In 1952, amid the fallout out from the Korean War with America, and generally pervasive anti-Western sentiment, China turned to the USSR for salvation. The profession was overhauled. Private practices were dissolved into state enterprises and China’s university architectural departments were reorganized into eight schools. The adopted language of modernism was replaced by the imported Soviet Socialist Realist vernacular, unfamiliar to Chinese architects, politically loaded and culturally inapt. Internal planning advocated communal over private space. Inexpensive materials and new theories of standardization and modularization tested China’s builders, who were inexperienced in using Soviet methods. Nationwide policies and regulations resulted in architecture and planning that was incompatible with regional variations in geography, climate and culture.

While architectural theory was imposed at a national level, production was still negotiated at a regional or urban level. Chinese architecture in the 1950s was functional and utilitarian. Workers’ housing, hospitals and schools, offices and halls were all built quickly and cheaply. In the former Treaty Ports and other major cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Nanjing, buildings were nationalized and adapted to government requirements. Cities in unoccupied areas during the war, such as Chongqing and Kunming, benefited from the financial and human resources left behind, so continued to build and on a larger scale. Cities in former Manchukuo, China’s mineral-rich northeast region, now became the nation’s industrial heartland.

In 1953, China launched its first Five Year Plan focusing on industrialization. With Soviet Socialist Realism suffusing an age of collectivism, nationalism and anti-imperialism, China’s architects resumed experimentation with traditional motifs and symbols. The Chinese roof, a cause that was closely associated with Liang due to his prolific historical research and sympathy for preservation, enjoyed a brief revival. The national style advocated Chinese principles of the ‘Three Section’ design – platform, wall and decorative eaves – similar to those underpinning Western Neoclassicism. Examples from Beijing include the Ministry of Housing and Rural-Urban Development (1955), student dormitories in the Beijing Technical Institute (1950s) and Tsinghua University (1950s), and the Friendship Hostel (1954, by Zhang Bo). However, by the end of the decade, the political tide had turned. Architectural decoration was deemed decadent and wasteful, and was outlawed.

The consequences for architects were severe. Public humiliation and professional condemnation accompanied the various ‘Anti-’ campaigns. In 1955, Liang Sicheng was admitted to hospital for exhaustion and his wife, Lin, died of tuberculosis. In 1958, coinciding with the launch of Chairman Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958–60) – another push towards industrialization – ten architectural projects were commissioned and built in a matter of months to mark the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (see ‘Ten Great Buildings’).

Figure 96.20.  Beijing Railway Station (1959). Designed as one of ten landmark structures built to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the main Railway Station in Beijing displays a Soviet-inspired interpretation, in the mode of Socialist Realism, of how to incorporate traditional Chinese features into modern buildings.


In 1960, all Soviet advisers were withdrawn from China following the collapse of Sino-Soviet relations. However, their legacy remained for years, despite concerted efforts throughout the 1960s to expunge all association with this former ally. Amid worsening political conditions and the search for a new Chinese form of socialist architecture, the profession was suffocated by political dogmatism and symbolism under Mao’s control. Architecture, along with virtually all forms of independent expression, ceased during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For a decade, universities were closed and architects in academia and practice were subject to personal denouncements and public humiliation. The design of Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, following his death in 1976, was the last of its kind – the final large-scale, group-designed, politically driven architectural project before a new age began.

As China reached its nadir in the late 1960s, Hong Kong flourished. Around 1949, it gained from an exodus of Chinese professionals, including nearly sixty Chinese architects who were averse to the new Communist rulers. Collectively, this group of émigré architects transformed the colony’s architectural fraternity from a professional community dominated by Western practitioners to one in which Chinese architects became the majority almost overnight. Many of these émigré architects found themselves at the vanguard of the colony’s resurgence.

Fan Wenzhao, the aforementioned first Chinese architectural graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, left China in 1949 to set up a private practice in Hong Kong with his two sons. Luke Him Sau, who as noted was a graduate of London’s Architectural Association and chief architect of the Bank of China, was tempted by Liang to give Communist China a try, but then in 1950 opted to leave for his native Hong Kong, where he revived his career and helped Palmer and Turner in designing the Bank of China’s Hong Kong branch , which some three decades later was to have a shiny new neighbour in the form of Norman Foster’s HSBC Headquarters (Key Buildings, fig. 96.29). Fellow graduate from the Architectural Association, Eric Cumine arrived in Hong Kong after the Second World War, where he worked at the forefront of public housing design and planning in the Hong Kong Housing Authority, producing hundreds of thousands of public housing units for Hong Kong’s burgeoning population. One of the largest of these schemes, So Uk (fig. 96.21) in Kowloon – designed in 1957 in partnership with Chau and Lee, Wai Szeto, Leigh and Orange, and Luke Him Sau – provided 5,302 apartments for 33,000 people on 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres). Zhu Bin – as also noted, the first Chinese architectural student to have enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and partner of Kwan, Chu and Yang – re-established the old firm and ran their Hong Kong office. His other partner, Guan Songsheng, who had graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist Government and ran the firm’s Taipei office. Guan was among a group of émigré architects who arrived in this former Japanese colony around 1949 and kept alive some of the architectural methods that had emerged in China before the war, in particular the search for a national style.

Figure 96.21.  So Uk, Hong Kong (1962). Hong Kong experienced an acute housing shortage during the 1950s and 1960s. The municipal response was one of the most ambitious public housing programmes yet seen, including So Uk, a massive housing scheme in Kowloon designed by Eric Cumine and others to accommodate 33,000 people in 5,302 apartments.


Open Door: 1978–present

In 1978, after years of diplomatic isolation and economic turmoil, the Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, sought to resolve China’s woes by opening the country up to foreign trade and international relations. The subsequent reforms have not only transformed China; but also changed the world. For architecture, the last three decades have been as turbulent, varied and stimulating as the three decades before the Second World War. As then, the old is being rapidly replaced by the new. China’s vigorous architectural community once again comprises local and international practitioners, and elements of both have resumed attempts to reconcile tradition and modernity. However, the past and the present cease to correspond over the point of scale. Recent developments in China represent the largest sustained period of construction in human history.

The first signs of China’s architectural resurgence could be seen in a series of high-profile commissions in the early 1980s. Reinforced-concrete towers, often with glass curtain walls, started to appear in response to the shortage of international standard amenities for foreign visitors: the Great Wall Hotel (1983, Beijing) by Beckett Associates, the Jian Guo Hotel (1982, Beijing) by Clement Chan and Associates (the first joint Sino-American architectural project since the Open Door Policy), the White Swan Hotel (1983, Guangzhou) by She Junnan and Mo Bozhi, and the Jin Ling Hotel (1983) in Nanjing. Adopting a different idiom, I.M. Pei’s design for the Fragrant Hill Hotel outside Beijing (1982; Key Buildings) drew inspiration from the Chinese vernacular. Pei had spent his childhood in Shanghai before emigrating to the United States of America. In 1983, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize as he was designing the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong , a business with which his family had close associations. In 2002, he returned to his ancestral home of Suzhou to start the construction works for his extension to the city’s celebrated traditional art museum (fig. 96.22).

Figure 96.22.  Suzhou Museum, Suzhou (2006). Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning American-Chinese architect, Ieoh Ming Pei, the Suzhou Museum’s whitewashed walls, grey frame and roof tiles, strong geometry, and ponds and courtyards, display an alternative and innovative approach to contemporary architectural design in China that is rooted in its cultural and geographical context.


A tidal wave of office, residential and commercial developments swiftly followed these pioneering projects, exploiting the technological experience and expertise they introduced. By the 1990s a legion of international architects were working for well-financed public institutions, such as John Portman for the Shanghai Centre (1995). Since then, a generation of high-profile international architects have reaped the rewards of China’s development: Richard Rogers with the Pudong Masterplan (unrealized, 1993); Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) with the Jin Mao Tower (Shanghai, 1998; fig. 96.23); Jean-Marie Charpentier with the Grand Theatre (Shanghai, 1998); Rem Koolhaas with the CCTV Headquarters (Beijing, 2004–12; fig. 96.24); Paul Andreu with Shanghai International Airport (1999) and National Centre for the Performing Arts (Beijing, 2007; Key Buildings); Herzog and de Meuron with the National Stadium (Beijing, 2007; Key Buildings, fig. 96.30); and Zaha Hadid with the Guangzhou Opera House (2010). Emblematic also is Norman Foster’s elegant blade-like High Tech design for Beijing Airport , completed in 2008 for the Beijing Olympic Games.

Figure 96.23.  Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai (1998). SOM’s gleaming 88-storey tower was the centrepiece of the masterplan for Pudong, on Shanghai’s eastern riverbank, preceding most of the high-rises that have sprouted from this former industrial landscape to create one of the world’s most dramatic urban skylines. The distinctive tapering design echoes the city’s Art Deco heyday.


Figure 96.24.  China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, Beijing (2012). The twin legs of CCTV Headquarters are shown just before being joined to create the distinctive and highly original and sculptural three-dimensional form that has become a feature of Beijing’s skyline. The architect was Rem Koolhaas (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) and the engineer Cecil Balmond of Arup’s Advanced Geometry Unit.


However, behind the architectural headlines made by these ‘starchitects’, a more responsible and responsive approach to architecture in China was underway. Much like their predecessors in the 1920s, a new generation of Chinese architects emerged from the long shadows cast by their foreign colleagues. Senior figures who had been among the first to graduate after the closure of universities up to the mid-1970s include Zhang Jinqiu, Zhu Jialu and Xing Tonghe, whose design for the Shanghai Museum (1996) abandons the modern convention pursued by colleagues of adopting the Chinese roof to impart local architectural meaning.

In the early 1990s, state regulations were relaxed, permitting China’s architectural practices to embrace the marketplace for their services. A wave of smaller practices started operating independently of the large state organizations that had dominated the profession since the early 1950s. As had occurred before the Second World War, many of those that benefited from the favourable conditions had some overseas training. Ma Yansong of MAD architects attended Yale University. Li Xiaodong was educated in Holland. Zhang Yonghe of FCJZ was trained in America. And Ma Qingyun, now head of MADA s.p.a.m., resumed that long tradition of Chinese architectural students attending the University of Pennsylvania. Joining this group when they returned to China were a number of prominent domestically trained architects, including Cui Kai of Tianjin University, Liu Jiakun of JiaKun Architects who trained in Chongqing, and Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio, who trained in Nanjing Southeast University.

In the twenty-first century, this fortunate generation has been joined by a surfeit of foreign and locally trained professionals, the best among which have made real progress in exploring new possibilities for Chinese architecture, committing more time and energy to contemporary problems than many of their Western counterparts. Progress has been made, too, in continuing to cultivate an architectural language in China that possesses the exceptionally long building traditions of the Chinese civilization, while responding to the growing social and environmental concerns that rapid modernization is causing, as a search for a subtle ‘Chinese-ness’. This change in approach can be seen already in projects that are also now reusing China’s existing built heritage, such as in Shanghai by the firms of Neri and Hu or Atelier Deshaus: the latter’s Long Museum (2014), designed around the disused cranes and coal hoppers of a derelict riverside wharf depot in the West Bund area of the city, is an acclaimed example.

Figure 96.25.  Ningbo Museum, Ningbo (2008). Designed by Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu as a mountain symbolizing the region’s landscape, the sculptural reinforced-concrete form is partially covered in recycled bricks and tiles salvaged from nearby demolished buildings to reflect the local building technique of wa pan and to make a statement about China’s rapid urbanization.


In 2012, Wang Shu, who is also Dean of the School of Architecture at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize, given annually by that organization in the USA. The accolade was because of a number of innovative projects that Wang Shu has designed over the years – in partnership with Lu Wenyu, also co-founder of Amateur Architecture Studio –not least the Ningbo Museum (2008; fig. 96.25) and the Wa Shan Guesthouse (2013; Key Building, fig. 96.31) in Hangzhou. It was also the first time that the Pritzker Prize had been awarded to an architect from mainland China. This piece of international recognition was received on the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China, when China’s first architects began returning from overseas. A hundred years later, the work of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu demonstrates just how far architecture in China has progressed in that time. Firmly based in the literati tradition, yet resolutely modern, the approach of Amateur Architecture Studio encapsulates many of the experiences and contradictions that Chinese architects have confronted over the course of an unprecedented and eventful century, and which have come to define architecture in China.

Key Buildings

Peace Hotel (formerly Sassoon House), Shanghai (1929)

Most famously known as Sassoon House, the Peace Hotel’s former name honoured its original and illustrious owner, Ellice Victor Sassoon. In Shanghai’s giddy inter-war heyday Sassoon House contained the most lavish hotel in Asia, the Cathay, where opium-smoking guests could soak in marble baths filled with spring water flowing from solid silver taps. Sassoon came from a Jewish trading family with roots in eighteenth-century Baghdad. His grandfather, David, established the family business in Shanghai in 1844, just months after the British invasion; and by the time Victor took the reins in 1924, the Sassoons were one of the most affluent and powerful families in Asia.

Standing confidently at the junction of Shanghai’s premier shopping street, Nanjing Road, and the riverfront, Sassoon’s eponymous building occupied the most expensive piece of real estate in China. Sassoon commissioned the British architect and head of Palmer and Turner’s Shanghai branch, George Wilson, to design what he intended to be China’s tallest and most sophisticated office building. During construction Sassoon changed the building’s primary function to a hotel, so the plans were altered and the Cathay Hotel was conceived. The suites were designed in various styles, including Jacobean, Georgian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, modern French, and Ultra-Modern. One suite was named ‘The Coward Suite’ after Noël Coward, who, indisposed with flu, had spent four days there in 1930 writing his play Private Lives. The top floor, beneath the distinctive green pyramid roof, was Sassoon’s private apartment. Sassoon House marks a crossroads in Shanghai’s architectural history. Standing in a line of staid Neoclassical financial institutions, the building broke rank and embraced modernity. Its tall, narrow windows, vertical detailing, and combination of modern and oriental motifs in low relief conveyed a refined progressiveness that contrasted with the squat Neoclassical granite neighbours. Shanghai embraced the high-rise and never looked back.

Following decades of relative neglect and a complete renovation in the early twenty-first century, the hotel possesses few of its original fixtures and fittings, though occasional surviving details hint at the glamour that once saturated this extraordinary establishment.

Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum, Nanjing (1929)

Described in the contemporary press as being ‘Modern Chinese’, Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum marks an important milestone for Chinese architects’ pursuit of modern architecture. A competition to design the building was held in 1925 and won by a Cornell University graduate, Lü Yanzhi, who consequently became the first Chinese architect to realize a building that sought to address the issue of placing traditional Chinese architecture comfortably in modern times. As described in an article on the building in the March 1929 issue of the Far Eastern Review, his aim was to reflect in ‘spirit’ (rather than a ‘slavish’ adherence) the form and layout of a traditional Chinese temple, while ensuring the whole would stand out ‘distinctively as a creative effort in monumental construction of modern times’.

Completed in 1929, the mausoleum was situated on Purple Hill overlooking Nanjing and approached by a monumental 400-metre-long (1,300-foot) stone stairway. Although the building possessed obvious Chinese characteristics, particularly in the appearance of the roof, its reinforced concrete frame in-filled with brick and stone was claimed by a journalist for the Far Eastern Review in 1929 to be a method that, although modern, was ‘purely Chinese in idea … very much similar to Chinese system of posts and beams’.

The mausoleum has been well maintained and the landscaping fully grown up around the monumental stairway to create a verdant setting for the building.

Figure 96.26.  Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum, Nanjing (1925). The death of the Republic of China’s founder, Sun Yat Sen, in 1925 prompted a design competition for his mausoleum overlooking Nanjing. The winner was a Cornell University graduate, Lü Yanzhi, whose combination of Chinese elements and modern materials was described by the media as the first ‘Modern Chinese’ building.


National Sports Centre, Nanjing (commissioned 1931)

A year after Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi) announced a national sporting event in 1930, the prolific architectural practice of Kwan, Chu and Yang were commissioned to design a lavish sports stadium for 60,000 spectators and additional facilities for swimming, baseball, basketball, football, horseracing and martial arts in the grounds of the Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum (1929; Key Buildings, fig. 96.22). However, a weak economy caused the event to be cancelled and the construction budget reduced.

Architecturally, sports facilities had no precedent in China, yet they had to satisfy the capital’s building regulations, which stipulated that public buildings must display traditional characteristics. They also had to be in keeping with the dignified surroundings of the mausoleum. The buildings, constructed in reinforced concrete, were durable, cheap and practical, but afforded Chinese motifs for the decoration of certain details such as doorways, window frames and entablatures. Some structures, such as the swimming pool, were more overtly traditional and designed in what the architects described in the Chinese Architect, in September 1933, as ‘a palace style [and] decorated with traditional elements inside and out’.

The complex has retained its function, with most of the facilities still in use and in good condition or, like the swimming pool with its glass roof, upgraded.

Central Agricultural Laboratory, Nanjing (1934)

Among the many buildings commissioned by the Nationalist Government in Nanjing during the 1930s was the Central Agricultural Laboratory, one of the first commissions for the architectural firm of Su, Yang and Lei. Designed in a Chinese idiom, the horizontal character of the structure with its interconnecting planar elements beneath low-pitched roofs evokes the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (see Chapters 89 and 102). One of the architects, Xu Jinzhi (or Gin-djih Su), was a graduate of Michigan University and later studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he had been the apprentice to Eliel Saarinen on the Kingswood School, Cranbrook (1927). Xu returned to China in 1932 and worked in Fan Wenzhao’s office before establishing Su, Yang and Lei in 1933. A year later the firm designed a new Fish Market in Shanghai, and in 1935 Xu won first prize in the design competition for the National Central Museum in Nanjing.

Broadway Mansions, Shanghai (1935)

In 1932, one of Shanghai’s large property developers, the Shanghai Land Investment Company, commissioned the British architect and Liverpool University graduate, Bright Fraser, together with the practice of Palmer and Turner, to design Broadway Mansions. The 22-storey building stood on the northern banks of Suzhou Creek facing the Bund, bookending the row of squat Neoclassical buildings facing the city’s famous riverfront. The bold geometry and distinctive brick exterior evoke the Scandinavian architecture of the time, while the building’s crescent-shaped floor plan echoed the Chinese character for the auspicious number eight. When completed, in 1935, the owners claimed that Broadway Mansions was one of the largest apartment buildings in Asia. It was a claim that had to be shared, however, with other high-rise apartments built in Shanghai during the early 1930s, including the equally tall and also convex and brick-clad Grosvenor House (1934), designed by Canadian architect Albert Edmund Algar, also in partnership with Palmer and Turner.

Broadway Mansions has had an undoubtedly colourful history, being rebranded as the Anti-Imperialism Building during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and now converted into a luxury hotel retaining its original name.

Joint Savings Society Building (Park Hotel), Shanghai (1934)

The Joint Savings Society Building (figs 96.13 and 96.27), which also housed the Park Hotel, was the tallest building in China until the 1980s. The soaring modern Art-Deco-meets-Neo-Gothic structure represents the zenith not only of architectural achievement in Shanghai before the Second World War but also of the career of its architect, László Hudec. Born in Hungary in 1893, Hudec arrived in Shanghai in 1918 and enjoyed a long and prolific career, designing some of the city’s most celebrated modernist buildings, including the Grand Theatre (1933; fig. 96.10), Union Brewery (1936), Hubertus Court (1937), and Dr Wu’s villa (1938).

Hudec’s treatment of the exterior and choice of materials accentuate the Park Hotel’s height: the tower’s tapering outline, slender windows, and vertical lines of brick that ascend from the base to the buttressing at the building’s peak. In contrast, the appearance of the first three floors is arranged horizontally, with ribbon windows separated by bands of heavy black granite that skirt the building.

Shanghai’s building regulations stipulated that the maximum height of a building must not exceed one and a half times the width of the street onto which it fronted. By facing onto the large open expanse of the former colonial racecourse, the Park Hotel evaded this regulation. The 21-storey building was constructed with a 92-metre (300-foot) high-tensile steel frame that was prevented from sinking into Shanghai’s infamously infirm soil by standing on a 7.3-metre-deep (24-foot) reinforced-concrete raft supported on 400 wooden piles, each of them 46 metres (150 feet) long.

Figure 96.27.  Joint Savings Society Building, Shanghai (1934). Overlooking Shanghai’s once famous racecourse and completed in the 1934, the Joint Savings Society Building, containing the Park Hotel, was the tallest building in China for half a century. The design by the Hungarian-Slovak architect, László Hudec, was inspired by Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building in New York.


Beijing University’s Women’s Dormitory, Beijing (1935)

This three- to four-storey asymmetrical structure is one of the few buildings by the architectural couple, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin (see Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin). The simple and economical building, finished in bare brick, is Modernist in its outward appearance, with the bands of fenestration accentuated by concrete strips surrounding the windows in pairs or quadruplets. Interrupting this horizontal rhythm is a large round-arched entrance that penetrates the building and provides access to the large open courtyard behind, surrounded on three sides by dormitory blocks, and a conspicuous tower containing a staircase giving access to the three upper floors. Internally, the building is divided into eight separate portions, each served by a single staircase. Individual rooms are arranged on either side of a central corridor. The much-altered structure is now public housing. Nearby is the university’s Geological Department, also designed by Liang and Lin and completed in 1934.

State Council, Changchun (formerly Hsinking), 1936

Inspired by Tokyo’s National Diet Building (1918–36), the design for the State Council of Manchukuo flaunted the Teikan Yōshiki or ‘crown-topped’ style that was popular with Japanese imperialists. As the most important political buildings in their respective states, the two structures conveyed authority through symmetry, monumentality, and overt symbolism. In its Manchurian setting, the Hsinking State Council – whose architect was Tatsuro Ishii – is both more Neoclassical, in the Western sense, and also borrows more explicitly from Asian iconography in its roof design and stone detailing. Within the context of Japan’s attempts to create an Ultra-Modern capital for the new puppet-state of Manchukuo, the use of a Japanese-style roof was a common feature of new governmental buildings, seen by one Far Eastern Review journalist in April 1940 as representing ‘the refreshing beauty, symbolic of the rising metropolis in this modern setting’.

Like virtually all Japanese-era government buildings in Changchun, the State Council still stands and remains in good condition.

Railway Station, Dalian (1937)

The railways created Manchuria. The new ‘Ultra-Modern’ railway station in the port of Dalian – the gateway to Manchukuo – was therefore one of the most important buildings in Japan’s new imperial realm in the Chinese mainland. Designed by Sontarou Inoue and built by Takaoka Building Contractors for the South Manchuria Railway (SMR), it was one of the largest buildings erected by the Japanese colonists in Dalian. Construction started in 1935 and was finished in 1937, by which time the station was ‘probably the costliest building in Dalian’s history’. The three-storey building located near the city centre was elevated above a large plaza with ramps on opposite sides that delivered vehicles to the station’s entrance on the first floor.

A colonnade of reinforced-concrete pillars support the road, the lines continuing onto the first floor to support the concrete canopy in front of the station’s concourse. The upper two floors of the building have been treated with simplicity. The unadorned surface is broken only by a series of vertical windows, divided in pairs by plain pilasters in a modern style, and diminutive decorative motifs in a Manchurian theme. The Far Eastern Review reported in July 1936 that it was ‘the largest and most stately station along [the SMR] – a building worthy of Dairen [sic], the gateway to Manchuria’. So ambitious was the original design that the building still amply serves the city of Dalian, despite a population now that is over three million.

Figure 96.28.  Dalian Railway Station, Dalian (1937). The huge ‘ultra-modern’ railway station in Dalian by Sontarou Inoue served as the gateway to Japanese-occupied Manchuria and was the coastal terminus of the Bullet Train prototype, the Asia Express, which travelled at speeds of over 140 kilometres (87 miles) per hour.


Bank of China, Shanghai (1939)

The Bank of China’s former Head Office was the first Chinese skyscraper and a potent symbol of the changing political landscape. It was the last building constructed on Shanghai’s Bund before the twenty-first century and the only Chinese building amongst the list of Neoclassical offices that the writer Harold Acton described in his 1948 book, Memoirs of an Aesthete, as ‘a long line of pompous toadstools sprung up from the mud, raised by anonymous banks, trusts and commercial firms’.

Given the scale of the proposed project, the Bank of China enlisted Palmer and Turner to work with their own in-house chief architect, Luke Him Sau. The initial proposal was a modern and monumental twin tower structure, with clean lines of stone rising from a rusticated base and receding in stages towards the apex of each tower.

The final design was more modest and more Chinese in appearance, but still the largest bank building in the Far East. The foundation stone was laid on 10 October 1936 and within three months the tower’s 2,400-ton steel frame had been assembled. It took a further two years to complete the 70,000-ton structure. The symmetrical design is an amalgam of Chinese features and a corporate Neoclassicism whose stripped ornamentation defers to the impending advance of Modernism. The structure conforms to the classic US skyscraper model, with its three distinct portions: base, middle and top. The top is crowned by the Chinese roof that sits on a row of decorative Chinese brackets in granite. Unlike its quasi-colonial Neoclassical neighbours, whose owners have long since deserted them – expelled by an unwilling host – the Bank of China has remained the owner and occupant of this building to this day.

China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, Nanjing (1947)

Behind its unadorned walls of glass and concrete, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company is inspired as much by traditional Chinese building as it is by Modernism. Unlike other ‘Chinese Renaissance’ buildings, with all their emotive surface decoration and Chinese roofs, Yang Tingbao’s design only draws upon Chinese forms in abstraction. The façade is broad, symmetrical and tapers to its peak, echoing a conventional hipped roofline. Concrete columns form a regular frame that defines the bays by protruding from the semi-solid, semi-transparent, screen walls. The continuous balconies create deep eaves around the building, which climax at their corners where the protruding rounded ends evoke upturned eaves. The square plan formed by a grid of thirty-six rounded columns creates twenty-five equal portions in a manner identical to the basic unit created by the time-honoured wooden frame of traditional Chinese buildings, the jian. This modest but significant building was badly neglected until, in the 2010s, it underwent a complete redevelopment, losing much of its authenticity as a result.

Children’s Hospital, Beijing (1952)

Hua Lanhong, the architect responsible for Beijing’s Children’s Hospital, was born in Beijing in 1912 to a Polish mother and Chinese father. His upbringing was therefore anything but conventional, foreshadowing China’s multicultural encounter with architecture before the Second World War. Under very different circumstances in the early 1950s, before Maoist Communism transformed the profession, Hua designed a new 600-bed Children’s Hospital with also an outpatient clinic for 1,000 patients. Hua’s design adopted the established Modernist vernacular and was highly praised by visiting architects from Eastern Europe, including his mother’s native Poland. However, amid China’s chaotic political conditions, it was a professional approach that cost him dearly. Any association with Western practices, including Modernism, came to be seen as decadent and imperialist. Despite his significant contribution to architecture, Hua Lanhong suffered appallingly for his professional convictions. Hua’s hospital still stands, though heavily altered, as a testament to this critical juncture in Chinese architectural history.

Peace Hotel, Beijing (1953)

The Peace Hotel was Beijing’s first since the city’s restoration as the nation’s capital by the newly victorious Communist government in 1949, and one of the last major projects attributed to a single architect in Maoist China. Designed by Yang Tingbao, former partner of Kwan, Chu and Yang, the nine-storey hotel occupied a small plot containing two mature elm trees and a diminutive building that were to be retained. Construction was hurried and interrupted by an international conference in 1953. The simple and refined design exemplifies Yang’s ability to work in a Modernist idiom in a Chinese context.

The building’s elevation was divided into three components. The taller ground floor was punctured by two large openings; one led up a set of stairs to the main entrance, and the other formed a tunnel through the building, giving vehicular access to the rear car park. The main body of the building comprised six floors of bedrooms articulated through the repetitive fenestration of almost square windows aligned in eighteen evenly spaced columns. The top floor formed an almost continuous band of windows supported by pairs of thin concrete columns evenly spaced between pairs of windows supporting a slender flat concrete roof. The hotel is still open, although heavily adapted.

Fragrant Hill Hotel, Beijing (1982)

One of the first joint ventures between foreign and domestic architects following Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Open Door’ policy was the Fragrant Hill Hotel outside Beijing, designed by the Chinese-American architect, Ieoh Ming Pei. For the first time since the 1940s, foreign architects could work in China. The building, situated in the grounds of a former imperial garden, generated heated debates among China’s architectural community. The white rendered walls and grey brick and tiles reflected the southern Chinese vernacular of Pei’s ancestral home of Suzhou.

The project comprised a complex of two- and four-storey buildings set on a hill and forming a series of courtyards with landscaped gardens and water features. For some, Fragrant Hill represented an architectural future full of opportunity, while for others it perpetuated a persistent failure to reconcile tradition and modernity. In 1985, when Pei was designing the new Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, he received an Honorary Professorship from Shanghai’s Tongji University. In response to Pei’s growing reputation, Chen Zhi, former partner of Allied Architects, lamented to his friend, the Sinologist Wilma Fairbank, in a letter in October 1985:

‘Fragrant Hill has spoiled the scenic spot (the hotel simply sprawls over the hill). The high-rise he designed for the Bank of China in Hongkong does not bear the slightest trace of Chinese architectural characteristic which the Bank of China building rightfully demands. I say all this not to underrate him. He is universally recognized as one of the most eminent architects of today and is the pride of America and China alike. But prominent people are not immune from faults.’

After four decades of dormancy, Pei had unwittingly reignited professional architectural criticism within China.

The building is still in good condition and fulfilling its original function as a hotel.

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Hsbc) Headquarters, Hong Kong (1986)

Since their inception as modern cities in the mid-nineteenth century, China’s two great trading ports, Hong Kong and Shanghai, have had mixed fortunes. The price of success for one has invariably been at the expense of the other. Back in the 1920s, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) commissioned Hong Kong-based architects, Palmer and Turner, to design their opulent Shanghai branch. A decade later, HSBC commissioned the same firm to design their headquarters in Hong Kong. The posturing thirteen-storey tower in a stripped Neoclassical style was a response to the city’s Victoria Peak. The building’s frame used 2,400 tons of steel shipped from Britain and carried the granite fascia quarried in Kowloon. The public areas were sumptuously finished in Italian and British marble and Venetian mosaics.

By the 1970s, HSBC had outgrown its sumptuous home, and the British firm Foster and Partners were commissioned to create ‘the best bank building in the world’. The innovative structure, formed of three individual towers (twenty-nine storeys, forty-four storeys and thirty-six storeys) supporting over 90,000 square metres (a million square feet) of floor space, was an exemplar of the British High Tech movement. Using the latest technologies of construction and prefabrication, the structure was suspended from a pair of masts at either end of the building, creating large open-plan floor decks built simultaneously from the top and bottom with service cores towards the building’s perimeter. The novel construction also permitted the building’s signature ten-storey atrium suspended above the public plaza at street level, which was famously exploited and colonized by the Occupy Movement in 2012, as part of the protests about interventionist political influence over Hong Kong from the Chinese government in Beijing.

Figure 96.29.  Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) headquarters, Hong Kong (1985). The cavernous atrium of this 44-storey High Tech building for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was a product of the innovative modular design (Norman Foster) and engineering (Arup) that reduced the internal load-bearing structure and created highly flexible open-plan working spaces.


Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai (1998)

Within months of Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Shanghai in 1990, during which he famously removed the red tape restricting Shanghai’s growth, Pudong was levelled and the massive superstructures of nascent skyscrapers began sprouting from the alluvial soil on which Shanghai barely floats. In the 1910s, a local engineer, Sidney Powell, claimed: ‘Shanghai can only stand six floors, London sixty floors, New York and Hong Kong any number.’ How wrong he was about Shanghai. One of the principal architectural elements in Pudong’s rebirth from the 1990s was the glistening 88-storey Jin Mao Tower.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) in collaboration with the East China Architectural Design Institute, the 421-metre-high (1,380-foot) Jin Mao Tower was the tallest building in China when completed in 1998. Notwithstanding the retro-futuristic figure of the nearby Oriental Pearl Tower (1994), the Jin Mao Tower, with its Neo-Art Deco character recalling Shanghai’s 1930s heyday, was a deliberate architectural icon designed to announce the city’s arrival into a new and prosperous era. The tower’s glass curtain wall is shrouded in a sleek aluminium lattice frame that concealed offices and a five-star hotel, boasting a 33-storey atrium rising up inside the building’s core. Jin Mao’s design acknowledges its cultural setting. The elegant tapered structure resembles China’s original skyscraper – the pagoda – and the auspicious number eight recurs throughout the design. Built around an octagonal inner core, each tapering segment of the 88-storey structure is an eighth smaller than the previous.

National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing (2007)

Within metres of the Forbidden City (see Chapter 67) and Tiananmen Square, the heart and soul of Beijing and the political embodiment of China, the curvaceous National Centre for the Performing Arts exemplifies China’s economic and architectural transformation at the start of the twenty-first century. Designed by a French architect, Paul Andreu, the globular glass and titanium shell measuring 212 by 143.6 metres (696 by 471 feet) contained a veritable ‘city of theatres’: a 2,461-seat Opera House, a 2,017-seat Concert Hall, and a 1,040-seat Theatre, as well as numerous exhibition spaces, restaurants and shopping areas. The draped pattern demarcating the glass and titanium casing is intended to evoke an opening stage curtain that, at night, illuminates to reveal the life inside the building. A 35,500-square-metre (380,000-square-foot) man-made lake surrounds the building, making the 46-metre-high (150-foot) structure appear to float upon it: alternatively, the reflection in the water also visually completes the overall form into that of giant egg. Access is provided by underground walkways that descend 32 metres (105 feet) below the water to connect the building with the public concourse.

National Stadium, Beijing (2007)

The 2008 Beijing Olympics signalled, more than any other single event, China’s reintegration into the international community. The jewel in the crown of this one-off sporting extravaganza was the 91,000-seat National Stadium, conceived in partnership between the Swiss ‘starchitects’, Herzog and de Meuron, and the celebrated Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. Although intended as the centrepiece in Beijing’s ambitious masterplan for the Olympic site, which was deliberately positioned on a central axis north of the fifteenth-century Forbidden City (see Chapter 67), a more important aspect of the stadium’s design was its lasting function as the nation’s principal venue for sporting and entertainment events. Inspired by the Chinese method of crazed glazing in ceramic artefacts, the complex geometry of the undulating 42,000-ton steel structure expresses a sense of massiveness up close that recedes with distance, becoming delicate and fragile from afar. The fragmented surface of this intricate exterior gave rise to its popular moniker: the ‘Bird’s Nest’. At night, once the frame is all lit up from behind, and reflected in the surrounding water pool, the colourful visual effect is nothing short of mesmeric.

Figure 96.30.  National Stadium, Beijing (2008). Affectionately referred to as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ due to its distinctive interwoven steel-frame structure, the National Stadium was designed and built for the 2008 Olympic Games. Inspired by Chinese ceramics, the scheme was collaboration between the Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, and the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.


Wa Shan Guesthouse, Hanzhou (2013)

The Wa Shan Guesthouse was the third phase in the development of the extraordinary oeuvre of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu for the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. As with the previous two phases, the design was shaped by the environment. The proximity of the mountain behind and water in front were crucial in creating a sense of place. Distinguishing itself from previous phases through the use of rammed earth, this adaptive reuse of an ancient building material demanded a fundamental redesign. Its most conspicuous feature – the 100-metre-long (330-foot) roof – is the central element of the design, physically and conceptually. Not only does it cover and unify the various elements of the building – such as dining area, teahouse, conference hall and thirty private rooms – it also frames views and, on occasions, opens up to flood courtyards with natural light.

Inspired by Chinese landscape painting, the blanket of grey tiles covering the roof is a landscape in a literal sense, with gardens, courtyards and a pathway snaking up and over its peaks and disappearing into the valleys. The concept draws on the methods of the literati painters who used the mountainscape in traditional landscape painting as a unifying medium. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu have here attempted to translate the two-dimensional form and meaning of traditional Chinese landscape painting into a three-dimensional spatial experience – to convert an ancient art form into very modern architecture.

Figure 96.31.  Wa Shan Guesthouse, Hangzhou (2013). This guesthouse, completed the year after Wang Shu was awarded the 2012 Pritzker Prize, is designed to be read like an ancient landscape painting all contained under a continuous undulating roof. It reflects the architect’s self-perception as a traditional Chinese literati figure rather than as a modern professional architect.


Further Reading

Chen, Zhanxiang. ‘Chinese Architectural Theory’. Special China Issue. Architectural Review 102, no. 607 (July 1947): 15–25 .

Chen, Zhanxiang. ‘Recent Architecture in China’. Special China Issue. Architectural Review 102, no. 607 (July 1947): 26–8 .

Cody, W. Building in China: Henry K. Murphy’s ‘Adaptive Architecture’, 1914–1935 . Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2001.

Denison, Edward. Architecture and the Landscape of Modernity in China before 1949 . London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

Denison, Edward, and Guang Yu Ren. Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway . Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2006.

Denison, Edward, and Guang Yu Ren. Modernism in China: Architectural Visions and Revolutions . Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2008.

Denison, Edward, and Guang Yu Ren. Luke Him Sau, Architect: China’s Missing Modern . Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2014.

Denison, Edward, and Guang Yu Ren. Ultra-Modernism: Architecture and Modernity in Manchuria . Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017.

Esherick, W., ed. Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900–1950 . Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Fairbank, Wilma. Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past . Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Guo, Qinghua. Chinese Architecture and Planning: Ideas, Methods and Techniques . Stuttgart: Axel Menges, 2005.

Rowe, G., and Seng Kuan. Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Sickman, Laurence, and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of China . Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

Su Gin-Djih. Chinese Architecture: Past and Contemporary . Hong Kong: The Sin Poh Amalgamated, 1964.

Zhu, Jianfei. Architecture of Modern China: A Historical Critique . London: Routledge, 2009.