'Chinese Architecture' + 'Western Architecture': A False Dichotomy

Li, Hua (2008). 'Chinese Architecture' + 'Western Architecture': A False Dichotomy. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000ea77


For some time, even if this is not expressed explicitly, 'Chinese architecture' and 'western architecture' are conceived and perceived as two homogeneous totalities, in opposition to one another. In consequence, the fast transformation of Chinese cities in the last three decades is often accounted for in terms of the influence of 'western architecture' upon 'Chinese architecture'. Indeed, the urban growth in this period has involved architectural expertise, products, technologies and designs from Europe and the USA. To some people, what is seen as 'new' is 'western', and hence, the transformation is a process of 'westernisation'. However, this is precisely what the thesis argues against. It argues that to use the category of the 'Chinese' and the 'Western' to explain the products of architecture and urbanism in last thirty years China is neither useful nor appropriate.

This thesis concerns the issue of 'conceptual translation' of architectural discourse from Europe and the USA into the context of China, as an opposition to 'linguistic translation' which concerns literal meanings of terms. Its examination focuses on the category that the concept 'western modern' indicates in Chinese architecture, and relates its operation and construction to the importation history of European and American architecture throughout the twentieth century, as well as pedagogy of architectural training, regularisation of design principles and methods, identification of architectural profession. practice of the architects' offices, organisation of design competition, and management of the city, mode of marketing and purchase in the real estate market, state politics and cultural interpretations. The analysis reveals that while waves of importation have sustained the formation of architecture as a modern practice in China from the early twentieth century up to now, they have not arrived as symmetrical reflection of what they are in the 'original' context. A difference, in comparison to European and American architecture, can be characterised by the absence of a coherent 'modernism' and the continuity of the modified 'Beaux-Arts' practice in Chinese architecture. Therefore, the assumption of 'westernisation' is wrong in its first place, as there is no such distinction that could be made between the 'Chinese' and the 'Western'.

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