Research Paper, 2012, 67 Pages
Introduction: ‘Looking up’
PART ONE: The Persistence of Tradition
(Chapter 1) The Lure of Inherited Forms
Interlude. Architectural Debates: The Space/Place Problem
(Chapter 2) Chinese Whispers.
Episode: Architecture and Desire
PART TWO: The Shock of the New. The 20th Century
(Chapter 3) Building the Tower of Babel. The Skyscraper Tradition
Interlude. Architectural Debates: Illusionism & Ideology.
(Chapter 4) City of Glass. Modernism & Beyond
PART THREE: A Unitary Vision? Cityscapes, Old & New
(Chapter 5) Reading Architecture! Points of Orientation
i/ Whose stand-point? Horizon v Stand-alones
ii/ Points of view. Pointed Roof v Flat Roof Traditions
Afterword: Evolution of the Eye
Appendices: Timelines. i/ Architectural archetypes (skiamorphs).
ii/Beijing: a very short architectural history
Because of the impetus provided by the Olympic Games of 2008, Beijing offers an excellent showcase of recent developments in architecture. Moreover this demonstration of the best of recent architectural design is not limited to landmark buildings alone, the reconstruction of the city and its transport network has meant that the designers of everyday apartments or office blocks have also had to consider what image their building presents, how it can represent their city, country and culture – what will be their contribution to the shape and silhouette of the city skyline.
“Our ‘love of the skyline’ is explained if we conceive it as our relationship with our world in concentrated form.”
Even recently the view of the modern city skyline was a matter for some embarrassment. We expected old cities to have enchanting horizons, to please us so much that we would seek them out as we would a particularly satisfying pleasure: but the modern urban horizon - this was something we did not waste time on. Things change. Sometime in the last ten years the building of attractive structures began to outnumber the unattractive; our skyline was again something we could take pride in as attention to feature, materials and colour began to take over from drabness and uniformity. Things were looking up. We too began to look up again.
Already in the 1970s we saw a revulsion against what modern developers were doing to our cities. First we saw the arrival of Postmodernism on the architectural scene, bringing back decoration to a scene that until then had been dominated by the naked, concrete and glass cube. Then new technological discoveries opened the door to new designs – novel forms, sinuous curves, breath-taking overhangs, unusual colour combinations; hitherto unimagined configurations began to appear in our cities. Most importantly, we witnessed a change in the expectations of the urban dweller; a revolution in the way we think about our urban environment that has changed what is acceptable to us. Such that we now expect something ‘extra’, something ‘finished’ about the topmost elements of a building, something that will add to the totality of the skyline, that will make the building both stand out, and fit in; stand out as good-looking, fit in as harmonious with its context, its society, the people who must look at and live with it. This transformation moved forward at ever-greater speed, until the majority of buildings, not excluding the humble office and apartment dwelling, all showed signs of this sense of visual responsibility. So much so that we now find that some meaningful differentiation of the topmost segment of the urban field has become de rigueur - even if this demarcation in some cases can only be observed in the most minimal of ways (in the colour of the paint or the type or texture of the material).
The special recognition awarded to the topmost part of the built environment is accompanied by a corresponding differentiation of the lowest segment of urban architecture; our ground floor level, the level of shop-fronts and displays, window-shopping and entrances. And the ‘middle’ has not been forgotten either; the textures and patterns on the long middles of tall buildings, cumulatively, the ‘canyon wall’ of the modern city street, have also received increased attention. These three zones, three horizontal planes that orientate our experience of urban architecture and urban life, appear to have been universally recognized. This despite earlier attempts to avoid decoration (largely on economic grounds) resulting in the dominance of drab cubes (in the East as in the West) in the 1950s and 1960s; yet - as if the basic experience, our basic, even minimal expectations of architecture, were hard to forget - even the most plain buildings often still retained some minimal marking-out of the three zones. But the tops were flat, giving modern cities their ‘unfinished’ feel, leaving our expectations fallen flat, conveying the sense of an uncared-for horizon -our urban landscape as not worthy of concern- as something designed by those who probably lived elsewhere. Now we expect a lively difference of structure, ornament or some manner of decorative design to occur between top and middle (and middle and bottom), and, if we are lucky, some roof-top feature that will single out the building in silhouette, making its mark as part of the horizon, leaving its mark, contributing, distinct, but cumulative, to the vision we behold of the city skyline.
The relation of our architecture to the sky is a special one – symbolizing so much more than the bricks and mortar we find there. To capture this symbolism, the term ‘Solar’ has been borrowed from medieval usage (denoting a room in the sun, a topmost room) to give a name to this top-most level of the urban experience. The Solar is what we perceive as our eyes naturally slide up the walls of our world up to the light (the ancient Greeks had a name for this: hypsosis). It is what we see in the space between heaven and earth, the architectural features that fill this space. As we look out onto our city skylines, at the heritage that previous generations have left us, we find that, if we are proud of this heritage then the skyline will be variegated and eye-catching, if not then the impoverished and unfinished appearance that is the legacy of the middle decades of the 20th century will no doubt be in evidence.
The Solar skyline is about buildings in context, about sharing a world. The skyline, our horizon, is also our final visual context, ultimate background, site of our collective sense of responsibility to the world, the world of the viewer, as of its dwellers, the inhabitants of cities, ourselves…
Our ‘love of the skyline’ is explained if we conceive it as our relationship with our world in concentrated form. What we collectively feel about our urban home, our space in the world, is symbolized here, represented in the attention and expense we find here, reflected in the skyline, in the ‘feel’ of the urban horizon. Good skylines tell of a sacrifice for a good view (the economic sacrifice of profitable space for the meanings to be found in a given symbolic feature). A gift to the horizon. A sacrifice made for a collective view that speaks to all of us, and, indirectly an offering made for all of us, in the pressure exercised by all upon the architect’s decisions. Result; variety, exuberance and a spur to the imagination (and even occasionally the twin extremes of banality and excess)!
The results of this transformation are perhaps most obvious in Beijing, a city virtually rebuilt in the course of the last decade. Everywhere we can see bold experiments in state architecture and public -that is ‘landmark’- buildings, as well as in the variety present in the everyday office-block and apartment building, the high-rise staple of the urban architectural field. This book is a survey of this new, or reborn, urban feature, the visual rhetoric it employs and the meanings it offers, the meanings we make of it, the urban horizon as landscape and artwork, the reconstructed Solar, symbol of our place in the world, in the skyline of Beijing, capital of China, symbol of China’s place in the world.
How this book is structured. The variety of forms that we see in the uppermost parts of buildings, those regions of our urban experience we have chosen to call the ‘Solar’, are described according to their appearance and their origins - but above all by the type of response they draw from us – intended or otherwise.
A line is drawn from earlier forms to later developments; from their origins to the borrowing and adaptations that follow. These family resemblances are discussed in terms of a rhetoric that has as much to do with our expectations of the environment in which we live, as of architectural tradition. Both being answerable finally to the court of human experience.
Each chapter has an introductory section explaining the key issues, followed by a list of typologies, the terms you see here on either side. These terms are then illustrated and their meanings discussed.
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
PART ONE: The Persistence of Tradition。.
Where have I seen that before? The first two chapters will introduce a number of features prominent on the Beijing architectural scene which owe their inspiration to older and even to ancient architectural traditions. The first chapter will chart the course of forms common to East and West. The second chapter will introduce the indigenous Chinese tradition and its modern expression.
(Chapter 1) THE LURE OF INHERITED FORMS
(Chapter 2) CHINESE WHISPERS
In this chapter we will see how forms common to East and West have contributed to the language of modern architectural design. This fusion includes the appropriation by Chinese architectural culture of certain received Western forms (the Cornice), as well as the fusion and development of forms that are similar East and West (the Arch, the Window, the Courtyard). The Chinese tradition proper will be dealt in the next chapter.
This category contains what may well be some of the most subtle forms of architectural rhetoric we are liable to see. Basic forms, whose histories may be discussed in terms of millennia, have been transformed by technology, materials, stylistic formalization, or combination with other features to form a ‘new’ visual experience (albeit replete with the echoes of all the past forms it can be found to resemble or of which it may act as a reminder). Many of these buildings suggest a combination of traditional forms; most especially in the development of sky-relating or framing features such as the Cornice (taken from the West, but cross-fertilised by the roof overhang of the Chinese tradition) and the Arch along with the continued evolution of spatial-volumetric or room-like features such as the Courtyard (East and West), and the Atrium, and Narthex forms of entry and semi-open enclosure.
Typologies ; the Experience of the Edge and the Experience of Openings.
The Experience of the Edge: The Return of the Cornice and the Chinese Roof-rim
Definitions. Cornice. Originating in the classical architecture of Greece and Rome where it signified the topmost, projecting section of the Entablature (the cross beam, load-bearing element in beam and column design, the decorative aspects of which could be ‘wrapped around’ the triangular pediment that often topped it, a ‘raking cornice’). In recent architecture this term is applied to any outwardly curving or other-wise projecting decorative moulding or casing that runs along the top of the building (but also along a wall or arch) and regarded as its finishing touch or crown. Also (in the language of classical architecture) referred to as a ‘cyma’ or ‘cymatium’, the distinguishing feature or curved part of the modern cornice.
The most popular pre-twentieth century feature used in recent architecture owes much to the legacy of the Renaissance Cornice (itself in debt to the classical Greek and Roman periods). The Cornice is the decorated top edge of a building (when a ban on the ‘loud’ or ostentatious ornamentation of buildings came into effect in Renaissance Rome, the competing families of aristocrats began to devise ever more impressive cornices for the passers-by to look up to). This function, of looking up, and of making value judgments as to the nature (and quantity of wealth) of the building’s occupants, is still important today: We may recognize a building’s function from the amount of detail and manner of signs found on the cornice, or read messages concerning State and Nation, from the weight and splendour (or severely simplistic rationality) expressed there.
The return of the cornice as an important decorative or ‘finishing’ feature in (post)modern architecture has occurred in two ways. The first takes the form a feature placed on top of a building, often appearing as if to act as a sun-break, or masking the less attractive, if necessary, machine housing that can be found there. Usually it imitates the cornice by providing an (otherwise modern) building with a top section which fans outwards from the top, giving a finished effect to what would otherwise be a flat, unfinished top and so establishing a relationship with the sky. However this type of cornice also resembles the roof-curve associated with the traditional Chinese system of roofing –most especially its overhang and support system. As such this effect will be discussed in detail in the chapter that follows. The forms of the top edge that concern us here are those based upon a second form; the differentiation of the entire upper portion of the building itself, an extension that clearly extends the symbolism of the (Renaissance) Cornice. It is this category that is discussed next.
In what appears to have become the official ‘house’ style for many of the key institutions of State, we are presented with large, basically square, partly-open, structures with a prominent cornice carrying key national symbols. Designed to offset the uniformity of the modernist cube, which this type of building takes as its fundamental model, the cornice outlines the building as a sky or horizon-marking feature (often taking an inward and downward curve which offers a passing homage to the roof-support system and roof curves of traditional Chinese architecture). This same feature is part of the upper frame of a glass-walled opening, which may traverse many floors of the front face of the building. A key part of this structure is a monster atrium reaching across many floors, usually a large open space within the confines of the building in question which is open to the sky by means of a large opening in the ceiling or roof (or, more recently as large skylight). This term, ‘Atrium’, is now often (if a little inventively) used for any large open space within a building which runs up to the roof, giving light access to all floors and by means of its glass fronting, ‘opening-out’ the building to the public - or anyway, to public view.
Definitions. Atrium. First an interior court or space open to the sky (Roman, Classical), later an open courtyard in front of a church, such as an open space with columns framing its periphery (Late-Classical and Medieval periods). Now more usually indicating a large and tall interior space with (at least part of) one side open to the exterior light.
Such a space, enclosed in glass, so rendering part of the interior visible from the outside, from the street or public space, is in character transitional between inside and outside; so creating a kind of ‘in-between’, between the private spaces of office and work-place, and the exterior public world - a kind of public space that lies within the building’s enclosing frame. Welcoming… but austere - even at times, as when the building is of a particularly vast size, a little daunting (so possibly running counter to the main rhetorical effect of this particular feature which is to suggest ‘openness’). Indeed the limitation of this rhetoric, and hence its presence as a form of rhetoric, as an argument in stone, a suggestion (or illusion) in three dimensions, may be akin to the experience of an image, something subsisting in the realm of the visual only and not designed to be extended into everyday use. Like a façade presenting one message (or face) whilst another, potentially conflicting one, is contained or performed within. A façade with an opening. Portal to the sites of power. The gate before which Kafka’s supplicant waits.
For a typical example, see the Government Building on corner of Jianguomen and Yonghegong Dajie (opp. Beixinqiao subway station).
The Grand Arch in Paris, whose opening, or openness, takes the form of a radical hollowing out leaving only the sides (the invisible base) and the roof space to house offices and exhibitions, in many respects provides the model for the kind of buildings in question. What we witness is a return of Monumental Modernism (or Monumental Minimalism) to the architectural scene. The Modernism of these buildings, enshrined in the use of the modernist cube, suggests rationality, modernity, the continuity of the modern or modernist project, and so the project of modernization and modernity as inseparable from the notion of progress, and furthermore the continuity in the use of modern design of the notion of progress. The unification (rhetorical of course) of the notion of progress as an unfinished, ongoing project, and the historical period term ‘Modernism’, signal the desire of the buildings to be seen as the custodians of both progress and Modernity. Yet sometimes, as noted, the ghost of the roof form of traditional Chinese architecture can also be found to lurk here… to be found hiding in the curve of the cornice as we look up. Offering a (possibly accidental but certainly culturally ambiguous) continuity with the past. The persistence of the old in the new.
The Capital Museum on Fuxingmen Wai, combines old and new in all its architectural features. The cornice is old in function and meaning but new in form, as well as the suggesting the Western cornice and curve of the traditional Chinese roof support system, the Chinese ‘apron’ roof is also referenced, as is the awning of a gigantic tent. The gigantic bronze pot-like structure that so dramatically ruptures the integrity of the walls and the lines of the cornice is at once a reference to the Chinese Bronze age with its huge ritual containers of bronze and to modern building design with its postmodern ability to combine old and new in exciting new forms. Glass walls enclose large parts of the building (and all of the zone below the roof) thus further referencing traditional Chinese architecture where it was the pillars that held up the roof, leaving the possibility of a general openness in the rest of the design.
Likewise the columns that introduce the Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Architect: Cui Tong; Location: 4th ring) both suggest the columns of the temple or palace and open up the building to light and air are topped by a projecting cornice that echoes the support beam curve of traditional provenance.
Monumental cornices often sit atop a vast vestibule, or porch, open, like a Byzantine cathedral Narthex, to the exterior; but with an intervening wall of glass. A vast wall of a window. Like the West-end windows found in western cathedrals: any large round window therefore also cites the medieval Rose Window. Now found uniting skiamorphs from the East as from the West, reuniting underlying forms; gathering together local geo-cultural meanings. A window onto new architectural developments. The experience of openings as the new experience of space in modern architecture.
Definitions. Narthex. Coming in two aspects, interior and exterior, the influence of the Narthex on modern architectural forms and our experience of them lies in its exterior form, which functions as a relatively open, extended entry space (originally to a Byzantine cathedral). Forms approximating the Narthex also owe much to the Portico, which pre-dates the function of the medieval Narthex as entry space in classical language – for our purposes the modern entrance space as a large, discreet and glazed space echoes the antique Portico perhaps as much as the Narthex and Atrium. All these constitute the predecessors of the monumental Cornice as also of the ‘Dragon Window’.
The Phenomenology of Openings: The Feng Shui of the Modern Building
The Experience of Openings. Essentially a combination of three forms of opening up a building to the outside, the new sense of openings, of the opening up of a modern building, is made-up of elements taken from the Entrance (the Arch), the Window and the Courtyard (the space that results within). Such spaces are fronted by tall openings from the side and often supplemented with openings from above. Our view through the window or opening as onto a space lit as if from above (even if that light is that which enters from above ourselves as we make an entrance or just gaze in from the outside).
In many ways what we experience here is the three dimensional equivalent of the intervening white space that is such a feature of Eastern art (the spacing between the grounds of the traditional shuimo 水墨 or ink-wash landscape). These are the absences that signal the infinite and eternal realms of religious, artistic and cultural tradition (the ‘quietism’ of the Dao, or the enlightening ‘absence’ that is the aim of the Chan/Zen school of Buddhism). A symptom of a non-monotheistic ‘empty centre’, or the ‘non-representable’ (in western philosophical terms).
Openings the passage of light; the passage of spirits. This somewhat dramatic idea comes from the idea that energy must be allowed to pass through a building. Historically, such (usually small) windows are now most frequently seen in the walls of temples where they function as ventilators called ‘Dragon Windows’ (‘dragons’ are spirits in Chinese mythology, akin to water sprites and other ‘spirits of the place’ in Western mythology). There is a sense of a debt to place and to the demands of cultural history. Like the roof curve which has inspired so many recent Chinese architectural creations (see sections on Sky Beacons, The Return of the Cornice, and Pagodas), so with the new architecture of the opening; old becomes new as modern techniques and styles incorporate ancient ideas and their architectural embodiments. Metaphorically: we are offered the sense of flow, or the appearance or possibility of flow, through an otherwise closed building; of the possibility of a passage through, and so the guarantee of the access to light, of its ability to move through a building. The important thing is that the building in question does not appear as a blockade, a blocking of the space around; so not appearing as an obstacle, as an unwelcome bringer of urban claustrophobia, of the sense of being visually ‘fenced-in’.
Other explanations for the popularity of large openings: in global terms, such windows are the alternative to closed space windows, giving us openings as openness, this is the architectural rhetoric for administrative openness and democratic ideals (as in the case of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which features a huge glass wall running along one side of the building, and a split tower, its wall ‘breached’ to allow access to the inner corridors of power – at least that is the message as conveyed by the image). In terms of traditional art we are offered the physical equivalent of the ‘let be’ white space that signals the space behind things; the emptiness beyond delusion (or Maya). In geo-political aesthetics we have a particular set of meanings which suggest the lack of a center; hollowed-out structures are to be read as more accurately representing Eastern non-(mono)theistic religions with their absent centers, their (philosophical) lack of a god and general abstract qualities… including the sense that if a god is not anywhere…(Confucianism), or nowhere (Buddhism) it is everywhere (a Daoist pantheism). A reference to ‘all’ or ‘everything’; but without a traditional (Western) concept of a centre, which is what we find reflected in the glass of modern architecture, and especially in the apparently open - but glassed-in - spaces of luminous passage, the passage of spirits that is the secret of the giant opening, architectural cavern or glass window. These are the general meanings generated by such a structure; then we have the local, particular meanings of architecture viewed in context; the suggestion of the presence of a vast cave, from the promise of shelter to the promise of a treasure house; openings as invitations to entry, the opportunity to peer in; lure for the passer-by, trap for the eye…
Beijing New Poly Plaza (Architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Location; Dongsishitiao Qiao). This ‘dragon window’, designed by a firm who specialise in this kind of open structure, if not the largest opening in a building, is then perhaps the largest window in the world (90x60 meters). Behind this suspended window with ‘folds’ lies a vast atrium, permeating both light and access to the offices housed within the walls (essentially office blocks in their own right). As has often been noted, the superb lines of the building, and the monumental effect of its opening are somewhat spoiled by the glass ’carbuncle’ which erupts from the left cheek (as we face it) of the glass face. This feature appears to have no aesthetic justification (save that of multiplying commercial meterage). The ‘back’ of this triangular building also has an enigmatic opening high up in its façade. Exit route for a dragon in need of a quick getaway.
Eyeguides: How Architectural Symbolism Works: the ‘Opening’.
The upper edge of a building or the use of openings, the variety of forms that we have referred to as a Cornice or labeled as an Opening, all call upon a wide range of symbolism – a symbolism as old as architecture itself. Unlike ‘historicism’, which tries to rebuild the past in the form of a whole building, the taking of significant parts of buildings (together with the intellectual tradition associated with them, as in feng shui and the role of openings) offer the possibility of building the future whilst calling upon the past; accessing our collective inheritance, our collective architectural memory, in order to give significance to new forms, new combinations and re-combinations of built space.
Gifts of the Past: Ghosts in the Present: Arch, Window, Courtyard.
‘The place of entry.’ Is in fact a space, an opening, an emptiness, or break in a manifold that permits ingress. The fact that we do not refer to it as a space, but as a place, is a testimony to the weight of meaning it carries (supported as it were on its lintel, its uppermost part and most symbolic physical portion – echo of the sky-touching cornice that will fulfill both functions in the range of features we have nick-named, Dragon Windows). A weight of meaning that in reality rests upon the immaterial functions of the entryway; the sense we have of the threshold, of the passing into a different state of space, a different place, an interior, a room. Like the entry into a place of ritual, a time and space put aside; replete with positive expectation: a place. The place of entry.
There are few features of the built environment so laden with symbolism and suggestion as the entrance. Entrances come in three sizes; big, medium, small. However, as usual, differences in quantity rapidly become important differences in quality. All three sizes offer differing qualities of experience, arouse different expectations, and are broadly coeval with the terms, Arch, Portal and Door (the latter is also the point of entry into the realm of the personal, the private, the domestic; leaving the arch and portal to represent the entry as an aspect of public space). All three may be laid out on a continuum between symbolic force and functional utility with the arch occupying the symbolic end of the spectrum (size matters) and the door the functional end. Although, in reality, all doors may be symbolic, and all arches, even those blocked-off from entry, or indeed blocked-up, suggest the possibility of passage (even if only as the ominous symbolism of a passage denied). Finally all doors contain the symbol of threshold, whilst the function of an arch is its symbol-bearing property. If the door is domestic and the portal is the mode of entry to stores and banks, then the arch represents the size of opening whose meanings we find in our experience of the Opening.
The Arch (it should always begin with a capital: certainly the capital is where it is usually found). The ceremonial entrance-way and memorial gate. Site of the historic pageant, home of the spectacle as sequence, portal of procession, performance of the gateway as frame. Strange entry from which are conjured forth: the masque of memorials; the solemn march of mask-bearing two-legged beasts - so many flightless birds (inviting yet-further flights of the imagination). The magic of the Arch has a long and glorious history: indeed it is the history of Glory itself. Its historical manifestations themselves offer a grand procession: from the Triumphal Arches of Classical Rome through Constantine and Christianity, to their Historicist rebirth, as (if we take Paris as our example) in the Arche de Triomphe and and then again in the arch’s apotheosis in Late-modernist form, La Grande Arche (at La Defense). In the case of the latter we find an example replete with national statements and religious investments; the Grande Arche is a statement of what it is to be French, to be (it would seem to say) modern, secular and rational (this is what the minimal form of the cube element of this building tells us).
Indeed two hundred years after the dying-out of Robespierre's religion of Reason, rationalism again overlooks the French capital, its geometries guiding the French nation, orienting, framing our vision, our point of view, over-seeing what it is to be l'exception francaise...). Such is the power of suggestion of a simple framed space.
Beijing’s equivalent in form (a modern skyscraper made of two towers and a bridging top section), if not entirely in symbolism, is the CCTV building (which will be discussed below). There is also Beijing’s West Railway Station (Lianhuachi Donglu) a building built around an arch (a feature clearly, perhaps most dramatically on view from the Millennium Monument on Fuxing Lu, Subway stop; ‘Military Museum’). This Arch, moreover, is topped of with what appears to be a traditional-style temple complete with mini-pagodas on the building’s two wings - a design feature discussed in the next chapter).
An entrance made of pure symbol; of near spectral specularity: the Arch as the ghost of the past it represents. Like a bridge of pearls made immaterial in its lambent materiality. Pure entry. With no room to follow: an entrance to nowhere. Nowhere real. The access is only to an imaginary place (our imagining of the past it calls forth). Or else entry only to an ideal version of its current place, its current context and situation (its inner glow returned to it as if returned to the point before the Fall). This immediate context, or present, now either basking in the reflected glory of the past as ideal image, or existing in opposition to that other place, to that ideal; its light framed by the everyday forms that contain it.
See Beijing, West Station/ Xi Zhan.
Windows …The Arch glazed. We look through a window. But not any kind of window (it is after all the Arch that we are taking as our frame of reference, the frame of our reference). The effect must be grandiose – cavernous. Cave of the Dragon.
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