Sylvia Chan, “Writing in(to) Architecture”

Publication1Sylvia Chan, “Writing in(to) Architecture: China’s Architectural Design and Construction Since 1949”, East Slope Publishing Ltd, 2012, pp141

reviewed by Austin Williams

Sylvia Chan’s book explores the socio-political transitions that have affected China throughout the 20th century and are beginning to frame the 21st. She assesses this through the prism of architectural journalism: a literary form that only started in China in the 1930s. In this book, she explores how various periods, from the founding of the Peoples’ Republic to today, have affected China’s urban discourse. Thus Chan’s book is a critique of the way that architecture has been described – by commentators, specialists or politicians – since 1949.

Her simple premise (adapted from Thomas Markus’ book “Words Between Spaces: Buildings and Language“) is that the style and content of architectural writing is closely tied to the prevailing social and cultural conditions. In many ways, this is a completely obvious point – that cultural expression is closely linked to the prevailing cultural norms – but her book is interesting nonetheless.

Chan describes various timeframes and corresponding styles of writing about architecture in China. She explains how Mao’s autocratic reign led to compliant centralist journalism; that post-1979 was characterised by more expressive openness; and that the writings of the first decade of the new millennium have become more globally and critical engaged. These three key periods of modern Chinese history are examined in relation to three  influential journalistic forms, that she describes as: Propagandistic (state-directed), Introductory (technical writing) and Commentaries (opinion pieces).

Architectural writing post-1949 appeared in the mainstream press only on rare occasions, but with the launch of the Architecture Journal (AJ) in 1954, the number of articles increased dramatically. However, these outlets were predominantly organs for the dissemination of state policy and “it was impossible to engage… in a debate about architectural principles”. This was a period when architectural professionals lost their autonomy and everyone was dragooned into Design Institutes. Articles at this time spoke of the collective “we” (individual architects were seldom named) and of formal design standards. Debate – such that it existed – was merely about how to successfully implement the rules.

The principle of “self-criticism” – known in less Orwellian circumstances as self-awareness – is central to the practice of architecture, and yet such an innocent phrase comes with uncomfortable historical Maoist baggage. The AJ, Chan says, often contained articles in which architectural professionals would regularly write “condemning themselves and their own work” for failing to comply with state regulations or employing “wasteful” designs. Conflating ‘self-criticism’ with ‘self-flagellation’ may go some way to explaining why some Chinese architecture students and older architectural practitioners are not well-versed in conscious self-reflection.

The search for a national style “with tangible Chinese features” in the 1950s resulted in pro-Soviet influenced Beaux-Arts (Socialist Realism) as well as anti-Beaux-Arts (known as “economical socialist functionalism”). Chan cites comical examples of designs being “correctly evaluated” for their left-wing credentials; or of bamboo being used as an economical socialist alternative to steel reinforcement. (Actually, it would have been good to follow up on the consequences of both of these examples). One thing was common to the period: Modernism was rejected as a bourgeois deviation.

Dedicated architectural magazines – looking to excite architectural awareness – eventually appeared under Deng Xiaoping but were quite limited and targeted towards specific research projects or to direct lessons for practitioners. The four key magazines were: “World Architecture”, published by Tsinghua University examining the work of foreign architects;  “Huazhong Architecture” dealing with modern architecture; “New Architecture” looking at the work of Chinese architects, and; “Time + Architecture”, published by Tongji University focusing on Chinese design and theory. All of these came out in the early 1980s and it was only in 1992 that the first foreign article was translated and republished, and 2003 before several foreign magazines started to appear; with a Chinese edition of Domus (the first Chinese language version of a Western architecture magazine) appearing in 2006.

Three things are of note here: one is that the architectural learning curve of these publications has been incredibly steep and the undoubted problems that have arisen the last 30 years should not over-shadow the positives (for example, an ability to discuss various problems, compared to the uncriticality of not-so-long ago, is one such benefit).

Secondly, some similarities in the discourse are as profound as the differences and we should note that the prevailing social and cultural conditions in the West are tending towards the dumbing down of debate and the absence of criticism. When Chan says that, under Mao, “statistics were often used” and designs were regularly “scientifically supported” it is not too different from the contemporary Western architectural scene which tends to regurgitate policy mantras and rely on “evidence-based design” to justify “good buildings” (p58). The consequences in the West may be less brutal than in 1950s China, but such instrumentalism is no less harmful to the practice of open-minded, creative-thinking.

Finally, Chan looks to the rise of social media networks and lively architectural chatrooms as an example of the modern revolution in China’s public engagement. However, at the same time she recognizes that the untrained public cannot fully engage with the potential depth of discourse used by qualified architects and architectural academics or journalists. This conclusion is not a Western-style call for “inclusive” anti-elitism, but rather an open call for even more democratised debate. “Architectural professionals”, she says, “have a responsibility to ‘speak to’ and ‘speak with’ the general public, not just to ‘speak for’ them.” An interesting and challenging point on which to end. If only more Western architects and journalists were listening.