Does typomorphology apply to China?

“Although many people criticize the single typology in Chinese cities, they do not realize that this actually resulted from our own choices based on emotional-thinking”. by Zhan Su


Dr Chen Fei, lecturer in Architecture and Urban Design at Liverpool University recently delivered a lecture about her research on Urban Typologies in China. Basing her talk on her book “Chinese Urban Design: The Typomorphological Approach” she provided a methodology to analyze the urban formation process for various urban scales using typology (a classification of general types) and morphology (a systematic approach to form). The advantage of this methodology is that it might hopefully illustrate the identity of each city, on the rational analysis of social and cultural behaviors of residents. On the other hand, this methodology seems also to offer a powerful tool for architecture students to understand urban fabric during their future practice.

Whether this kind of methodology can be imposed on the environment of Chinese cities is, at the moment, a moot point and this article will evaluate this methodology based on the difference between western and eastern ways of thinking.

Firstly, the methodology Dr Chen proposed is a typical western way of thinking. In this case, humans can be described as a species which conducts different activities between individuals and within communities. The scientific approach to understanding the world is based on rationality and the importance of the individual. The concept of ‘culture’ is closely linked to the group behaviours which, ironically, also arose out of the individual.

Let me first say that I think that there is no real boundary between rational thinking and emotional thinking. The process of changing quantity and scale can simultaneously transform the meaning of one word to another. Bu there are differences.

For instance, when the authorities in China (who typically represent a small percentage of the population) use some of the most rational planning edicts in the world in order to decide on policies for the overall society, this reality can still be explained away as an emotional decision. That is because, in this particular case, no matter how rational the method is, individuals within the overall group barely take equal social responsibility nor exercise equal rights. In other words, compared to other social relationship, individuality for Chinese people (in this given social structure) is not ‘necessary’ in their life.

The interesting point is that in China, people, including the public and the authorities, have celebrated this kind of system for thousands of years. They are used to living under a powerful authority. In spite of dividing and separating their own property, they hope this powerful authority will distribute those resources for them. In the everyday life of a Chinese citizen, there is a passivity to social relations here, rising above the rational and material, but this is often premised on whether their material needs are being met. And again, occasional emotive protestations or competition between people, is usually carried out within strict, technically-administered policy frameworks.

wang family, Lingshi, ShanxiSo although many people criticize the single typology in Chinese cities, they do not realize that this actually resulted from our own choices based on emotional-thinking. Therefore, the results for contemporary China are inevitable; just as general urban patterns have emerged over centuries before. Maybe these ‘patterns’ are nothing to be celebrated or emulated. Maybe a break with this type of order is necessary.

Starting with ancient emperors, who used their ambitions to masterplan cities for the public, today’s government (even though it lacks the professional and rational knowledge required for good urban development) are building cities for – and on behalf of – China. Nowadays, the authorities have chosen the capitalist ‘modern’-style as the basis for their decisions as opposed to the imperial aim of the ordained rules of heaven and earth, but there has long been an energetic, emotional and paternalistic culture underscoring those myths. For all the hype, intentional large-scale planning is the order of the day, and has never gone away.

The advantage of this system is quite obvious. Especially for architects, China is a perfect place for them to live out their ambitions. After all, nowhere else can one build such homogenous typologies of such sale and quantity. Ironically it also reflects the fact that emotional culture which belongs to Chinese has never been replaced by the Western way. In China, the public are actually willing to give over their social rights and responsibilities to authority – whether state or minor players – instead of getting involved into those projects themselves. This has resulted in urban and social generalism.

To summarize, in China, the social responsibilities for architects actually come from public expectation as they are capable to conduct more ambitious projects than anywhere else. In the meanwhile, the methodology they use to understand the change of urban form might differ from the Western ways because of this kind of special socio-cultural behavior in China.

As a result, the discipline of architecture strongly inherited its ideas from this unique and invisible political discipline. Therefore, in terms of the style or tradition for a country, it is sometimes merely a fancy dress to present us to the rest of the world. However, during the process of constructing their world, the rational way of thinking is still useful, as it is a fundamental and scientific methodology to explore human behaviour.


Buy Dr Chen Fei’s book here: Chinese Urban Design: The Typomorphological Approach