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February 18, 1998
Chinese Architecture: Striving for Perfection
The great Chinese architects achieved a perfect balance between serenity and nature and their architectural surroundings. Chinese buildings are beautiful masterpieces of art crafted in the finest detail. Instead of just building a building they produced a magnum opus that would continue to show its beauty for centuries to come.
In the past, architects of China carefully designed their buildings to fit into the scenery that surrounded them (Wiens 180). They believed that if their building disturbed the balance of harmony and nature then the building was worthless and should not be used. The interior decoration of a building also attributed to this idea. If the decor of a building didn?t flow with the natural surroundings of the building then the decorator was forced to either redecorate or give up the project entirely (Creative Interiors). From this practice the idea of Feng Shui was brought into existence.
Feng Shui, literally translated is wind and water. It is intended to bring a sense of harmony and balance to your living and working spaces. Results such as improved health, rewarding relationships, and an increase in happiness and prosperity are believed to occur (Bartlett). Feng Shui is used to analyze a built and natural environment in order to locate sites with a favorable circulation of life energy, or ch`i. It is used to make adjustments to improve the naturally occurring ch`i of a place or building.
Feng Shui was developed thousands of years ago by the rural people of China whose very survival depended upon their ability to discern between sites where good ch`i accumulated and sites where stagnant or malignant ch`i. These good sites provided land that was safe, fertile, and healthy. The land with malignant ch`i was barren or dangerous. Rivers, winds, topography, and the compass directions are among the elements analyzed in the search for a site with favorable ch`i. Refined over thousands of years, Feng Shui has evolved into a systematized art and science. It is organized into several ?schools? each with a very specific set of guidelines. A good Feng Shui practitioner understands these principles but must also have a highly developed intuitive sense, to see and feel how the ch`i behaves in each particular situation (Bartlett). In modern times, with the Chinese population crowding into cities like Hong Kong and Taipei, Feng Shui principles have been applied to analyze and enhance urban and interior spaces. No major building project in these cities would be undertaken without some consideration of the Feng Shui of the site and building. For example, the owners of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank demanded that Feng Shui be applied in the design of their skyscraper headquarters. This influenced everything from the form of the exposed structural system to the placement of the lobby escalators and doors.
When Feng Shui is applied to a home or business many different features are examined. These include neighborhoods, streets, sites, directions, shapes of buildings, roofs, doors, windows, rooms, stairs, location of amenities, chimneys, drains, beams, columns, lights, and many other factors (Bartlett). The ultimate goal of a Feng Shui practitioner is the creation and enhancement of a space so it uses the natural flow of good ch`i. It is believed that people who live and work in such an environment feel more energetic, creative, and balanced.
Another belief of Feng Shui is that the ch`i of a place can be ?tuned? for a specific use. For example if Feng Shui were being applied to a house, the home would benefit more with a calm and harmonious ch`i while a store would require a more simulative ch`i that would promote sales. Industrial sites can be tuned to enhance production and research and a hospital requires a more serene and life-supporting ch`i. The Chinese believe that each specialization of ch`i can be achieved with the determination of what kind of building would work best in a certain area and how that building is to be decorated.
Another quality that Chinese architecture has excelled at is combining art and architecture together to produce the grand buildings that can be seen today. Peking, more commonly known as Beijing, has been the capital of China almost continuously since 1267 AD. Over the centuries, as emperor after emperor added palaces and shrines, it became a glorious museum of Chinese art and architecture. The greatest concentration of these treasures lies within the oldest second of Peking, the Inner City. In the manner of Chinese boxes, the Inner City contains the Imperial City, which in turn surrounds the Forbidden City (see photos 1 and 2), the palace compound reserved for the court (Fessler 34).
By just looking at the wonders of the Forbidden City you can see the great skill and craftsmanship of ancient Chinese architects. The Forbidden City served as the seat of imperial power during the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1368-1911. Members outside the royal family and staff were not allowed to enter the buildings until the 1920s (Beijing). The elaborate artwork of the buildings that make up the Forbidden City is amazing. ?When one enters the buildings of the Forbidden City they are immediately transported back in time to a mystic era of gold and jewels. One feels as if they are to meet a emperor from the Ming dynasty scurrying about on daily affairs.? (McLenighan 75)
The Chinese took great pride in beautiful buildings. The exterior and interior were elaborately decorated with beautiful paintings depicting scenes from battles, ordinary life, celebrations, and nature. Paintings of dragons were used often because the dragon was thought to bless good fortune upon a person and to protect them from evil spirits. The ceiling of the Temple of Heaven is one of the most intricate examples of art and architecture in one. (See photos 3 and 4) Built between 1406 and 1420, the complex buildings of the Temple of Heaven covers over 675 square acres and its paintings depict the great achievements of the Ming and Quig dynasties (Beijing).
Chinese architecture differs in two major ways from Western architecture. First, most Chinese buildings were constructed of wood. For this reason, much of China?s early architecture has been lost in fires. Chinese architecture also differs from the Western architecture in the manner of construction. Simple houses were built on platforms of earth. Palaces and temples like those in Peking were built on platforms of stone. Upright wooden posts were sunk and anchored in the stone. Crossbeams were cut in a series of lengths so that the framework of the roof resembled a triangle.
Because the weight of the roof was carried entirely by posts and crossbeams, the walls could be very thin. Some walls were, in fact, only shutters. Interior walls were also thin, and often these walls were movable screens. This allowed the shape and size of rooms to be changed easily for different occasions. This ingenious and effective way of building was copied by the Japanese people hundreds of years ago. This Chinese invention was used throughout the Far East (Paine 51-54).
Western civilization architects that combine Chinese style into their architecture include the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. ?Wright coaxed Americans out of their boxlike houses and into wide-open living that suited American culture.? (Foundation) Frank Lloyd Wright created what is now known as ?organic architecture? – the union of the structure and the land upon which it is built (Delmar). Some of his creations derived from the Chinese belief of architecture and nature as one. One of his most famous pieces of work is Fallingwater built in 1935 at Bear Run, Ohiophyl, Pennsylvania (See photo 5). Wright built it as a weekend retreat for Edgar J. Kaufmann. The retreat was built over top of a waterfall and the interior is described to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. It is considered one of the best examples of the combination of man and nature (Delmar).
Chinese architecture has many distinct qualities involving it. The incorporation of Feng Shui to create a balance of nature and their buildings has created buildings that are in sync with ?Mother Earth?. The beautiful buildings with majestic artwork, separates Chinese architecture in an exclusive category all by itself. Now with the search of inner peace and harmony becoming the fad in Western civilization Chinese architecture is again becoming popular. People of all types flock to decorators who are masters in the art of Chinese style to hopefully balance the life energy in their work and home spaces. So for now it seems, the historic Chinese architecture is once again making history.