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WANG Shu and the

Possibilities of Architectural
Regionalism in China

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
Nordic Journal of Architectural Research
Volume 21, No 1, 2009, 14 pages
Nordic Association for Architectural Research
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
Gulf University for Science and Technology, College of Arts and Sciences Philosophy
Hawally, Kuwait

Abstract:
The article introduces the work of the Chinese Chinese thought been able to establish a critical
experimental architect WANG Shu who practices tradition. The author discusses if contemporary
“Critical Regionalism” in China by developing, Chinese architects will be able to create a valu-
among other things, the principle of “free design” able Chinese environment flowing out of a critical
that he derives from Chinese garden architecture. interchange with China’s history.
Further the article examines the possibilities of
critical regionalism within a typically Chinese
socio-cultural context that is determined by a
particular relationship with history. A critical phi-
losophical tradition (in the west developed by
Humboldt and Ranke) is absent in Chinese Keywords:
thought. Neither in Qing China, during the years Wang Shu, contemporary Chinese architecture,
of attempted reforms, nor during the “Hundred critical regionalism, Chinese civilization, Leopold
Days Reform” or the “Chinese Renaissance,” has von Ranke, Enlightenment architecture.

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INTRODUCTION Xin Ruan holds that “much of the Twentieth
In today’s China, “elitist” architecture by Rem Century Chinese architecture, unfortunately,
Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid or Steven Holl is present does not seem to have matched the expectati-
as much as quick imitations of some indistinct ons of ‘critical regionalism’ (as modern archi-
“international style” or – much worse – the so tecture did in Japan or India).”7 Part of the phe-
called “Disneyland syndrome” buildings recur- nomenon might be due to the Chinese addicti-
rent in satellite towns with distinctly German, on to modernism. Everywhere in the world, as
Italian, or Tudor architectural styles.1 Attempts explains Douglas Reichert Powell, “since the
to be creative are easily blurred by sublimated high period of modernism in the 1950s, ‘regio-
ideas from a recent authoritarian past2 even nal’ has been a pejorative term”8 and certainly
when – or especially when – they opt for the also in “modernist” China one would translate
“postmodernist,” existential choice of grasping “regional” as “limited,” “local,” and “provinci-
something of China’s lost cultural identity. As al.” Contrary to such evidence, one cannot
many Chinese architects are still lost in trans- state that the Chinese architects were striving
lating Western aesthetic forms for a Chinese to become particularly cosmopolitan.
public, creativity remains most often restricted
to the production of experimental skyscrapers
1. WANG Shu
with “cut-outs” and occasional pagoda roofs.
WANG Shu (born in 1963) is one of the most
In Russia it had become obvious in the 1980s- experimental Chinese architects and is often
1990s that architects working during socialist mentioned together with Yung Ho CHANG, MA
eras “had never been exposed to the kind of Qingyun, and LIU Jiakun as a typical represen-
building practice which is required to produce tative of a new generation.9 Above that, Wang
subtly differentiated objects.”3 China discovered Shu is one of the few architects who practice
a similar truth a little later. The first problem is “Critical Regionalism” in China. The term
that the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) cripp- Critical Regionalism was introduced in 1981 by
led the country’s architectural development by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in their
suspending the entire higher education system article “The Grid and the Pathway” and in 1983
for more than ten years; the second problem is Kenneth Frampton authored an article on the
that today’s outmoded institutional practices same subject.11 According to the definition of
seem to be unable to handle the architectural these authors, Critical Regionalism emphasi-
challenges brought by the overwhelming eco- zes the importance of “placeness” by conside-
nomic boom. ring contextual elements like scenery, histori-
cal references, and light, without falling into
In general, according to John Czaplicka regar-
imitation and traditionalism. In the present
ding Russia, “socialist architecture tends to be
article I would not only like to introduce the
unresponsive to the natural environment, local
work of WANG Shu but also take his work as a
customs, and the built heritage of particular
starting point for further reflections on the sig-
places or regions.” Usually, “derisive epithets
nificance of “Critical Regionalism” in the parti-
such as ‘feudal’, ‘bourgeois’, and ‘capitalist’
cular cultural and historical environment of
were directed at the historical substance.”4
China.
This is certainly also true for China, but in spite
of this, China’s architectural history is full of While many of Wang’s colleagues seem to
relatively successful attempts to combine fore- excel in copying skyscraper projects from
ign construction methods with Chinese aesthe- architectural reviews or specialize in façades
tics, reaching from the so-called “adaptive for commercial architecture, Wang insists that
Chinese Renaissance” of the 1920 and 19305 to he designs “a house instead of a building:”
I.M. Pei’s overtly modern though unmistakably “When I say ‘house’ I think of something that is
Chinese Fragrant Hill Hotel from 1982. The pro- closer to life, closer to everyday life.”12 Wang’s
blem is that these examples are limited and apparent architectural fundamentalism is not
restricted to certain periods. In the 1970, the supposed to create an out-of-the-world attitu-
communists ended up with a sort of extreme de but strives to attain professional and politi-
modernism and even when they had been cal freedom and to resist ideological and com-
tempted by traditional stylistic expressions6 mercial purposes. Amateur Architecture (the
they opted rather for a blunt form of imitative name of his studio) is therefore “spontaneous
traditionalism that is so well exemplified by the and experimental” as opposed to “official”;
metaphorically charged design of the Beijing “temporary” as opposed to “monumental;”
Railway Station. “critical and thoughtful” as opposed to “built;”
and “illegal” as opposed to “sanctioned.”

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 5
Wang explains that his architecture is “spont- Provocatively, Wang insists on the temporary
aneous for the simple reason that “for me character of amateur architecture, which is not
architecture is a matter of everyday life. I criti- meant as a “throw away architecture:”
cize in modern architecture that it has not real-
I simply think that architecture should work hand
ly found a method enabling architects to get
in hand with time. Sometimes I like to use cheap
back to real everyday life.” Wang does not want
material that can be exchanged when it is dama-
his architecture to be “significant” in any politi-
ged. And I like to associate buildings and plants.
cal sense, but rather establishes it in terms of
When buildings and plants come together it beco-
place and local history. An architect, he insists,
mes most obvious that, as long as time keeps
is first of all a researcher and scholar; second-
running, architecture is subjected to constant
ly a craftsman; and only thirdly a builder. Above
changes.
that Wang defines himself as an intellectual or
a writer. Wang is a rebel who feels close to the culture
of his generation often called liumang (hooli-
Amateur Architecture invites the active partici-
gan) culture claiming that, at one point, he had
pation of architects and artists and remains
been influenced by the liumang writer Wang
open to spontaneous changes. In particular,
Shuo:
Wang developed the “free design process,” a
design able to adapt itself constantly in respon- When I graduated from university I was a
se to the conditions of the environment as they liumang. Our generation was against all sorts of
appear during the building phase. In principle, systems but we had no alternative to offer.
“free design” is the method of creating a However, I am not cynical like Wang Shuo becau-
Chinese garden, explains Wang, for the simple se even though I destroy things I build something
reason that a Chinese garden cannot really be new in their place. I am always thinking of the
designed: future, which has not been the case for the hooli-
gans of the 1980s. In 1986 there was a conference
A Chinese garden is the result of a construction
held in Beijing called “How Can we
process. I would like to make this a principle of
Internationalize Chinese Architecture?” I went
modern architecture. When I build something I
there and said: “Since in China we have neither
am always free to change certain things.
architects nor architecture, the title of your con-
Incidentally, this is also typical for the Chinese
ference simply does not make sense.” You can
situation. Lots of unforeseeable things happen
believe me that there was quite a stir in the audi-
here all the time and you have to improvise. It is
ence. But what I said was true. At that time there
useless to make a precise plan but it is better to
was no architectural critique, there was no theory
solve problems at the moment they arise.
in China. An architect was somebody who knew
As a consequence, for Wang’s work not jian how to draw, he could be drawing all day long but
(place) – or its Japanese equivalent ma –, he was not necessarily thinking about what he
but yuan (garden) represents the most sig- was drawing.
nificant conceptual guideline.
According to Wang, the situation has changed,
Wang is certainly less well known than the but not necessarily for the better: “If I would
extremely successful MA Qingyun and less say the same thing today at an architectural
international than the Beijing-based CHANG conference it is very much possible that simply
Yung Ho, both of whom have been classified as nobody would bother. Today people are mainly
“regionalist.” Wang considers TONG Jun, one interested in money and business.”
of the first architects to undertake systematic
By calling his agency “Amateur Architecture
research into the Jiangnan Gardens in Suzhou,
Studio” and by simultaneously insisting on the
as his principal Chinese influence.13 From the
importance of the “handicraft aspect” of archi-
international set Wang likes Carlo Scarpa, Aldo
tecture Wang aims to distance himself, in a
Rossi, Alvaro Siza, and Louis Kahn while Tadao
provocative manner, from the professionalized,
Ando has interested him only briefly. If anyt-
technicized, and soulless “architecture as busi-
hing, Wang likes only Ando’s early works and
ness” attitude of present China:
believes that, in general, Ando’s regionalism
unfolded almost from the beginning too much A hundred years ago architecture had no theore-
on an international level: “Ando’s focus is not tical foundation at all in China but the people who
on particular cultural items while my regiona- built houses were artisans. Now an official archi-
lism is more preoccupied with details.” tectural system has been established reaching

6 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


from the city to the countryside. I chose handi- has been engaged in various experimental Vertical Apartment House.
Photo: Amateur Studio
craft and amateur spirit in order to oppose research projects such as the “Ceramic Tea
something to this system. In the end, for me, to House” at the Jinhua Architecture Park in
be an artisan or an amateur is almost the same Jinhua.
thing.
Wang pays scrupulous attention to the genius
Since its foundation in 1998, Wang’s “Amateur of place. When designing the Library of
Architecture Studio” (which Wang manages Wenzheng College of Suzhou University on an
with his partner LU Wenyu) has realized three artificial lakeside,14 for example, he considered
large scale projects: The Wenzheng Library of the traditional prescription of Suzhou garde-
Suzhou University; the Harbor Art Museum in ning, which suggests that buildings located
Ningbo; and, most recently, the Xiangshan between mountains and water should not be
Campus of the Chinese Academy of Art built on prominent. This led to the decision to sink
a 65000 m2 ground in Hangzhou which is com- nearly half of the library underground. Another
posed of ten buildings, including a library, a traditional gardening principle is to use diffe-
gallery, a stadium, a workshop tower, six aca- rent scales for each building which is the
demic buildings, two traditional style bridges, reason why the four additional buildings of the
and two hillside art studios. Just completed is library are much smaller than the main body.
the impressive Vertical Apartment House in Though Xin Ruan finds that “internally the buil-
Hangzhou (strangely reminiscent of Paul ding is a simple shed” (New China Architecture,
Rudolph’s Wisma Dharmala House in Jakarta). p. 180), the twisted building with a white, box-
In addition, the Amateur Architecture Studio like pavilion at the end overlooking the lake

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 7
Ceramic Tea House.
Photo: Amateur Studio

seems to find its justification within the fore- building twists and transforms accordingly, and
sted hill site. thus addresses uniformity and variability at the
same time. The inevitable bulk of the buildings
Wang was guided by similar ideas when desig- is purposefully lowered and the horizontal sun-
ning the Xiangshan Campus in Hangzhou: “As screen slope emphasizes the horizontal exten-
slopes, twists, and turns occur on site, the sion of the corresponding mountain range.”

8 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


Wen Zheng Library.
Photo: Amateur Studio

The use of agriculture as the main element of because the local government actively suppor-
the landscape design instead of ornamental ted his ideas about regionalism. Most parts of
landscaping is remarkable. the historic port buildings had to be destroyed
for security reasons. Still, Wang attempted to
Like CHANG Yung Ho, Wang is fascinated by
rebuild a “Chinese ceremonial space” by divi-
Chinese quadrangle courtyard houses and the
ding the building perpendicularly into upper
plan of the campus integrates the Chinese
and lower parts, which corresponds not only to
character which can also be interpreted as
Chinese tradition but also responds to contem-
a and which Wang serially reproduced. In
porary economic needs. The lower part of the
the character , building and nature occupy,
museum is reserved for commercial exhibiti-
each of them, one half. Finding that the simple
ons while the upper part holds art exhibitions.
and straightforward shape of the traditional
The gray bricks that are used for the foundati-
Chinese court is able to accommodate nearly
on of the main building are original bricks sal-
all architectural functions, Wang created a free
vaged from the destroyed building; the steel
typology based on the court able to
and timber elements in the upper part, on the
respond to the requirements of this gigantic
other hand, suggest an affinity with ships and
space.
harbor buildings. Along the river, there is a
Some of Wang’s principles echo CHANG Yung group of caves laid with bricks containing
Ho’s premise of “basic architecture” or “archi- Buddha figures, which evokes the historical
tecture-in-itself.” However, though it might be fact that the building had once been the star-
similar in certain aspects to Chang’s “Unusual ting point for pilgrimages.
Architecture” (feichang jianzhu), Wang’s archi-
tecture is “more concrete” as he intensively
2. The Possibilities of Critical Regionalism in
explores traditional construction techniques
China
and building cultures. The stone base of the
Kenneth Frampton saw critical regionalism
Craft Shop School of the Xiangshan Campus,
exemplified by Jørn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church
for example, is laid using a method common in
(1973-76) near Copenhagen, which represents,
the local construction of tea fields. Wang had
according to Frampton, a self-conscious syn-
also salvaged over two million tiles of different
thesis of universal civilization and world cultu-
ages and sizes from demolished traditional
re. The combination of “universal” elements
houses which now cover the roofs of the cam-
like the concrete outer shell of the church, with
pus buildings.
an organic and individualistic interior and a
The Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum (2 pho- roof shape reminiscent of pagodas as a refe-
tos possible) is located in the Ningbo Port area rence to “world culture,” make, in the eyes of
and is, as Wang affirms, “a typical example of Frampton, this architecture simultaneously
good cooperation with regional politicians” “resistant” and modern (Prospects… p. 154).

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 9
Xiangsan Campus.
Photo: Amateur Studio

This self-conscious “critical” or “resistant” strongly contributed to the formation of a criti-


stance necessarily included in Critical cal consciousness among European architects.
Regionalism, which enables the architect to be Eisenman points out that such tradition cannot
both resistant and modern, that is, to distance be found in Asia.19
himself from both the Enlightenment myth of
As a matter of fact, the “critical” instance of
progress and the pre-industrial past, is far
Critical Regionalism cannot be traced back to
from natural in China. Though the Chinese (like
aesthetics or architectural theory only, but has
the Japanese) had developed doctrines relati-
been developed even more abundantly in the
vely early that emphasized the necessity of
realm of historical science as generations of
Asian essence (ti) and Western functionality
European intellectuals attempted to give mea-
(yong)16 and aimed, at least sporadically, at a
ning to the concept of “critical history.”
reconciliation of Chinese and Western ele-
Discussions by Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831)
ments in architecture, regionalism has never
and especially by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-
been established as a critical architectural
1835) in his The Idealist Theory of
movement.
Historiography, laid the ground for a critical
This lack is even more flagrant today when it form of historicism. Leopold von Ranke (1795-
has become impossible to impute these diffi- 1886) as well as a subsequent set of philosop-
culties to the country’s lack of prosperity or to hers represented by Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm
the absence of a desire to realize a national Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert, helped to
identity (features that Frampton pointed out in define historical science as a discipline distinct
1983 as necessary conditions for the emergen- from both inductive scientific research and
ce of Critical Regionalism). Finally, even the metaphysical speculation. Ranke, who has
hangovers of the past communist modernist often been called the father of historical scien-
style as well as the aggressive influence of the ce,20 argued that the works of Antiquity and the
present “capitalist” international style might Renaissance should be used to reconstruct his-
turn out to be minor issues. I would hold that tory and that preservation or the establishment
the main obstacle for the establishment of cri- of authenticity should never be an end in itself.
tical architecture in China is rather the absen- Ranke explained that the present always orga-
ce of a real Chinese self-critical enlightenment nizes the past but that at the same time the
tradition.17 goals of the present will always be achieved
This is not the place to discuss Chinese intel- through history: “The particular is transformed
lectual history in general; still I would like to by the universal, at the same time defending
highlight some points that I consider being itself against the latter and reacting to it.”21
important for the formation of regional archi- Ranke viewed history not in the sense of
tecture in China. “Architecture-in-itself is not Hegel’s absolute ideas but as the intentions
found before in modern China,” confirms ZHU and thoughts of concrete individuals and insti-
Jianfei18 and Peter Eisenman states that archi- tutions. His conclusion is that “only critically
tecture in Asia is, in principle, conservative and researched history can be regarded as history”
accommodating because there is no tradition (p. 157) and that the “problem for the historian
of resistance. Eisenman refers to the impor- is not the relevance of the past period to the
tance attributed to critical thinking in late 18th present, but rather the difficulty of seeing each
century Europe – developed, in particular, by era from an objective universal perspective”
Kant and Giovanni Battista Piranesi – that (ibid.).22

10 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


There are many more examples of complex or tradition, among them the historian LUO Jialun
even paradoxical concepts of history and its who wrote in 1920: “Chinese culture and socie-
perception in European thought; all I want to ty are truly depressing these days. Not only are
show here is that in China such a tradition is they depressing at the present, but they may be
not present and that this must have conse- said to have been this way for two thousand
quences for the development of Chinese years. Europe, on the other hand, has experi-
Critical Regionalism. In Qing China, during the enced ceaseless progress since the
years of attempted reforms, intellectuals beca- Renaissance. The creative force in Western
me aware of a certain lack of a critical method civilization is, simply, the spirit of criticism.”25
with which to approach history. The late 19th
century Chinese reformer LIANG Qichao com- The “Chinese Renaissance,” led by the philo-
plained that “China, so proud of its ancient civi- sopher and linguist HU Shih, has been most
lization and long history, had failed to use them instrumental for a revolution in sinological stu-
to its advantage. The past had become a dead dies but had limited influence on other branc-
weight that held society back.”23 Liang had hes of the humanities because of long term
been influenced by the reform philosophies of political developments in China. The “Chinese
Meiji Japan, where he had studied. The reform Renaissance” also tackled the problem of his-
that he and other Chinese intellectuals sugge- tory, as reports Hu: “When, in 1917, I began my
sted, however, entered history as the “Hundred course on the History of Chinese Philosophy
Days Reform” because it was cut short by nati- with the age of the poets and ignored all the
onalist politicians.24 Many Chinese intellectuals previous periods of sage-rulers, the treatment Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum.
of this time regretted the absence of a critical was considered by the conservative students as Photo: Amateur Studio

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 11
Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum.
Photo: Amateur Studio

so outrageous that it almost created a revolt in It is not difficult to link these facts to concrete
my class.” Students criticized, for example, his expressions of Chinese architecture. In the
denial of the historical existence of the Hsia 1970s, the sinologists Simon Leys and F.W.
Dynasty, one of the three dynasties of Mote expressed their amazement at the utmost
antiquity.26 Still Hu and his group had understo- negligence with which the Chinese used to
od what China was lacking: “It was not enough treat the material heritage of their past.27 This
to have a critical method; the method must be China, which has had such a long history and
self-conscious so that it may be able to critici- which was so heavily loaded with memories,
ze itself against loose application” (77). had remarkably few historical monuments to
visit. While Europe has kept, in spite of its wars

12 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


and destructions, monuments dating from documentations of the past. It constantly scru-
Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the tinized that past as recorded in words, and
Renaissance, in China – except for the few caused it to function in the life of its present”
most famous items – the monumental past has (p. 51). They built no Acropolis but monuments
been practically absent. Leys insists that this is of the mind. The Maple Bride in Suzhou, for
not just the result of the destructions carried example, is not important as an object but
out during the Cultural Revolution but, that in exists only as a bit of psycho-historical materi-
the beginning, the revolutionaries did not find al or as a “poetic place” in literary history.
much to destroy. Behind all this Leys and Mote Official and historical “descriptions” of the
find a particular Chinese concept of civilization bridge consist most frequently of a poem and
through which the cultural development of a “in all that psycho-historical material associa-
country is not interpreted in terms of material ted with the Maple Bridge, the bridge as an
manifestations but in terms of “writing.” While object is of little importance; we are not told of
the West has an antique presence made of aut- what material it is built, how big it is, or what it
hentically ancient physical objects, China does looks like” (p. 52). The poems capture
not have those “because of (…) a different atti- “moments of experience or of reflection invol-
tude towards the way of achieving the enduring ving the bridge” or involve earlier poems inspi-
monument.28 Derk Bodde has reduced this red in some indirect way by the bridge.
phenomenon to a brief formula by opposing
Suzhou is a city of ancient monuments, which
Western civilization of buildings to a Chinese
contains almost no ancient buildings at all. The
civilization of writing:
“duration” of the monument is spiritual rather
Our word “civilization” goes back to a Latin root than material and any “authenticity” must be
having to do with “citizen” and “city.” The Chinese seen as virtual. This means that in China, the
counterpart, actually a binome, wen hua, literally past, tradition, and culture were not present
means “the transforming [i.e. civilizing] influence and real in the first place but they were made
of writing. In other words, for us the essence of of words. Not surprisingly, a past made of
civilization is urbanization; for the Chinese it is words is elusive.
the art of writing.29 LU Xun defined the Chinese past as a perpetu-
ally elusive enemy, as an invisible, immaterial,
A typical example is Suzhou’s Great Pagoda
but indestructible shadow or ghost. Mote and
that passes as Suzhou’s “Statue of antiquity.”
Ley hold that the buildings are “ideas” or items
However, Mote claims that “no building with
derived from the consciousness of the Chinese
such a pedigree would count for much as an
who knew the poems:
authentic antiquity even in the United States,
much less in Rome” (p. 50). The Pagoda, whose The literary remains merely sampled in the
origins go back to the third century, is a twenti- gazetteers, and more fully present in the libraries
eth century construction that has constantly of scholars, are to Soochow as is the Forum to
been rebuilt over the centuries and nothing of Rome. From them every educated Chinese could
what can be found in it is what a Westerner reconstruct a real Soochow in his mind, with
would call authentic. The point is that cracks and the scars that mar old stones (p. 53).

Chinese civlization did not lodge its history in


buildings. Even its most grandiose palace and city
Vernacular Mysticism
complexes stressed grand layout, the employ-
It is useful to structure this phenomenon by
ment of space, and not buildings, which were
using the concepts of the French philosophers
added as a relatively impermanent superstructu-
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who divide
re. Chinese civilization seems not to have regar-
human language into four categories: vernacu-
ded its history as violated or abused when the
lar language (here), referential language
historic monuments collapsed or burned, as long
(there), vehicular language (everywhere), and
as they would be replaced and restored, and their
mythical language (beyond).30 In the domain of
functions regained. In short, we can say that the
architecture this constellation can be reprodu-
real past of Soochow is a past of the mind; its
ced like this: While the international style spe-
imperishable elements are moments of human
aks the vehicular language of the everywhere,
experience. (p. 51)
Critical Regionalism does not aim, as does
According to Mote, the Chinese past was not regionalism, at the reinstallation of a strong
made of stone but of words: “China kept the vernacular “Here” but rather at the vernacula-
largest and longest-enduring of all mankind’s zation of referential elements. Here we recog-

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 13
nize that something is different in China. What which explores the iconic, image-like, or “sce-
seems to be so particular about Chinese archi- neographic” character of architecture at the
tecture, and what is relevant in the context of expense of its more “authentic,” object-like,
the present discussion, is that in China traditi- tactile aspect, and which is, above that, globali-
on is marked off by the combination of the ver- zed, has made any critical discourse on archi-
nacular (here) and the mythical (beyond), that tecture difficult. In China, on the other hand, it
is, by “mythical vernacularism.” In the past, no is the historical background that is represented
matter if it came to Confucian movements, by a virtual, non-critical cultural environment.
mathematics or architecture, scholars and
architects dealt mainly with “sacred” writings
Conclusion
that had their origin in an ideal order of reality
When we ask here if the new generation of
and were supposed to contain all knowledge
Chinese architects will be able to take a critical
pertinent to the field.31 “Mythical vernacula-
view not only at the West but also at themsel-
rism,” that is, tradition inscribed in the realm
ves we mean more precisely: will young
of the ideal, represented a kind of “virtual
Chinese architects be able to do more than
reality” in which culture – of which also archi-
complacently add some more images to the
tecture is an example – was contained in a
stock of “Chinese looking buildings” referring
non-material fashion. The manifestations of this
to a virtual past? The task is difficult, especially
ideal architectural reality (the buildings), on the
given the fact that still in the 1980s, according
other hand, were relatively rarely represented
to Wang Shu, “there was no architectural criti-
by concrete items that could be seen and visi-
que, there was no theory in China.” Will
ted but were rather systematically destroyed.
Chinese architects be able to create a valuable
Architectural culture (like the rest of Chinese
Chinese environment with works that flow out
culture) was rather preserved, in a “virtual”
of a critical interchange with China’s own his-
manner, in texts and in the minds of China’s
tory? Obviously, “history” is here not just the
(learned) people.
classics. Most probably these architects will
The provocative question that we are confron- have to refer to May 4th values, to Westernized
ted with today is how Critical Regionalism can Shanghai architecture or to the “adaptive
function in a culture in which the architectural Chinese Renaissance” of the 1920s, or even to
past is more virtual than concrete. The a Shanghai film culture that appeared already
European enlightenment tradition which led ninety years ago in the form of what film scho-
from the late eighteenth century to the avant- lars call today “vernacular modernism.” We
garde, and which was constantly refashioned are at the beginning of a new era.
with regard to new intellectual elements flo-
Finally, in the midst of this situation Wang Shu
wing out of the ideological struggle of or with
remains optimistic. Though in China, “destroy
the rising bourgeoisie, left its distinctive mark
and rebuild” is an important tradition and
also on European architecture. Whatever this
though, in his view, “this time they want to
struggle might have looked like in each parti-
destroy absolutely everything,” Wang also belie-
cular case, enlightened or “avant-garde” archi-
ves that “in China the tension between central
tects had to combat a real past and a real tra-
government and regional politics is less inten-
dition present in the form of objects. Finally,
se than foreigners generally think.” The reason
Critical Regionalism flows out of this tradition.
is that traditionally, central and regional
Curiously, in Europe, the avant-garde tradition powers have always been kept at a distance
faded out just at the moment cultural reality and do not interfere very much with each other.
came to be presented in a more and more vir- And “regionalist politics certainly does have a
tual-globalized fashion. Eisenman claims that closer relationship with unofficial, traditional
the 200-year European project of critical architecture.” The conclusion is that Critical
enlightenment thought exhausted itself in the Regionalism will most probably install itself
middle of the twentieth century, for economic within niches created by a unique tradition of
reasons, but also because the concept of archi- regional politics and hopefully begin to face its
tecture had undergone dramatic changes. A own past and formulate its own Chinese princi-
new media-based concept of architecture (alre- ples.
ady criticized by Frampton in his 1983 essay)

14 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


AUTHOR

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Gulf University for Science and Technology, College of Arts
and Sciences Philosophy. Hawally, Kuwait
thorstenbotz@hotmail.com

REFERENCES
1 7
Hannah Beech: “Ye Olde Shanghai” in Time Xin Ruan: New China Architecture (Hong Kong:
Feb. 14, 2005. Periplus, 2006), p. 14.
2 8
See my article… Douglas Reichert Powell: Critical Regionalism:
3
Connecting Politics and Culture in the American
Cf. Catherine Cooke: “Beauty as the Route to
Landscape (University of North Carolina Press,
the Radiant Future: Response to Soviet
2007), p. 19.
Architecture” in Journal of Design History 10: 2,
9
1997, p. 139. Cf. also Don L. Hanlon: See Charlie Q. L. Xue’s Chapter “Experimental
“Architectural Education in Post-Maoist China” Architecture: The Rise of the Younger
in Journal of Architectural Education 41: 1, Generation” in Building a Revolution: Chinese
1987, pp. 26-29. Architecture since 1980. (Hong Kong University
4
press, 2006) and Li Xiangning’s “‘Make-the-
John Czaplicka: “The Vernacular in Place and
Most-of-It’ Architecture: Young Architects and
Time: Relocating History in Post-Soviet Cities”
Chinese Tactics” in City 12:2 2008, 226-236.
in M. Umbach & B. Hüppauf (eds), Vernacular
10
Modernism: Heimat, Globalization, and the Built In Architecture in Greece 5, 1981.
Environment (Stanford University Press, 2005),
11
p. 173. “Prospects for a Critical Regionalism” in
5
Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 20,
The term goes back to the American architect
1983, pp. 147-62. In a 2001 article entitled
Henry Killiam Murphy (1877-1954) and his
“Place, Form, Cultural Identity” (Arcade,
efforts to combine national and modernist ele-
Autumn 20, pp. 16-17) he again took up this
ments in China.
concept. See also Tzonis and Lefaivre’s article
6
This had happened about two decades earlier. “Why Critical Regionalism Today” (Architecture
Cf. Rowe, Peter & Seng Kuan: Architectural and Urbanism 236, 1990, pp. 22-33) and their
Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern new book Critical Regionalism: Architecture and
China (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), p. 134. Identity in a Globalized World (New York: Stout,

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 15
19
2003) and Tropical Architecture: Critical Peter Eisenman: “Critical Architecture in a
Regionalism in the Age of Globalization ed. by Geopolitical World” in Cynthia Davidson and
Tzonis, Lefaivre, and Stagno (Chichester: Wiley- Ismail Serageldin (eds). Architecture Beyond
Academy, 2001). Architecture: Creativity and Social
12
Transformations in Islamic Cultures (London:
Mr. Wang’s statements have been collected
Academy Editions, 1995).
by me during a conversation in his Hangzhou
20
studio in May 2007. I thank YAN Shaojie who K. von Moltke: ‘Introduction’ to Leopold von
functioned as an interpreted in my conversati- Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History
on with Mr. Wang. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), p. xv.
13 21
Tong Jun (1900-1983) studied architecture at Ranke: The Secret of World History (New York:
the University of Pennsylvania from 1925 to Fordham University Press, 1981), p. 250.
1930 and taught at Nanjing University. 22
I obviously disagree with Keith Eggener and
14
1999-2000, in cooperation with Lu Wenyu and Jane Jacobs who hold that Critical Regionalism
Tong Ming. “is a revisionary form of imperialist nostalgia
15
that defines the colonial as always engaged in
Kenneth Frampton: “Towards a Critical
conscious work against the core” (Jane Jacobs:
Regionalism: Six Points for Architecture of
The Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City,
Resistance” in Hal Foster: The Anti-Aesthetic.
London Routledge, 1996), p. 14-15. Still,
Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay
Eggener’s point that Critical Regionalism is in
Press, 1983).
most cases no response to the West but rather
16
Modernizer Feng Guifen launched the famous a response to local circumstances can well be
self-strengthening movement (1861-95) and integrated in my own argumentation, as I defi-
produced the slogan of “Chinese learning for ne CR in the first place as a self-critical move-
fundamental principles; Western learning for ment. I grant that CR might at times made
use” (Zhongxue wei ti; xixue wei yong). have made “paramount a struggle where no
Interestingly, the thesis was brought from struggle otherwise would have been said to
China to Japan and the Japanese slogan of exist” (“Placing Resistance: A Critique of
“Japanese spirit and Western technology” even Critical Regionalism” in Journal of Architectural
preexisted in the form of the earlier version Education 55:4, 2002, 228-237, 232). However, I
“Japanese spirit and Chinese technology.” would hold that also the non-western critical
17
regionalists participate in the western enlighte-
I am aware that the existence of an enligh-
ned discourse even when they do not directly
tenment movement or a scientific revolution
act against western (capitalist, globalized)
has been a point of issue among sinologists for
models.
at least thirty years. See Nathan Sivin who wri-
23
tes: “A scientific revolution, by the criteria that Luke S.K. Kwong: “Chinese Politics on the
historians of science use, did take place in Crossroads: Reflections on the 100 Days
China in the eighteenth century. It did not, Reform of 1898” in Modern Asian Studies 2000,
however, have the social consequences that we 34:3, p. 663-695, quotation from p. 664.
assume a scientific revolution will have.” “Why 24
As a matter of fact, some historians hold that
the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in
reforms had been “unofficially” pushed through
China - Or Did It?” in Sivin, Science in Ancient
once the reformers had been condemned to
China (Aldershot, Hants: Variorum, 1995), chap-
exile, and even “far surpassed the objectives of
ter VII. The article is also on Sivin’s website.
the Hundred Day Reform Movement.” Cf. Jin
Sivin points out that European science, betwe-
Guantao: “Interpreting Modern Chinese History
en the time of Copernicus and Laplace, created
through the Theory of Ultrastable Systems” in
a knowledge “that had no value except truth
Gloria Davis (ed.): Voicing Concerns:
value” and that “the same leap was not taken
Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Lanham:
in seventeenth-century China.” This might be
Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p. 164ff.
true but it says nothing about a subsequent
25
development of a critics of reason that was “The Study of Criticism: Three W-sims” in
also absent in China. Xinchao (New Tide) 2:3 April 1920, pp. 601-603
18
Jianfei ZHU: “Criticality in Between China quoted from Vera Schwarcz: Chinese
and the West” in The Journal of Architecture, Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of
10:5, November 2005, pp. 479-498. the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (California UP,
1986), p. 123.

16 Nordisk Arkitekturforskning 1-2009


26 31
Hu Shih: The Chinese Renaissance: The Benjamin A. Elman: From Philosophy to
Haskell Lectures 1933 (New York: Paragon, Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of
1963), p. 76. Change in Late Imperial China (Harvard
27
University Press 1984), p. xivff.
Simon Leys: L’humeur, l’honneur, l’horreur
32
(Paris: Laffont, 1991), p. 11ff. Miriam Bratu Hansen: “Fallen Women, Rising
28
Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Film as
F.W. Mote: “A Millennium of Chinese Urban
Vernacular Modernism” in Film Quaterly 54:1,
History: Form, Time and Space Concepts in
2000, pp. 10-22.
Soochow”. Rice University Studies 59:4, 1973,
pp. 35-65, quotation from p. 49. The text is
mentioned by Leys.
29
Derk Bodde: Essays on Chinese Civilization
(Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 39.
30
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari: Kafka. Pour
une littérature mineure (Paris: Minuit, 1975), pp.
33-43.

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein: WANG Shu and the Possibilities of Architectural Regionalism in China 17