Notes from China on Architecture
Resident Architect, Barney Maier recently returned from Beijing, Shanghai and Tengzhou City of Shandong Province in China. Barney earned a degree in Chinese Studies from Middlebury College and holds a Masters of Architecture from UCLA. He lives in Arlington where he was instrumental in establishing a Mandarin Chinese program at Arlington High School which will enter its second year in September.
I recently visited China – a long time ambition to walk on the Great Wall of China and see the Forbidden City finally requited! As an Architect I was impressed with many aspects of their traditional buildings, especially the treatment of roof structures. The elaboration of the roof was a primary indicator of the importance of the building and the wealth of the owner. The space below the roof struck me as less impressive and invariably less “comfortable”. Even the royal living quarters were not spaces to be envied. But the courtyards are something else.
Like the dwellings of many cultures the Chinese home typically features a courtyard space surrounded by built structures, similar to the atrium of Greek and Roman houses, where much of daily life’s activities are focused. As long as you are outdoors, the environment is reasonably pleasant. While I was not especially impressed with traditional Chinese interior spaces, I was impressed by one aspect of their building technology. More than a thousand years ago, the Chinese had developed modular buildings. A system of cantilevered beams was developed with a fixed formula for a given span: for span “x” you needed a column with a 2-step cantilevered beam, and for span “y” you needed a column with 3-step cantilevered beam. In this case the oft heard Chinese claim to be the first to have done something was indeed the case.