By Li Ying

25 September 2014 - 15:46

Chinese architecture embraces both traditional and contemporary elements. Photo of the 'Bird's Nest', Beijing's National stadium by Baron Reznik under Creative Commons licence.
Chinese architecture embraces both traditional and contemporary elements. Photo ©

Baron Reznik, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

In recent years, rapid urban development in China has seen bold new architectural designs. The British Council’s Li Ying looks at some of the influences on contemporary Chinese architecture and examines what can be gained from collaboration between the UK and China in this field.

What are the current dominant styles in China?

Chinese architecture is defined by diversity and incorporates a variety of styles. It takes inspiration from home and abroad, and embraces both traditional and contemporary elements to create designs ranging from the conceptual to the more market-oriented. Due to the scale and speed of urban development, however, Chinese architecture increasingly embodies technological innovation, most notably digital influences and ‘green’ architecture aimed at energy savings. Therefore, modernist styles can be considered as the mainstream, with residential and office buildings dominating the city-scape of most Chinese cities, in particular along the highly developed eastern coastline.

How do Chinese architects feel about tradition? Are they respectful of it or are there deliberate breaks with tradition?

Chinese architects have realised that many of China’s contemporary cities lack a clear sense of identity. As a result, more and more of them are seeking to express their respect for tradition by incorporating elements of ancient Chinese architecture styles. Some architects apply the concept of traditional Chinese architecture to contemporary designs, while others use elements of contemporary architecture to highlight the features of traditional culture. Although architects naturally have different opinions and approaches regarding this aspect, the inheritance of traditional Chinese culture unites them and is always at the heart of their designs. For example, the Chinese pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 used a high-tech installation in the shape of an oriental crown, displaying the spirit of traditional Chinese culture.

What architectural challenges are peculiar to China that architects have to deal with?

Over the past 30 years, Chinese architects have succeeded in solving the problems of poor living standards during the rapid process of urbanisation. Looking toward the future, they are devoting themselves to improving the quality of buildings and urban spaces.

However, as urbanisation has led China to become the largest energy consumer in the world, the Chinese government has been making efforts to reduce energy consumption and emissions. Under these circumstances, Chinese architects must figure out how to solve the conflict between the rapid process of urbanisation and environmental protection. Simultaneously, because China is a huge country and the differences among its regions and cities are significant, Chinese architects are also looking at low-cost, low-tech approaches to making buildings in less developed areas more energy efficient.

Has there been a UK influence on China or vice versa? What are some examples?

Over the past two decades, a number of British architects have designed buildings for China, many of which have become national landmarks. At the same time, elements of traditional Chinese culture have gained popularity and are increasingly reflected in UK architectural designs. A good example isTerminal 3 of the Capital International Airport in Beijing, which was designed by Sir Norman Foster.

The UK’s contemporary architecture and architects have had a great impact on China. Sir Norman Foster has set up an international design practice famous for high-tech architecture. London City Hall, which he designed, uses three-dimensional lighting analyses and a daylight simulation technology, reflecting the UK’s high-tech and performance-driven approach to architecture. Many Chinese architects are now integrating these concepts into their designs.

What are both China and the UK hoping to gain from collaboration with each other in this field?

There is a lot China can learn from the UK, which is home to much of the world’s leading contemporary architecture and has a mature architectural education system. Collaborations in this field between the UK and China will promote the development and prosperity of architecture in both countries.

For example, if British architects can improve their understanding of traditional Chinese culture and China’s contemporary development, they will be able to propose more appropriate and effective plans when involved in China-related design projects. Likewise, more collaboration will present Chinese architects with greater opportunities to master advanced methods and technology. Already, more and more young Chinese architects are being trained in UK higher education institutions and in the UK’s architectural sector.

The Sino-UK higher education collaboration on architecture runs until 30 September 2014 in Harbin, China. Six Chinese universities and three UK universities are participating in the programme with the aim of promoting higher education collaboration in the field of architecture between the UK and China, in both educational and business sectors.

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