Beijing Solarscape: A Visual Anthropology          



Peter Nesteruk







                     Beijing’s architecture through its relationship to the sky.











Introduction: ‘Looking up’.



PART ONE: The Persistence of Tradition.


(Chapter 1) The Lure of Inherited Forms.


Interlude. Architectural Debates: The Space/Place Problem.


(Chapter 2) Chinese Whispers.


Episode: Architecture and Desire.



PART TWO: The Shock of the New. The 20th Century.


(Chapter 3) Building the Tower of Babel. The Skyscraper Tradition.


      Interlude. Architectural Debates: Illusionism & Ideology.


(Chapter 4) City of Glass. Modernism & Beyond.



      PART THREE: A Unitary Vision? Cityscapes, Old & New.


(Chapter 5) Reading Architecture! Points of Orientation.


i/ Whose stand-point? Horizon v Stand-alones

ii/ Points of view. Pointed Roof v Flat Roof Traditions


Afterword: Evolution of the Eye.



Appendices : Timelines. i/ Architectural archetypes (skiamorphs).

                                         ii/Beijing: a very short architectural history.



 (0) Introduction



Looking up.



Because of the impetus provided by the Olympic Games of 2008, Beijing offers an excellent showcase of recent developments in architecture. Moreover this demonstration of the best of recent architectural design is not limited to landmark buildings alone, the reconstruction of the city and its transport network has meant that the designers of everyday apartments or office blocks have also had to consider what image their building presents, how it can represent their city, country and culture – what will be their contribution to the shape and silhouette of the city skyline.



“Our ‘love of the skyline’ is explained if we conceive it as our relationship with our world in concentrated form.”




Even recently the view of the modern city skyline was a matter for some embarrassment. We expected old cities to have enchanting horizons, to please us so much that we would seek them out as we would a particularly satisfying pleasure: but the modern urban horizon - this was something we did not waste time on. Things change. Sometime in the last ten years the building of attractive structures began to outnumber the unattractive; our skyline was again something we could take pride in as attention to feature, materials and colour began to take over from drabness and uniformity. Things were looking up. We too began to look up again.


Already in the 1970s we saw a revulsion against what modern developers were doing to our cities. First we saw the arrival of Postmodernism on the architectural scene, bringing back decoration to a scene that until then had been dominated by the naked, concrete and glass cube. Then new technological discoveries opened the door to new designs – novel forms, sinuous curves, breath-taking overhangs, unusual colour combinations; hitherto unimagined configurations began to appear in our cities. Most importantly, we witnessed a change in the expectations of the urban dweller; a revolution in the way we think about our urban environment that has changed what is acceptable to us. Such that we now expect something ‘extra’, something ‘finished’ about the topmost elements of a building, something that will add to the totality of the skyline, that will make the building both stand out, and fit in; stand out as good-looking, fit in as harmonious with its context, its society, the people who must look at and live with it. This transformation moved forward at ever-greater speed, until the majority of buildings, not excluding the humble office and apartment dwelling, all showed signs of this sense of visual responsibility. So much so that we now find that some meaningful differentiation of the topmost segment of the urban field has become de rigueur - even if this demarcation in some cases can only be observed in the most minimal of ways (in the colour of the paint or the type or texture of the material).


The special recognition awarded to the topmost part of the built environment is accompanied by a corresponding differentiation of the lowest segment of urban architecture; our ground floor level, the level of shop-fronts and displays, window-shopping and entrances. And the ‘middle’ has not been forgotten either; the textures and patterns on the long middles of tall buildings, cumulatively, the ‘canyon wall’ of the modern city street, have also received increased attention. These three zones, three horizontal planes that orientate our experience of urban architecture and urban life, appear to have been universally recognized. This despite earlier attempts to avoid decoration (largely on economic grounds) resulting in the dominance of drab cubes (in the East as in the West) in the 1950s and 1960s; yet - as if the basic experience, our basic, even minimal expectations of architecture, were hard to forget - even the most plain buildings often still retained some minimal marking-out of the three zones. But the tops were flat, giving modern cities their ‘unfinished’ feel, leaving our expectations fallen flat, conveying the sense of an uncared-for horizon -our urban landscape as not worthy of concern- as something designed by those who probably lived elsewhere. Now we expect a lively difference of structure, ornament or some manner of decorative design to occur between top and middle (and middle and bottom), and, if we are lucky, some roof-top feature that will single out the building in silhouette, making its mark as part of the horizon, leaving its mark, contributing, distinct, but cumulative, to the vision we behold of the city skyline.


The relation of our architecture to the sky is a special one – symbolizing so much more than the bricks and mortar we find there. To capture this symbolism, the term ‘Solar’ has been borrowed from medieval usage (denoting a room in the sun, a topmost room) to give a name to this top-most level of the urban experience. The Solar is what we perceive as our eyes naturally slide up the walls of our world up to the light (the ancient Greeks had a name for this: hypsosis). It is what we see in the space between heaven and earth, the architectural features that fill this space. As we look out onto our city skylines, at the heritage that previous generations have left us, we find that, if we are proud of this heritage then the skyline will be variegated and eye-catching, if not then the impoverished and unfinished appearance that is the legacy of the middle decades of the 20th century will no doubt be in evidence.


The Solar skyline is about buildings in context, about sharing a world. The skyline, our horizon, is also our final visual context, ultimate background, site of our collective sense of responsibility to the world, the world of the viewer, as of its dwellers, the inhabitants of cities, ourselves…


Our ‘love of the skyline’ is explained if we conceive it as our relationship with our world in concentrated form. What we collectively feel about our urban home, our space in the world, is symbolized here, represented in the attention and expense we find here, reflected in the skyline, in the ‘feel’ of the urban horizon. Good skylines tell of a sacrifice for a good view (the economic sacrifice of profitable space for the meanings to be found in a given symbolic feature). A gift to the horizon. A sacrifice made for a collective view that speaks to all of us, and, indirectly an offering made for all of us, in the pressure exercised by all upon the architect’s decisions. Result; variety, exuberance and a spur to the imagination (and even occasionally the twin extremes of banality and excess)!


The results of this transformation are perhaps most obvious in Beijing, a city virtually rebuilt in the course of the last decade. Everywhere we can see bold experiments in state architecture and public -that is ‘landmark’- buildings, as well as in the variety present in the everyday office-block and apartment building, the high-rise staple of the urban architectural field. This book is a survey of this new, or reborn, urban feature, the visual rhetoric it employs and the meanings it offers, the meanings we make of it, the urban horizon as landscape and artwork, the reconstructed Solar, symbol of our place in the world, in the skyline of Beijing, capital of China, symbol of China’s place in the world.






















How this book is structured. The variety of forms that we see in the uppermost parts of buildings, those regions of our urban experience we have chosen to call the ‘Solar’, are described according to their appearance and their origins - but above all by the type of response they draw from us – intended or otherwise.

 A line is drawn from earlier forms to later developments; from their origins to the borrowing and adaptations that follow. These family resemblances are discussed in terms of a rhetoric that has as much to do with our expectations of the environment in which we live, as of architectural tradition. Both being answerable finally to the court of human experience.


Each chapter has an introductory section explaining the key issues, followed by a list of typologies, the terms you see here on either side. These terms are then illustrated and their meanings discussed.




















Giant Egg









Flying Saucers



Water Cube




Metal Skin



Bird’s Nest




Lightening Rods













Dragon Head











Watch Towers



Flying Carpets









Art Deco


Sky Beacon


































PART ONE: The Persistence of Tradition.



Where have I seen that before? The first two chapters will introduce a number of features prominent on the Beijing architectural scene which owe their inspiration to older and even to ancient architectural traditions. The first chapter will chart the course of forms common to East and West. The second chapter will introduce the indigenous Chinese tradition and its modern expression.
































 (CHAPTER ONE) The Lure of Inherited Forms.



In this chapter we will see how forms common to East and West have contributed to the language of modern architectural design. This fusion includes the appropriation by Chinese architectural culture of certain received Western forms (the Cornice), as well as the fusion and development of forms that are similar East and West (the Arch, the Window, the Courtyard). The Chinese tradition proper will be dealt in the next chapter.



Introductory Section


This category contains what may well be some of the most subtle forms of architectural rhetoric we are liable to see. Basic forms, whose histories may be discussed in terms of millennia, have been transformed by technology, materials, stylistic formalization, or combination with other features to form a ‘new’ visual experience (albeit replete with the echoes of all the past forms it can be found to resemble or of which it may act as a reminder). Many of these buildings suggest a combination of traditional forms; most especially in the development of sky-relating or framing features such as the Cornice (taken from the West, but cross-fertilised by the roof overhang of the Chinese tradition) and the Arch along with the continued evolution of spatial-volumetric or room-like features such as the Courtyard (East and West), and the Atrium, and Narthex forms of entry and semi-open enclosure.


Typologies; the Experience of the Edge and the Experience of Openings.



The Experience of the Edge: The Return of the Cornice and the Chinese Roof-rim


Definitions. Cornice. Originating in the classical architecture of Greece and Rome where it signified the topmost, projecting section of the Entablature (the cross beam, load-bearing element in beam and column design, the decorative aspects of which could be ‘wrapped around’ the triangular pediment that often topped it, a ‘raking cornice’). In recent architecture this term is applied to any outwardly curving or other-wise projecting decorative moulding or casing that runs along the top of the building (but also along a wall or arch) and regarded as its finishing touch or crown. Also (in the language of classical architecture) referred to as a ‘cyma’ or ‘cymatium’, the distinguishing feature or curved part of the modern cornice.


The most popular pre-twentieth century feature used in recent architecture owes much to the legacy of the Renaissance Cornice (itself in debt to the classical Greek and Roman periods). The Cornice is the decorated top edge of a building (when a ban on the ‘loud’ or ostentatious ornamentation of buildings came into effect in Renaissance Rome, the competing families of aristocrats began to devise ever more impressive cornices for the passers-by to look up to). This function, of looking up, and of making value judgments as to the nature (and quantity of wealth) of the building’s occupants, is still important today: We may recognize a building’s function from the amount of detail and manner of signs found on the cornice, or read messages concerning State and Nation, from the weight and splendour (or severely simplistic rationality) expressed there.


The return of the cornice as an important decorative or ‘finishing’ feature in (post)modern architecture has occurred in two ways. The first takes the form a feature placed on top of a building, often appearing as if to act as a sun-break, or masking the less attractive, if necessary, machine housing that can be found there. Usually it imitates the cornice by providing an (otherwise modern) building with a top section which fans outwards from the top, giving a finished effect to what would otherwise be a flat, unfinished top and so establishing a relationship with the sky. However this type of cornice also resembles the roof-curve associated with the traditional Chinese system of roofing –most especially its overhang and support system. As such this effect will be discussed in detail in the chapter that follows. The forms of the top edge that concern us here are those based upon a second form; the differentiation of the entire upper portion of the building itself, an extension that clearly extends the symbolism of the (Renaissance) Cornice. It is this category that is discussed next.


In what appears to have become the official ‘house’ style for many of the key institutions of State, we are presented with large, basically square, partly-open, structures with a prominent cornice carrying key national symbols. Designed to offset the uniformity of the modernist cube, which this type of building takes as its fundamental model, the cornice outlines the building as a sky or horizon-marking feature (often taking an inward and downward curve which offers a passing homage to the roof-support system and roof curves of traditional Chinese architecture). This same feature is part of the upper frame of a glass-walled opening, which may traverse many floors of the front face of the building. A key part of this structure is a monster atrium reaching across many floors, usually a large open space within the confines of the building in question which is open to the sky by means of a large opening in the ceiling or roof (or, more recently as large skylight). This term, ‘Atrium’, is now often (if a little inventively) used for any large open space within a building which runs up to the roof, giving light access to all floors and by means of its glass fronting, ‘opening-out’ the building to the public - or anyway, to public view.


Definitions. Atrium. First an interior court or space open to the sky (Roman, Classical), later an open courtyard in front of a church, such as an open space with columns framing its periphery (Late-Classical and Medieval periods). Now more usually indicating a large and tall interior space with (at least part of) one side open to the exterior light.


Such a space, enclosed in glass, so rendering part of the interior visible from the outside, from the street or public space, is in character transitional between inside and outside; so creating a kind of ‘in-between’, between the private spaces of office and work-place, and the exterior public world - a kind of public space that lies within the building’s enclosing frame. Welcoming… but austere - even at times, as when the building is of a particularly vast size, a little daunting (so possibly running counter to the main rhetorical effect of this particular feature which is to suggest ‘openness’). Indeed the limitation of this rhetoric, and hence its presence as a form of rhetoric, as an argument in stone, a suggestion (or illusion) in three dimensions, may be akin to the experience of an image, something subsisting in the realm of the visual only and not designed to be extended into everyday use. Like a façade presenting one message (or face) whilst another, potentially conflicting one, is contained or performed within. A façade with an opening. Portal to the sites of power. The gate before which Kafka’s supplicant waits.


For a typical example, see the Government Building on corner of Jianguomen and Yonghegong Dajie (opp. Beixinqiao subway station).


The Grand Arch in Paris, whose opening, or openness, takes the form of a radical hollowing out leaving only the sides (the invisible base) and the roof space to house offices and exhibitions, in many respects provides the model for the kind of buildings in question. What we witness is a return of Monumental Modernism (or Monumental Minimalism) to the architectural scene. The Modernism of these buildings, enshrined in the use of the modernist cube, suggests rationality, modernity, the continuity of the modern or modernist project, and so the project of modernization and modernity as inseparable from the notion of progress, and furthermore the continuity in the use of modern design of the notion of progress. The unification (rhetorical of course) of the notion of progress as an unfinished, ongoing project, and the historical period term ‘Modernism’, signal the desire of the buildings to be seen as the custodians of both progress and Modernity. Yet sometimes, as noted, the ghost of the roof form of traditional Chinese architecture can also be found to lurk here… to be found hiding in the curve of the cornice as we look up. Offering a (possibly accidental but certainly culturally ambiguous) continuity with the past. The persistence of the old in the new.


The Capital Museum on Fuxingmen Wai, combines old and new in all its architectural features. The cornice is old in function and meaning but new in form, as well as the suggesting the Western cornice and curve of the traditional Chinese roof support system, the Chinese ‘apron’ roof is also referenced, as is the awning of a gigantic tent. The gigantic bronze pot-like structure that so dramatically ruptures the integrity of the walls and the lines of the cornice is at once a reference to the Chinese Bronze age with its huge ritual containers of bronze and to modern building design with its postmodern ability to combine old and new in exciting new forms. Glass walls enclose large parts of the building (and all of the zone below the roof) thus further referencing traditional Chinese architecture where it was the pillars that held up the roof, leaving the possibility of a general openness in the rest of the design.


Likewise the columns that introduce the Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Architect: Cui Tong; Location: 4th ring) both suggest the columns of the temple or palace and open up the building to light and air are topped by a projecting cornice that echoes the support beam curve of traditional provenance.


Monumental cornices often sit atop a vast vestibule, or porch, open, like a Byzantine cathedral Narthex, to the exterior; but with an intervening wall of glass. A vast wall of a window. Like the West-end windows found in western cathedrals: any large round window therefore also cites the medieval Rose Window. Now found uniting skiamorphs from the East as from the West, reuniting underlying forms; gathering together local geo-cultural meanings. A window onto new architectural developments. The experience of openings as the new experience of space in modern architecture.



Definitions. Narthex. Coming in two aspects, interior and exterior, the influence of the Narthex on modern architectural forms and our experience of them lies in its exterior form, which functions as a relatively open, extended entry space (originally to a Byzantine cathedral). Forms approximating the Narthex also owe much to the Portico, which pre-dates the function of the medieval Narthex as entry space in classical language – for our purposes the modern entrance space as a large, discreet and glazed space echoes the antique Portico perhaps as much as the Narthex and Atrium. All these constitute the predecessors of the monumental Cornice as also of the ‘Dragon Window’.





The Phenomenology of Openings: The Feng Shui of the Modern Building


The Experience of Openings. Essentially a combination of three forms of opening up a building to the outside, the new sense of openings, of the opening up of a modern building, is made-up of elements taken from the Entrance (the Arch), the Window and the Courtyard (the space that results within). Such spaces are fronted by tall openings from the side and often supplemented with openings from above. Our view through the window or opening as onto a space lit as if from above (even if that light is that which enters from above ourselves as we make an entrance or just gaze in from the outside).


In many ways what we experience here is the three dimensional equivalent of the intervening white space that is such a feature of Eastern art (the spacing between the grounds of the traditional shuimo 水墨 or ink-wash landscape). These are the absences that signal the infinite and eternal realms of religious, artistic and cultural tradition (the ‘quietism’ of the Dao, or the enlightening ‘absence’ that is the aim of the Chan/Zen school of Buddhism). A symptom of a non-monotheistic ‘empty centre’, or the ‘non-representable’ (in western philosophical terms).


Openings the passage of light; the passage of spirits. This somewhat dramatic idea comes from the idea that energy must be allowed to pass through a building. Historically, such (usually small) windows are now most frequently seen in the walls of temples where they function as ventilators called ‘Dragon Windows’ (‘dragons’ are spirits in Chinese mythology, akin to water sprites and other ‘spirits of the place’ in Western mythology). There is a sense of a debt to place and to the demands of cultural history. Like the roof curve which has inspired so many recent Chinese architectural creations (see sections on Sky Beacons, The Return of the Cornice, and Pagodas), so with the new architecture of the opening; old becomes new as modern techniques and styles incorporate ancient ideas and their architectural embodiments. Metaphorically: we are offered the sense of flow, or the appearance or possibility of flow, through an otherwise closed building; of the possibility of a passage through, and so the guarantee of the access to light, of its ability to move through a building. The important thing is that the building in question does not appear as a blockade, a blocking of the space around; so not appearing as an obstacle, as an unwelcome bringer of urban claustrophobia, of the sense of being visually ‘fenced-in’.


Other explanations for the popularity of large openings: in global terms, such windows are the alternative to closed space windows, giving us openings as openness, this is the architectural rhetoric for administrative openness and democratic ideals (as in the case of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which features a huge glass wall running along one side of the building, and a split tower, its wall ‘breached’ to allow access to the inner corridors of power – at least that is the message as conveyed by the image). In terms of traditional art we are offered the physical equivalent of the ‘let be’ white space that signals the space behind things; the emptiness beyond delusion (or Maya). In geo-political aesthetics we have a particular set of meanings which suggest the lack of a center; hollowed-out structures are to be read as more accurately representing Eastern non-(mono)theistic religions with their absent centers, their (philosophical) lack of a god and general abstract qualities… including the sense that if a god is not anywhere…(Confucianism), or nowhere (Buddhism) it is everywhere (a Daoist pantheism). A reference to ‘all’ or ‘everything’; but without a traditional (Western) concept of a centre, which is what we find reflected in the glass of modern architecture, and especially in the apparently open - but glassed-in - spaces of luminous passage, the passage of spirits that is the secret of the giant opening, architectural cavern or glass window. These are the general meanings generated by such a structure; then we have the local, particular meanings of architecture viewed in context; the suggestion of the presence of a vast cave, from the promise of shelter to the promise of a treasure house; openings as invitations to entry, the opportunity to peer in; lure for the passer-by, trap for the eye…


Beijing New Poly Plaza (Architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Location; Dongsishitiao Qiao). This ‘dragon window’, designed by a firm who specialise in this kind of open structure, if not the largest opening in a building, is then perhaps the largest window in the world (90x60 meters). Behind this suspended window with ‘folds’ lies a vast atrium, permeating both light and access to the offices housed within the walls (essentially office blocks in their own right). As has often been noted, the superb lines of the building, and the monumental effect of its opening are somewhat spoiled by the glass ’carbuncle’ which erupts from the left cheek (as we face it) of the glass face. This feature appears to have no aesthetic justification (save that of multiplying commercial meterage). The ‘back’ of this triangular building also has an enigmatic opening high up in its façade. Exit route for a dragon in need of a quick getaway.




Eyeguides: How Architectural Symbolism Works: the ‘Opening’.


The upper edge of a building or the use of openings, the variety of forms that we have referred to as a Cornice or labeled as an Opening, all call upon a wide range of symbolism – a symbolism as old as architecture itself. Unlike ‘historicism’, which tries to rebuild the past in the form of a whole building, the taking of significant parts of buildings (together with the intellectual tradition associated with them, as in feng shui and the role of openings) offer the possibility of building the future whilst calling upon the past; accessing our collective inheritance, our collective architectural memory, in order to give significance to new forms, new combinations and re-combinations of built space.


Gifts of the Past: Ghosts in the Present: Arch, Window, Courtyard.


‘The place of entry.’ Is in fact a space, an opening, an emptiness, or break in a manifold that permits ingress. The fact that we do not refer to it as a space, but as a place, is a testimony to the weight of meaning it carries (supported as it were on its lintel, its uppermost part and most symbolic physical portion – echo of the sky-touching cornice that will fulfill both functions in the range of features we have nick-named, Dragon Windows). A weight of meaning that in reality rests upon the immaterial functions of the entryway; the sense we have of the threshold, of the passing into a different state of space, a different place, an interior, a room. Like the entry into a place of ritual, a time and space put aside; replete with positive expectation: a place. The place of entry.


There are few features of the built environment so laden with symbolism and suggestion as the entrance. Entrances come in three sizes; big, medium, small. However, as usual, differences in quantity rapidly become important differences in quality. All three sizes offer differing qualities of experience, arouse different expectations, and are broadly coeval with the terms, Arch, Portal and Door (the latter is also the point of entry into the realm of the personal, the private, the domestic; leaving the arch and portal to represent the entry as an aspect of public space). All three may be laid out on a continuum between symbolic force and functional utility with the arch occupying the symbolic end of the spectrum (size matters) and the door the functional end. Although, in reality, all doors may be symbolic, and all arches, even those blocked-off from entry, or indeed blocked-up, suggest the possibility of passage (even if only as the ominous symbolism of a passage denied). Finally all doors contain the symbol of threshold, whilst the function of an arch is its symbol-bearing property. If the door is domestic and the portal is the mode of entry to stores and banks, then the arch represents the size of opening whose meanings we find in our experience of the Opening.


The Arch (it should always begin with a capital: certainly the capital is where it is usually found). The ceremonial entrance-way and memorial gate. Site of the historic pageant, home of the spectacle as sequence, portal of procession, performance of the gateway as frame. Strange entry from which are conjured forth: the masque of memorials; the solemn march of mask-bearing two-legged beasts - so many flightless birds (inviting yet-further flights of the imagination). The magic of the Arch has a long and glorious history: indeed it is the history of Glory itself. Its historical manifestations themselves offer a grand procession: from the Triumphal Arches of Classical Rome through Constantine and Christianity, to their Historicist rebirth, as (if we take Paris as our example) in the Arche de Triomphe and and then again in the arch’s apotheosis in Late-modernist form, La Grande Arche (at La Defense). In the case of the latter we find an example replete with national statements and religious investments; the Grande Arche is a statement of what it is to be French, to be (it would seem to say) modern, secular and rational (this is what the minimal form of the cube element of this building tells us).


Indeed two hundred years after the dying-out of Robespierre's religion of Reason, rationalism again overlooks the French capital, its geometries guiding the French nation, orienting, framing our vision, our point of view, over-seeing what it is to be l'exception francaise...). Such is the power of suggestion of a simple framed space.


Beijing’s equivalent in form (a modern skyscraper made of two towers and a bridging top section), if not entirely in symbolism, is the CCTV building (which will be discussed below). There is also Beijing’s West Railway Station (Lianhuachi Donglu) a building built around an arch (a feature clearly, perhaps most dramatically on view from the Millennium Monument on Fuxing Lu, Subway stop; ‘Military Museum’). This Arch, moreover, is topped of with what appears to be a traditional-style temple complete with mini-pagodas on the building’s two wings - a design feature discussed in the next chapter).


An entrance made of pure symbol; of near spectral specularity: the Arch as the ghost of the past it represents. Like a bridge of pearls made immaterial in its lambent materiality. Pure entry. With no room to follow: an entrance to nowhere. Nowhere real. The access is only to an imaginary place (our imagining of the past it calls forth). Or else entry only to an ideal version of its current place, its current context and situation (its inner glow returned to it as if returned to the point before the Fall). This immediate context, or present, now either basking in the reflected glory of the past as ideal image, or existing in opposition to that other place, to that ideal; its light framed by the everyday forms that contain it.


See Beijing, West Station/ Xi Zhan.


Windows…The Arch glazed. We look through a window. But not any kind of window (it is after all the Arch that we are taking as our frame of reference, the frame of our reference). The effect must be grandiose – cavernous. Cave of the Dragon.


For the the kind of opening that we witness in the sides of buildings, the rent or tearing open of the concrete and steel, skin and sinews of a urban structure, is a feature of light; material is divided at the behest of the immaterial. For this reason the fact of its being glassed over or not is irrelevant, for it is the passage of light that is, for us, the defining experience of such architectural features. The passing of the dragon of light. The opening that opens up a building to our vision, the entry point for our eyes; no longer a closed box, with an inference of claustrophobia, but an play of surfaces and their illumination that is attractive to the eye. A sense doubled if the passage is genuinely a passage through, that is, if it consists of two openings, at once allowing in our vision and then illuminated from another source, another point of ingress. And just as the sense of a closed-up building causes a mimetic copying in our emotions, in our inner model of the world, at once a reception and mirroring the world or object without (aid to memory and navigation), and an act of judgment, an appraisal of how we feel about it. So our experience (internal imprint) and visceral, felt, response to a well illuminated, open structure is one of interior relief and emotional lightness. Relief at the purging of an uncomfortable sense of incarceration and the possible presence of hidden threats, of the banishing of darkness and obscurity, and the sense of a concomitant lightness of being that comes with airy spaces, well-lit and showing us the way ahead as unimpeded. Part of the secret of the success of this style of opening is that it shows us a future without impediment. What lies before us in time as well as space is open and amenable to cognition. We are always happier when we can see ahead – and this also applies to our sense of time, our sense of where we are going.


And once we have moved into the world of the window (even if only in the space of our imagination), once we are inside, then we are in the room that at once encloses us and at the same time is open to the sun, a courtyard, the space within…



Courtyards: are we in an Inside or are we still Outside? Human construction seeks the Middle Term (the overlap of ‘in’ and ‘out’ in the Courtyard, or of Nature and Culture in the Garden). In the Opening we are both inside and outside; like the porch we occupy a space in the margin; like a window we see one type of space but occupy another. And when the opening is in the ceiling or the one wall of an enclosed space, we are in an Atrium or a Courtyard.


Courtyards: caught between interior and exterior (not just a linguistic binary but a profound difference in space on which our fundamental categories of experience have come to rest). A space forever finding itself somewhere between garden and room; occupying the same semiotic space as occupied by gardens relative to the Nature/Culture opposition. As Gardens are to Nature and Culture, so Courtyards are to the Garden and to the House. Yet this is not a half moon, equally divided by light and darkness. One point of view offers a near plenitude: the other a slim crescent. On the waxing side of Culture there is the comfort of shelter, a sense of interiority, the presence of a room without one actually being there. Yet like an eclipse, a residue of exposed exteriority remains. On the waning side of Nature there is the opening onto the sky; the portal through which comes everything that falls. The side of Nature that falls; of which foremost, the gift of light; making of the courtyard a vast skylight, open to the heavens; charting the passing cycles of sun and stars; mysteriously transformed by the mercurial touch of moonlight. All are permitted entry through the portal of the sky; all come pouring down, like luminous rain, coin of the heavens, gold by day, silver by night. Unlike the world of covered spaces, where light must peer in from the outside, come slanting in from the side, as in the relation of room to window. With the Courtyard the roof is of nature's making; the vault of the sky is carried by unimaginable spans beyond which the heavens are revealed. Constellations circle overhead.


Origins. The desire for light. The open courtyard of the Roman house (as today, the dream of every dweller on the block - the insula or apartment block arrived early on the urban scene). The atrium of the Christian basilica; the place of composure before the hushed entry into the shaded sanctuary. Moorish courtyards; the Alcazar gardens and the place of the faithful, the court of the mosque; the gifts of Islam. The courtyards of the East, the cherished space of ‘home’, place of sanctuary and security; in China, the siheyuan with its sheltering tree and well, inspiration to designers of the ‘quiet corner on earth’. Palazzi courtyards (from the Renaissance to the 20th century’s Liberty style) ranging all the way from the intimacy of the shaded corner to the pageantry of procession and the performance of power. The courtyard. Inviting in the entry of light in a fashion favoured for thousands of years, illuminating the rise of the urban skyline in its inexorable creeping sky-wards, up, up-until the late-nineteenth century - when the long slow ascent of the Iron Age joined that of architecture; when, finally arriving at the doors of architecture, the iron frame promised to boost achievable height by exponential measures. A few decades later the need for the courtyard, insofar as maintained as a source of light for the interior, was dislodged by the timely arrival of electricity. Harsh exchange, the undiscriminating wattage of the light bulb for the gentle dance of candle light, grace illuminating the walls, and the lost presence of sun, moon, and stars in the core of every dwelling.


Light piercing to the core of built space. The arrow of light dispelling the darkness of the cave. The window that transforms a bolt hole into a room, a walled space that denies its exterior into a place at one with it. A gendered geography which reunites the (symbolic) opposites of Ying and Yang in the opening-up of an otherwise closed building. Be it Atrium or Courtyard, Lobby or Mall, it is the open interior and the sense of passage that promise us a place of light, bright, clean and elevating - the rent in its fabric that renders a solid building porous. Open to the flight of the Dragon of Light.



Then, of course, there is the CCTV building.


Of course? Yes. As with the treatment of the Cornice above, found rehabilitated in the top-most horizontal of the Modernist Cube, the newest clothes often cover the oldest skeleton. And here the bones beneath the skin are amongst the very oldest. The CCTV building is touted as a radical break in architectural design: but is structured like a (wayward) Arch. Indeed in terms of its symbolic force it is in no way different from its Classical progenitors. An Arch which is not an entrance, not, at least to any real demarcated space; rather a symbolic entrance, an entrance then to some symbolic place, or to the place of symbols, the place of the making of symbols – the place of governing and producing social signification; the place of the media. Just so; a Victory Arch celebrating the role of the Chinese media.


The CCTV Building/Central Chinese Television Headquarters (Architect; Rem Koolhaas; Location: Chaoyang Lu). The leaning towers and the bridge that joins them are what make this building unusual to look at and difficult to build (the technique of transferring stress through ‘strapping’, ‘bundling’ or ‘tubes’ is employed where parts of the wall again become stress-baring). There are traces of the ambitious (and at the time unbuildable) designs of the Russian Constructivists of the early 20th century as well as the influence of 1980s architectural ‘Deconstruction’ (a movement inspired by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, but which has so far resulted in very few actually realized buildings).The architect regards it as a breakthrough in high-rise architectural design. The building is purported to have cost 750 million dollars (perhaps twice as much as the Bird’s Nest or National Stadium – estimated at around 300 million dollars).


So much has been written about this particular building, so much engineering detail rightly lauding its achievement as a piece of illusionism more befitting the two dimensional world of the painter, than that of the architect and engineer. So much written, so much said on what it is supposed to mean, on what it is supposed to do (all telling us, in effect, what it is we are supposed to think). And yet how little has actually been written on the effect it has on real people, on how we perceive it, how it makes the meanings we experience as we incorporate it into our memory of the horizon. How do we experience it as a part of the city skyline; positioned on the of the cities busiest junctions, leading on to the center of the city? Various (occasionally irreverent) possibilities as to the building’s actual appropriation or consumption by its audience have been made but the most popular so far has been that in silhouette it appears as if a giant’s trousers have been left standing on the exit of the giant him- (or her)self. Indeed Beijing’s population refer to it in just this way, using the Chinese term for ‘long-johns’ or ‘big pants’. Another intriguing feature is that the surface appears like a haphazard circuit board, improbably laid out, unfolded, now visible in three dimensions as it covers the building’s interior. We may read it as inscribed in a language beyond our letters and characters, beyond our culture – a language of the future destined to be read by machines. Perhaps the language of information as befitting a monument to the media. But above all: not least when viewed full-on, the open space it frames clearly visible, the passage beyond also visible, as, for example, when seen from Chaoyang Lu, the CCTV building is nothing if not the form of a colossal Arch.


And at closer range, a gigantic frame, enclosing and setting apart a view of Beijing and (at even closer range) the sky. Colossal aperture for a window yet to be fitted, permitting the flow of air as well as light, of physical matter as well as sight, and, of course, inciting the flow of symbols, as befitting a opening onto a world historical culture.







Architectural Debates. The Space/Place Problem. Once upon a time special buildings were built in special places. A space was found to offer special feelings, to be more than just space, to convey the feeling of place. In such places temples and other sacred edifices were built (like the situating of temples, monasteries and nunneries in China). This contrast gives us our basic (and useful) difference between everyday space and special place (although, as we shall soon see, the extended use of this opposition does involve an oversimplification). Place is somewhere we make special, and so conserve or protect, by conferring value upon it – in the distant past this was done by imagining it as populated by a deity of some sort (spirit, sprite, faery, goblin, ‘water-horse’ or dragon); the genius loci, or ‘spirit of the place’. Now some western commentators, eager to be seen to spot difference (to further binarise ‘the’ difference between ‘East’ and ‘West’), have suggested that what they call the ‘space’/’non-space’ difference is… well, different in China. That, in effect, there is no public space; but only enclosed, gated, ‘our’ space: and that which is outside this is a kind of ‘non-space’. However we should note that Marc Auge’s famous concept of ‘non-lieu’ (which is at the root of many such misconceptions) should be translated as ‘non-place’, and not as ‘non-space’, as its meaning refers to a qualitative value absent from the basic sense of ‘space’. So what we have again is in effect another version of the space/place opposition. Only read across the private /public opposition is such a way that the public form of space is supposed to disappear. However, space is defined by the empty co-ordinates of quantitative extension or measure: whilst ‘place’ is about our rooted human feeling for a particular space, or our bestowing of a quality or even character upon a space (note the implicit personification that normally accompanies descriptions of the sense of ‘place’, again the genius loci, or ‘the spirit of the place’). And whilst pretty-well all societies view outside space as different from where they live (or, at a minimum, sleep), none view it as a featureless manifold devoid of all connotation (only mathematics or formal abstraction can do this). Now within these differences (of inside and outside space, and where the difference is drawn) different communities and (sub-) cultures view responsibility for public space (and even private space) differently. So in effect there is no simple binary available here. Go to any Chinese park in the morning, or indeed at anytime, and see what is going on; this space is exterior, is public and is strongly felt - so configuring the sense of ‘place’ at is most affective. As usual the key difference that is trying to be expressed here is between the kind of used space that we usually call ‘place’ (equally park or dwelling, private or public) and transit (or waste) space. Yet technically even the latter is a form of place in that it incites qualities of feeling in people. All perceived space does. Therefore such space (of transit, abandoned, or waste) is usually ‘place’ either in a less intense kind of way or else found to be carrying a negative intensity. In this case, however, the quality sensed, or offered (which is what gives it a minimal sense of place as opposed to emotionless ‘space’) is usually of a low negative form, one which architects attempt to overcome in their designs for transport structures so that people can feel more ‘at home’ in them.



 (CHAPTER TWO) Chinese Whispers. Past and Present.



In this chapter we will look at the Chinese architectural and cultural traditions as the source of the inspiration for modern solar forms. In effect, this chapter will deal with Chinese architectural ‘Historicism’ and the evolution of a received architectural culture into a series of ‘echoes’ that can be found in the forms and fabric of modern design.


Introductory Section.


The key distinguishing feature of Chinese traditional architecture is its roof, beam and column style which, although it has evolved over the intervening centuries, was codified early on in Chinese history. An (initially) all-wood roofing system, based upon an interlocking system of supports, sits on top of rows of parallel wooden pillars which shelter a hall or, if subdivided, a sequence of rooms – no structure-supporting walls are required, allowing the sides of the building to be open or closed according to need or climate. Therefore we find three elements as typical of this geo-cultural style of architecture; pillars, a distinctive support system of beams and roofing. Such roofs are distinguished by curving lines and wide eaves supported by a complex system of carved brackets. Other distinguishing features include: the possibility of a double roof; and the taking of the long side view as the front or forwards facing end (opposite to the western choice of the narrow end as the front or facing end, as in the Greek temple and its copies in the (Neo) Classical Tradition – see the section on the flat and pointed roof traditions in Chapter Five for more on this fundamental architectural difference).


Typologies: Pagodas, Sky Beacon, Alien Head, Surfboards &Magic Carpets, Watch Towers.



A Very Short Introduction to Traditional Chinese Architecture.  


Perhaps the most popular or well know Chinese architectural term known to Westerners is Feng shui (风水wind and water) the placing of buildings and their contents in the best position for the well being of their inhabitants. Before they are built a place to build them must after all have been found, and found to be suitable. The place once found, what are the typical features of the traditional Chinese structure that might then be put there, and how has it evolved?


Typical features. The immediately recognisable Chinese pitched roof with over hanging eaves, and post and lintel system has a history of perhaps four thousand years, with the earliest known examples of buildings using this formula dated to circa. 1766-ca.1122 BCE (the Shang-Yin necropolis near Anyang, Hunan Province). A simplification would offer four basic parts. The Roof; the tou-kung/dou-kong/=tou2gong3 (头拱) or Bracket Sets (the ‘Chinese Order’), the Columns, and the Platform the whole ensemble rests upon. The roof may be two-sided with two pediments, or four-sided (or a combination of pediments and ‘aprons’, the piece of sloping roof placed below the vertical pediment). The tou-gong complex sits on a lintel supported by columns, the tou-gong, most especially its corner set, taken collectively, gives us the under-roof curve, variously copied or extrapolated-from in modern design (especially in combination with the potential curve of the overhanging eaves). The columns may be accompanied by a wall (placed before, contiguous with, or behind them) or be left open. The platform is usually raised a little above the ground, but may be set level or extended upwards (often in proportion with the size of the building). The Chinese ‘order’ (on a parallel with the classical ‘orders’ used in the West) then consists of the interface of the corner set (tou-gong or Bracket Sets) with the piece of the roof that it supports and the column/lintel combination that it sits on. Domestic or otherwise modest structures favour the pedimented form, whilst palaces and temples prefer the more complex or combined roofing variants – including the handsome structure that looks like a double roof, but is on fact a roof with an extra level of eaves inserted below. Tiling and a variety of symbolic ornaments (from dragon heads and tails to statuettes, depending upon, or signaling degrees of importance) complete the building.


Evolution. If the origins of Chinese building are lost in remote antiquity (it is the fate of a wood-based structure that it does not survive neither natural time nor the vicissitudes of human history), then the Han epoch (parallel to the Roman Empire) saw its rapid development, the Tang dynasty, its maturity, the Song, its refinement and the Ming (parallel to the Renaissance), its reification into a formula. The architectural innovations of the modern period, largely being based upon a load-bearing frame, has parallels with the traditional Chinese solutions (the columns bear the weight of the roof leaving the wall space free); there remains but the question of the form of the roof, and of the nature of the walls; options taken have included the typical pointed roof, a flat roof, glass walls and prefabricated wall types and windows. The two pathways available, or two echoes of the past (if we are talking about evolution and not just imitation of previous styles) are: parallels in the realm of weight-bearing (structure), which implies the possibility of a degree of outward similarity or continuity; and outright suggestion (or symbolic quotation) a matter of allusion and imitative decoration hung upon a basically modern structure. It is a question of whether the forms associated with traditional architecture can be made to evolve through the medium of modern materials.



Further reading: Guo, Qinghua, A Visual Dictionary of Chinese Architecture (Images: Mulgrave, Australia, 2002); Liang, Ssu-ch’eng (Liang Sicheng), Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History (Dover: New York, 2005); Shan, Deqi, Chinese Dwellings (CIP: Beijing, 2004).




Borrowing Yesterday’s Clothes: The Ghost of Glories Past.




Strange sight on top of a modern building. For all the world as if placed there by a passing giant. Equally true of the style of the top-most section of a building. Also true of the entrances of certain buildings; here the traditional forms appear as citations, as the borrowing of parts of a palace or temple and their subsequent attachment onto the body of a modern building.


The temple has landed! But then, in direct contrast, there is the more thoughtful incorporation of tradition into the realm of the new… These are the two opposite poles, the opposite ends of the use of traditional Chinese architecture in recent building. Yet although both are taken from same historical source, the wooden, nail-less, roof-bearing structure of traditional Chinese architecture, their effects on the viewer are very different. In one (the latter) case the architecture of the past is used as citation, as referencing the past, and in the other as a simple copy or transplant. Moreover the context of the copy is often unsuitable, with the pure tradition of the ‘temple’ clashing with the modernism of the host building (although even a decontexualised temple top can brighten up an otherwise boring ‘flat top’ skyline). Yet where the traditional forms have been adapted to modern materials and building techniques, then we have an appealing fusion of old and new. The results of the two approaches may be likened to, in the one case, the spectacle of temples apparently dumped onto the tops of tall modern structures as opposed to the use of an original inspiration derived from the traditional wooden form to guide the lines and finish the top edge of the iron frame building. In sum: a good and bad, thinking and unthinking, use of the past; incorporating versus borrowing!




The intelligent redrawing of past design, of traditional form in the language of the modern (what is often called the ‘modern vernacular’, in the West), with modern materials can be found in the overall design (appropriating elements of Tang Dynasty design) and in the detail of the Fang Fei Garden Villa (Architects; Zeng Qun, Sun Ye, Gan Bin; Location; San Li He Road, Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Park). Again the internal frame system (which releases the walls from weight-bearing duty) is made to function in a way that suggest specifically Chinese solutions to engineering challenges, not least in the appropriation of the glass curtain wall and the cornice which now appear as completely regional in character.


A good example of the fusion of an old idea with modern materials and building techniques (like the abstraction behind the design of the Shanghai Grand Theatre) can be found in the various office buildings on the Chang’an Jie (opposite Xidan). These buildings feature a very Chinese ‘cornice’ as their distinctive solar feature, one whose historical debt is to the East and where the point of cultural reference lies in the curves of the roof and especially of the collective and cumulative curvature of the beams (often augmented by a slight upturning of the eaves of the roof itself). These buildings provide us with our next category.




Evolved forms: distilling the essential.


Arc in the sky. Waxing and waning all the way from crescent to half moon. As evolved from traditional Chinese architecture. Most particularly as found in the elaboration of one particular feature: the rising curve of the roof support beams which yields the ‘supporting beam curve’ type top. A curve arrived at by looking up at the roof support system, the interlocking beams that appear as a curve arching up to the sky…with its line of sight culminating in the roof it holds up, climaxing in the sky: keeping the place and abstracting the form. Like an arc in the sky, or a semi-circle, a half moon descended to rest upon a tower (which given the role of the moon in Chinese culture, in its written system as in its poetry, is also an important point of reference). An elaboration which is at once a simplification – a stripping down to an essence (like an ancient poem or a traditional shuimo painting). Or like a piece of Minimalist sculpture: but now based upon significant Eastern forms. The moon in the pool.


Another rooftop feature taken from the canon of traditional (even ancient) Chinese culture, then to be formalized and transformed for modern use is the ‘Sky Beacon’. This example of architectural design has been very much copied, appearing in buildings large and small across the length and breadth of China. In this case the placing of a shape derived from the past on the top of the building is not culturally jarring as the materials used, as well as the process of formalization that give it its shape, have harmonized any original mismatch of style and elements. (See also the section in the chapter above on the Cornice for examples of the referencing of the traditional roof curve in the context of a modern cornice. Many buildings East and West now use this form of ornamentation or ‘finishing’. In many cases whether we see in the curve of the cornice a result of Eastern or Western tradition depends upon our received cultural experience – ultimately though such features are modern, that is their material, function and design are suited to modern buildings and only reference the meanings of past traditions.)





Segment of a circle, slender ellipse in steel. Cradle on the roof of the world. Referencing the tradition of high-built platforms from which to light sacrificial fires (the temples of which used to ring old Beijing), places from which to send signals to the gods, or to others on the horizon… Also evincing a touch of the traditional Chinese roof curve, the curved line that is the sum of the beams that hold up the roof, protruding out from the corners in an ascending curve. (A curve, perhaps most famously and spectacularly, featured in the Shanghai Grand Theatre, a feature now copied throughout China and across the world). The nature of the top-most surface of this enigmatic feature itself remains, to the viewer below, an inaccessible mystery, invisible to all below, like the gods in the sky it appears to be addressing… reflecting only the sky directly above but still unseen, un-witnessed by mortals. Once the offering place of gifts to the gods: now offering place to the gods. The placing of the solar feature offers the building to the viewer as one with a privileged relationship with the heavens. The claiming of this relationship, is, as we shall see, a key aspect of the rhetoric of the solar feature.


From beneath… like a giant reflector, or sender, a receiver, or collector, of light, rays, signals, some arcane message from the gods, or anyway something, somewhere, coming from above… Yet again our rich relationship with our natural roof, our existential ceiling, uppermost limit, our experiential horizon, our life’s covering, is part of the effect of the skyline upon us, part of the way we apportion meaning to an upper feature of the built environment. To the horizon that encircles us. To which we respond with a segment of a circle.





The Panggu Building (border of the Olympic Green).


Alien-head? Head in the clouds? A Dragon passing (looking for its window)? Yet (like the Arch) only viewable from a certain angle - like an anamorphosis (a feature which is only clearly visible from a certain viewing position). This limitation on our ability to recognize it is due to its form as a cut-out, a form favouring the expression of two-dimensional matters. An aspect (and limitation) which is shared by the huge screen, placed in the building’s midriff -as it were- a feature also designed to show two-dimensional images (part of the clutch of unusual buildings found in the vicinity of the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium). Enigmatic in silhouette, a two dimensional form becomes three dimensional as we carry on walking, changing our position – then it disappears. A flat ornamental -but broadly recognizable- form is found where usually points and cubes are found to dominate; the form… a ’head’ that disappears when we view it ‘head-on’. Otherwise a conceit, a kind of architectural illusionism where the form suggests that we see a slice taken out from a larger whole. In fact this particular Dragon’s Head is a complex construction, hollow, even as it appears solid… or almost, as it also appears a little like a stylized cloud taken from traditional Chinese stone-carving and painting, made solid and anchored to the top of the building, sky-scraping indeed. Or it may suggest a ribbon, winding down an otherwise normal oblong cube design: or the windowed side of the building unwinding and being blown away, waving in the wind… As a design feature many similar forms, streamlined ‘Dragons Heads’ can be found in any trip to a department store; the electrical goods department will boast many kettle tops and lids that use this particular national-cultural design feature. Stream-lined and wind-blown: this particular effect is also to be found, taken further in its illusionism and its debt to the air and to the horizon, in the concrete canopies located on top of roofs of otherwise flat-topped buildings. (See also ‘Magic Carpet Tops’). Looking up, it is as if we witness a giant passing, head among the clouds, peering over the nearby skyscrapers, watching over the Olympic Park, and so itself beating witness to China’s success in planning-for, hosting (and winning) the Olympic Games of 2008.





On the wings of the wind. These solar features are taken from a broad range of historical design all the way from traditional references dating back a thousand years to recent icons of popular culture. Echoes of objects we know, stylizations, such as the cloud-scrolls taken from the dragons and clouds form of traditional illustration or the decorative carving we find on stone slabs alongside the stairs that convey us between the levels of the Chinese Temple or Palace. Or the skate-boards our children ride upon, or the surfboards of beach culture, all generating a veritable mythology of their own. All references possible to the dreaming viewer lost, for a while, amid the cloudscapes of the city’s solar regions. Lost in the sea of the sky.


Riding the sky-wave. Glancing along the horizon our eye is arrested by the sight of the sea. Frozen. Apparently in mid-swell; the crest of its wave tipping forever upwards. Arrested motion. Concrete canopy. Such strange undulations, perched up-top of buildings, suggest a block against the power of the sun, a form of shadow giver, ersatz roofing, when we look at them in terms of their practical role or function. But in terms of the role they play in our meaning making, their symbolic function, in terms of the signs they offer to us, the viewers, they are a gift to the horizon – to our perception of the urban horizon. Taken from a simple, even, in some cases, vestigial, form of protection for the exposed utilities of the rooftop, the resulting structure we look to and puzzle at, provides perhaps one of the most outlandish forms of décor that we may find deliberately designed for the transformation of the modern city skyline. Yielding winding forms, like banners unfurled on the rooftops, scrolls on the skyline, unfurled in concrete, petrified in the act of being blown by some colossal wind, opening out into a ribbon of stone. Sky-sculptures at their best. Making the city horizon, not least in sunset silhouette - a sea of black forms twisting against the red of the sky - into a rooftop sculpture park.





All traditionally inflected design is sacrificial in terms of its cost. Its function for us lies in the manner in which it highlights the building’s (and so our) relation to sky. This relationship, like that of a building to its urban context, the sum total of the views that can be found to contain it, is inescapable and when it is ignored we all notice and the message this absence of relationship sends is one of the disposability of the building, its function and its inhabitants. So as well as referencing the previous geo-cultural architectural tradition the deployment of the past signals to us that the building in question is valued; takes its place in, is representative of a collective point of view, or collective cultural frame of reference. In such matters symbolic considerations come to the fore. A window is never just a window. Even a small one.


A rising punctuation accompanies our gaze as it rises to the sun. Stepping stones to our flight of the imagination, punctuating space with a grid, but not one made up of crossing lines, rather we are presented with a surface texture which asserts its solidity. For whereas most windows, in reality, structurally, in fact weaken the overall strength of a wall or avoid the issue of support or strengthening of a wall: yet, in terms of its symbolic force, this rhythmic puncturing of the wall’s smooth surface, of its sloping rise to the roof eve, connotes strength. This (illusionist) effect is achieved by suggesting an assumed thickness of wall (that is almost entirely rhetorical). And the fact that we have seen this manner of wall before, witnessed its rise to the heavens on this gradient, ever so slightly inflected from the vertical before… It has once (before) been before us: for it is a citation. The city’s surviving gate-towers provide the frame of reference that plays origin to this copy. It is their defensive arrow windows, their shooting windows and their distribution over a plane surface, that are the key to the design feature borrowed here to enrich the meanings of an otherwise modern building. So giving the effect of it being otherwise than modern.



Episode: Architecture and Desire.



The three levels to our visual experience of urban life. Three kinds of desire…


Three levels? When we see architecture (the street or the square as we see it from within) we see three. The three grounds of the urban as well as of the rural landscape (as we see also in landscape painting). Top, bottom and middle (for these are our equivalents in the experience of the street scene of the fore-, middle- and back-ground we identify in the world of the image). The ground (floor) or street level, the top edge or sky-line feature and the bit in-between (usually made up of a facade). Moreover these three levels extend across buildings; giving us the three actual horizontal units of visual differentiation with which we experience the street and the square; these two kinds of ‘rooms’ outside or ‘closed’ visual units of urban life. Meaning that in practice most of us city dwellers experience city streets as three continuous (and contiguous, that is, touching) levels; a ground strip of door and shop-windows, a rising window wall, and a loft region or skyline.


Three desires? As human beings we feel the need to be recognised, that is, we need to fit in, to feel (rightly or wrongly) that we are part of various groups - communities of identity with which we identify ourselves. Then we also need each other as sexual or life partners, a need, not least with respect to the imagination, that we can never quite switch of - even when we are content with our lot in life. Finally, we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves (God, Nation, Flag, Universal Civil Rights, Equality, Justice, Fate, History, Manchester United). We all need somewhere outside of ourselves to support our beliefs about ourselves and the world (to live in a temporal world we need to believe in a-temporal, that is, eternal world, a place to guarantee our values).


So: three desires. Three things we need and continuously look for. All of which are seemingly ever-present in our lives as human beings and so continuously re-configuring, or ‘re-touching’, the things we look at. Identity (the desire for recognition from others); sex (the pull of sexual desire for others); and a link to the eternal (the desire for knowledge of first and last things, religious desire, the desire for the Other or Absolute Beyond). In reality all tied up together (as in; what sex are we, what sex are we allowed to sleep with, and who or what has the last word on this). But all separable in principle; and not least in the way we experience architecture, our home from home (our inside, outside as well as our outside, inside).


And what of the distribution of these desires across the manifold of architecture? What is their actual overlay or attachment to the parts of the built environment? The reflection of the self in the windows of the ground floor strip echoes our preoccupation with our self-image and prefigures the recognition of the self in the confirmative act of purchase (as we exchange our spent time, our money, on objects that tell ourselves, and others who we are, and what groups it is we like to think we belong to…). Our reflection on what goes in behind the windows, the surface, the facade of the middle, reflects our boundless curiosity as to the play that we imagine (or would like to imagine) goes on in the spaces behind, in the home or the office – as the actual reflection on the surface of the glass window limits our view but unfetters our imaginations. And finally there is the significance of the solar strip that touches the heavens. The place where flags and statues, religious or national symbols or styles are exhibited. Our relation to the eternal (as we would prefer to see it) brought down to earth, but still touching the sky.



































PART TWO: The Shock of the New. The Twentieth Century.



The next two chapters will deal with the combined heritage of the 20th century. The first of these, the third chapter, will indicate where to look for the surviving influence of the early skyscraper tradition, whilst the fourth chapter will note the insistence of Modernism in recent design.




(Chapter 3) Building the Tower of Babel. The Skyscraper Tradition.




(Chapter 4) City of Glass. Modernism & Beyond.


















 (CHAPTER THREE) Building the Tower of Babel. The Skyscraper Tradition.



In this chapter we will examine the contribution of the (mainly) 20th century tradition of the tall building and note the continuing contribution of its early styles to current architectural design.


Introductory Section.


Western Architecture before the end of the 19th century had crystallized into the ‘Two Traditions’. Both of these were varieties of what we now call ‘Historicism’, that is, both were versions of decorative styles taken from the past, namely the Classical (imitating Classical Greek and Roman forms) and the Gothic (imitating the pointed arch forms of the late-medieval period). These two architectural styles were further augmented by the imitation of other periods, of other styles; of Baroque and Rococo as well as mock Romanesque and Renaissance forms of cladding and decoration. Much of the municipal architecture found in the centers of Western cities, the city center as it was built in the 19th century, is built in these styles. (The classic example of this type of building in China is the Bund in Shanghai).


Definitions. Historicist/Historicism. Initially a pejorative term for an obsession with the past, where history was seen as the key to all things, leading to the excessive use of history in philosophy, these terms eventually came to mean, in the course of the nineteenth century, the respect for and use (for example in municipal architecture, or in the remodeling of 19th century capital cities) of the styles of the past (culminating in the Beaux Art form of architectural ornamentation). Art Nouveau, appearing at the beginning of the twentieth century, marked the first break with this tradition.


Yet another architectural form came to prominence towards the end of the nineteenth century as buildings became ever taller, the ‘Palazzo Style’, imitating the palace of Renaissance Italy, however this style is so much a part of the history of the tall building in the twentieth century (and indeed before) that it has come to stand as a skiamorph, or ‘shadow shape’, a model that hovers behind the history of the skyscraper. So much so that the skyscraper decorated in historicist or historicist influenced detail is in effect modeled as an extension of the Palazzo idea. That the Palazzo ideal comes in three parts is in no small way responsible for its continuing influence. In effect it has come to stand for a more fundamental desire for a building variegated in accordance with its relationship with the sky, the ground, and its urban context.


Definitions. Skiamorph. What is a skiamorph? Again, like hypsosis, this is a term taken from the architectural vocabulary of the Ancient Greeks, a skiamorph is best described as a shadow shape, a historically reoccurring template that appears to underlie the forms we build. It is perhaps an indication of the forms we think with; the shapes that shadow, that lie behind our habits of repeatedly perceiving and using certain forms. It begins to explain similarity in the history of, at least certain, architectural forms. As in the ‘Palazzo’ (itself indebted to earlier late-medieval five or six storey buildings, or even to the Roman tenements, the insula, the apartment block of the classical epoch, with shops below, the best dwelling place just above, and smaller rooms further above) which then re-appears throughout architectural history as a kind template for tall buildings. Or in the use of Classical and Gothic-type forms, from their sky reaching, or hypsosis, to their use of the three parts. And most especially in the case of the later, the three parts, for their re-appearance in the urban experience of street and square or their reduction to two parts (entry level and ‘sign’ above) in special ‘stand alone’ buildings. A skiamorph appears to be an ever-evolving compromise between the context of human habitation (the street, the sky) and our ways of thinking these things. An element of architectural memory. A made of living with matter, a way of thinking and feeling that has evolved over the millennia of our settled habitation (see also the ‘Afterword’ below).


The history of the tall building in the 20th century begins with the Palazzo style of the last decades of the 19th century. This style is essentially made up from the modeling of decorative features taken from the Renaissance (including the spacing of doors and windows) combined with an increasingly extended midriff as buildings grew rapidly taller (see especially the work of Louis Sullivan in the USA). This stretching of the height of a building is the gift of the concealed iron frame over which the style of the buildings exterior is cast as a cladding. The skyscraper tradition would be impossible without it. The rising height made possible by the iron frame then demanded a variety of design ‘solutions’ with respect to the tops of the buildings in question (a ‘finished’ top was still at this stage of architectural history regarded as crucial to the appearance of any ‘proper’ building). These solutions include effects we can still see used today: ‘the city on a hill’ a complex of features akin to a small village sitting on of a long shaft or middle; and ‘the house on stilts’ where the effect is precisely of a house taken an dropped on top of an extended middle (this latter category gets a science-fiction twist when it appear in the 1960s as a kind of futuristic fantasy building on metal legs). Most decorative features from this period are either still resolutely historicist, that is borrowed from the past, so naming the style we call, ‘Historicism’, or are borrowed from styles that followed: the Liberty style (still essentially a variation on the Palazzo style), Art Nouveau and Deco - the streamlined, metallic feel of the latter giving it a special affinity to the tall building (see the lower and closer skyscrapers that surround two world famous parks, New York’s, Manhattan, Central Park, and the Renmin Gongyuan, or People’s Park, of Shanghai). Many of the recent evocations of electrical machinery or power station themed sculpture we will find on the tops that follow are variations on the Art Deco style of ‘machine-age’ design (See ‘Lightening Rods & Sky Wheels’ below).


Typologies: All essentially versions of the PALAZZO style (the stretched, basic form of the early skyscraper, still popular with the public and much loved by architecture buffs): Historicist Classicism, City on a Hill, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Lightening Rod & Sky Wheels, Totem Top.





The Return to the Past: ‘Cut and Paste’ Architecture.


Historicism comes in a number of varieties: Classism (including Neo-classicism), Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo. All tidied up, and reproduced; this was a house style of the nineteenth century – all one had to do was pick the period. So, like Chinese Historicism, the continuance of traditional Chinese architectural forms in the present, the architectural forms that dominated western design for at least two millennia (in the case of Classicism) and for several hundred years (in the case of Gothic classicism and other later neo-classical forms, Renaissance and Baroque foremost among these) had returned in the form we call Western Historicism. If it heyday was the nineteenth century, nevertheless this form of cladding or design has returned again in the twentieth century (not least a part of the return to decoration that motivated Postmodernism). Neo-classical window frames and moldings remain ever popular, as do the rusticated wall surfaces of the lower two floors and the larger, often arched windows of the top floors that normally accompany them (all features initially found on the Renaissance Palazzo –apart from the larger windows of the upper section, which was a latter addition, made as the buildings grew in size and the piano nobile migrated from the middle floors to the top). Also much in evidence are the basic building forms used to allow in sunlight and the sky, the Courtyard and the Atrium (especially in their open sided forms), and the visual symbolism of the Arch, together with the Foyer, Porch or Narthex (an early church front made up of a covered colonnade, but open to the elements on one side). We may discern two types of borrowing or citation: traditional citation or copying where the entire building is decorated in a particular historical style; and postmodern pastiche where aspects of a previous style are adapted or combined with others to decorate a given building.


Definitions. The Piano Nobile (that very special place on a building). Or noble floor, the floor of the nobles (the best floor or ‘best rooms’). If we follow the evolution of this crucial architectural feature, one which is also an experiential feature and a participative form designed for use (a place to look at and be seen from, as in the case of a loggia, or other form of -decorated- balcony space) then we can see it taking-off from its original position on the 2nd or 3rd floor of a short building, to arrive at the middle of a medium-sized building, and finally to find its apotheosis as the top of a tall building (the penthouse suite). The perceptual, ‘to look at’ features of the piano noblile have in this way become part of the decorated top of a tall building, whilst the ‘room at the top’, ‘to-live-in’, expensive urban ‘dez-rez’, persists just below in the top few floors. The ‘rising’ of these features to the top of the tall building, to what was once the position for servant’s windows or storage, constitutes a crucial change in our experience of architecture – and a key difference from the original ‘Palazzo’ form..



See variations on Palazzo Classicism along the Chang’an Jie




CITY ON A HILL: Something to look up to…


The initial solution (after the Palazzo top favoured by Sullivan and other architects in late nineteenth century America) to the problem of how to ‘top-off’ a tall building was to keep the old roof arrangement of a low building and quote the floors found immediately beneath it, this combination was then placed on top of the many floors, the tower, of the middle section.. In effect a pillar (the tall building’s midriff, or ‘Middle’) was inserted below a building of a few floors, elevating it to a great height. The appearance of a building thus topped marshals together a number of possible fields of meaning: from the Western religious (here Protestant) tradition we have the notion of the ‘city on a hill’ as ideal place, a place of the good, of the blessed, the sense the elevation and our propensity to look upwards is taken as a metaphor for moral raising-up, converting architecture into a putative moral example. Of course it also suggests that the inhabitants of these structures (those who look down upon us from a heavenly height) are themselves worthy of veneration (so becoming our personal or social ideals). This method of creating a solar region for the cityscape is still employed today in new buildings; but in fact is a solution that is now one hundred years old. As we shall see at the end of this chapter, this idea of placing something on a tall shaft is still popular today.



ART NOVEAUX. Legacy of the Organic. The Language of Nature.


Whilst there are no simple copies of the Art Nouveau style in Beijing itself (elements can be found on buildings in Shanghai), nevertheless a brief account of this manner of decoration is crucial to the understanding of organic, curvy, sinuous or otherwise ‘nature-imitating’ features found gracing many modern buildings (branching structures including leaf forms can be found decorating a building in Wu Dao Kou).


Art Nouveau: Owing much stylistically to the organic inspiration of the Art and Crafts movement of William Morris, this style of decoration borrowed its name from a shop that opened in Paris in 1895 to sell items that refused historicist styling. Distinguished by the use of flowing forms or wave-like undulations, taken from Nature, such as flowers, leaves, flowing hair, water or flames, there was also a more abstract development (which would be continued in Art Deco). Brussels Nancy and Paris were the major European centres of Art Nouveau, to which must be added the idiosyncratic vision of Gaudi in Barcelona. In Italy it is often known as the Liberty Style. In Britain the design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh constitutes the last flourish of this style.


Like the historicist modeling of the sky scraper which is coated in classical details, this version of the Palazzo-type building imitates the Renaissance in its cladding of the iron support frame whilst adding motifs taken from Nature. Lines are flowing, curved, often mock-natural, or imitating the organic; leaves, vines, branches formalized and made into intricate winding patterns. The Garden inside. The original architectural rhetoric of the Nouveaux style was one of a re-union with Nature; Culture in its predominant form of the built environment was to be reunited with its lost exterior, Nature, in a union that brought the Garden back into the home, and the tree back into the upper features of the building. If the interior of the dwelling was to be once again a garden like space, then the exterior or urban street was to resemble a forest. Our (mythic) originary Fall from grace with Nature, our loss of enchantment, our presumed loss of innocence in attaining civilization was to be, in rhetorical terms at least, extenuated by a reunion on the level of human culture. Another name for the built, that is man-made, form of the ‘earthly’ paradise is, of course, Utopia, and the arrival of Art Nouveaux at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came at a time when the various manifestations of the Utopian impulse (itself a variation on the religious impulse) were about to turn sour with their imminent incorporation into the ideologies produced by the class and national conflicts that were about to overwhelm the world.


Today’s recapitulations on the theme of organic decoration more gently remind us that the impulse for a better (looking) world, one where we live in harmony with Nature and not as its despoiler, is still live and well, driving our love of parks and gardens, and perhaps most cogently visible in our attempts to preserve ourselves as a species by halting our destruction of the environment that supports us.





DECO TOPS. The Legacy of Art Deco. The Language of the Machine.


A Jazz Age style. Coeval with the 1920s and 1930s and arising at the same time as International Modernism. The name comes from the 1925, Parisian exhibition of post-historicist decorative and industrial art. Deco is distinguished by ‘non-functional modernism’ or the use of streamlining features in architecture and design. In Europe such effects can be found on the buildings of Robert Mallet-Stevens, in America Art Deco is best represented by the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Centre.


Perhaps the Ur-form, original blueprint, or skiamorph for the modern, twentieth century, skyscraper (augmenting the shorter structures typical of the Palazzo style of the late nineteenth century) is the style we have come to call Art Deco. If the Palazzo style gave the first form to the external appearance of the skyscraper, then the development of Art Deco has given us a language with which it has been associated ever since. With ‘Deco’ we see the triumphant arrival of an ostentatiously deco-rative type of architectural design, one which, above all, is best known for the form it gave to the Solar (the Chrysler Building, in New York‘s Manhattan, has a special place in international cultural memory and is perhaps known to everybody who has ever been exposed to the global mass media- even if they do not always know what it is called). Art Deco is still today instantly recognisable for its distinctive treatment of the upper part of the building, for the symbolic language it brought to bear on the tops of tall buildings, perhaps even in the invention of the language best suited to the, literal and symbolic, ascension to the heavens of the tall building (powered by the motor of steel frame construction). Art Deco is also perhaps the style best suited to reflect and celebrate the role of the machine in the ascension of human culture of this period (its role in the exponential increase in the productivity of labour) and the concomitant ascension to virtual religion of the market, its products, and its means of exchange, money. In fact the structures brought forth by Art Deco in the early twentieth century led to the rapid adoption of the term ‘cathedrals of commerce’ (see especially the rise and decoration of the early-twentieth century department store, heir to the covered arcades of the previous century, themselves heir to the outside market and its physical embodiment, the agora-style square of shops, a form stable for over two thousand years). All the features of Art Deco as a decorative style can still be found to be on the ascent in today’s world; to be, as we shall presently see, one of the most important, if not the most important influences on the possibilities for ‘topping-of’ a tall building- just as the onward march of a post-industrial, but now globalised, capitalism continues, brushing aside previous prophecies and leading us to an end none can yet foresee…


So Art Deco is still present, not only as a citation of the past, but also as a continuing inspiration to designers in the present: as can be seen in the many later versions of modern decorative streamlining, of the remarkable persistence of the machine aesthetic, and so of the accompanying references to the sky as a target of symbolic directionality and as a source of energy, of a power that is both actual, electric or solar, but also symbolic, referring to the sky as ‘the heavens’, as home of gods, place of immortals and ideals – spiritual power is called upon to augment a material power as understood by the laws of physics. Unity of Idea and Matter. Machine as Spirit.



Lightening Rods. The Electrification of the Skyline.


This distinctive feature is also part of the heritage of the machine aesthetic, not curvy or sinuous like much Art Deco, but nevertheless perpetuating the solar deictic (symbolic pointing) and also pursuing the energy-drawing metaphor. Plug type or zoned box structures, replete with sky-stabbing horns, filaments or connectors, are found on the top of buildings and appear to indicate (like all Deco or machine-type tops) an invisible element on which they seem to draw - or to point to, so basking in a kind of second-hand fame. The rhetoric here is that of being ‘plugged-in’, of being ‘in the know’, or ‘up-to-date’. Yet as well as drawing on the various semantic possibilities of being ‘connected’, this urban image equally draws upon all and any mythologies of the heavens, not least the laws of physics and their popular appropriation as but the latest in a long lineage of myths whose role is to help make a complex reality coherent. In this way such forms reproduce effects that are finally traceable to the double movement that traverses and so constitutes our earth-bound sense of space; the sense of the fall of sunlight and the raising of the eyes to the source of that light. Our sense of gravity as pulling down (and rooting) and our sense of rising, or soaring – with all the meanings and symbolism associated with these contradictory motions. The gift of the sun and the human response to it, as if to defy gravity, or the gods themselves, as in the legend of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, or the attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Ur-text of architectural hubris.


Physically pointing up, reaching up (guiding our eyes up), and (symbolically) pulling down, relating itself to, and persuading us of the crucial nature of this relation. A persuasion that begins the moment our eyes are caught - and caught, guided upwards - immediately to be ‘plugged-in’ to our inward repositories of myth and symbolism; inner font of our ‘all too human’ secular (and not so secular) forms of the sacred. The pointer that points up, in fact, almost always, ultimately, points in…



Sky Wheels & Sky Needles.


Definitions. Hypsosis. A term encompassing the ideal of Classical Greek architecture, from whence it derives, and even more so of Gothic design, whereby the eyes, on locating the building, or one of its significant parts, are then guided upwards. A visual rhetoric fusing the eye-raising of a design feature with the raising of the thoughts to higher matters, and of the soul to heaven. The basis of the rhetorical operation lies in the symbol force of light and of the sky as repository of ideals and beliefs.



The secular replacement of the Gothic spire: the sky needle. Since the advent of the spire such features have been used to point skywards, to raise the eyes of the onlooker to the heavens, but also to associate the building in question with the heavens, underlining its right to make use of the meanings of first and last thing - underlining its proximity to the stars. Many buildings now make use of this kind of distinctive feature to associate themselves with the powers found and represented in the heavens, not least caught in the powerful image of the electric storm, the lightening strike, which the sky needle seems to invite; simultaneously suggesting its invulnerability to such forces and its ability to draw upon them (effectively boasting and laying claim to a second-hand potency).


Definitions. Brise-Soleil. In function, a sun break or shield; in form now an array of fins, either horizontally or vertically placed to shade window openings in hot climates. The source of much modern decorative design, from sky-relating features (to be looked at from below) to window shading, to the inventive covering of entire walls.

A great recent example of the adaptation of the sun-break idea into a feature governing the look of an entire building can be found in Wudaokou.


More recently this particular manifestation of hypsosis or ‘eye-raising’ has been augmented by the presence of vast metal wheels. In a key twist of architectural rhetoric functional sun-breakers (brise-solee) have become symbols (an effect guaranteed by their actual lack of functional utility): have become sun-storers, trappers of the sun’s precious energy, as this design-feature references a dynamo, or a power station, whose suggestive concentric circles cross one another and are topped by a needle, pointing at the heart of the sun. A further continuation of the machine aesthetic which originated in Deco, the whole assembly may suggest the gathering or transmission of electric energy, of solar or cosmic energy. The meaning so offered is that of a powerhouse, ultra-modern, dynamic, transforming the opportunities (and status) of those working within. Suggesting even that the fortunate inhabitants may be in the possession of an arcane knowledge and hinting at the existence of a special relationship with regard to the sky and the power associated with the sun. A building that points, points up (points-up the message…) points-up its own uniqueness and importance (and by the figure of contiguity, those who work within… the high priests and priestess of the cult of the sun).


One classic example of the solar needle type, replete with accompanying wheels, can be found not far from Chaoyangmen subway station (head East) on Chaoyangmenwai Dajie). A great example of the continuation of the Art Deco tradition, which is represented not only in the construction of the solar spire and its attendant wheels, but reflected in the detail and decoration found on other parts of the building, as for example, in the form given to the exterior light-fittings.


These combined ornaments, the needle and the wheel (or complex of wheels) offer the image of a machine which, as a part of a whole building, appears to be without fear of the elements, to appear to stand above and beyond the corrosive processes of time. Wheels, usually found below -the means of movement of earthbound objects- are now found above, a means of transport for the soul. Wheels of time. Meaning: to stand ‘outside’ of the inexorable return of temporal cycles, out of reach of the forces of an inclement Nature and of the passage of time, both of which architecture is pledged to resist. As such the combined wheel and needle solar feature is an assertion of control over fate. The performance of the promise of endurance and control. A prediction of what will be (so a claim to architectural shamanism, the ability to foretell the future). All these architectural suggestions are designed to make our world feel more stable, more comprehensible, saner, less chaotic and less entropic (less liable to temporal wear and tear). In suggesting control over the wheel of time, ‘Mutabilitie’ or her sister Fate, the processes of change, we are offered the modern solar version of the meaning of the historicist medieval or renaissance architectural quotation (such as a heavily rusticated ground floor wall surface or door frame) which -often by the ‘fact’ of their apparent survival- are designed to connote strength and stability, and so perpetuate the illusion of long lastingness. So offering both the confidence building (sic) appearance of a building made to last, a construction apparently destined to survive. Or (in the case of the needle and wheel ensemble) the illusion of control; a claim to the site of such a control. Of just who (putatively ‘us’) it is that is in control of the symbolic forces of the sky and the sun, of cycle of day and of night, of their succession and their final, eventual, unknown aim or end in the future that lies, unforeseen, up-ahead, waiting for us all.


eyeguides: How Architectural Symbolism Works: Wheels and Spikes; the Rhetoric of Power.


Referencing the realms of the electric, tapping into sources of energy and the frozen gesture of sky reaching (tapping into the sources of symbolic energy), is of course a not particularly subtle metaphor for ‘earthly powers’. A hyperbolic extension of ones size and so putative ability. Ones Earthly Powers (the use of capitals suggesting the sacred or ‘magic’ flavour that often accompanies such powers). Or at least a claim to them; a kind of architectural bragging. Like wearing Gucci or a Rolex. Or carrying a magic wand (the building’s claim to shamanism). This is achieved by the deployment of a rhetorical language as old as architecture; by an accretion of symbols above the place of entry or on the roof. Or, in a combination of both of these two features into a single symbolic zone, the entire building above the door, above the entry floor becomes a place for signs, for signaling the claims of the building to the approaching viewer. In European terms, using the Greek Temple and Palladio’s influential development of this as a model; the House of God above the House of Man (the place of symbol above the place of entry). Found as early as the accumulation of figurines (deities, immortals, symbolic beasts) on the roof slopes of the Ancient Greek temple… whilst over on the far and opposite side of the Asian continent, we find the exact same type of feature in the exact same place, the statuettes on the roof edge of the Chinese temple or palace (and where the number, size and style of such indicates the power or import of the place and its inhabitants).



For what is perhaps the ultimate version of the dropping of an -often unrelated- but highly symbolic stylistic feature onto the top of a skyscraper column, there is the towering Capital Mansions building or ‘Totem Top’.


Totem Top


Like a head sitting on broad shoulders, golden helmet over red epaulettes; a soldier at attention, on alert, protecting and defending the city, on duty…a symbol of stability and order.


The penthouse, differentiated from the rest of the long, tall tower it sits on; so distinct that it appears to have been lifted up, as if placed there… Like a UFO which, having hovered for some time above the city, has found a convenient place to land. Further highlighted by a difference in colour from the shaft on top of which it rides, its many windows offering unrivalled views over the city. Yet by its very height and closed form also suggesting a control room, an observation post… a place for the act of over-seeing, suggesting a nineteenth century Panopticon, overlooking all; a structure with 360 degree vision. A building to look up to: with those within looking down. Overseeing the flows of city life, as if exercising control over the human anthill far below. Surveillance with style. Pedestal upon which may be posed those who watch over us all. Conversely, as all that can see… can also be seen, then this elevated position, like a mountain eyrie, becomes a place we look up to; asking questions of the nature of the inhabitants, who is it that lives in such a high place, wondering how they live, what it is they do, and do they return our stare.


Like the head of a totem, symbolizing community; but which, that of the State, or of Capital, as in the name of the building on whose shoulders it rests.



FLYING SAUCERS: Space-age Design.


Then finally there is the futuristic (as it seemed at the time) refining of this feature. A fantasy that combines the essence of elevation and what is one logical end point or ultimate product of the machine aesthetic. A materialized fantasy which turns the top of the building itself into a kind of machine, and not just any machine: a machine for traveling through the sky, no longer content with just pointing or drawing on the symbolism of the heavens, this machine will convey us into the very heavens themselves. After symbolic wheels it is the theme of transport, of flying, is called upon to witness the self-aggrandising claims of the top-most levels of a tall building and its decorative rhetoric. An imaginative process that leaves what appears to be a space vehicle sitting on top of a column, or, even more logically, standing on some, suitably metallic-looking, spindly robot legs. A structure which has its foundations in the science-fiction of the period (that looks precisely like a quotation from one of a vast number of period films). Hangover from the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘city on a hill’ has become the ‘house on stilts’ - sci-fi style.


So again returning us to the sign on stilts, to the ‘other’ role of architecture, the role of architecture as message, and so the forerunner and, in this particular case, parallel of the elevated advertisement; with the same logic and sharing the same history that stretches from the sacred objects attached to the top of a stick stuck into the ground (or hung from a tree) or tribal totem, and their, not-so-distant, cousin, the advertising hoarding raised well above the street level, placed on the side of a building, or the neon sign on top of a tall building.


See the old CCTV tower on the West side.




Architectural Debates: Illusionism and Ideology.


Buildings can be true or false, so the argument goes. The ‘true’ building is honest, performs its function and does not pretend to be anything else (for example, a cathedral). Whilst the ‘false’ puts on airs and graces and attempts to fool us that it is something ’other’ than what it is (that suggests meanings that function symbolically or psychologically, as opposed to delimiting physical function). The ugliest buildings, it would appear, are the most true; whilst any attempt to compromise with human (or contextual) visual comfort apparently only leads us into an inauthentic illusionism, or supposedly leaves us in thrall to an alienating ideology that blinds us to the ‘real’ truth. Key terms here are: functionalism versus decoration; or ‘essential’ structure and a ‘non-essential’ supplement. Yet ‘Deco’ skyscrapers are amongst the most beloved by the public and the wing, sail, awning or overhanging roof structures on airports, hotels and other large public structures are amongst the most admired and talked about features in the publics engagement with architecture (so much so that we might call it an ‘actually-existing’ response to architecture, to differentiate it from what it is we are supposed to feel).


To argue that people are naturally affected strongly by many (very big) ugly buildings and that the negativity expressed in these feelings is acceptable is to argue from a misplaced sense of the sublime. A mountain and a concentration camp entrance both elicit strong feelings and suggest disturbing thoughts on visually absent content, yet the former are positively awe-inspiring, whilst the latter overwhelms with disgust for the horrors it entails but we can not see.


‘Authentic’ perhaps, if we must used such a value-loaded term at all, may be better employed to talk about suiting human needs (including visual comfort, the sense of a non-threatening environment and a positive addition to the urban landscape). The same might be said of the term ‘alienating’.


To build a railway station now in the form of a Gothic castle might be silly, certainly; but ‘silly’ at least is humourous, which is more acceptable to most people (who would prefer the sight of a light smile to a serious grimace). Perhaps a better compromise would be to create a vision suited to modern materials – but a vision nevertheless.


At its most cogent and most simple this issue can be illustrated through the question of mass transit.


This very modern problem focuses on the making of transit building visually palatable as well as functional. In essence the perceptions and feelings of those having to look at and using the buildings in questions are to be taken into account. There are two aspects to this question; the general exterior appearance of the (often very large) building; and the appearance and sub-division of the interior. As regarding the interiors of transit structures, it is a question of making them ‘homely’, that is a little more like a ‘room’ (whose room, ‘our’ room) for the users inside. The exterior needs to balance the requirements of function with (geographic, urban) context and the feelings of the viewer (which should come down to the same thing) by recognizing that it has to deal with the sublime aspects of size (which may otherwise be frightening and forbidding) and so by imitating aspects of sacred structures, or by paying attention to those aspects of the building that may suggest sublime (or awe-inspiring) sensations. Mass transit is not always the most pleasurable of experiences and the spaces it creates not always the most attractive (‘place’ with a negative aspect, a ‘bad’ place); the design of the buildings involves can make a difference to the environment and to the psychology of the traveler.


In the case of rail or ‘plane terminals it is a question of giant sheds versus striking or nuanced design. Between buildings we look at in horror, and those we admire (and even enjoy using).




 (CHAPTER FOUR). City of Glass. Modernism & Beyond.




In this chapter we will examine the continuation of Modernism ‘by other means’ and see how new life has been breathed into, what was once thought to be, a defunct or discredited form.



Definitions. International Modernism or the International Style. Terms originating in the 1930s to cover the range of architecture evolving in the early 20th century which emphasized simple cubic forms and volumes, the downgrading of symmetry, (relative) lack of ornamentation (no mouldings) and large windows, often in bands or strips (as typified by such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe). A style first broken by more expressive styles of building (for example concrete ‘Brutalism’), then by Post-modernism (where the cube is decorated or its form divided or redesigned).



Introductory Section.


The term ‘modernism’ is usually read as the dominance of the cube as a functional, economic and aesthetic guide to architectural design. This basic form is accompanied with a stripping away of detail or decoration in ‘form follows function’ or ‘functionalism’ (not to be confused with ‘functionalism’ in the social sciences, where it is the actual social function and the representation of a function, what people believe it does and what it actually does, that are contrasted). Its structural basis was the iron and steel frame which enabled great heights to be reached, and dispensed with an exterior supporting wall (the ‘walls’ we actually see are fillers of the gaps between floors, glass walls or brick ‘curtains’). From slight beginnings as the modernisme of the Art Nouvaux and Liberty styles to the anti-ornament orthodoxies as pronounced by Adolf Loos and his followers at the beginning of the twentieth century to the full-blown architectural Modernism that dominated the world’s cities for thirty or forty years after the Second World War. The anti-ornament orthodoxy, however, was never strictly followed in the early period of ‘Modernism’, the early 20th century. In actual architectural practice it was very hard to give up some sense of the differentiated top, middle and bottom; not even in the work of the Bauhaus group, who counted amongst their number many champions of this style, did the anti-decoration orthodoxy take hold. In the years that followed ‘Modernism’ then lent its name to the evolution of the steel, glass and concrete cube, which climaxed in the International Style of the post World War II West and the post ‘sixties East (in each case fuelled by the economic boom of these periods). It is interesting to note that International Style Modernism spawned a deliberate self-parody, Brutalism, which appears to confirm the insight of the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, that in an ugly world, an ugly art may be the best form of artistic truth (many have retorted that building ugly buildings is a part of the making of that world and that we should build otherwise…). In reality the best admired buildings of this style and or period of architectural design are those that used a differentiation of parts to signal the presence of a discrete top and bottom - as can be found even in the buildings of the arch-modernist and father of the International Style, Walter Gropius.


Typologies: Right-Angles, Prisms & Pyramids, City of Glass/Facades I, Lines of Flight/Facades II, Curvaceous Constructions, Metal Cages, The Lighthouse and the Sky Offering.



The two major effects of Modernism on the urban landscape are: first, the presence of the cube as manifested in featureless buildings from tenements to skyscrapers; and second the decorating of this basic structure by means of the employment of borrowed details placed upon the top or surface of the building (as we have seen in the sections above) or the hi-tech re-modeling of the volume and form of the building (as in the CCTV building for example).


Losing your Head: the minimal or ’unfinished’ style.


The dominance or influence of this style of building can conveniently be divided into two. The first period roughly covers the 1950s through to the 1970s. So such ‘basic’ or ‘unfinished’ structures are a feature of the ‘old’ new Beijing of the 1950s up until after the end of the period known as ‘the cultural revolution’: that is, the tower blocks and tenements built fifty and sixty years ago, which are now in the process of demolition. Similar structures from a similar period also abound in the West, where they are universally reviled, both as poverty traps and as eyesores regarding their negative contribution to the skyline – the lack of care evinced in their lack of finish, their lack of a ‘top’, reflecting the lack of care shown for the situation of their occupants.


The second period is that of the basic concrete and glass cube, the tall structure of the ‘International Style’ type of Modernism (and if anything more reviled than the older structures that preceded them as these monsters came to dominate most city skylines – in general appearing to have been built with minimal costs as well as minimal decorative effect in mind). Dominated by simple geometries, and the rule of the grid, these towers of glass are still a staple of office blocks world-wide. Increasingly though, their top parts at least are beginning to be more differentiated than the International Style orthodoxy would allow. Clearly the added costs of providing the city with a building people might like, that is worth looking up to… are not a disincentive when matters of (corporate, city, or national) image become a matter for concern. And the matter of the top is its image.



From ‘Scalped’ to ‘Sculpted’: the ‘Decorated’ or ‘Finished’ style.


This category of building pits the ‘decorated’, that is sculpted and finished style, those buildings completed with a top part which is recognised by the city dwellers as a contribution to the city’s skyline, against the stripped-down ‘functionalist’ look, that is a style combining minimal design at minimal cost with minimal regard for either (immediate) context or (general) public consumption. The decorated form of the concrete, steel and glass tower is often classified as a type of Post-modernism; a ‘style’ dating from the 1970s onwards; which category is also good for describing the return of historicist and traditional decorative forms in culture in general and the philosophical shifts that have accompanied them. This category therefore also includes the many ‘return of tradition’ type buildings together with the various appropriations of tradition discussed in the three sections above. The features listed below are those that continue in some manner the experimental or creative side of Modernism (as for example in the sub-division of space and volume, or in the use of the curve or bent line), as opposed to its conservative side which remains focused upon the cube and its concomitant symbolic and economic miserliness.


Definitions. Post-modernism. Two aspects: the first is as a specific term for a period or style in architecture and all the arts, in each case presenting a slightly different meaning or realization – but involving a move away from minimal form and abstraction. The second as an approach to and moment in philosophy and the history of ideas, such that there is a disbelief in the idea of automatic, cumulative progress in history, in unified stories that would give meaning to the world (or a ‘master’ standpoint), so often suggesting a relativising of knowledge, or a perspectivism in which the negotiations of the different viewpoints are more important the notion of a unified or final ‘Truth’. So making meaning a pragmatic, reception or user-based process, to include movements such as post-foundationalism, post-structuralism, critical anthropology, critical musicology (and generally anything with ‘post-’ in the title). In architecture this term is used to designate the rebellion against the modernist cube and the return of previous historical styles as a form of decoration.



Right-Angles & Diagonals: Prisms and Pyramids. The ‘city on a slope’.


These types of building often echo modernist concerns in their basic design, but are designed to provide an answer to the demand for access to light coming from neighbouring buildings (a form of architectural regulation called ‘zoning’) as well as to provide more light for the inhabitants of the upper floors of the same building (through a balcony or roof garden or terrace). This access is achieved by offering a rectangular slope, a feature which has already become a popular solar feature around the world, transfiguring many city solarscapes at around the turn of the last century.


The presence of slanting, or right-angle, tops on skyscrapers represents a continuation of the fashion for peaks and triangles as a more acceptable skyline feature than the traditional modernist flat top. We can say that the latter is cheaper in terms of cost/price (less income from rent), but costs the building a place of honour on the skyline (the price of this ‘saving’, the bathetic appearance of ‘a looser’, manifesting poverty when it comes to recognition and symbolic force). In many cities world-wide, the triangular peak, specially the slanting-top type (more economic than the decorative pyramid-type top owing to the former’s adaptability to use), usually coordinated in glass and metal, pays its respects to the sky. Offering space for roof gardens and added access to the sun’s light, as well as opening-up the skyline itself; letting in light whilst pointing, culminating in the open sky. In silhouette, presenting us with a series of jagged ridges, like a serrated paper-cut, if a number of such angular forms are found together, so formative of the distinctive texture of the new urban skyline; a line of visual enchantment which respects our collective need for a horizon we can ‘look up to’… no longer sold cheap. When coated in glass, like the angle of a prism, or the facet of a diamond, the glass-plated slant of the cut-top type diagonal offers a plane of reflection; we perceive a new source of light as well as an unusual angle on the horizon. No longer only reflecting the window-wall opposite (the fate of most vertical planes of glass) the slant window surface offers light from the sky directly; a mirror directly reflecting the heavens… a refracting glint that calls down the sun, the moon and the stars.



The City of Glass ( Facades I).


Utopia. In windows. Already realised in our architecture, in the dreams of windows. The future perfect is to be found reflected there, where the rhythms of rooftops and spires glow golden in the sun, run silver in the rain. The reflection of the ideal, already realised, the light of the ideal, reflected, in windows. The golden cities of the future are already here. It is only the comportment of the human element that does not measure up to the ideal. An ideal that they have set and we have built. In windows.


Definitions. Curtain Wall. A wall which does not support the building’s weight but protects the inner space against the weather and intrusive gazes of passers-by. Placed in front of the frame (which is the true load-bearing element) the curtain wall may perhaps contain windows and may otherwise be made from aluminium, steel or, of course, glass.


The spectral vista provided by the reflective wall of buildings all sheathed in glass offers a number of meanings to the enchanted viewer. Such vistas are an amazing example of the inherent ambiguity of glass and so of the range of meaning, the visual versatility of modern glass architecture. A combination of light and dark glass surfaces offers a combination of contrasting moods: the light offering a refracted sky; the dark suggesting concealment; the light, a reference to the heavens; the dark, the presence of a hidden realm. All meanings generated by reflections in glass, by our reflections upon them. Even as glass masks an interior, the skin on the concrete frame, the glint in the eye that conceals the soul, so such combinations of glass architecture offer a mask, or an array of masks, reflective, metallic. As if before an armoured presence; the vision of a sightless visor, multiplied in procession and reflection, so it appears that that a passing cavalcade of ghostly knights has been frozen into a motionless tableaux, and we find ourselves in the towering presence of giant, multi-faceted, crystal beings, their suits of reflective material re-echoing the world around them even as they hide from us their true content.


See Shang Du SOHO, (Architects; Lab Architecture Studio: Location: Chaoyang Qu, Dongdaqiao Lu). Glass Origami. Conflicting glass planes, walls that seem about to fold in on themselves, buildings that spring out from their setting, about to lean over or, more disturbingly, change location. Black and white checks; like a chess board. Actually black and grey; a variegation at first a little dark (no one likes black glass buildings, the equivalent of the wearing of dark glasses by a double-glazing salesman…); but the reflective surfaces (grey) become blue or at least sky-reflecting, when not reflecting the buildings opposite –so enlivening the otherwise mono-chrome manifold that zigzags its way around the buildings internal structure. For the all the world as if a child’s paper cut-out had been laid over the concrete tower cores and grid of metal beams that supports it.


The all-glass curtain wall, spectacular though it may appear, not least when backed up by a variety of such glass-sheathed structures, does not always bode well for the solar skyline. Indeed its contribution is often negative. The emphasis on the sheathing, the glass ‘curtain wall’, usually leaves the top section ‘unfinished’, culminating in a kind of dead end - finishing abruptly. Otherwise the top zone of human urban experience is given a cursory nod in some form of demarcation or segregation, which, however, remains minimal. When the glass wall is primary the façade, then the Middle zone of the urban experience is pronounced, and so, as with the form of a shield, the zone above is left undeveloped to take pot-luck with the vestigial symbolism obtaining to any form of horizon or rim.


The origami glass effect also appears in similar developments at Raffles City at Dongzhimen junction. In this three tower complex, the folded, leaning motif is augmented by a melting effect occurring at the base of the towers. An apparently chaotic occurrence happening just at the place where the towers spring forth from their base, a region of conflict, of rapid metamorphosis, or melt down, as the towers either rise from the melting glass walls, or appear to sink into them, or even to slide along - apparently in one case about to slide right off its pedestal… and down on to the road below!



eyeguides: How Architectural Symbolism Works: the Symbolism of Glass. A Rhetoric of Reflection.


Landscapes of glass are impossible to gaze upon without the thought of utopia arising. Here we have entered the moral-symbolic realm of the ‘city-on-a-hill’, the realm of the ideal, the ideal for dwelling accompanying the ideal of a way of life, come together as a form of dwelling. Together with its opposite: common result of the utopian experiment- our inheritance of past dystopias as history now records them and as famously featured in the early twentieth century dystopian novel, ‘We’ (1920), by Eugene Zamiatin. This famous novel, (which was the inspiration for George Orwell’s novel, ‘1984’) combines dystopia with architecture, his fears for life in Russia at that time, with life in a city of glass, a symbolic architecture where all walls are transparent, so permitting a kind of mass voyeurism and scrutiny (somewhat ironically, a condition many high-rise apartments in many modern cities now approach, perhaps, in a reversal of the pessimistic symbolism of the novel, representing utopia for those who can afford them, and those who would like to be able to…). But whether we are enchanted or repelled by the real presence, the real historical arrival, of the City of Glass in our present historical landscape, we nevertheless find ourselves presented with a vision of a glazed world, a veritable landscape of glass, a city made from canyons of crystal: as light transforms the prism of hard angular surfaces into a putative image of perfection (or reveals it as a patina that cloaks human imperfection).



Lines of Flight: ‘Climbing the Stairway to Heaven’.


This is the first of two categories which are basically about the exterior coating, or cladding of the tall building (the other is the ‘Metal Cage’ below). This cladding may be functional, as in weight-supporting strapping, or a protecting brise-soleil (or sun-break), or it may be an ornamental development of either of these functions (like the surfboards and waves dealt with in the first chapter) fulfilling the role of curtain wall. Either way, we are in the realm of the façade, the building’s eye-raising middle zone, the patterns of which lead our eyes up to its solar rim.


Eye-paths. Eye-leading. Hypsosis - by step. After the line, the infinite gradation. Rungs of the ladder of permanent ascent. Quantitative linear measure indicating the place of a zone of positive quality, of positive energy (a sky-reaching and so solar effect). Patterns of ascension. Tracks and trails, irrational geometries traversing the sides of buildings, a repartition of the rationalist’s grid undertaken by the passing of some giant insect, dissolving and resetting the verticals and horizontals, reordering the logic of the sides in the course of its climb to the sun. Stairways to heaven. Phototropic passages presaging the blinding of the eye. Trace of the passing of a colossal solar insect, record of its upward path to the heavens.


iPaths. As with the repetition of the grid across the canyon wall of the Middle, so with the traversing stair, for all its reversal of the dominant design, it still remains impossible to fix ones eyes at one point, on one level; instead, as in the game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ they must slide up and down – eventually always up again. Above to what waits above urban matter. Jacob’s ladder.



Curvaceous Constructions: The Return of the Ellipse.


Organic; limb-like. So suggestive of the body, of a living form. Even ‘feminine’ in character (as opposed to the ‘masculinity’ of the rational grid of the cube, in a logic of traditional, or ‘received’ opposites). Such forms appear to break all the rules of space and so of the efficient use of space. Their value therefore is even more rooted in their form than in their economies of line.


Curves, oval forms, ellipses and a concomitant avoidance of the right-angular straight edge. Like some swirling object caught in transit on the potter’s wheel. The architect’s slide-rule apparently replaced by a bendy ruler. The line we can bend on the computer. Reappearing in the 1980s in Phillip Johnson’s, ironically named ‘Lipstick Building’, such elliptic and circular forms can now be seen freshly in evidence around the world, from the giant ‘gerkins’ of London (Norman Foster) and Barcelona (Jean Nouvel), to Beijing’s Chaoyangmen vortex-like towers (see inset below) not to mention the Giant Egg, and the Bird’s Nest. Curves (with apologies to the fashion industry) are back in fashion.


See the China National Offshore Oil Corporation Office Building (Architect; Kohn Pederson Fox; Location; Chaoyangmen Bridge). Despite its oval form this structure is in one respect a hyper-modern version of the famous Flat-Iron building in Manhattan, the building’s aesthetic rhetoric repeats the pointing up to the sky achieved by all triangular edged structures, which becomes a kind of soaring effect when viewed from a position directly in front and below. The horizontal strip windows appear as a kind of moveable, mobile wrapping. Arranged around an interior (invisible) courtyard, the building nevertheless appears as a colossal solid from the exterior, the curves in this case emphasizing mass rather than streamlining it. As if a mighty round wedge had been driven in to the ground.


Yet, even in the angular world of Modernism this is not a novum. If historically the round form looks back to the round form of the Rotunda and Pantheon (or even further, anecdotally, to the round tent or hut said to underlie these forms), then it also has an altogether more recent provenance; early Modernism too experimented with the curve (see for example the writings of art critic Rosalind Krauss). Before the orthodoxy established in the visual language of Modernism by the later Mondrian, Gropius and Mies, that is, the orthodoxy of the line and the cube, there was the curve in Kandinsky, and in the design, as well as the paintings of the Futurists and Constructivists. Cubism itself was but a moment is the opuses of Picasso and Braque. So, from the perspective of an excavation of the recent past, we have a return to the experiment with all forms that predated the reductivism of modernist orthodoxy, all potential forms are again grist to the designers mill, and not just a few boxes and their linear extension (the logic of which was anyway driven by their cheapness, an economic meanness which quickly extended into a cheapness of style). Curvature may cost more - but it is worth it!


See also the National Institute of Accountancy, (Architect, Qi Xin). Ribbed for comfort. This building also features the large roof lip that is a direct borrowing from the roof overhang of the traditional Chinese roof. Shelter from the midday sun when the heat is at its worst. Shadow guaranteed precisely at the time of its greatest need.


See also Xizhimen Subway and Railway Station/HuocheZhan.



Metal Cage: Wrap-around Exo-skeletons; Building as Insect


Binding, the clasp, buckle or strap, as if holding together the parts of a door or a wheel. Strapping, webbing, riveting, all holding strategies more often seen on clothing and ornament, in the material of wood or metal (the broach) like the holding together of a wooden box, casket, or even a parcel - rather than the stuff of buildings; brick, concrete, or glass. Now writ large across the face of our urban structures, like the corset that holds in the middle, pushing the top ever further up…


Touted as the next great building innovation since the metal skeleton that has driven our tall buildings ever taller, the external wrapping of a building (or the use of the façade yet again as a weight-bearing structure) is an engineering feat that allows a structure to stand because its parts are held together by a force other than that of gravity; the enclosing horizontal, centripetal, force of the embrace of a system of metal strapping (so resembling the ‘bundling’ of ‘tubes’). Since the 1970s this system has been used to augment the stability of structures where gravity in the form of a steel and concrete core is just not enough (see for example the CCTV building; and then there is the Bird’s Nest, where its job it to support the massive roof-overhang protecting the seating below). Often used in very tall buildings (such as the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center, both in Shanghai), where the central tower or core is built around a traditional iron frame and where the outlying zones of the building are to held on by a tubular or strapping system of mega-supports; metal sello-tape to bind on structures against the will of gravity or bypassing the need for sufficient foundations or internal columnar support - so saving considerably on the use of steel. (But caution, this was the design feature that led to the quick collapse of the ‘Twin Towers’ in New York in what has, globally, become known as ‘9/11’; with an internal iron frame these buildings would have stood and most of the deceased would have survived…).


Then there are the webs and nets, the wrapping of a building in a mesh of metal. Warp and woof of steel threads, aluminum bandages apparently holding in the guts of the building, its offices, its furniture - its inhabitants. However these are not the kind of wrappings that hold up a building; rather they hang on to the building, clinging to its concrete frame – metal web spin by a android spider. In reality what we have is another kind of curtain wall. Another kind of sun-break (brise-soleil). Facades. A wash of ornamental repetition. A pattern that clothes the building, giving it its distinctive fur, its patterned skin, its tattooed skin, its embroidered weave; its scales, its shell, its texture.


See National Center for the Performing Arts (the ‘Giant Egg’), the new CCTV building (for ‘straps’), and the National Stadium (the ‘Bird’s Nest’).



Lanterns, Lighthouses & Sky Offerings.


Full or empty; the illusion that it is full of something, fed only by artificial light and our imagination, or empty as in the transparent interior glimpsed between girders, or even the empty sky beyond framed by the open structure that performs its own brand of union with the sky. Full of the sky.


As in the imaginings of our childhood, that lonely light or enigmatic opening in the upper story... Index of activity; presence of a mystery; enunciation of an unanswered question. Index of mysterious activity within – but of what kind? The workshop hidden in the furthermost turret; site of arcane experiments. Like a machine room; enclosed by vents, or walled, but allowing the escape of light, allowing light to do the work of decorative features, the work of suggestion. Borrowing light (or projecting it from within) to mark the distinction of the upper level, itself a marking-out of the building, its mark, its identification among so many others; distinct voice, yet at the same time one element of the chorus of our skyline song. Again the form of the wall surrounding the technical necessities (if they are actually even there at all) placed on top of the building -or even the wall itself- is, technically-speaking, itself an unnecessary addition. A supplement like the name or the style of a person. Part of a statement about the building’s identity; a result of our own identity projected outwards; our expectations of our environment, our demand for a suitable urban home that answers our requirement that it have an adequate, finished, and worthy relation to the sky (that we will enjoy looking at it, that it will in some measure enable us to enjoy it, to feel completed by it, and not disappointed by it, not to have to avert our eyes, not -above all- to have to look down). This play of light and openings on the upper level of a given building offers us an act of illusionism, in the best sense of the word, like representation or dimensionality in art that transforms stone and steel, glass and girders, into an enigmatic presence on our urban scene. The alchemy of architecture: turning base metal into the stuff of symbol. So made up of symbolic, rather than actual, gold.



Corrugated Shed: Shields and Blinders.



Remaining resolutely modern is, or was, the ‘Corrugated Shed’ the hotel -made famous for being burn down by a stray firework- adjacent to the CCTV Building (Architect: Rem Koolhas; Location: Chaoyang Bei Lu). Unlike it’s would-be radical neighbour, the CCTV building, which at first sight and on final reflection continues the symbolic work of the traditional Arch in modern garb, Corrugated Shed in many ways defies easy classification (or - perhaps too easily - the harbinger of a new brutalism…).


From the side, we see a ribbon of metal wrapping an enclosed interior, like a metal cowl hiding a face in shadow, the interior is further masked by darkened glass. Dark glasses concealing the expression of the eyes. From another angle appearing as if a fold, illusionistic neck, narrowing where there is none such, suddenly making the building appear fragile, gravity defying. Yet another change of angle makes the window wall turn into a soaring cathedral window. And the towering shed becomes the end wall of a cathedral nave…


An inventive development of the metal-clad cube type. Featuring a metal shield, a polished reflector apparently bent around an interior space (the building hides beneath). We, the onlookers, are dazzled by sun’s light and the patterns it makes on the stripped metal surface, a slope of light, with bands of light, patterns that appear and disappear according to proximity and position. An attention-seeking building, pointing to itself, which however then denies any view of the interior, no windows, or only hidden ones… hidden by its reflective shield, concealing, protecting (metaphorically) those on the inside. Denying views of the interior, this wall of light acts as a shield, throwing off, casting outwards, the captured patterns of the sun. Whose light cascades off the cladding of aluminum. Waves of light pouring across, traversing a metal mirror. A waterfall made of reflected light. In this aspect also suggesting a solar furnace.





       PART THREE: A Unitary Vision? Cityscapes, Old & New.



From huddled hutongs to broad boulevards, from ancient palaces to the latest hi-tech buildings, Beijing combines them all. How does the human eye cope with this patchwork quilt of history and modernity? The final chapter suggests that it is not only -or not even- the age of a building that we use to make sense of the basics of the urban experience: a building, a street, a square.



(CHAPTER FIVE) Reading Architecture! Points of Orientation.



In this chapter we will look at two other key co-ordinates which will help us in our understanding of the modern urban environment; that is, for understanding our predicament as an animal that has made and remade the world in the image of its own spiritual and desiring structures and now finds itself lost in a forest of its own making.



Part 1/ Whose Stand-point? The Horizon versus ‘Stand-alones’.



Part 2/ Points of View. The Pointed Roof versus the Flat Roof Tradition.






Part I/ Collective Horizons versus Stand-Alone buildings


In this section we will examine the difference between our ways of reading the street view as a whole, perhaps the basic unit of our urban experience and so replete with a mass of inherited differentiation and symbolism, an experience opposed to the ‘singling-out’ or particular view of a single or ‘stand alone’ building. There will follow an introduction to the meaning and evolution of three part, two part and one part experiential building types (buildings experienced, or ‘understood’, as having one, two or three significant parts) as they apply to several of the key structures that have made Beijing famous as a destination for architectural tourism.



COLLECTIVE PERCEPTIONS: The Horizon and the Horizontal.


This is an experience we are ’in’, or ‘part of’, one that envelopes us, as if in an urban canyon, or womb. Perhaps the nearest we can get to an incarnation of the ‘Social’ (as opposed to its symbolization in a key religious or governmental building). As with our sense of being a part of a larger whole, this is an on-going experience we interact with continuously, even unconsciously, in that this experience of our immediate environment is normal, default, and yet powerfully influences our sense of place, calling forth a general set of responses or desires (unlike the more deliberate, altogether more conscious stare ‘at’ the stand alone feature, ’before’ which we stand and which calls forth an accompanying, distinct, aesthetic judgment). For the street we find ourselves in is a part of our selves (indeed where we ’find ourselves’), we are subject to it, we are ‘inside’, it is part of our subjectivity, our felt sense of space- indeed our felt sense of the self: whereas the building we stand before is very much ‘outside’ of ourselves, an object to our perceiving subject – viewed as an image alone, and so leaving our other senses to respond to the space we stand in. Vision apart.


The experience of the horizon as a collective experience; the experience of a view shared with many other inhabitants of the same space (albeit experienced differently according to mood and personal background). It is also the experience of a collective unit; what we perceive is made up of many elements, not least the agglutination of many buildings. Such a perception of the urban scene offers buildings that touch that become subsumed onto a greater whole, which is then, in turn, subdivided along the opposite co-ordinate from that which we normally associate with buildings together (as separate entities, experienced vertically); the street view is perceived horizontally, as a parallel or receding horizontal lines (like the lines of perspective coming together with distance). Like a horizon, or sequence of horizons, the top of one zone, meeting the bottom of another (the top edge of the shop front strip with its signs and mezzanine windows, meeting the bottom windows of the long middle layer, often made up of office windows or the top window line of the middle meeting the exaggerated windows or other decorative feature of the topmost portion). For it is a fundamental feature of actually-experienced cities, despite our intuition that buildings are individual entities, segregated and identifiable vertically, that our intuitive division of the urban landscape, not least the street scene, is into cities as an accretion of horizontal bands (top. bottom and middle: street level strip, canyon or window wall, and solar top). Yet how little of what is written on architecture, whether on architectural design, reception or theory that reflects this reality - even though individual buildings are clearly zoned in this way - even those whose designers deny the need for such a ‘decorative’ difference. This sense of the horizontal governs our experience of the city street, be it alley, high street or boulevard, as of our experience of the city square, from the relatively small, closed medieval square to the much larger, open Renaissance and modern squares that are our collective inheritance; an inheritance that gives us an innate sense of the built environment as a transbuilding experience.


Urban skylines as repositories of religious geo-cultural heritage, of regional thought and history. The union of spiritual and material culture. As for example in the case of religious, cultural traditions and their influence on the built horizon: Christian crosses can be found on most (pointed and domed) Classical buildings in Rome (they did not originally possess them); ‘Onion’ domes and the Eastern cross in Eastern Orthodox cities (many of which once bore the hammer and sickle of the previous religion); in China there is the triangular temple top insofar as traditional architecture has survived the country’s tumultuous history.


See landscape shots of Beijing. City wide images. The ‘big picture’ shows the curve or ‘cradle form’ of the inner city (from high to low rise and back to high).



STAND ALONES: Building Apart (from Tian’anmen Gate to the National Stadium).


These are buildings we stand ‘before’ and so are ‘apart from’; even ‘in front of’ in the sense that we stand before their front or public face - as opposed to being enclosed by them. So facing one another. Discrete entities. Which does not mean that we are not moved by the sight of what may lie before us. Indeed, as in the sight of a mountain or a view over water, we may be transported by what we perceive…the ‘front’ of every cathedral, or otherwise impressive religious (and State) building attests to the possibility of this.


How do we perceive the parts of buildings that stand alone? Whilst the three parts of experienced architecture are still a feature of most stand-alones (which are often also the ‘must-see’ buildings of the architectural tourist itinerary); nevertheless many such structures are often better understood as functioning as two or even one-part buildings when we consider their impact on the viewer and the types of meanings the different parts of such buildings convey. For example, most new tower blocks, both residential and office, such as the long sweep of Chang’an office buildings (opposite Xidan and its subway stop) can be best understood as three-part buildings, echoing, when all is said and done, the historical experience of the tall building or Palazzo model and so blending in with the three-part zoning of the city street perceived as a whole. On the other hand, the Tiananmen Square, State and governmental, structures (built in the desert or dry climate, flat roof style) and the Gugong or Forbidden City (in the opposite, wet climate, pointed roof style) are clearly two-part buildings, made up of entrance and sign. This latter, two part form, generally consists of a door or pillars surmounted by a portico (the triangular gable beneath the roof) or cornice-type roof rim, usually carrying some manner of politico-religious symbol - as in temple-type structures as found both in the East and the West. This distinction between practical function (entry) and semiotic function (sign) is enshrined in Palladio’s famous division of the upper and lower parts of the church front into the House of God and the House of Man. If the lower segment is made up of walls and means of entry (doors, pillars) then the top segment is made up of the relationship to the sky (always accentuated in any religious building) and the symbols which will individuate it and differentiate it from other religions or political institutions.


The radical unitary, or one part, structure, is the late 20th century‘s contribution to the basic experiential forms of architecture (perhaps the only previous structure to offer such a unity of appearance was the Egyptian pyramid). Interestingly, a one part experiential structure is what we find when we look upon the four key architectural icons of the new Beijing: the National Theatre (the ‘Giant Egg’), the CCTV building (‘Long Johns’), the National Stadium (the ‘Bird’s Nest’) and its near neighbour the National Swimming Centre (the ‘Water Cube’); an effect also in evidence in another recent development in the history of architectural design, the conflicted planes of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, an example of the revolutionary work of Frank Gehry. The meanings of these buildings lie in the key effective response they call forth from their viewers; what do we feel as we stand before them: in general, the single or unitary image that we behold calls forth an equally unitary response (which is not to say a response which is, at the same time, not equivocal). The totality viewed (from outside and from a vantage point that enables, or even prepares for, a clear view of the whole or of a significant portion) carries or conveys a more or less single sensation and a single meaning; indeed it part of the remit of the building as spectacle, as a work of visual rhetoric, that it appear unified in meaning, as well as appearance. The impression and the meaning (not lest the context of the meaning as part of a national project and so of national pride) must deliver a single message.


The experience of the single-part building, despite its status as an apparent novum on the architectural scene, is nevertheless that of the two-part temple structure translated into modern (and so in a formal sense minimalist) language. It also echoes uncannily (and perhaps this is its only true parallel) certain natural features that carry significant, that is sacred, meaning: the rock-faces, outcrops, megaliths and mountains worshipped by our Neolithic ancestors which often survived into the religions that followed as holy places, sites for temples and (mass) pilgrimage.


See the National Swimming Centre or ‘Water Cube’ (Architects: PTW; Location: Beijing Olympic Green). Basically blue: but at night liable to change colour. A conceit housed in the form of a cube. The conceit is good: the cube that contains it might appear a limitation, but instead offers a contrast which emphasizes the non-liner, non-grid form of the ‘bubbles’ that decorate the exterior – that seem to push out from it. Contained by the cube frame and by their six (and seven) sided anchorage onto the steel frame wall, away from which they seem to expand as is if pushed outwards by the pressure of a huge pump – or the pressure of water. Illuminated bubble box. Jacuzzi Jukebox.



The parallels of the CCTV building with the Arch we have already looked at in the first chapter. The National Theater or the ‘Giant Egg’ is structured around the notion of a giant pleasure dome, replete with water features, indeed it resembles a colossal pebble sitting in a pool (or an equally gigantic bubble emerging from the depths, depths that we must pass under in order to enter, like a funerary road leading to the place of the dead, a Ancient Greek ‘dromos’ or Chinese archaic ‘spirit road’). The National Stadium is more enigmatic in appearance, the metal strapping suggesting the containment of something powerful, an invisible event, or unseen force – which, in terms of the numbers of people to be contained and social (national) symbolic importance, is indeed the case. The interior symbolism of both buildings is a matter of participation, of being inside the space in question and witnessing the events that transpire there, and so a completely different experience from that of the building as an externally viewed object; indeed both buildings take as their function some manner of spectacle, or ritual performance. Unitary forms far more resemble abstract outdoor sculpture than human habitations or other functional structures.



See the ‘Three Towers’ of Xizhimen Subway Station’, Xihuan Plaza (Architects; J. M. Dutheilleul & E. Tricauld: Location; Xizhimen). Despite being a two part building (yet even from close up the towers remain as perceptually separate entities, their ethereal presence ‘above’ –an effect of their glass and brise-soleil or sun-break structure- as if distinct from the heavier masses grouped below), and so made up of a shop and entrance level and above the ‘symbolic’ element, the famous three towers; this is in the experience of most a one part perceptual structure. Indeed to most people the lower level (despite is huge size) is rendered invisible, as compared to the immensity of the towers, and aided by the context of the surrounding structures (this elision is aided by a differentiation of materials). The three ellipses offer a form made for repetition; unlike the cube with its sharp edges, this sinuous form renders its own reproduction a logical continuity, like the successive ellipses of a smoothly undulating sine-wave. Contextually also, the curves of this form offer a more acceptable, more easily assimilated, monumental form than the usual candidates (the cube or its variants, the ziggurat, the rhomboid, the oblong). Historically, there is the presence, a making material and so visible, of the spaces of entry, on the site of the old city gates – many of which were constructed with three entrances. The positive actualization of these spaces, a rendering which emphasizes their symbolic potential, so extends the sense of welcome that always attends the marking of borders with a pleasing (as opposed to rebarbative) visual form. In this sense these structures function as a memorial for those demolished to make space for them. Portals for arrival. Spatialised memory. At night, the illuminated marking of a margin.



The National Stadium or ‘Bird’s Nest’ (Architects: Herzog & De Meuron; Location: Olympic Green). Probably the jewel in Beijing’s architectural crown; certainly the building by which the Olympics are best known by (possibly rivaling the Great Wall and Forbidden City in the World’s imagination of China as a country and so finally giving it a modern face). Much criticized for lacking traditional features, ‘it doesn’t look Chinese’, has often elicited the response, ‘it doesn’t look as if it came from anywhere’; and indeed this building (more than the CCTV building, the practical symbolism of which I have discussed elsewhere) is a genuine novum in the world of architectural design – it literally looks like nothing built before (and given its cost possibly unlike anything yet to be built). Another addition to our inventory of curved or elliptic structures and one part buildings, the form of the rim resembles a giant roller coaster (suggesting the excitement of a sporting event) and its topmost surface, glimpsed from a distance at ground level due to its rising wings, resembles the swell of water, the rocking of a giant wave (suggesting an illusory motion and flexibility which counteracts the metal structure we see so admirably exposed).The irregular spacing of the skein of metal bands that carry the weight of the covering parts, suggest an attempt to restrain as well as give form to this motion. To materialise the energy of a national event, or perhaps even of an entire nation.





Part II/ The Pointed Roof versus the Flat Roof Traditions



In this section we will look at the dry’ and ‘wet’ geo-structural bequests to the history of architecture and how they are used in both in popular architecture and in several key structures in Beijing.


A useful distinction to keep in mind when observing the upper part of a building or street is the type of roof covering we see there - that is, the fundamental difference between the Pointed Roof tradition and the Flat Roof tradition. These are two key moments in the geo-cultural evolution of world architecture, which, broadly speaking, consist of the contrast of wet climate as opposed to dry climate solutions for types of roofing and their weight-bearing systems. In China this difference can be seen in the contrast of the local Temple and Palace style, as exemplified by the various buildings that make up the Gugong (or ‘Forbidden City’) and also including all and any number of temples (with subtle variations, the traditional Chinese form for several millennia) on the one hand, and the use of the Central Asian, or monumental desert or dry climate style for the Tiananmen Square, Museums and Government buildings, not least the Great Hall of the People, on the other. Different roof solutions clearly have implications for how the ornamentation or symbolism appropriate to the building’s top is managed. Pointed roof solutions can be seen on the roofs of Classical Greek and Roman temples, as on cathedral and church structures in the, broadly Christian, West as on the roof edges of Chinese roofs; in both cases figurines and other ornamentation accumulate indicting the building’s degrees of spiritual (and secular) importance. In the flat top the cornice becomes the main focal point for accreting badges of symbolism or in configuring its -equally symbolic- relations with the sky.


A miniaturized, brick version of the pointed roof style, can be found in the dwellings that line Beijing’s hutong (an indigenous northern, normally single-storey building with a low or blunt pointed roof and gables) often surrounding and opening into courtyards (whilst the hutong themselves were actually the lanes once organized around fresh water springs, and are still defined as taking an East-West axis, the term is now generically used for this type of dwelling). The south of China also has pointed roofs, suited to its much wetter climate; but this is where the similarities with the northern courtyard, or siheyuar, ceases, as the southern varieties are multi-storey and have sharp-pointed roofs usually with over hanging eaves (so more closely resembling the tradition form of the roof which can usually only be seen in its full glory only on larger State and Sacred, Palace and Temple, type structures).


The pointed roof building that displays to us (standing ‘in front’) the long face, or the building’s long side, is the Eastern form of the pointed or wet climate solution to architectural design (think Chinese Temple), but the narrow face, or end as ‘front’ is the Western form of this solution (think Greek Temple with triangular pediment). This distinction then reappears in the East as the difference between the two part State or Religious buildings with their long faces (the long roof slope faces us) and the popular or ordinary dwelling as narrow faced (the front bit we see in the street). In the West this narrow face offers a flat gable or pediment, its forehead if you like, a triangular wall whose slopes are covered by the roof; in the temple this gable wall is tailor-made for religious symbolic material (the thoughts within the forehead). In the West the slopes are hidden, as we see them from their sides; whilst in the East the roof slope faces us on the street. More recently, however, part of the effect of the increasing cultural globalization of the twentieth century and beyond has been the arrival of the Western gable point in the narrow face of the domestic building. Such structures are popular in Southern China with its predominantly wet climate.




Afterword: The Evolution of the Eye.



The experiential zoning of architecture, in effect the phenomenological explication of significant difference in architecture, permits us a glimpse of our own collective interior. It is our key parts, as it were, that are put on display with the key parts of architecture. Our perception of our environment is the betrayer of our innermost structure.  Moreover, the externality of the world is no longer just a projection of our interpretation and desire onto a naturally occurring screen (or its divisions: horizons, grounds, orthagonals, vanishing points, colour and texture) but, with the total dominion of human culture, is now the built exteriorisation of the internal. Product of those restless persistent portions of the self, its very building blocks perhaps, which agitate their way into the outside world marking it irrevocably (or onto a world that once was outside, that once was made elsewhere, that is, not by ourselves, as it is now - even if made in ignorance of what it is that we are making). In architecture we see the layers of the self incarnate in stone and the return of these parts to influence the self from which they came. A power manifested in the return trip, the agitation, of the parts of architecture, now in turn inciting and provoking the parts of the self they call upon into ever greater expansion, unfolding into ever greater dimensions, into ever greater dominance within the constellation of the self.


Symbiosis. The parts of the self: the parts of architecture. The parts of the self: empowered and empowering, stimulated and stimulating, making and made by the key urban levels and their attendant symbolism.  The parts of the self. Sacralised by the (vision of the) rim of the world at the skyline. Sexualised by the incitement of the window (opening in the canyon of the urban uterus, puncture in the skin of the urban body). Dressed by the shop manikins and stares of the ground, stares that provide one with the passing masks of the self. The parts of architecture. Parts which display differing types of power over the self, the power to incite parts of the self, to render them awake and to encourage their growth. Power relations which themselves echo, were perhaps (once long, long ago) a product of human culture, of the human cultural organs, social-psychological growths on the body of the mind, pressures that formed and reformed the mind in their own image (performative or identity-forming exchange relations such as: the sacrifice, the gift and the set-aside, as opposed to ‘equal’ or equivalence exchange relations like the commodity or the tautologies of reason and other second order or artificial languages). The tangled roots of these interrelated fields are to be found strung out between the Neolithic revolution of the self (the origin of settled life, habitations and the earliest civilisations; Ur vision of the eye's encounter with its new home) and the epochal aspects of the self as found in the history of architecture. The dialectic of self and architecture. The social bond incarnate in stone.


The architecture of the self.




(I)       Timeline. Architectural archetypes (skiamorphs).


Dates and typologies in chronological order. The early history of the tall building begins in the USA in about 1860. Buildings worthy of the name’ skyscrapers’ begin to appear in about 1880 - including the important styles based upon the idea of the Palazzo (but with important differences in design in the upper segment). If the birth of high-rise lies in the iron frame, then the first effect of this is the ‘rise’ of the Cornice, especially pronounced in Palazzo-type structures (1890). The ‘city in the sky’ effect arrives at about 1900. Closely followed by (1910) the ‘house on stilts’. 1900 also saw the early appearance of modernism as based upon the idea of ‘function’ – the flat top is coming. The following period was one of parallel and combined forms: the ‘city in the sky’ leads up to the ‘solar needle’ of Art Deco (1920). 1950 sees the definitive arrival of the International Style; and so the beginning of the dominance of the modernist cube. The evolution from the ‘city in the sky to the ‘house on stilts’ is given a new twist with the addition of the science-fiction theme (1960); poles bearing ‘flying saucers’ begin to appear (anticipating the future… this kind of effect always looks dated after a while, not least when the real future finally arrives). The 1970s sees the revolt of Postmodernism against the excesses of plain modernism and the ‘return’ of decoration. Which in turn led to a kind of compromise, a kind of ‘Neo-modernism’ with a differentiated top and hi-tech design; often with local cultural features quoted in the topping (1990). Also new in the 1990s was the chaos-imitating, mega-museum as designed by Frank Gehry (2000). Yet even this had its roots in innovations introduced in the 1970s. Useful tip: when observing a top ask yourself whether it is a matter of pointing up (to the sky, accessing the sacred) or a matter of pointing up to the top (so suggesting the elite as sacred) – the latter may be read as a somewhat grandiose form of attention seeking.



(II) Timeline. Beijing: a very short architectural history.


With evidence of human habitation in the region from 500,000 years ago, some form of settlement appears to have existed in the site of modern day Beijing for at least 3000 years. Situated on the northern edge of the North China Plain the city lay in a strategic position between Korean, Manchurian and other tribes based upon the mountains and the plateau and grasslands beyond and the occupants of Shandong on the other. So providing a logical place for a trading settlement between the contiguous but differing geo-cultural regions and their products. As well as convenient place for ruling over the region. Various archaic names for the settlement include, Youzhou, or ‘secluded state’ and Yan, the latter name persisting into the Warring States Period as the name for a kingdom, to surface again 500 years later (after various incarnations as Ji, Youzhou again, and Jicheng) in Yanjing (the capital of yet another kingdom named Yan). The name Yanjing, of course, has also survived historically to grace the bottles of Beijing’s favourite beer.


If a good place for trading and in effect frontier capital: a bad idea for stable government, as the northern tribes, whom it was supposed to protect from, could, and frequently did pit their semi-nomadic and so militarised societies (a classic example being the Mongols) against the settled State with its professional standing army, ruling over a passive (non-fighting) peasant population. The scene was set for a succession of military elites (based on tribal invaders) to take turns in providing the impetus for new dynasties (each succumbing to the new wave of ‘barbarian’ invaders as they themselves became more settled and prone to luxury). Whence the relatively recent character of the surviving city given its length of service as a human settlement and post of governance.


The city as we know it is descended from the layout and structures of the city founded in 1267 by the Kublai Khan and given the name of name Dadu. By 1274 the Mongol capital of the new Yuan dynasty (1215-1368) had been built, immediately to be seen by Marco Polo who arrived in 1275 and eulogized in his famous ‘Travels’.


The Ming Dynasty which followed (most especially under the reign of Emperor Yongle), moved the city walls and established the first incarnations of the Forbidden City (then called the Inner City) and the Temple of Heaven. Later the southern city was added on below an expanded Forbidden City for commerce and trade. The fundamental grid design which was established in this period would basically hold good until the 1950s. The Qing Dynasty added the Summer Palace and further expanded the city limits.


The city as we experience it now is the product of expansion in two ‘directions’, outwards and inwards. The outward direction involved the swallowing up of agricultural (or ex-industrial) land together with their attendant ‘villages’ (often left behind as islands of low rise in a sea of high rise – but now almost universally condemned by a combination of high property values and aging), and provides us with the successive waves of taller tower block structures; still built relatively low in the ‘fifties, then increasing in height in the ‘sixties onwards, until we see the enclosing ring of skyscrapers that forms the basic Beijing horizon as perceived from the centre of the city (on a clear day along the straight, North-South and East-West axis of the main arterial roadways, the mountains that make up the northern and western rim of the city can dimly be seen, the natural horizon rising up behind the man-made, urban one). This development outwards then take the form of a gigantic bowl, beginning from the low rise hutong at the centre, and ascending through the smaller tower blocks of the 2nd Ring Road and then continuing to rise until we reach the rim of the ‘wall’ in the heights of the modern office block in, for example, Guo Mao in the Central Business District (CBD), and other developments beyond the third Ring.


The ‘inward’ development has been more controversial. This ‘modernisation’ has seen perhaps two thirds of the old traditional old city, most especially its hutong with their courtyard houses (siheyuar) razed for high-rise and otherwise decontextualised urban development (perhaps aided by the kind of thinking that destroyed completely the old city walls in the ‘50s). What remains is charming and often up-market courtyard housing for the city’s new-rich, and commercial districts for leisure and play (the later at least involving the indigenous, ‘Old Beijing’, population in a variety of roles). On the other hand it must be said that by the mid 2000s the hutong districts, once spacious residential districts, had by and large become overcrowded and insanitary slums much in need of some kind of modernisation.


The 1990s architectural take-off in Beijing was certainly a threat to old structures, but was also the birth of most of the best of the new. From the Millennium onwards, most especially in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has begun to compete with Shanghai as a centre of great new architecture (and even Hong Kong has abandoned the pure modernist cube for more ambitious, more challenging, designs).