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Chinese Cities III (the Solar in South-East Asian Architecture)





The long edge and the temple. If the Greeks (after the Egyptians) took the pedimented or short side as the front facing side, then the Chinese (and the cultures they influenced) took the long aspect of the building as the front. This elevation combines the advantages of the flat top of desert architecture with the pointed top of wetter climates. The long decorated top-edge with the curved-out roof skirt becomes an imposing solar, comparable to the triangular point of the Greek form. In this way the triangular roof is used as shelter from the rain and from the sun (a succession of these used adjacently will to cover a wider area - another advantage in the long aspect of the building being taken as 'front'). The resulting long edge presented to the viewer placed before the Chinese temple offers the kind of broad sweep of ceremonial form normally available only to a flat top building with its broad entryways and open halls (early Middle eastern architecture, esp the Persian hall). The Greek form, by contrast, like the Egyptian temple form  -but not like the long face of the Egyptian Pylon- is better suited to the psychologically acute, long 'tunnel' type of internal structure; sequences of rooms building expectation as we move towards a inner sanctum...  The long form offers immediate size and height, with other rooms to follow (arranged climactically) under the adjacent roofs. This type of ceremonial, or ritual, space offers a tableau (complete with giant figures, scenes and shelves for offerings) by contrast to the Egyptian and Greek form which narrows into an, often occult, chamber with altar (the Mysteries). Christian churches take the same form but allow the worshipers in, moving the outer altar of pagan classical religions inside with the believers, the Orthodox form pushing the barrier behind the altar, the Iconostasis.

If the flat and triangular top are taken to represent the world’s two main or dominant geo-structural architectural poles, two alternative (ideal-type) architectural forms, then the Chinese form would appear to have the best of both worlds. In terms of symbolic self-presentation, breadth and climactic features are combined with a long edge (as seen from from close up). This feature is also experienced as the top edge of the roof (as seen from further away) and may be capped, at its edges, with upturned eaves and roof ends (Song), or by decorations (Qing, Ming) the number and intensity of which, as on the Greek temple, signal its religious or other importance as a site of power. This fusion also means that there is an easy option or adaptation of the flat top form alone available for a variety of local uses, chiefly in institutional or official architecture, as can be seen in the key public buildings in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Here the long edges of the flat topped Great Hall of the People and the Museum of the Revolution (now renamed the Art Museum of Beijing) face the long edges and decorated peaks of the triangulated roofs of the Ming-style Forbidden City (rebuilt, Qing). The long face or side of this style of building (and also of the building’s presentation, its affective face to the world) adapts itself well for roofing with stylistic  innovations (as exemplified by the Song curves) or symbolic décor (Ming, Qing dragon’s head and figurines) or left as flat, with its long top edge meeting the sky in an artificial horizon.


The repetition of the top edge, a feature found in many temples, in effect a doubling up of the eaves offers the effect of a double roof (a design innovation from around the Warring States period). In aspect this climactic effect of the parallel edge (eaves) of the lower ‘roof’, builds up to that of the top roof (proper) and its ornamented edge, so producing a doubling, an under-lining (sic) of the temple top’s solar effect, of its relation to the sky and horizon. A relation which performs in material, architectural terms, the function of religion with respect to its role of mediation between heaven and earth. (In effect the area between the two sets of eaves becomes a top floor (the upper or top section of the building) which echoes the top itself - for example in its grill patterns).


However in domestic architecture the exigencies of squeezing many properties onto a road, where the narrowness of the resulting building as it backs away from the road (its front) means that (especially in the modern period reliant upon concrete and iron) a roof is often more conveniently found to be sloping away from the road and down the long sides (as opposed to a succession of smaller roofs parallel to the road - the previous solution with gaps between the roofs allowing the presence of sun-lit but shady courtyards). The narrow front end thus immediately offers a gable or pediment to top off the public face or view presented to the road (this form can be seen most clearly in Vietnamese domestic architecture were it is overwhelmingly popular). A feature which is nevertheless unnecessary in a concrete building where, often regardless of climate, flat tops are adopted as cheaper, and tiled roofs dispensed with as a luxury (particularly if no extra rooms become available as a result). And indeed in many modern structures the pediment on offer is, exactly as in much Baroque architecture, only a facade, a topping-off of the upper floor (often, again as in the Baroque, just a front with nothing substantial behind) but providing a sense of finish to the building, it's top, which it in fact provides. So marking its transformation into a solar.






                                                            Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk