Wikipedia on Chinese Architecture

Horizontal emphasis

The most important is the emphasis on the horizontal axis, in particular the construction of a heavy platform and a large roof that floats over this base, with the vertical walls not as well emphasized. This contrasts Western architecture, which tends to grow in height and depth. Chinese architecture stresses the visual impact of the width of the buildings. The halls and palaces in the Forbidden City, for example, have rather low ceilings when compared to equivalent stately buildings in the West, but their external appearances suggest the all-embracing nature of imperial China. These ideas have found their way into modern Western architecture, for example through the work of Jørn Utzon.[2]

This of course does not apply to pagodas, which, in any case, are relatively rare and limited to religious building complexes.

Architectural Bilateral symmetry

Another important feature is its emphasis on articulation and bilateral symmetry, which signifies balance. Bilateral symmetry and the articulation of buildings are found everywhere in Chinese architecture, from palace complexes to humble farmhouses. When possible, plans for renovation and extension of a house will often try to maintain this symmetry provided that there is enough capital to do so. [3]

In contrast to the buildings, Chinese gardens are a notable exception which tends to be asymmetrical. The principle underlying the garden’s composition is to create enduring flow and also to emulate nature.

Enclosure

Contemporary Western architectural practices typically involve surrounding a building by an open yard on the property. This contrasts with much of traditional Chinese architecture, which involves constructing buildings or building complexes that take up an entire property but encloses open spaces within itself. These enclosed spaces come in two forms: the open courtyard (院) and the “sky well” (天井)[3].

The use of open courtyards is a common feature in many types of Chinese architectures. This is best exemplified in the Siheyuan, which consists of an empty space surrounded by buildings connected with one another either directly or through verandas.

Although large open courtyards are less commonly found in southern Chinese architecture, the concept of a “open space” surrounded by buildings, which is seen in northern courtyard complexes, can be seen in the southern building structure known as the “sky well”. This structure is essentially a relatively enclosed courtyard formed from the intersections of closely spaced buildings and offer small opening to the sky through the roof space from the floor up.

These enclosures serve in temperature regulation and in venting the building complexes. Northern courtyards are typically open and facing the south to allow the maximum exposure of the building windows and walls to the sun while keeping the cold northern winds out. Southern sky wells are relatively small and serves to collect rain water from the roof tops while restricting the amount of sunlight that enters the building. Sky wells also serve as vents for rising hot air, which draws cool air from the lowers stories of the house and allows for exchange of cool air with the outside.

Hierarchical

The projected hierarchy and importance and uses of buildings in traditional Chinese architecture are based on the strict placement of buildings in a property/complex. Buildings with doors facing the front of the property are considered more important than those faces the sides. Building facing away from the front of the property are the least important.

As well, building in the rear and more private parts of the property are held in higher esteem and reserve for elder members of the family or ancestral plaques than buildings near the front, which are typically for servants and hired help. Front facing buildings in the back of properties are used particularly for rooms of celebratory rites and for the placement of ancestral halls and plaques. In multiple courtyard complexes, Central courtyard and their buildings are considered more important than peripheral ones, the latter which are typically used as storage or servant’s rooms or kitchens[3].

Geomancy concepts

Concepts from feng shui and mythic concepts of daoism are usually present in the construction and layout of Chinese architecture, from common residences to imperial and religious structures[3]. This includes the use of:

  • Screen walls to face the main entrance of the house, which stems from the belief that evil things travel on straight lines.
  • Talismans or images of door gods displayed on doorways to ward evil and encourage the flow of good fortune
  • Orienting the structure with its back to elevated landscape and ensuring that there as water in the front. Considerations are also made such that the generally windowless back of the structure faces the north, where the wind is coldest in the winter
  • Ponds, pools, wells, and other water sources are usually build into the structure

The use of certain colors, numbers and the cardinal directions in traditional Chinese architecture reflected the belief in a type of immanence, where the nature of a thing could be wholly contained in its own form. Although the Western tradition gradually developed a body of architectural literature, little was written on the subject in China, and the earliest text, the Kaogongji, was never disputed. However, ideas about cosmic harmony and the order of the city were usually interpreted at their most basic level, so a reproduction of the “ideal” city never existed. Beijing as reconstructed throughout the 15th and 16th century remains the best example of traditional Chinese town planning.

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