Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

7Jul/102

China’s First Starchitect

Ever since the founding of the People's Republic, China has mostly avoided overt traditionalism in it's public buildings.  In the early years they were in a stark, Soviet style. More recently, the country has embraced international contemporary architecture.  If you need examples, think of the Beijing CCTV tower, Shanghai World Trade Building, Guangzhou Opera House.  Most have been designed by starchitects (a recently invented word combining "star" and "architect", meaning celebrity architect) who happen to be from somewhere outside the middle kingdom. To it's credit, so far China hasn't cared too much where the designer is from, as long as the design is good (the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is a recent exception; it was designed by a local architect. I will discuss that building in a future post, after I get the chance to visit).  All of this was put into motion by a pioneering generation of architects from the Republic of China era.

At the forefront of that generation was Lu Yanzhi 吕彦直(1894-1929). He was born in Tianjin, spent time in Paris as a child, was educated at Qinghua University, then went abroad to study architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there, he would have studied the typical curriculum of the time, based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It focused on studying and imitating classic European buildings. That included making lots of drawings imitating traditional European styles. Much of his student work still exists in the Cornell University archives. After graduation in 1918, he returned to China and practiced in Shanghai.

It was from his office in Shanghai that he won international competitions to design two important buildings: first the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum in Nanjing, and soon after the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou. Sun, whose Chinese name is Zhongshan, had died just a couple years before in 1925. The purpose of the buildings was to memorialize a man beloved for overthrowing the last emperor in 1911.  They also were meant to legitimize Sun's successors in the Nationalist political party and solidify their power by connecting them back to a great hero.  I think they can thus be seen as the most important civic buildings in China at that time.

a student drawing by Lu Yanzhi, from the Cornell University online archives

Lu's great innovation was to introduce modern building technology to Chinese architectural form. In doing so, he helped liberate Chinese building design from it's old conventions.  Actually, while his buildings use Chinese motifs and decorative elements as inspiration, they are in many ways very modern in their planning and massing.  He achieved shapes and forms that we're impossible before.  And the traditional elements are stylized and adapted to new materials: concrete and steel.

The Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou is a large auditorium on the north-south axis of the old city, at the foot of Yuexiu Hill.  In terms of form and layout, the building is a circular hall with pavilions on each side.  It is clearly a descendant of the Pantheon in Rome, which has inspired the form of so many structures, including the Columbia University Library in New York, and the Qinghua University library.  The building is made with structural steel construction, with reinforced concrete infill.  It's shaped like the Chinese character for mountain or hill "山".  At the very peak is a octagon shaped room.

Layered roof design is something often seen in significant Chinese buildings.   The Memorial is divided into 4 layers.  Here it is quite unique and complex, as everything is intersecting at 45 degrees, instead of the typical 90.

For comparison, below is another significant building in Guangzhou from the same time period.  This is the old administration building at South China Agricultural University.  It's plan is a "U" shape, with the traditional arrangement of rectangular buildings, corridors, and small rooms inside, relating back to Qing Dynasty government buildings. The building also uses concrete but primarily as a decorative material, to form the roof ornament and railings.  It employs more traditional, less stylized traditional ornament.

Many traditional Chinese buildings used wenshou ( also called "zoomorphic") ornaments on the roof eaves.  Traditionally, these ornaments are very detailed sculptures of animal and human forms.  The wenshou on Lu's building are very highly abstracted into nearly geometric forms, almost "deco" in style.  Clearly, Lu didn't totally accept the slavish imitation of ornament encouraged by the Beaux-Arts style.  Stylized wenshou can be seen on other buildings from that era, but Lu's are particularly genius.  They represent the form of tradition but question and modify it.

Wenshou ornaments at Sun Yatsen Memorial (above), and the Forbidden City in Beijing (below)

The auditorium has no columns, an example of long span steel structure which was rare in Chinese buildings at that time.  The roof is suspended by a complex trussed steel structure.  Above the suspended ceiling is a large light room, which softens the light before allowing it to trickle into glass lights in the ceiling.  The effect is very wonderful.

auditorium interior

an original architectural drawing showing a section through the building.  Notice all the space above the auditorium ceiling.

a photo of a photo, showing the steel structure above the roof

decoration on the porch ceiling, made of mosaic tile.  Not a traditional Chinese material, this is an example of adaptation of western materials to Chinese design.

A detail at the stone course that surrounds the base of the building.  Notice the Celtic/Victorian stone carving.

Lu's fame was too short lived.  He died in 1929 at the age of 35, while the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall was still under construction.  He surely designed other buildings in his short career, but unfortunately they have been forgotten in the fog of history.  The Sun Yatsen Memorial hall represents the promise of a bygone era.  Reflecting on Lu's work, I see a vision of a different China that could have been, where east and west gracefully intersect, without the schizophrenic hate-love relationship between outside and inside China that persists into our time.