Lessons to Learn from Chinese Architecture

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Robison Wells
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Some cultures have architectural traditions that go back millennia (the first known architect in the world was Imhotep, who lived in Egypt in the 27th Century BC). It may be surprising to learn that China, which has a strong tradition of magnificent buildings, did not build with single architects or masterminds until the Ming Dynasty (roughly 1350-1650 AD). Before that, structures were created by a collective of builders and designers. This means that even the famed Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China were not overseen by a single master planner, but separated into small projects collaborated upon by teams of craftsmen.

Much of this knowledge had been lost due to the cultural revolution that took place in China with the installation of the communist regime. These ideas are only coming to light in recent years, but architects and designers are taking note and beginning to teach the lessons of ancient Chinese methods in architecture programs.

One of the most remarkable realizations of this is that of the famed Dou Gong bracket system. This carpentry method that allowed for massive timbers to be perfectly carved and stacked to give them a magnificent design and incredibly strong earthquake protection. This technology developed through the collaboration of carpenters, not through the brilliance of one architect.

Nancy Steinhardt, the American scholar who discovered these secrets, now places these unnamed Chinese builders on the same level as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of cultural significance and relevance to modern architecture.

The Dou Gong bracket system was recently studied by Scientific American to see how it handled an earthquake so well when the Forbidden City was known to have suffered several large quakes without significant incident. They found the brackets and pillars supported the scale building in a 9.2 earthquake.

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