Home > Buildings, China > China VIII: religious architecture – an attempted generalisation

China VIII: religious architecture – an attempted generalisation

If one takes a step back and looks at the vast Eurasian landmass through a backwards-telescope (one with a special filter on it that selects religious buildings), certain generalisations apply. Religious buildings — which in the main means Hindu and Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and mosques –are often at the heart of human settlements. They are built of permanent materials: either stone, or something that looks like it, such as tile, or brick or earth covered in a sheath of such materials. And they have distinguish architectures that are quite distinct from the other building types to be found. A palace cannot be mistaken for a mosque, a cathedral for a castle.

None of this, it seems to me (and I write this to ‘get it down’ and in hope of finding my own ideas overturned) is true of east Asia. In Japan, Korea and China, it is not at all unusual to find a settlement that contains no central and religious architectural focus (was this always true?). The dominant material of construction is wood, though stone, tile and covered earth all play important roles. And perhaps most significant of all, little about religious buildings renders them inherently and consistently distinguishable from high-status buildings with other functions.  There is simply a way of building, elegantly applicable to structures of all kinds, providing a foil for the functions for which they were built.

East Asian architecture follows rules that apply across all buildings: sitedness in landscapes, orderly division of spaces, modular design, certain specific formal features. The first of these is particularly crucial, because it is so easy for eyes not attuned to Classical east Asian culture to miss. Temples in China are invariably located in the most beneficient spot in the landscape: often facing south, with a hill behind them and a wide valley, ideally containing water, ahead. The landscape can be heavily reworked to make this possible: the upper hall of the Foguang Si in Shanxi is quarried into the hillside; behind the ‘little Potala’ (arguably not truly a temple at all, more a kind of seigneurial embassy-cum-folly) at Chengde is a hill that at far as I could see was entirely artificial. Or they are associated with specific spots — rocks or springs or other points deemed to be of significance — regardless of association with a settlement. Chinese architecture, then, is to an extraordinary degree about place, and to understand it one has to engage with the rules of feng shui as they apply to a specific building  and  its sie and function (whether it be an imperial temple or a peasant’s house-god altar). This is true of other traditions, too: in particular one wishes we knew more about the laws that governed the siting of Greek Classical temples.

The buildings themselves, then, are also arranged, and rather like landscapes, in that their arrangement is as much about spaces enclosed as about the structures themselves. Halls running along the main axis, arranged hierarchically; less important functions are positioned to the sides; the sequence of courtyards that result, and the routes that interconnect them, is the primary experience of these places. The complex interiors and inventive spatial effects of the Western tradition are thus completely unknown: one encounters rectangular spaces of varying size, containing impressive, cool halls that can be left undivided as a setting for sculpture or fittings or partitioned to make rooms.

One result of this is that entrances, openings and enclosures are absolutely fundamental, and from the vernacular peasant farm to the gates of cities these are often the focus of decoration, display, and on occasion inventiveness. And this, too, leads to another point. Chinese architecture is as much about the walls which enclose and the platforms on which buildings are set as it is about the buildings within them. Indeed our downgrading of these as ‘not architecture’ entirely misses the point: though monumental buildings are rarely of permanent materials, walls and platforms — from the Great Wall to the city wall to the courtyard enclosure — are invariably so, often with an earthen core,  and Chinese architecture is just as much about these as about the buildings themselves. It is a way of laying out the world.

What of the buildings themselves? As with Greek architecture, the language is one of posts and lintels: but unlike their Christian, Hindu and Classical comparitors, the language was never completely re-translated into stone (though stone versions of it exist). The result is grids of columns, laid out to a proportional system as unnerring as that of the complex itself, sit onto reinforced-earth platforms. Walls of any material can then be strung between them, with openings of various sizes and regular locations. Like the Classical temple or the Mies van der Rohe house the result has all the poise, flexibility and repititousness an architecture could need, and this is core to its success.

But it does not lack a more deliberatively aesthetic aspect. As in many traditions, this came to be focused on the way the weight of the roof is transferred to the columns that support it. Yet in both India and Europe the result was the focus on capitals and arch forms as a forum for decorative effect. In Chinese architecture, the focus is on the brackets that carry the curving eaves and corbel downwards to the support columns. These dou gang are the most complex decorative feature of any Chinese building, and are often the focus of inventive detailing and carving, broadly analagous to what we see on the capitals of other traditions. Quite apart from their inherent aesthetic appeal, the dou gang are rendered necessary by the feature that makes Chinese architecture most instantly memorable: the upturned eaves that grace a million restaurant menus and willow-pattern plates. These remarkable features are all the more extraordinary for being at once aesthetically arresting, fundamental to the appearance of buildings of all kinds across a vast area — and rather inexplicable. I have seen functional explanations for them (they simultaneously provide both shade and drainage) and superstitious ones (like the setting and layout of the building itself, they direct malign forces away from a building’s inhabitants). But I’ve yet to see anyone who states that these are in fact known to be the reason for this design. Its aesthetic effect is remarkable, and both the duo gang and the enormous views upwards into supporting beams and lintels that mark out interiors are locked in to the principles of their creation.

There is another aspect of Chinese architecture that the modern eye easily misses, though the medieval one would have understood it immediately: because it is of wood, it needs protection, and protection means paint or lacquer or both, and that in turn suggests colour. Chinese architecture, like Chinese food, is intenselely coloured: only imperial buildings, for example could have yellow tiled roofs; dou gang and other structural elements are often richly painted, while a deep beneficient red glows from columns and walls everywhere in the country.

Nevertheless, China does have distinctive religious structures. The Buddhists have the pagoda and the stupa; stele as tombs and sites for inscriptions are common in all traditions; the ‘spirit ways’ of Royal tombs and the pailou gates erected by officials in city streets are all to one extent or another kinds of religious architecture.  Pagodas in particular are the one tradition in which buildings of wood crossed over into a monumental stone architecture of uniquely religious form, the nearest the Chinese got (and in terms of sheer size it is not very near) to the enormous towers — minarets, spires, Hindu shikara, domes, pyramids — that have often been the most extraordinary achievement of the Indo-European architectures. This apart, I can only come across one building type that is formally unique and distinctively religious, and that is the imperial sacrificial venue best exemplified by Beijing’s Tiantan/Temple of Heaven. Indeed I do not know if another examples exist or are known to have existed outside the handful in the Northern Capital. With its intensely symbolic geometric layout – squares and circles are everywhere — its remarkable marble platforms and walkways, designed for a very specific and significant series of rituals, and its beautiful — arguably the most beautiful in China — circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, this is of all things a astructure that exemplifies the principles outlined above but also translates them into a building form that could have no other function than a religious/ritual one.  Ironically, important parts of hte interior are vast trunks of Californian Redwood.

Which brings one to a final point. Becasue this architecture is wood, it is easy to maintain and also often rebuilt (not to mention destroyed). This, combined with a cultural avoidance of the ‘old’ as being a repository of malign forces, means that Chinese buildings are totally rebuilt far more often and completely than their equivalents elsewhere. As a result, almost every settlement in my home country contains a building in which substantial portions are likely to have survived from 800 years ago, while in China it is very rare to come across anything whose actual standing fabric, no matter when it was founded or ‘built’ predates the fifteenth or even the eighteenth centuries.  The patina of age, the sense that a building is the tap root of a place, is rarely found in China. In recompense, this is an architecture in harmony with place, predominantly human in scale, one that rarely runs away with its own ambition. Nothing purely architectural in China can truly match Angkor Wat, the Taj, Hagia Sophia, Chartres cathedral or the Cordoba Mosque.

Does all this make Chinese ‘religious’ architecture less ‘religious’ than that of its comparitors? Can it be seen as a downgrading of religion in a world which had many faiths and a strong philosophical tradition, that was never dominated by faith in the way that the middle east, or medieval Europe, or (eek) Tibet have been or are? Much the same could be said of Classical Rome, also one of hte few world architectures in which the temple was not the most ambitious architecture and other kinds of structure could be vauntingly grand; and as with Rome, there is an alternative view that is just as persuasive. Chinese people built temple-ettesin their homes, in the shape of niches for gods entirely equipped with dou gang etc; they made them into their tombs; and their architecture is as much about landscape as it is about architecture itself as an art. Perhaps Chinese architecture sacralises everything.

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