The Impact Of A Group Of “Brilliant Graduates” On Modern Chinese Architecture

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“Building in China” is on display in two parts: A historical section (pictured) in the Architectural Archives and a contemporary display in the Fisher Fine Arts Library reading room. (Image: Zhongjie Lin)

Zhu Bin was the first Chinese student to be accepted into the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1918. 22 more Chinese students would come to Penn to study architecture over the next two decades, becoming the “first generation” of architects who would go on to create China’s first modern architectural businesses and educational institutions.

The “Building in China: A Century of Dialogues on Modern Architecture” exhibition explores the work of this first generation and how they impacted modern architecture in China to commemorate the interchange between Penn and China. The two-part show is on view until April 22 in the Fisher Fine Arts Library’s reading room, and until May 16 in the Architectural Archives.

After receiving a grant from Penn Global’s China Research and Engagement Fund, Zhongjie Lin, associate professor of City and Regional Planning and one of the exhibit’s curators, began planning the show more than two years ago. Lin wanted to host an exhibition on Penn’s campus that showcased the University’s history of engaging with and educating Chinese students. His previous work included a variety of research on modern architecture and urbanism in East Asia, and he was involved in several events on China through the Penn Wharton China Center.

Lin says that one of the goals of “Building in China” is to frame the connection between Penn and China as a 100-year dialogue. “Among the different generations of Chinese architects, we want to see what the present-day architects inherit from the previous generations: Where is the continuity and where has been transformed,” says Lin.

The initiative began with this first generation of Chinese students at Penn, which, according to Lin, was the university that taught the most Chinese architectural students in the early twentieth century. “These are really brilliant graduates—they founded the first architectural institutions and programs in China, they were devoted to the preservation of cultural heritage, and they established some of the first independent design firms in China,” he says.

Prior to the twentieth century, building-related choices in China were determined centrally by local or national governing organizations, according to Nancy Steinhardt, an East Asian art professor, who adds that the concept of architectural design “didn’t exist” at the time. Following the Boxer Rebellion, the United States established the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, which mandated that a percentage of wartime reparations go toward education in order to modernize the country. The scholarship program opened up U.S. colleges to Chinese students in a variety of areas, including architecture, in addition to building an English language preparatory school and a college in Beijing named Tsinghua.

“The students who came to Penn and went back to China literally built a new China,” adds Steinhardt. “If you track the careers of anyone who were trained in architecture, these students had an incredible opportunity. Nobody in any nation but China had that kind of serious, studied effort to modernize.”

While 23 Chinese students attended Penn in the early twentieth century, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s work and legacies are among the most notable to this day. Their memoirs also offer insight into the complicated, ever-changing world that Chinese architects returning home encountered in the mid-twentieth century.

Both Liang and Lin Huiyin came to Penn to study architecture in 1924, and their professor was French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret. Liang got a master’s degree in architecture, while Lin Huiyin received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts after being denied admission to the architecture school since it did not yet allow women.

In 1928, the couple married and relocated to Shenyang’s Northeast University. They co-founded the country’s second School of Architecture there, with a Western-style curriculum fashioned after Penn’s. Shenyang fell to Japanese soldiers during the Manchurian invasion shortly after, and the couple retreated to Beijing.

Despite the various difficulties they had while working during the war, they got deeply interested in and passionate about cultural restoration initiatives, undertaking study on traditional architectural approaches. Liang was then asked to help create Tsinghua University’s architectural and urban planning departments following the war. Lin Huiyin was a professor of architecture at the time and later became a well-known writer and architectural historian.

With the emergence of the Communist Party in the 1950s, Liang and Lin Huiyin were tapped to create a new People’s Republic of China logo, which is still in use today. The Monument to the People’s Heroes was similarly designed by Liang; Lin Huiyin died three years before it was completed.

Despite his early effect on the Chinese Communist Party’s national style, Liang was called a “counterrevolutionary” during the Cultural Revolution. During this period, his second wife, Lin Zhu, buried the traditional architectural study that Liang and Lin Huiyin had done throughout the 1930s, work that would later become “A Pictoral History of Chinese Architecture.” Many sites were destroyed or changed during the Cultural Revolution, therefore this posthumous book offers pictures of heritage locations, knowledge that would have been lost if it hadn’t been for this endeavor.

While Liang had previously been shunned because of his Western education, Steinhardt claims that when China reopened to the outside world in the 1980s, he was remade as a “culture hero,” allowing a new generation of students to reconnect with the international architecture community.

Historic images, sketches, and watercolor studies done by the first generation of Chinese architecture students when they were studying at Penn may be found in the exhibition’s historical part, which is housed in the Architectural Archives.

According to Steinhardt, architecture students at Penn studying under Cret would have acquired Beaux-Arts methods, a style close to French neoclassicism that was “compatible with key components of Chinese architecture” during this time period. Because Beaux-Arts is rooted in a classical heritage, it appealed to Chinese students, who value architecture that builds on the past, according to Steinhardt.

These design principles were reinforced when China and the USSR grew increasingly integrated throughout the mid-twentieth century, because Russian architects would have had the same Parisian training. These aesthetic parallels may be seen in images and models of the first generation’s hotels, banks, theaters, offices, administrative buildings, and libraries.

When the curators were looking at these structures, Lin says they realized that the architects were already incorporating modernity into their work in a way that showed “a lot of forward thinking.” “We frequently refer to them as traditionalists, and some of their structures indicate this,” Lin explains. “However, when we examined some of their designs, we noticed that they had increasingly identified with modernism, that they were well informed of worldwide style and avant-garde movements, and that they incorporated these design approaches into their ideas.”

The show changes to modern architecture upstairs in the Fisher Fine Arts Library’s reading room, featuring drawings, models, and video interviews with two Chinese architects: Yung Ho Chang, co-founder of Atelier FCJZ, and Shu Wang, co-founder of Amateur Architecture Studio. The designs for these modern museums, studio residences, and village makeovers reveal current Chinese architecture in the context of continuous economic change, growing urbanization, and a desire to achieve a balance between the modern and the old.

The experiences described in “Building in China” constitute a “particularly uplifting time in Chinese history,” according to Steinhardt, with lasting effects. “Chinese architecture, like China itself, was bound to modernize,” argues Steinhardt. “And the fact that it occurred in the 1920s, when Beaux-Arts was the dominant architectural system, is undoubtedly significant.”

Lin believes that this exhibition will give visitors with a more comprehensive view of architecture in China and will encourage the continuation of this now century-long discourse, in addition to sharing both the history and present landscape of architecture in China with the Penn community.

“While spatial production in China is still dominated by large, state-owned design institutions, more independent architects have joined Chang and Wang to pursue their own creative approaches and experiment with pluralist design ideas, aesthetic, and sometimes social notions,” says Lin. “Their work seeks to present a more nuanced relationship between Chinese identity and contemporary technology, and to bridge traditional narratives and contemporary lifestyles.”


The following article is paraphrased from the following: How a class of ‘brilliant graduates’ shaped modern Chinese architecture, Erica K. Brockmeier, March 9, 2022, https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/how-class-brilliant-graduates-shaped-modern-chinese-architecture

Featured Image Credits: ““Building in China” is on display in two parts: A historical section (pictured) in the Architectural Archives and a contemporary display in the Fisher Fine Arts Library reading room. (Image: Zhongjie Lin)