China Week: Architecture

I just returned from Beijing. Over the next seven days, I will write seven articles about my experience. Enjoy!

The “business” portion of my trip to the Chinese capital lasted four days, leaving me a week to sightsee. I quickly became enamored with the lavish palace architecture, and I appreciated how the style is echoed citywide in even modest buildings. Bearing the standard for this architecture, at the geographic and cultural heart of Beijing, is the Forbidden City. It served as the Emperor’s home and court during the Ming and Qing Dynasties right up to the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century.


The Gate of Supreme Harmony, near the south entrance to the Forbidden City.

When you look upon any hall or pavilion in the Forbidden City, the first thing that strikes you is the roof. It imposes with two or three tiers stacked like a wedding cake. Each tier flares out at the eaves, where regular columns provide support and create a perimeter arcade. The roof rafters are smallish, square or round in cross section, and spaced closely in several layers. Many rafters are needed because the curved clay tiles which overlap to form the roof are quite heavy.

Halls are usually rectangular, pavilions six- or eight-sided, with a procession of beastlike bronze sculptures adorning the hips. The number of beasts in the procession is a code for the building’s importance. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the Emperor held wedding ceremonies and coronations, tops the list for the whole kingdom with eleven beasts.


Five beasts = a building of moderate importance.

All exposed surfaces are painted with a palette of red, blue, green, and gold. Walking around the Forbidden City and temples from that era, I saw the 600-year-old buildings in various stages of restoration. Header beams are decorated repetitively with geometric patterns, intertwined dragons, and floral schemes. In contrast, the Summer Palace just north of the city was largely built in the 18th century. While the roofs there look the same, the paintings are much more intricate – thousands of unique frescos depict mountain landscapes and daily life.


Paint detail in the Forbidden City.

Common architecture in Beijing imitates many elements of the palaces and temples. Loadbearing walls in the city’s hutong (alleys) are a simple double course of brick. Grey brick faces the street and red brick faces the interior courtyard, with an open space in between for insulation and airflow. Heavy timber beams support familiar square rafters, but they’re unadorned. Roofing tends to be a less colorful, less flared version of the same clay tile, though corrugated metal is common as well. Mortar is mixed by trowel in a pile on the ground. The city seems to dictate a schedule for restoration, and it’s not uncommon to find an entire block under construction. I wanted to wander endlessly, marveling at the juxtaposition of history and modern life in these neighborhoods.


Typical hutong – tight space for a car. Walls are plain; roofs are ornate.


Courtyard home under construction.

PERCH began two years ago with a focus on local business, and China is about as far as I can get from “local”. But when opportunity knocks, one must open the door. Check in tomorrow to learn about doing business in a foreign land.

2 thoughts on “China Week: Architecture

  1. Pingback: China Week: The Great Wall | PERCH ENGINEERING PLC

  2. Pingback: Sukkah 2017 – PERCH Engineering

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