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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Lessons Learned

This story is a continuation of Fit and Trim. Go ahead and read that post if you haven’t already, then come on back.

Over the course of a week I spackled, sanded, and painted David’s door frames so they look good as new. Well, not quite. The frames look better now than when they were covered with dog claw marks, and David is pleased with them, but I would be embarrassed to offer this product to a paying client. Which leads me to two lessons I learned for future projects.

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Spackle fills unsightly gaps. Sanding makes the transition smoother.

Lesson 1: A seam is hard to hide. Plenty of things make it difficult to align trim pieces perfectly, including shim thickness and strength of the hammer on the finish nails. And David’s doorway trim has a fluted shape that makes the seam even harder to mask if adjacent pieces don’t line up perfectly.

I did the best I could to spackle over the location and then sand that spackle smooth, but the change in plane is still pretty obvious. This was a budget project. Next time I’ll insist on replacing the entire trim length.

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Close, but no cigar.

Lesson 2: Measure the doorway. The carpenter’s creed is “measure twice, cut once,” and I always do. But in this case there was kind of nothing to cut. I removed a piece of trim and installed an identical piece of trim – what could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot.

The master bedroom door is 30 inches wide, so the opening had better be just over 30 inches wide, top to bottom. Imagine my disgust when, after I spackled and sanded and painted three coats on the new trim, I reinstalled the door and couldn’t get it to close. I chiseled out the bottom hinge further, but the swinging door still hit the bottom trim rather than sliding in. Finally I measured the bottom of the doorway and discovered somehow I’d made the opening only 29¾ inches wide.

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The location I chiseled out for the hinge.

My repair wasn’t hard: pry off the trim, take out a spacer, nail the trim back on, MEASURE, spackle and sand and paint the edges again. David got some longer hinge screws to help seat the door, and now it closes tightly. But the ordeal took time, and time equals money, not to mention materials and customer satisfaction.

I’m a forever student of carpentry, and I’m grateful I got to learn some lessons while the stakes weren’t too high.

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Master bedroom door, properly closed and tenant ready.

Paint the Town

After four trips to Massachusetts over nine-plus months, I finished the work on my parents’ laundry room and hallway. It started with patching a hole in one wall, then progressed to removing wallpaper, smoothing surfaces with joint compound and wood putty, and applying a coat of primer. And at last, this week, I painted.

For the walls my parents chose a color called Sea Foam; for the doors and trim they went with a bright white. I spent an afternoon brushing on the first coat of Sea Foam and immediately realized something was wrong. The paint chip showed a pale but definite green, as did the numerous sample squares my Mom painted before my arrival. On the walls in full though, I could barely distinguish from the trim, or even the primer. Everything looked uncomfortably white.

I’ll never know if we misjudged the color or if the paint store somehow gave us the wrong amount of pigment. But first thing the next morning they remixed the paint can a shade darker, and the new Sea Foam Plus worked marvelously. I gave every wall two coats of Sea Foam Plus, using a brush for the perimeters and a roller for the expanses, and leaving 24 hours to dry between coats.

It’s kind of tricky to paint walls and trim two different colors. In the past I’ve completed the walls first, then used painter’s tape to protect the walls while I did the trim. This week, lacking the luxury of time, I relied on a steady hand and did both colors simultaneously. One nice thing about starting with primer is that it doesn’t absorb wet paint right away… so if I accidentally dripped some Sea Foam Plus on my white trim, but noticed my mistake immediately, I could usually wipe it up with a paper towel or a finger. The paint job really transforms these rooms. I am very satisfied with the result!

Still need to reinstall the medicine cabinet. (I painted that, too.)
Still need to reinstall the medicine cabinet. (I painted that, too.)