The Ivy League Architects Who Revitalized Design in China
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2017-07-03 06:02:16

This article is the second in a series about Liang Sicheng, one of China’s best-known architects. The first article can be found here.

In order to retrace the investigative path that Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin walked through China, one must begin at an American college.

The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) first began offering architecture courses in 1868, and the addition of French architect Paul Philippe Cret to the school’s faculty in 1903 turned the university’s architecture department into one of the United States’ most prominent destinations for architectural students. The department attracted a great deal of Chinese students during the first half of the 20th century. Among these students were the young Liang Sicheng and his wife-to-be, Lin Huiyin.

A little over a decade ago, I set off on a pilgrimage to Philadelphia, where I tracked down the university’s architectural archives and explained to a staff member that I wished to learn more about the Chinese students who had studied there a century prior. After cordially asking me to take a seat, the woman pulled out an old-fashioned folder. With great care, she removed several faded pieces of paper from inside. Among these pieces of paper were Liang’s and Lin’s student registration cards.

Although the cards were not in the best condition and had already yellowed, the neat print on their surfaces was clearly readable: “Liang, Shih-Cheng; born April 15, 1902; graduated from Tsinghua College in Peking, China; residence: Tientsin [today Romanized as Tianjin], China; father: Liang Chi-Chao.”

The student registration cards of Liang Sicheng (top) and Lin Huiyin (bottom) in storage at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, May 30, 2007. Courtesy of Gu Cun

The student registration cards of Liang Sicheng (top) and Lin Huiyin (bottom) in storage at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, May 30, 2007. Courtesy of Gu Cun

Liang must have filled this out himself during his matriculation, I thought. A small photograph was mounted on the card’s upper-right corner, showing a handsome, clean-cut young man. The records of his Penn degrees were printed to the left of the picture: “Feb. 12, 1927, Bachelor of Architecture; June 15, 1927, Master of Architecture.” On Lin Huiyin’s card, she had recorded her name as “Lin, Phyllis Whei-yin.” She had received her bachelor’s degree in art on Feb. 12, 1927.

While studying at Penn, Liang threw himself into his architectural history course, telling his professor, Alfred Gumaer, that it was the most interesting branch of learning in the world. Naturally, Gumaer later inquired about China’s architectural history, but Liang had no answer. He knew that Western civilizations had carried out systematic architectural research since ancient Rome, yet China, with its 5,000 years of civilization, did not yet have its own architectural records. This realization deeply moved Liang and Lin, and caused the two young architects to devote themselves to the research of ancient Chinese architecture after they returned to their home country.

Liang and Lin returned to their home country and, with the aid of their newly acquired Western knowledge, sought out ways to unite modern architecture with Chinese forms.

They completed their four-year degrees in only three years. In the summer of 1927, these two outstanding students were rewarded with the opportunity to work as assistants to Professor Cret. Liang entered the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in September of that year, where the focus of his research was Eastern architecture. After one semester at Harvard, he was disappointed to discover that Western academics frequently failed to grasp the essence of Chinese architecture in their research, and that the school’s library contained only a scant amount of Chinese-language resources on the country’s architecture. This was simply not enough for him to continue his academic research. In 1928, the newlyweds Liang and Lin returned to China and began their lifelong journey into the research of Chinese architecture.

Over the next several decades, Liang and Lin became pioneers in the history of Chinese architecture. Their methods of research, however, did not involve burying themselves amid stacks of ancient texts, and they did not go about their research merely for the sake of academia. Instead, they remained focused on a more practical topic: how to merge China’s traditional and modernist architecture.

In addition to Liang and Lin, many other esteemed members of China’s first generation of modern architects also studied at Penn. Just like Liang and Lin, these early pioneers of the world of Chinese architecture returned to their home country and, with the aid of their newly acquired Western theoretical knowledge, sought out ways to unite modern architecture with Chinese forms. The outstanding pieces of modern architecture that still tower over cities such as Nanjing, Shanghai, and Beijing stand as testaments to the progress of this pioneering generation of architects — such as the original Nanjing ministry of foreign affairs building, which was a collaborative effort between former Penn classmates Zhao Chen, Chen Zhi, and Tong Jun; and the Beijing train station, designed by Yang Tingbao.

In 2012, the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded to the Chinese architect Wang Shu. The conferral of architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize to one of China’s homegrown architects marked the apogee of a story first set in motion a century ago by the alumni of the University of Pennsylvania. Wang has the utmost reverence for Tong and Yang, and was deeply influenced by both architects; in his own works, he concentrates on exploring ways of keeping China’s architectural traditions alive in new architecture. “In a country where centuries-old structures can disappear in a few short days,” wrote Time magazine, “Wang is welcome proof that China’s architectural future doesn’t have to discard its past.”

“You should be confident in your own culture,” Wang has remarked in an interview. “My advice to architects is to get a deeper understanding of your own culture.” His sentiments echo the wisdom that Liang imparted many years ago: “If we are determined to rejuvenate our nation, we cannot ignore the research of Chinese architecture.” One can say that through Wang’s achievements, the noble ideals of Liang, Lin, and the other architects of their generation have finally come to fruition among this new breed of world-renowned Chinese architects.

Translator: Zachary Haluza; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A bronze statue of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin stands on the campus of Tsinghua University, Beijing, April 10, 2011. Gong Wenbao/VCG)