Negotiating Architectural Languages in the Making of Socialist Architecture in Maoist-eraGuangzhou, 1949-1976

Cui, Yuchu, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Li, Shiqiao, AR-Arch History Dept, University of Virginia
Johnston, Andrew, AR-Arch History Dept, University of Virginia
Sewell, Jessica, AR-Planning Dept, University of Virginia

During the Maoist era (1949–1976), China’s architectural development inevitably confronted strong resistance due to the political movements throughout over two and a half decades. While progress of architectural design in Mao’s China was neither a vacuum nor a stagnancy, Chinese architects did have some difficulties showcasing innovations or advancements out of free wills. The International Style and Beaux-Arts classicism were both ideologically rejected in the 1950s. The architects under the command of the state became once confused about the appropriate track of design practices. In addition to political disturbance, economic hardship and relative lack of access to coeval architectural thoughts and movements outside China made the discourse of modern architecture in this socialist nation much uncertain under harsh political atmospheres. Notwithstanding such a passive position, many Chinese architects still strove to carry out their ideas in innovative but reserved ways that could be subtly accepted or at least tolerated by the state as a moral leader. This process of negotiations and mediations is centered on management of multiple architectural languages, from which to develop a set of design strategies so as to fulfil utilitarian demands and avoid any political or ideological disputes.

Many buildings in Guangzhou mirrored this architectural venture in the Maoist period, manifested by many local Cantonese architects with their unique design principles and masterpieces. A metropolis of South China bridging the nation to the world, Guangzhou had been absorbing foreign cultures, ideas, and knowledge in modern times, and the International Style had already been introduced to Guangzhou before 1949. After 1949, many Cantonese architects, previously trained in the Republican era and supportive of modernism then, found themselves in a dilemma: they were passionate about constructions of a socialist city to present its revolutionary novelty intrinsically different from the capitalist past; In the meantime, however, their actions were obedient to and restricted by political doctrines of the state, which were so fickle that the architects were always taking a risk of suffering from criticisms. Despite this prevalent circumstance bound to politics on an everyday basis, these Cantonese architects participated actively in designing many buildings for socialist Guangzhou through careful negotiation of multiple architectural languages and demonstration of highly utilitarian performances by such buildings for socialist causes. This strategy effectively distracted the attention from the link between design elements and ideologies, common in the discourses of socialist architecture in Maoist-era China, to the emphasis on those utilitarian dimensions.

This case study-based research examines projects by three pioneering Cantonese architects: The Huaqiao New Village by Lin Keming (1901-1999), the campus buildings at the South China University of Technology by Xia Changshi (1903-1996), and the Baiyun Hotel by Mo Bozhi (1915-2003). Similarly, they all deployed the strategy of shifting the public focus from any political and ideological metaphors of the architectural languages to their rather utilitarian concerns. By weakening the political debate of the architectural languages and instead using them to strengthen the performing functions of the buildings, Lin, Xia, and Mo negotiated smoothly with the state’s requirements through various expressions of design, each of which was likely to be targeted by critics for failure to conform to ongoing political doctrines, and designed a series of buildings to fulfil the functional demands in the making of socialist Guangzhou. This paper argues that the success of the architects resulted from their suaveness, shrewdness, and implicitness of smooth negotiations and mediations. Also, their innovations and creativity, evolving from the 1930s modernist architectural movements well into the ever-maturing practices in the state’s assorted missions they undertook throughout the Maoist era, coexisted with the fulfilled requirements of the state compatibly.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Guangzhou, Socialist Architecture, Negotiations and Mediations
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: