How a class of ‘brilliant graduates’ shaped modern Chinese architecture

The ‘Building in China’ exhibition showcases the work of the ‘first generation’ of Penn architecture alumni from China and how striking a balance between modern and traditional continues to shape the country’s expression of its national identity.

jisou museum
The Jishou Art Museum designed by Atelier FCJZ and part of the “Building in China: A Century of Dialogues on Modern Architecture” contemporary exhibition. The museum’s bridge design is modeled after covered Chinese bridges found in mountainous regions that would serve as a protected river crossing and provide a public space for venders and travelers. (Image: Fangfang Tian)

In 1918, Zhu Bin became the first Chinese student to be admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program. The following two decades would see 22 more students from China come to Penn to study architecture, a cohort that came to be known as the “first generation” of architects who would go on to establish China’s first modern architectural firms and educational institutions.

To celebrate the exchange between Penn and China, the “Building in China: A Century of Dialogues on Modern Architecture” exhibition highlights the work of this first generation and how they influenced modern architecture in China. The two-part exhibition is currently on display at the at the Fisher Fine Arts Library’s reading room until April 22 and the Architectural Archives until May 16.

The origins of a 100-year dialogue

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

china building exhibit
“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) 

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 starting point for the effort was this first generation of Chinese students at Penn, which Lin says was the institution that educated the most architecture students from China in the early 20th 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.

Nancy Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian Art, explains that prior to the 20th century, building-related decisions in China were made centrally by local or national governing bodies, adding that the idea of architectural design “didn’t exist” at the time. Then, after the Boxer Rebellion, the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship was launched by the U.S., which insisted that a portion of wartime reparations instead go toward education to modernize the country. Along with establishing an English language preparatory school and a college in Beijing called Tsinghua, the scholarship program opened up U.S. universities to Chinese students in a range of disciplines, including architecture.

“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.”

Architecture in China amidst war, the rise of communism, and the country’s reopening

While 23 Chinese students came to Penn in the early 20th century, the work and legacies of two Penn alumni, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, are among the most noteworthy to this day. Their stories also provide a glimpse into the complex, ever-changing landscape in which Chinese architects returning home found themselves in throughout the mid-20th century.

two Penn alumni, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin
Lin Huiyin (left) and Liang Sicheng on the Temple of Heaven in Peking, ca. 1936 (Image: Fisher Fine Arts Library image collection)

Liang and Lin Huiyin both traveled to Penn in 1924 with the goal of studying architecture, and their teacher was French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret. Liang graduated with a Masters in Architecture, and Lin Huiyin, who was not admitted to the architecture program because it did not yet enroll women, earned a degree in Fine Arts.

The pair married in 1928 and moved to Northeast University in Shenyang. There, they co-founded the second School of Architecture in the country, adopting a Western-style curriculum that was modeled after Penn’s. Shortly after, Shenyang fell to Japanese troops during the invasion of Manchuria and the couple returned to Beijing.

Despite the many challenges of working during the war, they became heavily involved with and passionate about cultural restoration efforts, conducting research on architectural methods used in traditional building design. Then, after the war, Liang was invited to help establish Tsinghua University’s architectural and urban planning programs. Lin Huiyin worked there as a professor of architecture and became a renowned writer and architectural historian.

With the rise of the Communist Party in the 1950s, Liang and Lin Huiyin were recruited to design a new emblem of the People’s Republic of China, one that is still in use today. Liang also designed the Monument to the People’s Heroes; Lin Huiyin passed away three years before it was completed.

Among the different generations of Chinese architects, we want to see what the present-day architects inherit from the previous generations. Zhongjie Lin, associate professor in the Weitzman School of Design and one of the exhibit’s curators

Despite Liang’s early influence on shaping a national style for the Chinese Communist Party, the Cultural Revolution saw the architect labeled a “counterrevolutionary.” During this time, his second wife, Lin Zhu, hid the research that Liang and Lin Huiyin had conducted throughout the 1930s on traditional architecture, work that went on to become “A Pictoral History of Chinese Architecture.” This posthumous book includes illustrations of heritage sites, knowledge that would have been lost without this effort as many sites were destroyed or altered during the Cultural Revolution.

But while Liang was previously ostracized because of his Western training, Steinhardt says that by the 1980s he was rebranded as a “cultural hero” as China reopened to the outside world and a new generation of students were able to engage with the international architecture community once more.

How the ‘first generation’ impacted modern architecture in China

The historical section of the exhibition, located in the Architectural Archives, includes historic photos as well as drawings and watercolor studies done by the first generation of Chinese architecture students while they were studying at Penn.

A boardwalk over the roof of Wan Shan Guesthouse in the China Academy of Art campus. The design by Amateur Architecture Studio in 2013 was inspired by Chinese traditional landscape painting and aims to introduce an experiential setting connecting people back to nature. (Image: Lichao Chen)

Steinhardt explains that during this time period, architecture students at Penn studying under Cret would have learned Beaux-Arts methodology, an architectural style similar to French neoclassicism, which she says was “compatible with fundamental elements of Chinese architecture. Because Beaux-Arts is also grounded in a classical tradition, it had a great appeal to Chinese students, as Chinese architecture builds on its past,” adds Steinhardt.

And because Russian architects would have had the same Parisian training, these design ideas were reinforced as China and the USSR became more connected during the mid-20th century. These stylistic similarities are apparent in the photographs and models of the hotels, banks, theaters, offices, administrative buildings, and libraries designed by the first generation.

Lin adds that as the curators were looking at these buildings, they noticed that the architects were already beginning to incorporate modernism in their work in a way that he says indicated “a lot of forward thinking. We often talk about them as traditionalists, and some buildings do demonstrate this notion,” Lin says. “But when we analyzed some of their designs, we discovered they had gradually associated themselves with modernism, they were well informed of the international style and avant-garde movements, and they incorporated these design methods in their projects.”

Upstairs in the Fisher Fine Arts Library’s reading room, the exhibition shifts to contemporary architecture, including designs, 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. Designs for these modern museums, studio houses, and village renovations provide insights into contemporary Chinese architecture in the context of ongoing economic reform, rapid urbanization, and the desire to strike a balance between the modern and the traditional.

Continuing the 100-year dialogue

For Steinhardt, the stories presented in “Building in China” represent a “very inspiring moment in Chinese history” with impacts that continue to resonate to this day. “It was inevitable that Chinese architecture, like China, would modernize,” says Steinhardt. “And the fact that it happened in the 1920s, which meant that the dominant architectural system was Beaux-Arts, is certainly impactful.”

The students who came to Penn and went back to China literally built a new China. Nancy Steinhardt, professor of East Asian Art in the School of Arts & Sciences

In addition to sharing both the history and the contemporary landscape of architecture in China with the Penn community, Lin hopes this exhibition can provide visitors with a more holistic understanding of architecture in China and will support the continuation of this now century-long dialogue.

“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.”

chinese drawing architecture
(Homepage image) A protestant church designed by Tung Chuin in 1928 and awarded the Beaux Arts Institute of Design 1st place medal. This rendering and the works of more than 20 architecture student alumni from China are currently on display as part of the “Building in China” exhibition. (Image: Ming Tong)

Zhongjie Lin is an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nancy S. Steinhardt is a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and is the Curator of Chinese Art at the Penn Museum.

Building in China: A Century of Dialogues on Modern Architecture is curated by Penn’s Zhongjie Lin, Ming Tong of Southeast University, and Xiangning Li of Tongji University. The exhibit will be on display at Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library and Architectural Archives from now until Friday, April 22 (Library), and May 16 (Archives).

This project was supported by the China Research and Engagement Fund at Penn, Penn Global, the Penn Wharton China Center, Architectural Society of Shanghai, Atelier FCJZ, Amateur Architecture Studio, and ArchiDogs.

Project advisors include Jiaming Cao, Yung Ho Chang, Amy Gadsden, Ping Huang, Lijia Lu, Wenyu Lu, Frederick Steiner, Shu Wang, William Whitaker, John Zhang, and Tong Zhang. Scholars including Ariel Genadt (associate curator), Liyang Ding, Jiawei Jiang, Qi Zhang, and Boqian Xu have contributed to the curation.

For more detailed information, books on these topics include Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China's Architectural Past” from Penn Press, and “Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts,” co-authored by Nancy Steinhardt.