Reformulating Architecture’s Past through Drawing: Surveying Chinese Architecture in the 1930s

Lori Gibbs
University of Pennsylvania

If the aesthetics of realism held an inferior position in Chinese painting traditions, why were such techniques utilized to describe architectural antiquity in the 1930s? Curiously, Chinese painting tradition emphasizes the brush stroke, and movement or gesture of the line as a register of one’s artistic abilities. Realistic representation was often downplayed and minimized as a mode of aesthetic expression, as uniform straight lines displayed a skill or technique anyone could master. Yet, ruled-line painting (jiehua) is one exception, thought to be the only formalized painting technique to convey extreme detail, and line work, involving the use of instruments such as plumb lines, rulers and compasses. These “sharp-edge” techniques were acceptable to portray architecture, with qualities of accuracy and detailed subject matter –such versions of the Up the River During the Qing Ming Festival painting.

When Chinese architects educated in the US and Japan returned home in the 1930s, why did they recast China’s ancient architectural sites into the pictorial format of construction documents? Ancient architecture was systematically surveyed, scaled, measured, and recomposed with strict straight lines into sets of orthographic drawings labeled with notes. How was this pictorial format, one that largely excludes the expression of one’s individual mark, chosen to capture monuments of the past before possible obliteration from war?

Undoubtedly, the “Four Outstanding” architect-scholars were immersed in concurrent debates, and skilled in drawing as a method for the study of both design and historic architecture (as current scholarship maintains the import of the Ecole des Beaux Arts methods from the University of Pennsylvania to China took place through these individuals). But to what extent have the traditions of jiehua (ruled-line painting) been overlooked, or helpful for the collective project of careful reformulation, recovery, and reinterpretation of China’s architectural past in a pictorial format? Why were orthographic projection techniques seen as: 1) particularly appropriate to conveying the past’s unique architectural achievements to future generations, and 2) as a desirable format with “objective” or non-gestural qualities? In turn, how did the use of such representational techniques, reframe understandings of the built environment in China more generally?

KEYWORDS: surveying, drawing practices, realism, architectural knowledge, exchanges between the US and China, 1920s-1930s

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