CHINESE PREFAB ARCHITECTURE
The timber frame of traditional Chinese architecture acquired its unique characteristics through thousands of years of consistent advancement. In the ancient world, Chinese craftsmen are among the very few artisans, with indepth technical knowhow on building materials, structural mechanics, types of framework, manufacturing of individual components, and installation using blocks which interlock together without nails. This gave the building greater flexibility to withstand the forces of nature in case of an earthquake. So advanced are the techniques, that indigenous Chinese architecture is as old as Chinese civilisation, with very little changing over the course of it’s history. In contrast to Western concepts, the Chinese emphasis is on the visual impact of the horizontal spread of the building, and not its height. As a result, the classical superstructures of ancient China are built as large sprawling platforms, with massive roofs floating over their mass. This is because, buildings are constructed according to the Chinese principles of Taoism and feng shui, which are both traditional philosophies that promote the ideals of living in harmony with nature. To ensure the same consistency of the cosmos, the construction requires the off-site coordination of a large number of skilled craftsmen.
It is, thus, necessary to adapt a unified standard depending on the equal sizing and proportionality of modules. This is achieved during the Ming Dynasty. Apart from the ease of coordination, woodworking masters understood the benefits of mastering the techniques of amalgamated manufacturing. It was not just possible to increase the productivity and efficiency of the workforce, but it was also possible to enforce strict rules for planning, and execute build- ings within a given time frame. In particular, the fact that the whole house is manufactured from prefabricated components, meant it could be taken down and reassembled with relative ease, making it well suited to the indigenous way of life in the region. When rural families decide to move, as they often did, the house is taken down, stacked on a raft, and floated down the nearest river to the new location. And to guarantee the continuity of the tradition, a precise method of building is passed over from one generation to the other, spanning to cover every detail in the construction process. From tree felling to timber cutting and the detailed treatment of wood, and the finished carpentry of end products. Apprentices working under the woodworking masters are expected to comply with ancient prefab practises, and to follow the rigid principles of architecture down to the last detail.
In a Chinese house, the north-south cardinal direction of Chinese architecture is important in encouraging the movement of positive energy around the living quarters. Large households are designed as pavilions, organised around a central courtyard. The idea of an open space surrounded by a symmetrical group of buildings serves two main purposes. One, the outer walls are built without any windows so that the pavilions are enclosed to face inwards. This protects the home from unwanted intruders, while offering the residents of the house the safeguard of a secluded sanctuary, where they can move without the invasive glimpses of passersby. Considerations are made to the windowless back of the house facing north, where the wind is coldest during the winter. In general, the only opening to the outside world is the front gate, which is further shrouded by a screen wall, stemming from the belief that evil things travel in straight lines. Two, orienting the lives of the occupants around a courtyard enhances ventilation, and draws the outside world to the inside. The latticework doors and windows, suggest a barrier between the two worlds, without forming a permanent seclusion. Here, nature is allowed to offer a constant escapism for the purity of the mind from every corner around the house. Pavilions are not placed randomly. There is a projected hierarchy according to importance and function. Those held at the highest esteem are located at the rear of the compound and orientated to face the front, usually where the elderly members of the family live. While, the front buildings are reserved for servants and the hired help, if the family is wealthy. And, the side rooms are occupied by the children, and the extended family. Symmetry is paramount and is a reflection of cosmic harmony and an interpretation of the philosophies of Taoism and feng shui, at their most basic levels. The characteristically sweeping roofs of Chinese architecture, are the most complex entity in the building. Roofs with a sweeping curvature, which rises sharply at the corners of the roof, are a common feature in temples and palaces, although they could also be designed in the homes of the wealthy.
The steep edges of roofs are believed to ward off evil, and encourage the flow of good fortune. And in the hot and humid tropical climate, the airy open quality of the Chinese house and the wide overhangs of its roof, protect the interior from both sun and rain. Depending on the wealth of the owner the roof is made of undulating tiles with drip tiles lining the edge of the frame. As an ancient rainwater harvesting technique, this allows the water to cascade to the courtyard, creating a pleasant sight and sound. The eave tiles are inscribed with auspicious symbols including, the character ‘fu’ which summons good fortune and invoke happiness. And because Chinese people cherish age and wish for eternal life, the character representing longevity ‘shou’, is often seen on Chinese houses too. In some cases, the ridges of the roof are decorated with ceramic figurines. Each architectural detail of the building is handcrafted with great skill, and embellished with intricate designs so that the house represent the rich and varied experience of the natural world. But in contrast to the ornate decorations of temples and palaces there are fewer purely decorative elements inside the more humble residences, which are confined to panels carved in Chinese designs, placed under windows and sometimes over the doors and the curling roof ends. Houses are elevated to enhance the circulation of air and offer a more comfortable living environment. They are cooler to live in, and generally protect the owners from the risk of floods during the high monsoon season. The raised platform also offers protection from hostile wildlife, while the open space beneath the house is used as a flexible warehouse area. This can either be used as refuge during the summer, storage for the season's harvest, or as a place to keep livestock. But overall, the most intelligent and practical feature of the Chinese house, is the ease with which it can be assembled and dismantled, leaving no footprint on the earth’s surface. A process built on a profound connection with nature established over thousands of years.
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