Cole Roskam

1980 in Parallax: From Post-Modernism to Post-Modernisation in China


In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Fifth in the series, Cole Roskam reflects on the global impact of the ‘Post-Modernisation’ of the People’s Republic of China and the challenges presented by China’s inclusion within an international architectural production.

In January 1980, China Academy of Building Research member Yang Yun introduced Chinese readers of Architectural Journal (建筑学报, or Jianzhu Xuebao) to the term ‘Post-Modernism’ (后现代主义, or houxiandai zhuyi), albeit through an inadvertent mistranslation as ‘Neo-Modernism’ (新现代主义, or xinxiandai zhuyi).1 The country’s most prominent architects and state-run design institutes were already aware of Post-Modernism through access to several popular books and architectural journals at the time, but Yang’s essay was the first Chinese-language effort to define and historicise the term for a broader architectural readership while also providing black-and-white images of several key built examples (Figure 1). Perhaps most importantly, Yang speculated as to the potential value of these new ideas and theories in rejuvenating Chinese architecture through a renewed technological and historical consciousness.

Yang’s article signalled an important inflection point in the architectural history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but it should also be recognised as a moment of global architectural significance.2 1980 is currently more widely associated with the First Architectural Exhibition of the Venice Biennale—an event purportedly organised with a certain global ethos in mind—namely, ‘think[ing], through architecture, about other things in the world’.3 Yet Yang’s own engagement with Post-Modernism halfway around the world prompts timely questions as to the precise nature of these other things being thought through architecture in Venice, and where exactly in the world they were.

More than forty years later, the purported world-making taking place in Venice sits increasingly uneasily in relation to evidence of Post-Modernism’s truly international circulations through the PRC, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), and other parts of the world at the time.4 These flows of ideas, images, people, and capital far exceeded whatever may have been on display in Venice in terms of their global scope and impact upon the profession, their complex range of ideological effects, and the world-altering processes of globalisation that had already begun to reshape architecture and our planet.

That such circulations were taking place in countries and territories otherwise untouched by late industrial capitalism—places notably not represented in Venice—provincialises the key protagonists, canonical landmarks, and well-worn discursive polemics associated with Post-Modernism in necessary and productive ways. Indeed, as architectural historian and theorist Arindam Dutta has argued, both the architectural biennale and any Post-Modernist sensibility at its core was less an embrace of some new, more worldly approach to historical pluralism than its opposite—an anxious avant-garde’s desire to maintain influence within a discipline increasingly beyond its control, and increasingly enmeshed within Cold War-era corporatist and bureaucratic systems poised to capitalise upon global market expansion in India and the PRC, among other locales.5

Here, then, we return to the PRC circa 1980, and the extent to which it figured as an important space and time in the establishment and testing of new communication and information technologies, materials and design practices that pushed architectural production and circulation into a new global condition as part of what architectural historian and theorist Sylvia Lavin has characterised as ‘post-modernization’. 6The PRC’s first steps towards architectural change took place amid its initial diplomatic détente with the capitalist world under Mao, early academic and professional international exchanges, and shifts toward more technical forms of material production prior to Mao’s death in 1976. The 1978 launching of the ‘Four Modernizations’ campaign formalised these shifts, pushing the PRC toward heavy state investment in technology, science and light industrial manufacturing, with assistance from a massive influx of foreign capital.

New theories and practices of architecture arrived in the PRC even prior to the ‘Four Modernizations’ campaign through visits from business figures, officials, academics and architects such as Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick, a scholar of Chinese gardens and the daughter of John Keswick, former head of the British multinational trading firm Jardine, Matheson & Company.7 As early as 1968, for example, Keswick began to visit imperial-era gardens in mainland China in preparation for her book The Chinese Garden.8 Both Keswick and Jencks subsequently traveled to mainland China together beginning in November 1979, delivering lectures on their respective research to Chinese architects, academics, and students on several trips over the course of the 1980s. In one lecture delivered at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, for example, Jencks purportedly framed architectural acts of double-coding as a means of introducing China’s pivot toward capitalism to the general Chinese public, not as an explicit ‘either/or’ rejection of Mao-era governance in favor of economic liberalisation, per se, but as an accommodating ‘both/and’ jump back to China’s past and forward toward modernisation.9

The inclusion of imperial-era Chinese garden space beginning in the second edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1978)– a decision attributed to the influence of Keswick – is also notable in this respect (Figure 2).10 For one, it gestured toward the potential creative value of Post-Modern myth-making to China’s own deeply politicised architectural history. Following years of party control over all forms of cultural meaning, Jencks’s and Keswick’s celebration of the Chinese garden in all of its ambiguous, irrational splendour helped to re-legitimise the value of subjective semiotic interpretation in relation to Chinese architectural expression.11 Post-Modernism’s discursive pliability initially appealed to both Chinese architects and officials, who had also begun to appreciate the benefits of ideological flexibility; as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping himself posited in response to questions concerning the socialist country’s dalliance with capitalism, ‘Black cat or white cat; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat’.12

These encounters were consequential to the Post-Modern ‘thoughts and methods’ that would excite and influence Chinese architects as they struggled to rethink architecture’s relationship to the state, and the world at large.13 They also emboldened members of China’s architectural establishment to embrace design-related theories that would have been unthinkable in the country just two years prior. Yet the exchange of theories and ideas was one influence in the much more substantial remodeling of the country’s entire architectural industry taking place—an implementation of new design systems, building technologies, vocabulary, professional relationships and access to capital that transformed China and global architectural practice more generally.

In another 1980 essay published in Architectural Journal, penned by Zhong Xunzheng and Xi Shuxiang of Nanjing Institute of Technology (later the School of Architecture at Southeast University) and titled ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom and a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend in Architectural Creation’, for example, the country’s designers were urged to liberate themselves and embrace the new educational, professional, and discursive struggles required to produce technically sophisticated, conceptually rigorous design. Zhong and Xi encouraged readers to reflect on the work of French engineer Gustave Eiffel, whom they lauded for overcoming the fears and doubts of his contemporaries to produce a monument beloved by generations of Parisians and international visitors. ‘Eiffel’s experience shows that architectural creation must not be hindered at will, but rather should be tested and developed through practice, so that history (and, in the end, the city’s residents) can make a fair judgment’, the authors argued.14

Over the course of the early to mid-1980s, Architectural Journal articles introduced readers to a range of different projects, design methods, building types, materials and terminology across time and space, including Arabic architecture in Yemen, contemporary European design, interviews with I. M. Pei and Kenzo Tange, and typological analyses of John Portman and Associates’ hotels and Hong Kong housing estates, among other examples (Figure 3).15 More than simply delineating the discursive contours of architecture as it existed in other parts of the world, these texts narrated a much larger story regarding what was unfolding within, around, and with the PRC itself.

This included an array of joint-venture business partnerships negotiated between the government, state-run design institutes and foreign architects and firms such as Larry R. Hecky & Associates, Clement Chen & Associates, I. M. Pei & Partners, the architectural corporation Becket International, John Portman and Associates (all US) Wong & Ouyang, Palmer & Turner (both HK), and Dan Wongprasat Architect (Thailand), among others (Figure 4). A range of small, regional firms and several of the world’s largest, most lucrative architectural practices were involved in these early initiatives, which were designed to accommodate capitalism in China but also exposed both Chinese and foreign architects to the challenges of China’s inclusion within the expanding field of ‘international practice’.16

Controversy surrounding IM Pei’s Fragrant Hills Hotel and its Chinese garden, completed outside Beijing in 1983, is also indicative of these effects (Figure 5). Scholarly interest has heretofore focused on the project’s general history, including the tense, occasionally acrimonious negotiations over its site, scale and cost.17 What has received less attention is the project’s influence on how Pei and his office worked, and the broader ways in which individual experiences working in and with China began to inform the international work and business of architecture more generally.

The speed of the initial design scheme’s completion challenged Pei and his abilities to satisfy the demands of a unique client.18 Pei’s personal attachment to China – Pei was born and raised in China before leaving in 1935 to attend university in the United States – was countered by a lack of knowledge of socialist China, and over the course of the design and construction process, multiple issues arose that proved difficult to reconcile. This included problems with regards to project management, labour quality and costs, and material sourcing, among others (Figure 6).19

Following the hotel’s completion, Jencks applied his Post-Modern lens to Pei’s work, which he celebrated its ‘restrained mixture of Chinese and Renaissance design’ as the architect’s first use of ‘tradition in a representational manner’, and thus ‘the most rooted in culture, with the strongest sense of place’20 of all of the architect’s production. He also included the Fragrant Hills Hotel in subsequent editions of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, marking it as the first building completed in China after Mao that Jencks understood as definitively Post-Modern.

For others, however, the project was ground-breaking in other ways. In the months following its opening, for example, articles published in official party outlets such as the People’s Daily and China Reconstructs struggled to translate the project into an ideological language that would be understood by the general Chinese public. One account argued that the building aimed to be ‘all for the people’ but ultimately failed in not providing housing for its staff. Official disappointment was also directed toward the purportedly $25 million USD project’s ‘wasteful’ and ‘extravagant’ nature, its insensitivity to Chinese architectural tradition, the jarring contradictions it exposed with regards to China’s incomplete modernisation, and the problematic Post-Modern logic seemingly at its conceptual core (Figure 7).21

Despite the project’s criticism, Pei’s experience portended a gradual, industry-wide pivot to the PRC, resulting in the country’s emergence as a vital hub for global architectural production. Forms of architectural eclecticism borne of distinctly collaborative, cross-cultural design practices, nebulous flows of international financing and construction standards, bound by inconsistent degrees of party oversight, continued to prevail throughout the country. By the late 1980s, numerous international architectural and business journals had begun to detail the many frustrations involved in working in China, including the need for new architectural business practices, the challenges of opaque financial structures and the difficulties of addressing unrealistic technological demands.22 The dynamics at play were not specific to early-reform PRC, per se, but the size and complexity of the Chinese market gradually necessitated profound shifts in the nature of international architectural practice and production, with all of its attendant economic and environmental consequences (Figure 7).23

Jencks, too, eventually acquiesced to the inevitability of the PRC and the global effects of its economic liberalisation, ultimately redefining and broadening his theorisation of Post-Modernism into a kind of ‘pluralism’ better suited to capture what he understood to be a ‘bigger agenda’ at work.24 This agenda was momentarily destabilised by global events such as the rise and tragic fall of the student movement in Beijing on 4 June 1989—events Jencks quickly attributed to a hybrid array of messaging, style, and content, deployed and circulated locally and around the world via fax, photograph, two-way radio, motor-bike, TV and telephone that produced a unique but fragile double-coded condition with Post-Modern characteristics.25

Beginning in 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to restart Chinese economic reforms led to a global architectural reengagement with the PRC. Designing, building, organising, and selling architecture would never be the same. Seemingly overwhelmed, Jencks realised that the changes taking place transcended his capacity to theorise them, noting that his increasingly international audiences had become ‘in a sense, more Post- than I’.26

As a global PRC continues to reshape the world, understanding post-Mao China’s effects on architectural history and production offers insight not only on the histories of Post-Modernism or Post-Modernisation, per se, but on the broader economic, geopolitical, material, professional, and technical systems that shaped and propelled these ideas and processes forward. As ‘incongruous’ as the PRC may initially appear in relation to what we think we know regarding architecture’s history since 1980, the PRC’s architectural contributions figure prominently.27 They remain both consequential and transformative – and very much still in flux.

  1. Yang Yun, ‘You xifang xiandai jianzhu xin sichao yinqi de lianxiang’, Jianzhu Xuebao, no. 1 (1980), 28.

  2. I have previously written about Yang’s essay on Post-Modernism in early reform-era China; see Cole Roskam, ‘Practicing Reform: Experiments in Post-Revolutionary Chinese Architectural Production, 1973-1989’, Journal of Architectural Education, 69/1 (March 2015), 27-38; ‘Defining Reform: Postmodern Architecture in Post-Mao China, 1980-1989’, ed Vladimir Kulic, Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2019), 211–25; Designing Reform: Architecture in the People’s Republic of China, 19701992 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 180–202. See also Ying Wang and Hilde Heynen, ‘Transferring Postmodernism to China: A Productive Misunderstanding’, Architectural Theory Review 22/3 (2018), 338–363.

  3. Adrian Forty, ‘Foreword’, in Léa-Catherine Szacka, Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (Venice: Marislio, 2016), 9.

  4. See, for example, Kulić, ed. Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019); Roskam, Designing Reform.

  5. Arindam Dutta, ‘No Duchamps in Delhi’, in Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, eds. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), 271–273. The exhibition’s famous La Strada Novissima was dominated by white male participants from Europe or North America, excepting Allan Greenberg and Denise Scott-Brown from South Africa and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, who was apparently included at the request of Charles Jencks. General participants in the biennale were slightly more internationally diverse, and included Yasufumi Kijima (South Korea), Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti (Argentina), Fernando Montes (Chile), Monta Kikoh Mozuna (Japan), Susanna Torre (Argentina), and Peter Wilson (Australia). See Paolo Portoghesi, The Presence of the Past: The First International Exhibition of Architecture, the Corderia of the Arsenale (London, Academy Editions, 1981), 205–7, 230–1, 234–5, 246–7, 312-3, and 336–8.

  6. See Lavin, ‘How Architecture Became Attitude’, in Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernization Effects, ed. Sylvia Lavin (Montreal and Leipzig: CCA and Spector Books, 2020), 22–3.

  7. Ying Wang and Hilde Heynen, ‘Transferring Postmodernism to China: A Productive Misunderstanding’, Architectural Theory Review 2/3 (2018), 338–363.

  8. See book proposal for The Chinese Garden, Box 102, Folder 11, Jencks Foundation, London.

  9. Interview, Charles Jencks, 11 February 2014. In this interview and a subsequent conversation on June 23, 2014, Jencks could not precisely recall the dates of his first visit to mainland China. A subsequent review of Jencks’s passports suggests he entered mainland China for the first time on 23 October 1979. See Box 14, A2, Jencks Foundation, London. See also Herbert L. Smith, Jr. ‘China.’ Architectural Record 169/10 (August 1980), 82-84.

  10. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978), 124.

  11. Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978), 124.

  12. See ‘Restore Agricultural Production’, 7 July 1962, in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping xuanji), vol. 1;; accessed 27 June 2023.

  13. See, for example, Ying Wang and Hilde Heynen, ‘Transferring Postmodernism to China: A Productive Misunderstanding’, Architectural Theory Review 22/3 (2018), 353.

  14. Zhong Xunzheng and Xi Shuxiang, ‘Jianzhu chuangzuo zhong di ‘Baihua jiefang, baijia zhengming’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 1 (1980), 23.

  15. See, for example, Chen Deng’ao, ‘Alabo Yemen jianzhu de minzu fengge – jian tan Yemen guoji huiyi dasha deng gongcheng jianzhu xingshi de chuli’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 2 (March 1980): 21–5, Zhou Buyi, ‘Bei Yuming tan jianzhu chuangzuo ceji’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 4 (July 1980), 19–21; ‘Dan Xiajiansan tan shijie chengshi de fazhan’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 4 (July 1980), 21–2; Yuan Jingshen, ‘Xianggang jige zhuzhai qu guihua sheji jieshao’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 6 (November 1980), 49–55; Li Yaopei, ‘Boteman de ‘gongxiang kongjian’, Jianzhu Xuebao, 6 (November 1980), 61–6.

  16. In a 1978 meeting with Chinese officials to discuss the Great Wall Hotel, one of China’s first joint-venture projects, MacDonald Becket, CEO of Becket International, was asked how he could ‘practice architecture in China and in so many other countries’, to which Becket responded, ‘international practice’. It was a term that ‘really didn’t exist as far as [Becket] knew’. See Becket, Leadership in Architecture: My Passion in Life (Bloomington, IN: 2014), 186.

  17. See Michael Cannell, I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism (New York: Random House, 1995), 310; Carter Wiseman, I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 186.

  18. Paul Goldberger, ‘I.M. Pei Rediscovers China’, New York Times Magazine (23 January 1983), 31.

  19. See also Christopher S. Wren, ‘I.M. Pei’s Peking Hotel Returns to China’s Roots’, The New York Times, 25 October 1982, C13; Zhu Ying, ‘Pei’s Hotel Blends New Design with Best of Old’, China Daily, 23 October 1982, 5; Gu Lei, ‘San fang Xiangshan Fandian’, Jianzhu Shi, no. 14 (March 1983), 105-118; Fan Shouzhong, Cai Zhenyu, Guan Shiqin, and Xiang Zuquan, ‘Xiangshan Fandian guangan’, Jianzhu Shi, no. 14 (March 1983), 119-21; Dong Yugan, ‘Yuyan yu yuyan: Bei Yuming de Zhongguo xiandai jianzhu’, Shidai jianzhu no. 5 (September 2007), 60–5; Roskam, Designing Reform, 159–163. Upon the building’s completion, Pei noted that it was ‘the most torturous thing I’ve ever done’. See Wiseman, I.M. Pei, 186.

  20. Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1978), 18. See also Jencks, ‘Symbolism and Blasphemesis’, Art & Design 1/8 (1985), 42.

  21. ‘Beijing Xiangshan fandian jianzhu sheji zuotanhui’, Jianzhu Xuebao (March 1983), 57; Gu Mengchao, ‘Cong Xiangshan fandian taolun Bei Yuming de sheji sixiang’, Jianzhu Xuebao (April 1983), 61–4.

  22. See, for example, ‘Building Across the Border’, Building Journal Hong Kong (April 1980), 7; Roger Hong, ‘Joint Venture in Beijing’, Architecture California 3/4 (October/November 1981), 20–3; ‘So you want to do business in China?’ Architectural Record 171/ 11 (September 1983), 33; ‘Sweet is Turning to Sour: Foreign Capitalists in China Run into a Host of Troubles’, Time (2 June 1985), 56; ‘U.S. Firms Bow out on CM’, Engineering News-Record (15 July 1982) 34; Mary Lee, ‘More by Design’, Far Eastern Economic Review (24 January 1985), 34; Edward A. Gargan, ‘Making the Right Contacts in China’, New York Times (30 May 1988), 33.

  23. Adrian Forty has documented the impact of both India and the PRC on the world’s marble supply; in 1998, for example, India became the world’s largest supplier of stone; in 1999, and every year thereafter, it was China. See Forty, ‘Marble After Modernism’, in The Aesthetics of Marble: From Late Antiquity to the Present, eds. Dario Gamboni, Gerard Wolf, and Jessica N. Richardson (Munich: Hirmer, 2021).

  24. Interview, Jencks, 11 February 2014.

  25. Charles Jencks, What is Post-Modernism? (London: Academy Editions, 1989), 57-8.

  26. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1991), 20.

  27. Reinhold Martin, ‘Postscript’, in Second World Postmodernisms, ed Kulić, 228; Whiting and Mehrotra, ‘Today’s Global’.

Cole Roskam
1980 in Parallax: From Post-Modernism to Post-Modernisation in China
1980 in Parallax