On the (Mis)Use of Critical Discourse in Architecture: “Experimental Criticism” and its Entanglement with Postreform Art Movement in China


  • Dijia Chen University of Virginia




Post-reform China, Experimental Architecture, Criticism, Chinese Modern Art


Tracing the origins of “experimental criticism” in China’s postreform architectural production, this paper interrogates the established critical discourse centering on the experimental architects, formulated in China’s academic community during the early 2000s. Influenced by liberal art movements after the Cultural Revolution, the experimental architecture emerged as a marginal critique on political totalitarianism and cultural rigidity through installation-like, small-scale and conceptual projects. Despite its peripheral position in the state-regulated production system, experimental architecture was discovered and reframed by the European scholars as the revolutionary rebellions at the turn of the century. It ultimately became the sole protagonist of critical discourse around 2005-06 in Chinese scholarship. The hasty recontextualization of Western criticism and the absence of local architectural theoretical framework have left cultural differentiations unelaborated, resulting in a heated debate over the political implication and social commitment in experimental architecture’s criticality. Prioritizing formalistic operations over pragmatic concerns, the experimental architects were obsessed with the mobilization of Modernist architectural forms and Chinese cultural symbols. The tactful, flexible and even playful outlook of experimental architecture integrated the “Chinese wisdom” and kept in line with the goals and the approaches of the modern art movement. They stand as a problematic figure in the cross-cultural appropriation of architectural criticism to China.

In recent years, renewed attention towards the experimental architecture and its successors has drastically increased in both Western and Chinese scholarship, yet the conceptual nuances of experimental criticism that were lost, distorted and reconstructed were never fully elaborated. This paper holds experimental architects’ marginalized position in the socialist production system and their deep entanglement with postreform art movement as the fundamental contributors to the specificities of experimental criticism, and further evaluates its influence on the succeeding commentary and practice paradigms of independent Chinese architects today.


Download data is not yet available.


Adorno, Theodor, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor, trans. Aesthetic Theory. London, New York: Continuum, 2004.

Aedes East Forum. “Press Release “TU MU - Young Architecture from China.”” Berlin: Aedes East Forum, 2001.

Baird, George. “Criticality and its Discontents.” Harvard Design Magazine 21 (2004), 1-5.

Baird, George. “The Criticality Debate: Some Further Thoughts”. Time + Architecture, 91/5 (2006), 62-63.

Chang, Yungho. “Two Spatial Relationship.” Architect 62 (1995), 60-64.

Chang, Yungho. “Criticality or What the West Meant to Me.” Time + Architecture, 91/5 (2006), 66-7.

Chaslin, Francois, and Xinan Su (trans.). "Situation of Architectural Criticism." World Architecture 6 (1999), 60-66.

Ding, Guanghui. ““Experimental Architecture” in China.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 73, no. 1 (2014), 28-37.

Ding, Guanghui. Constructing a Place of Critical Architecture in China: Intermediate Criticality in the Journal Time+ Architecture. Routledge, 2016.

Ding, Guanghui. “Constructing a Critical Discourse: Time + Architecture and contemporary Chinese Experimental Architecture”. Time Architecture 3(2018), 116-120.

Ding, Guanghui. “Reinterpreting Critical Architecture: The Emancipation of Experience.” New Architecture 3 (2019), 35-39.

Ding, Guanghui. “Reformulating a Critical Process: Architectural Exhibitions in the Journal Time + Architecture.” Time Architecture 1 (2019), 178-181.

Dong, Yugan. “Sun and Monument.” Architect 2 (1996), 101-102.

Dong, Yugan. “Furniture-Building: Writer’s House.” Architect 8 (1999).

Dorrian, Mark. “Criticism, Negation, Action.” The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 3 (2005), 229-233.

Eisenman, Peter. “Critical Architecture in a Geopolitical World.”

Architecture Beyond Architecture: Creativity and Social Transformations in Islamic Cultures (1995), 78-81.

Fraser, Murray. “The Cultural Context of Critical Architecture.” The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 3 (2005), 317-322.

Fung, Stanislaus. “Orientation: Notes on Architectural Criticism and Contemporary China.” Journal of Architectural Education 62, no. 3 (2009), 16-96.

Gao, Minglu. Modern Chinese Art History (1985-1986). Shanghai, 1991.

Hays, K. Michael. “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form.” Perspecta 21 (1984), 15-29.

Hoffmann, Hans Wolfgang. „Bausteine einer Revolution“. Frankfurter Rundschau, September 27, 2001.

Jullien, François. Detour and access: Strategies of meaning in China and Greece. 2000.

Koegel, Eduard, and Ulf Meyer, “Positions far from the Architectural Crowd”, TU MU: Young Architecture of China : Ai Wei Wei, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, Liu Jiakun, MRMADA, Wang Shu, Nanda Jianzhu, (Berlin: Aedes East Forum, 2001), 12-13.

Koolhaas, Rem, Sze Tsung Leong, Chuihua Judy Chung, and Jeffrey Inaba, eds. Great Leap Forward. Taschen, 2001.

Li, Dong, and Tiecheng Xu. “Three Narratives about the Past Ten Years in the View of Critique: The Analysis of the Criteria of China Contemporary Architects.” Architect 6 (2010), 22-27.

Li, Juchuan. “Parc de La Villette and Others”. Architect 57(1994), 79-83.

Li, Xiangning. “Dialogue with the Other”. Time + Architecture, 91/5 (2006), 80-81.

Lu, Andong. "Responsive Experimentalism 1978-2018: Evolution of Contemporary China's Architectural Experimentation and its Keywords". New Architecture 3(2019), 40-45.

Liu, Jiakun. “Descriptive Discourse and Low-tech Strategy.” Architect 10 (1997), 46-50.

Peng, Nu, and Wenjun Zhi. “A Mosaic of Contemporary Experimental Architecture in China: Theoretic Discourses and Practicing Strategies.” Time + Architecture 5 (2002), 20-25.

Rao, Xiaojun. “Marginal Experimentations and the Transformation of Architecture.” New Architecture 3 (1997), 19-22.

Rao, Xiaojun, and Yao Xiaoling. “Experiment and Dialogue: Review on the Seminar of Chinese Young Architects and Artists, 18 May.” Architect 5 (1996), 80-83.

Rao, Xiaojun. “Experimental Architecture: a Conceptual Exploration.” Time + Architecture 2 (2000), 12-15.

Rendell, Jane. “Critical Architecture: Introduction.” The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 3 (2005), 227-228.

Shi, Yaohua. “Reconstructing Modernism: The Shifting Narratives of Chinese Modernist Architecture.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 18, no. 1 (2006), 30-84.

Somol, Robert, and Sarah Whiting. “Notes around the Doppler Effect and other Moods of Modernism.” Perspecta 33 (2002), 72-77.

Song, Ke, and Jianfei Zhu. “The Architectural Influence of the United States in Mao’s China (1949–1976).” Fabrications 3 (2016), 337-356.

Speaks, Michael. “Design Intelligence and the New Economy.” Architectural Record (January 2002), 72–79.

Speaks, Michael. “Ideal, Ideology, Intelligence in China and the West.” Time + Architecture 91/5 (2006), 63–5.

Sullivan, Michael. “Art in China since 1949.” The China Quarterly 159 (1999), 712-722.

Wang, Jun-Yang and Liu He. ““Toward a Civil Architecture”: Memorandum of a Critical Agenda in Contemporary Chinese Architecture”. Global Perspectives on Critical Architecture: Praxis Reloaded (2015), 183-210.

Wang, Mingxian. “Architectural Experiments”. Time Architecture 2 (2000), 8-11.

Wang Mingxian, and Jian Shi. “Chinese Experimental Architecture in the Nineties.” Studies in Literature and Art 1 (1998), 117-126.

Wang, Shu. “Spatial Poetics: Notes on Two Architectural Designs”. Architect 61 (1994), 85-93.

Wang, Ying, and Hilde Heynen. “Transferring postmodernism to China: a productive misunderstanding.” Architectural Theory Review 22, no. 3 (2018), 338-363.

Wu, Hung. Exhibiting experimental art in China. David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, the University of Chicago, 2000.

Yan, Grace Ong. “The Infinite Spontaneity of Tradition”. Accessed July 28, 2020. http://www.pritzkerprize.com/2012/essay.

Yi, Duan, and Xiaodan Yang. “The Lost of Critique: Analysis of the phenomenon of the Sociologism in Architectural Criticism Since 1990 in China.” Interior Design 1 (2009).

Zhou, Rong. “A Civil-Flaunted Architecture and a Media-Sensationalized Architectural Award.” Domus China, 50/2 (2001), 123.

Zhu, Jianfei. “Beyond revolution: notes on contemporary Chinese architecture.” AA files 35 (1998), 3-14.

Zhu, Jianfei. “Criticality in between China and the West.” Journal of Architecture 10, no. 5 (2005), 479-498.

Zhu, Jianfei. Sixty Years of Chinese Architecture (1949–2009): History, Theory and Criticism. 2009.

Zhu, Tao. “The ‘Criticality’ Debate in the West and the Architectural Situation in China: Thoughts on the Essay ‘Criticality in between China and the West’”. Time + Architecture, 91/5 (2006), 71-78.

Zhu, Tao. “Rethinking on ‘Toward a Civil Architecture.’” Domus China, 51/3 (2011), 172–3.

Zou, Denong. “From Half of Postmodernism to Multiple Deconstruction: Experiences and Lessons of Introducing Architectural Theory from the West”. World Architecture 4 (1992), 64.




How to Cite

Chen, D. (2020). On the (Mis)Use of Critical Discourse in Architecture: “Experimental Criticism” and its Entanglement with Postreform Art Movement in China. Histories of Postwar Architecture, 4(7), 146–168. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2611-0075/11429