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.


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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