Rethinking Chinese Architecture:
A Inspiration by Teddy Cruz’s Framework in Tijuana

Conflicts in China

In the border between USA and Mexico where the political, economic as well as cultural contradictions and conflicts are significantly, Cruz studies the conflicts along the border from a unique vision and keen to explore the essence through the appearance.

China, as the ancient oriental ancient civilization, has a long history and profound cultural heritage. At the same time as she is now the fastest growing one of the countries is also being affected by foreign cultures, especially the impact of Western culture.

By comparing the United States and Mexico, China also has many similarities: the widening gap between rich and poor under high the GDP increasing, the authoritarian political system under the influence of Western democracy, East-West cultural differences, etc bring the conflict in political, economic and cultural aspects. Just like Cruz suggested, the more intense the conflict areas, the more interesting things would have, Architecture as a multi-disciplinary cross-cutting areas, always has inevitable influence of these conflicts.

Discontinuity between Chinese architecture and traditional culture

Under the influence of the New Culture Movement, 54 Movement, the Cultural Revolution, in the nearly 100 years, the development of contemporary architecture in China mainly followed the Western trend of thought in modern architecture, as well as some post-modernist thinking.

In Chinese traditional architecture, the philosophical theory such as Feng-Shui Theory and the architectural spatial theory in forms of garden, courtyard have not been inherited. However these traditional Chinese Confucian-based thinking has imperceptibly implanted in the daily lives of the social philosophy. Under the circumstance of cultural ‘hybrid’, Chinese architecture which did not integrate western and eastern culture, just blindly copy the Western style and gradually disconnected with Chinese social culture.

Neighbor Japan

Japan, also an eastern country, on contrary, which is based on the well inheriting of its traditional culture, learns the advanced construction technology from western country. Then forms a local culture cored, advanced construction techniques and technologies supported Japanese architectural style, which is adapt to Japan's natural environment and cultural atmosphere.

In early 1930s, the slogan ‘architecture should have Japanese characteristics’ was advocated. The competent authorities and architects reached a consensus on the requirements of new buildings must be Japan's cultural heritage. Even the technology and material changed, they also through the concrete to translate the essence of traditional Japanese architectural characteristics1.

Top-down or bottom-up

How to seek for the traditional culture in architecture? In traditional architectural approach architects always through their own research and exploration, with a top-down approach to guide people’s live. However there is an issue we have to admit that ‘in architecture, there are two occupations of architecture: the activities of architect and the actions of the user. The architect and the user both produce architecture – the former by design, the later by use.’2

With the mode of top-down, the users are limited by previous design. Usually, what they could do is just some change in the period of latter decoration and personalized design.

Although weak, these decorations, to some extent, can reflect the shadow of Chinese culture which already blends into daily life. From the perspective of architects, they always do not want to see their own original design was vandalism. They are keen to own works from the inside out all along the original design to maintain their own style. That is because ‘for the purpose of economic and social self-protection, the architectural profession provides the products and practices of its members with an ironic status and cultural value, in order to suggest that only the work of architects deserves the title ‘architecture’ consequently, architects attempt to prevent two intrusions, one into the body of their profession, the other into the body of their architecture.’3

Whereas, increasing number of architects begin to admit that because of the familiar of the site through long-term use, lots of non-architect especially the users have better and more unique understanding of the architecture.

Just like Teddy Cruz researched in San Diego / Tijuana border. He recognized the cultural essence behind the phenomenon brought by immigrant, and used a bottom-up mode to help the users to realize their residential style.

To proceed with the project, Cruz opened a full-scale campaign to change San Diego’s zoning laws. Working with Casa Familiar, he has sought to open the way for the denser mixed-use communities that are so typical of Mexico - an urban fabric in which structures bleed freely into one another, allowing for the shifting realities of immigrant families. The group’s offices will serve as a makeshift city hall, arranging loans and reconfiguring the units.

For the “Manufactured Site,” we are proposing a prefabricated building frame that can act as a hinge mechanism to support the multiplicity of recycled materials and systems that residents bring from San Diego and reassemble in Tijuana to create makeshift dwellings. These structures are fragile, as is the topography of the land they occupy. The frame could be the first step in the construction of larger scaffolding that would help strengthen the otherwise precarious terrain, without compromising the temporal dynamics of these self-made environments.4

The top-down mode has political function which could advocate a specific architectural style but could not solve the integration of architecture with regionality and traditional culture.

Bottom-up mode of framework

Contrarily, the bottom-up mode is able to provoke and inspire people to create original architectural style which contains traditional culture. For living, the poor people are always forced to use their wisdom to figure out unique architectural form which is closely connected with life.

Furthermore, in the period of time when participation has been advocated repeatedly, in the period of time when the diversity, geographic and culture of architecture l constantly has been required constantly, architect should do more research and exploration in location area about civil architecture and help them with the framework.

Take Jean Nouvel’s project Nemausus as an example. At the first beginning of design stage, Jean considered a structural interface of later transformation for tenants, which could allow users according to the need of functions and particular cultural idiosyncrasies, to transform or reconstruct the building, which enriched the architectural form. 5

For the users, because they don’t have the professional knowledge about the structure, the form of spatial combination as well as the material and decoration could affect and represent personalization and the information of social culture more. The users are able to participate into the diversity of space, style of decoration which is closely related to their life rather than the cold structure. Architecture should design a framework for users in the way as Teddy did, rather than in a top-down mode in which the structure will limit the expression of culture.

The essence of Chinese architecture

In Chinese architecture, the essence of architectural culture is evidently in the relationship between building and environment, humanities in decoration and form of spatial combination but the structure which serve them.

All these essence are last for thousands of years in the Chinese Vernacular architecture. For example, the residential architecture in China has a strong concept of family. Both the courtyard, Hakka Wai housing Liuzhou, and residential Diaojiaolou in southwestern, all contain the traditional Chinese Confucian thinking

Just like L. Wright assumed after he researched Tao Te Ching, the main traditional philosophy which instruct Chinese society for 2,000 years, ‘The reality of the building does not consist in the four walls and the roof but in the space within to be lived in.’6

Partly based on that theory, he proposed "So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no traditions essential to the great tradition. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but instead exalting the simple laws of common sense or of super-sense if you prefer determining form by way of the nature of materials..."7

Organic architecture by L. Wright

Organic Architecture is also translated into the all inclusive nature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design process. Materials, Motifs, and basic ordering principals continue to repeat themselves throughout the building as a whole. The idea of “Organic Architecture” refers not only to the buildings literal relationship to the natural surroundings, but how the buildings design is carefully thought about as if it were a unified organism. Geometries throughout Wright’s buildings build a central mood and theme. Essentially “Organic Architecture” is also the literal design of every element of a building: From the windows, to the floors, to the individual chairs intended to fill the space. Everything relates to one another, reflecting the symbiotic ordering systems of nature.8

Chinese traditional culture is always based on people-oriented and respecting for nature. Throughout the daily life of Chinese people, they have been constantly pursuing the realm where man and nature harmoniously integrate. By adapting the principle of nature, connect the building and complex well with other natural elements, making man as one part of the nature

Feng-Shui theory is a traditional Chinese theory integrated with architectural techniques and social philosophy. It argues the orders of plan, relationship of complex, direction of building, site and environment of architecture, etc. It’s not only an aesthetics issue but also a scientific subject. However during the development of Chinese contemporary architecture, it was ignored by main stream architects and planners completely, only left some fragments of theory in the folk. By using this sort of bottom-up framework, the user, for example, can be inspired to translate social culture and old architectural philosophy into contemporary architecture in these fields which architects are not familiar with.

Participatory framework

As Jonathan Hill argued, ‘Determinism assumes that the user is passive and predictable while this text suggests that the user is active and unpredictable. The fact is that both are true. The oscillation between passivity and activity is more apparent in the experience of architecture than in any other cultural phenomena.’9
The unpredictability of user makes the architectural participation as a dynamic process. Influenced by the dynamicity of participative process, emotional participation in architecture does also need a dynamic development which could offer a dynamic system for high density participation.

Take a review of the whole history of participation, the conflict mostly happens between the users and other roles. It is not strange after comparing the time of different roles spend with architecture, thanks to high-efficient and prefabrication, an original plan can be realized from a proposal via blueprint to a building while the users have to spend half of their life with the building.

Living style, neighborhood culture and numerous aspects will changes with the social developing, which will inevitably create new conflict among different participants related to architecture.

Anne Querrien indicated in her article that ‘The local now includes the global within it, and this can come out through collective development, not only through building, because building is limited to representing a certain moment in time…’10 How can a certain participation, which takes place at the very beginning of architecture, reflect the whole social need during the life of architecture? Participations which are fragmentary and individual can only abate the conflict but can not eliminate it essentially.

Teddy Cruz gives us an excellent model to translate his idea about participation issue. He mentioned in his discourse: ‘In our view, housing is less about a collection of objects and more about participatory community processes and the resourcefulness and organization of people. By bridging between the planned and the unplanned, the legal and the illegal, the object and the ground, as well as man-made and factory processes of construction, the “Manufactured Site” questions the meaning of manufacturing and of housing in the context of building community.’11

Economic issue of the framework mode

From other angle of view, affected by the finical crisis, China's real estate industry is faced with tremendous blow. A lot of high-grade housings built in real estate bubble are unmarketable while a large number of low-income people are homeless. This kind of uncorresponding of supply and demand has brought about tremendous social contradictions, but also restricted economic development.

Chinese government proposed a grand project that by the state-funded construction of a large number of low-rent housing and affordable housing. However the cost of this project is not only an astonishing budget but also a cruel copy of low-quality housing. Especially the latter will trigger to another crisis of Chinese culture.

Let’s take a review of the main cost of housing in middle-sized city, China. The basis of the construction cost was only 15 percent of the total cost while the service application fee takes 8%. The acquisitions of land use right fee, advertising fee, and late management fee are the property represents a substantial proportion. According to the survey by a famous Chinese economist, Xianping Lang, the real profit is generated in all stages of the latter, while the cost of the construction itself is not high.

We could see from Teddy’s project, due to the development of prefabrication, what the users real need is the basis construction part, framework part. And resettlement and the late part of the property management fees, although is compulsory, but can be made up through the user’s own work. Particularly, the project such as doors, windows, walls and floor that will be re-installed by users during their personalized decoration, which inevitably increase the housing cost and limit the expression of architectural culture.


Top-down and bottom-up as two essential architectural approaches, especially the latter one, because of its particular use in aspects of culture, participation and economics, should be regarded by Chinese architects seriously. Considered with China’s actual condition, integrated top-down and bottom-up reasonably and apply a open approach to cooperate with users and together with the users to explore and improve architecture theory with Chinese characteristics.

1. Shimin Chen, Architectural Creation, volume 03, 2008
2. Occupying Architecture – between the architect and the user, Edited by Jonathan Hill, Routledge, 1998, p. 140
3. ibid p. 5
4. Teddy Cruz, Residential architect Magazine, Publication date: January 1, 2005
5. (Jean Nouvel, Nemausus apartment building.1987 - Nîmes, France – Nemausus.)
6. An American Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, 1955)
7. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Organic Architecture, 1939
9. Occupying Architecture – between the architect and the user, Edited by Jonathan Hill, Routledge, 1998, p. 143
10. Anne Querrien, plan of participation, Architecture & Participation, Edited by Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till , Spon Press, 2005, p. 26
11. Teddy Cruz, Residential architect Magazine, Publication date: January 1, 2005


Teddy Cruz, Residential architect Magazine, Publication date: January 1, 2005

An American Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, 1955

Shimin Chen, Architectural Creation, volume 03, 2008

Arnold Toynbee, Choose Life: A Dialogue Between Arnold Toynbee & Daisaku Ikeda, Oxford University Press (1989)

Bauman Irena, (1956- ), How to be a happy architect, London: Black Dog, c2008.

Architecture & Participation, Edited by Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu, Jeremy Till, Spon Press,2005

Occupying Architecture – between the architect and the user, Edited by Jonathan Hill, Routledge, 1998

Truth against the World: Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks for an Organic Architecture, ed. by Patrick Meehan (1987, Wiley;)

Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Architecture, by Donald Hoffman (1995, Dover Publications)