by Jincy IypeDec 02, 2021
A white monolith juts from wave-lapped sand, while its pinnacle cuts a triangular pattern off the horizon. The chapel—quite recognisably so—could very well be situated on Porto's gleaming shoreline, yet it lies in the Aranya Resort, located in Qinhuangdao, less than 300 km from Beijing. Designed by Dong Gong of Vector Architects, it was one of the first architectural landmarks that heralded a plethora of 'chapels' across China.
The often statement-like buildings have little to do with the thousands of Christian and Catholic congregations in the country. Christianity took root in China, as far back as the sixth century, and despite occasional backlash from rulers with exclusionary views, has managed to flourish for the past few centuries. Today, there are sizable Christian populations in provinces like Zhejiang with small, family-based churches abound in poorer inland regions. Given the highly secular nature of China's ruling Communist Party, religious architecture and displays of religious symbols have caused quite some controversies.
The church architecture in focus, however, negates overt symbolism and ornamentation. They inherit elements from modern interpretations of chapel design like Ronchamp, Bagvaerd and (Siza’s) Santa Maria—think purist hues and haptic massing. Some, like Chapel of Jinting Bay designed by Guangzhou-based O-Office, attempt bold, sculpturesque forms, like I.M Pei and Chi-kuan Chen once did with the Luce Memorial Chapel. For their Suzhou Chapel, Neri&Hu turned introspective towards fashion, with an illuminated void in the interior atrium. As for Dong's Seashore Chapel, a view of the sea in all its sublimity is lensed in through a framed portal, much like the projects of Tadao Ando.
As mentioned, many such buildings are not actual chapels. The Seashore Chapel for example, was said to have been built for private religious gatherings, but the nature of its use was altered after an unexpected shot-to-fame. Some were not designated as chapels in the first place but as generic 'halls,' or Litang (礼堂) - a term that broadly refers to a venue with ceremonial function. The intended ambiguity, which downplays religiosity, intimates a form-above-function methodology.
It would however be misguided to regard the mentioned as mere ‘shells.’ Defining ‘sacredness’ as a spatial quality is tricky even within the Chinese cultural paradigm, but much can be said about how a perfect rotunda, quiet wooden pew or soaring spire could conjure certain images. Despite the lack of religious programmes, formal and spatial qualities related to chapel architecture convey a ‘divine’ or meditative atmosphere which proves attractive to a young Chinese population—especially those born after the 1980s, who are familiar with the silhouette of a Christian building through travels or western cultural exports. Here it no longer presents itself as gothic or neoclassical, as in Hollywood films, but takes on refreshingly contemporary forms. Romanticised, popular depiction of the chapel also coincides with a prenuptial market where millions of young people dream of a church wedding, albeit without religious trappings.
That is to say, the fascination with architecture deemed wholly un-Chinese is tinged with occidental exoticism, though a catalyst could be the Covid pandemic which gripped the world and especially China, where government policies made overseas tourism inaccessible, until recently. A desire for freedom of movement and exodus from dreary, restrictive life gives rise to domestic sites of interest where some Chinese netizens jestfully pretend 'to be somewhere else.' On top of all, publicity from social media continues to lure people to explore China’s vast scenic landscape.
Local governments and private operators compete to create the most special and trendy landmarks, in hope to attract more revenue, paving the way to a new construction boom. The touristic imperative is highlighted by commissions which seek to create spectacles. Both highly abstracted agglomeration of planes, the Church at Sino-French Science Park and the Chamber Church radically strip architecture to symbolic representation.
Prioritising the awe factor, their extraction of a chapel’s typical form compels belief that one is indeed in the blessed house, while what has been hollowed out is filled with sensorial dazzlement. Unlike the famed Thorncrown Chapel, whose elaborate structure seems to derive from surrounding woods—a rather Edenic reference—the projects here are planted on a tabula rasa, as a transient break from reality.
Reality, on the other hand, provides other opportunities for architects. The omnipresent Litang, or assembly hall could be traced back in Chinese history to ritualistic auditorium and feasting chamber. When a Socialist nation was founded in 1949, China’s leaders called for the construction of halls to accommodate the vibrant and often tumultuous political life of communes, from remote villages to urban settlements. Today, the need for such space is directed to initiatives like heritage conservation and rural regeneration. Decades of urbanisation have left many to fear the decay of villages, where younger residents migrate to cities for job opportunities and better living conditions.
To retain the lifeblood of the Chinese countryside, the rebuilding of rural communities is high on the state’s agenda. Architects play a critical part not only in building but also in changing society’s impression of the village as a place of poverty and abandonment. In the example of Shangcun, SUP Atelier designed a bamboo canopy which converted a dilapidated courtyard into a public space for villagers and tourists. When engaging rural and traditional context, architects display greater sensitivity to the existing environment and local craftsmanship. The Litang and similar communitarian buildings are thus integrated into the discourse surrounding the nation's trajectory towards a nostalgic national revival, as well as issues of sustainable development.
Contradictory as it may seem, a common inclination toward places that are lost or never-come-to-be behoves both 'sacred' object-building and ‘secular’ neo-vernacular. Despite generalisations being made, as projects fail to fall into either camps clearly abound, we catch a glimpse of their acute reflections on the present. Urbanites find ways to channel incremental discontentment as society morphs and innovates. The landscape is ripe with architectural propositions which, ethereal in form or dense in materiality, fuel imaginations of the desired.