CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 21, March 2010


Tianjin's Western-Style Chinese Villa | China Heritage Quarterly

Tianjin’s Western-Style Chinese Villa

Elizabeth LaCouture
Colby College
Waterville, Maine

The old Chinese heart of Tianjin, with a history that reaches back before the Ming dynasty, lies just north of the city’s foreign concessions. This former walled imperial outpost was built according to Chinese geomantic principles of urban design on a north-south axis. Today, most visitors still enter from the south, where the imperial drum tower greets them. But a closer look at the tower reveals that this ancient structure is actually new. Indeed, walking along the pedestrian streets of the old Chinese district, most people discover that almost the entire old city has recently been reconstructed. The Ming and Qing-era brick walls that once shielded courtyard residences have been replaced with new brick and glass storefronts that expose ‘traditional’ Chinese shops selling an assortment of ‘artifacts’ from carved jade trinkets to Louis Vuitton knock-off purses. This ‘new-old’ town is part Qing fantasy, part consumer paradise, with all the smoke and mirrors of a Hong Kong movie set.

Leaving this new-old Chinese city, walking just past the site where the north city gate once stood, sits a peculiar building. A gray brick wall, much like the ones that normally surround single-story northern Chinese courtyard houses, gives way to a three-story house that rises above it, topped off by a rounded Western-style dome rather than a Chinese peaked roof. Instead of entering the house through a typical post and lintel doorway in the south, guests enter through a small octagonal entryway to the east. This octagonal doorway is quite unusual for a northern courtyard house and is more common as an entryway to a garden. Indeed, the garden inside the compound boasts a similar octagonal entrance. The main doorway to the compound opens onto a courtyard with the dome-topped central portion of the house in the back, flanked by a bay on either side.

Fig.1 (Photograph: Elizabeth LaCouture)

A walk through this Western-style courtyard reveals a sprawling complex of European and Chinese architectural features. The compound includes a second Chinese-style courtyard to the south. This courtyard, framed by the villa to the north and a Chinese post-and-beam building to the south, is surrounded by a veranda covered in a tile roof and adorned with wooden latticework. An octagonal door on the western side of the Chinese-style veranda opens onto a European arcade of arches and pillars, decorated with ornate capitals, mostly made from concrete and plaster. These arcades lead to a glass-domed conservatory in the back garden, topped by a spire identical to the one found atop the dome on the main house. Viewed in the context of the entire complex, this building is not simply a Western-style villa built in the old Chinese city. Rather, the villa is a single structure in a garden of Chinese and European-style architecture. This garden of wood and concrete, glass and tile, post and beam, and arch and pillar, is a unique example of Tianjin’s modern architectural heritage.

But, what seems like a design anomaly actually offers insight into larger issues of Tianjin’s architectural heritage and history. The Chinese-Western villa, which judging by its use of concrete was probably built in the 1930s, neither fits with the uniform commercial historical fantasy of the new-old Chinese city, nor does it seem in harmony with the Chinese courtyard houses that would have surrounded this building in an earlier era. Yet by the very fact that it does not simply fit in with orthodox Chinese or Western styles, this house is very much in keeping with Tianjin’s colonial architectural modernity—a city of multiple foreign concessions built to the south of an older Chinese core. Moreover, a Tianjin city planner’s decision to preserve this unique piece of architectural heritage reveals that the historical processes of urban planning which began in the colonial-era still shape the city today.

Fig.2 (Photograph: Elizabeth LaCouture)

Even in post-treaty port Tianjin, its Chinese residents continue to be both subjects and designers of the city’s colonial architectural legacy. When 1990s-era urban developers discovered this Western-style villa in the Chinese city, they also had the opportunity to save other nearby examples of the city’s distinctly Chinese architectural heritage: luxuriant, Qing-era courtyard houses that once belonged to Tianjin’s wealthy salt merchant families. From an academic architectural or historical standpoint these houses were more ‘worthy’ of preservation, and yet it is the Western-Chinese villa that stands today. The demolished courtyard houses, which belonged to some of the city’s best-known Qing merchants, also would have kept with Tianjin’s new vision of architectural heritage—as a city that is notable for its many famous former residents. Since 2005, placards have adorned the front of the city’s historic houses, placing each house in a different tier of importance based on the status and historical significance of its former resident. While the Chinese Western-style house also claims a notorious resident, the placard in front does not corroborate. Local legend has it that the warlord Cao Kun (曹錕1862-1938) built the house for a concubine, however, not all local historians have accepted this assertion since Cao Kun himself resided in the Italian Concession and a prominent warlord would have been unlikely to build a residence in the less secure Chinese section of the city.

Instead the Western-style Chinese house was saved as part of a historical process. Since the 1900s, Tianjin’s urban development has been guided through a process of destruction and reconstruction in which foreign colonial powers governed urban growth by demolishing and displacing the late imperial Chinese city. Through extensive colonial municipal building codes, foreign powers even legislated architectural taste, requiring that builders construct Western-style architecture in the foreign concessions. But in the end it was capitalism, or real estate developers, and not the foreign or Chinese governments, that built the city in its early years, and it would be capitalism, even in the Mao years, that would preserve the architectural heritage of Tianjin’s commercial buildings over its residential spaces and Western-style architecture over Chinese buildings.

Fig.3 (Photograph: Elizabeth LaCouture)

Tianjin’s urban cycle of destruction and reinvention dates back to its time as a treaty-port. The walled Chinese city had been Tianjin’s political, military and commercial center until foreign residents began to settle to the south of the city wall in 1860, transforming this flourishing urban center into a peripheral, ‘old’ ‘Chinese’ part of town. The Chinese city was dealt another blow after the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901), when the Eight Nation Alliance tore down the city wall in order to level this symbol of imperial political power. As the vice regent of Zhili 直隸 in 1902, Yuan Shikai (袁世凯, 1859-1916) continued the political de-centering of the old Chinese city by moving government offices northeast and across the river to a new district known as Xin hebeiqu (新河北區, new north of the river district). No longer the site of government offices, the old Chinese city continued to host residents and businesses of varying social demographics until 2000, when, in spite of local protests, the Tianjin city government replaced its ‘old Chinese city’ with a commercial new-old Chinese-style city called ‘Ancient Culture Street’ (古文化街 gu wenhua jie). The Western-Chinese villa still stands on the edge of this reinvented imperial city.

Though the Western-Chinese villa is located at the northern corner of the old Chinese city, its architectural style communicates with the foreign concession architecture to the south. At the time the villa was built, the foreign concessions were witnessing a population explosion and building boom, with well-to-do Chinese moving in. Zoning laws strictly regulated that these homes be built in Western style, but in rare instances, Chinese residents manipulated the façade, incorporating Chinese architectural details. For instance, two Chinese warlords—Chen Guangyuan (陳光遠, 1873-1939), who lived in the British Concession, and Bao Guiqing (鮑貴卿, 1867-1934) who lived in the Italian Concession—adorned their roof with Chinese Qing-style turrets. The Chinese-Western villa, on the other hand, was built in the Chinese district, an area that did not have such strict building regulations. It therefore represents what could be imagined and built without the restriction of colonial zoning laws. The result is a Chinese interpretation of foreign colonial architectural design. The house was Chinese at its core, built entirely out of the gray bricks that were typical of Chinese construction, rather than the red bricks used to build foreign concession domestic architecture. But at the same time, the builder adapted Western-style construction to Chinese design, introducing new materials and architectural elements such as poured concrete banisters and railings, a domed villa atop a Chinese-style courtyard house, and a glass-topped garden pavilion. The end result is a Chinese-designed colonial pastiche—a building that is neither a Western villa nor a Chinese courtyard house, but a mixture of both.

Fig.4 (Photograph: Elizabeth LaCouture)

But modern Chinese planners saved the Chinese-Western villa not because it was Chinese or pastiche but because they saw it as Western. Tianjin residents have come to their understanding of Western-style first hand on the streets of their city, where decades of Western architectural design set a tone of colonial modern urbanity constructed as a multi-story architectural landscape of red brick and gray concrete, assembled into Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and Neo-Classical facades. Moreover, this Western-style has become synonymous with the commodification of modern architecture.

In treaty-port Tianjin, Western architecture represented a new commercial way of building. Colonial municipal councils may have dictated street plans and zoning laws, but real estate developers built the city. Unlike in late-imperial China, where families designed their own houses in consultation with a geomancer and master carpenter, in concession-era Tianjin, private developers built ready-made housing on spec; only the wealthiest concession residents could custom-build their homes. Whereas the late-imperial Chinese house symbolized a family’s prosperity and longevity as the site of ancestral, spiritual and material shelter, Western-style housing became a commodity to be bought, sold and rented, signifying an occupant’s status through price.

Tianjin’s Western-style Chinese villa stands between these two worlds. Built during a time when the real estate business was constructing readymade housing across the city, the villa, with its unique design, appears to have been custom built. While Chinese artisan carpenters continued to design and build Chinese-style houses, the new commodified Western-style architecture was typically designed and constructed by members of two new professions—architects and builders. Even if an architect did not design a structure, builders consulted professional architectural models available in trade journals. The Western-style Chinese villa, however, seems neither to have been designed by a professional architect nor built in line with professional architectural models. Instead, the eclectic design utilizes elements from both Chinese and Western architectural vocabularies without faithfully representing either. The unique and architecturally unorthodox style of the villa suggests that it may have been designed and built by a Chinese carpenter who interpreted the new Western-style commodified architecture of the city through the lens of classical Chinese building principles. Simultaneously Chinese and Western, old and new, spiritual symbol and commodity, the Western-style Chinese villa exemplifies the complexity and transitory nature of modern architectural practices in treaty-port China.

Fig.5 (Photograph: Elizabeth LaCouture)

Eventually all architecture in urban Tianjin would become a commodity. After the Communists took control of the city, housing became political capital, with military and political leaders choosing prime real estate for themselves. Indeed, economic capital proved to be the largest force for preserving Tianjin’s colonial architectural heritage even at the height of Mao’s socialism: the buildings that survived and thrived did so because they were viable as sites of commerce. Though the Communists drove foreign firms away, the Beaux-Arts monuments to capital along present-day Liberation Road (Jiefang lu 解放路) survived as homes to new Chinese financial institutions. Likewise, the main shopping thoroughfare in the French Concession is still a thriving retail district today. Built according to late-imperial Chinese ideas of urban planning that did not strictly segregate residential and business districts, the old Chinese city also fell into neglect and disrepair until it was demolished in 2000.

In the end, it was not its quirky design but rather its economic potential that saved the Western-style Chinese villa from the wrecking ball. Developers could envision a Western-style villa as a site of commerce more so than neighboring Chinese courtyard houses. Even though the real estate business had historically extended to all corners—Chinese and foreign—of treaty-port Tianjin, Chinese-style houses, unlike their Western counterparts, were never considered commodities in the minds of the city’s later residents. Monuments to colonial capitalism, Western-style buildings in the former foreign concessions have enjoyed a new life as offices and businesses. Even formerly private domestic residences have been transformed into public spaces through political and commercial use. So too the Western-style Chinese villa on the outskirts of Tianjin’s new-old Chinese commercial city has become a restaurant where patrons can sample bird’s nest soup, succulent crab, hearty rabbit, or a piece of Tianjin’s architectural heritage.