By Ted Mann | As one of the dominant architects of the early 20th century, Paul Philippe Cret designed some of Philadelphias most enduring landmarks: the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Rittenhouse Square, and the Rodin Museum, to name just a few. Cret was a star graduate of Frances cole des Beaux-Arts, and, when he arrived at Penn in 1903, he quickly established the School of Architecture as one of the strongholds of the Beaux-Arts method. Before long, Cret was drawing students from all over the worldparticularly China.
Today, many of Crets bold creations still standfrom the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a Parisian axis into the Quaker citys grid, to the Universitys 1940 chemistry building, an early stab at modernismbut his legacy in America has been somewhat eclipsed by his students, most notably Louis I. Kahn Ar24 Hon71. In China, however, Crets influence has proven to be remarkably enduring. His foreign students from the 1920s became prolific builders, revolutionary city planners, and, most important, educators that established Chinas first architecture schools and curriculum, based in large part on the Beaux-Arts method.
After being overlooked during Chinas long architectural dark agesthe concrete-ridden period under Maothese Penn alumni have finally begun to receive attention. This past fall the School of Design and the Department of Architecture hosted an international conference, The Beaux-Arts, Paul Philippe Cret and Twentieth Century Architecture in China, to celebrate these Chinese architects and their contributions. According to Nancy Steinhardt, Professor of East Asian Art and one of the conferences organizers, It was something that people have wanted to happen for decades.
The conference, held October 3-5, drew 400 people, according to Steinhardt. Some were descendants of the 1920s alumni; others were working Chinese architects and scholars. After the first days talks, guests crowded into the Architectural Archives for the christening of The Beaux Arts at Penn, a new exhibit featuring drawings, watercolors, and blueprints created by Cret and his students that runs through May.
Standing proudly at the entrance of the exhibit is a restored bronze miniature of a hall from the Imperial Palace in Peking. A small plaque on the base explains that it was presented to the University by Robert Fan Ar21 and the Chinese student alumni association from the 1920s on the occasion of Penns bicentennial in 1940. The model was long thought to have been lost, until University Archives collection manager Bill Whitaker GAr88 and conference co-organizer Tony Atkin GAr74 unearthed it from deep in the archives under Franklin Field, where it had collected soot for decades.
For Atkin, an adjunct professor of architecture and partner in Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell Architects, what was intriguing about the 1940 gift wasnt the design of the building or its historical details, but rather the close-knit, influential group that gave it. The sense of esprit de corps that developed among these Chinese students during their years at Penn carried over into their architectural practices and teaching careers, says Atkin.
In all, 25 students came to study with Cret during the 1920s, mostly through the aid of Boxer Indemnity Scholarships. In China, these alumni continued to meet and collaborate for decades, many teaming up to launch the countrys first architecture programs.
The most famous of the group was Liang Sicheng GAr27, who founded an architecture school at Tsinghua University. Arguably the most prestigious program in China, Tsinghua follows much of the Cret-influenced curriculum that Liang imported. Modern-day students still must take watercolor and drawing courses, a requirement of the Beaux-Arts method. Currently, Atkin is running a joint-studio program with Tsinghua, where Penn grad students collaborate on urban redevelopment projects in Beijing. Christopher Ford C95 GAr04 worked on a project to develop the Temple of Agriculture, a complex of ramshackle garages and sheds, into urban housing designed so as to preserve the sites architectural history. While many of the new skyscrapers in Shanghai and Beijing pay little attention to Chinas pastTheyre like something from The Jetsons, says Fordthere is finally a movement to preserve the countrys ancient, historic buildings. The preservationist cause, it turns out, also has direct ties to Liang Sicheng.
Liang spent much of his life compiling a history of ancient architecture in China. He traveled the country with his wife, Lin Huiyin FA27 (a classmate at Penn, never recognized by the male-only School of Architecture), surveying and documenting every variety of traditional Chinese formsfrom pagodas and temples to garden moongates and window latticework.
Tragically, Liang never lived to see the impact of his magnum opus, A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture. Published posthumously in 1984, it quickly became a seminal text. People still read it as their first textbook on Chinese architectural historyfor better or for worse, said Nancy Steinhardt. Hes almost like a cult figure. Incredibly, theres even a Hong Kong soap opera based on the life of Liang and Lin.
Another maverick of Chinese architecture was Yang Tingbao Ar24. Like his classmate, Louis Kahn, Tingbao was one of Crets star pupils, though he remained a closer adherent of the Beaux-Arts style. At the Nanjing School, in southern China, he emphasized many of Crets tenets, such as designing a building around the programs it houses, not the exterior façade. Axial planning, space perception, and a close collaboration between architects and builders were all part of his teaching method. And like Cret, Tingbao didnt just espouse architectural theoryhe turned it into bricks and mortar. Shenyang Railroad Station (1927), Tsinghua University Main Library (1930), and Nanjing Central University Library (1933) are just a few of his more programmatic, Beaux-Arts influenced creations.
Among those in attendance at the October conference were Tingbaos son and granddaughter, both of whom are keeping up the Penn architecture legacy. Tingbaos son, Shixuan Yang GAr88, is an architectural historian who has taught at Tsinghua and currently works with I.M. Pei in New York. Tingbaos granddaughter, Benyu Yang GAr04, is a graduate student in the architecture program.
Although Benyu knew of her grandfathers work, the influence of Penns other Chinese alumni was a revelation. I was shocked how wide the impact was, she said. Benyu studied architecture in Beijing, but not all of the Beaux-Arts teaching methods sat well with her. She singles out the two-year drawing requirement as a sore point. Why spend so much time rendering by hand. Thats what computers are for!
In her Penn classes, she says, The teaching method is very different. The emphasis on research, study-abroad, and apprenticing with international architects has completely changed her preconceived notions of architecture. Benyu will graduate this May, 85 years after the first Chinese architecture student, Chu Pin. She ultimately hopes to return to China to partake in the Olympics-fueled building boom thats swept the country. But, unlike her grandfather, dont expect Benyus buildings to be prototypical Beaux-Arts. Its time for a change, she says.
2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
THINGS ORNAMENTAL : The Arts
Architecture Bringing the Beaux-Arts to China, via Penn