restricted access Building in China: Henry K. Murphy's "Adaptive Architecture," 1914-1935 (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 207-209



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Building in China: Henry K. Murphy's "Adaptive Architecture," 1914-1935. By Jeffrey W. Cody. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001. Pp. xxvi+264. $50.

What a complex and exhilarating book Jeffrey Cody has written! His subject, Henry Killam Murphy, is not even an architectural footnote in his native United States despite the many buildings he built there, yet in China he is a revered twentieth-century architect. How can this be? Cody fathoms the apparent paradox by examining both sides of transcultural issues in technological development. He exposes the needs and desires of a country in transformation and writes the biography of a developing society. He documents the first stirrings of multiculturalism and pan-Pacific collaboration.

Cody's ostensible focus is the professional development of an American in China, a "messenger man between commercial and diplomatic interests" (p. 164), a participant in the expanding American commercial engagement in Asia, a mentor to some of China's "first generation" of architects, and one who laid the groundwork for modern Chinese city planning. But he also expands the social "construction" of technology by analyzing the multileveled reality of a complex career. He invokes aspects of politics and economics and introduces transcultural issues, professionalism, theory, historiography, and the impact of iconography. Cody turns what, by traditional [End Page 207] historical standards, initially appears to be a second-rate architectural effort into an absorbing, border-crossing study in problem solving.

We see Murphy wrestling with the concept of what he called "adaptability" and "striking a balance between up-to-date architectural technology and Chinese building traditions" (p. 74) in the spread of new materials and methods for novel building types. Murphy attacks problems of globalization versus regionalism and applies them to technology and industry and to "mastering technological transfer that held unforeseen [cultural] implications" (p. 8). An example is the allusion to feng shui principles and their evidently successful adaptation in the site plan for the Ginling Campus.

On a deeper level, Cody explores eclecticism as a cultural synthesis in architecture and demonstrates the political nature of Murphy's decision-making process. He expands a seemingly simple contextual argument into a subtle reaction to a sociopolitical environment when he discusses Murphy's first commission, the 1914 Yale-in-China medical school in Changsha. He clarifies the financial, technological, and political appropriateness of using northern Chinese, imperial forms despite the recent fall of the Qing Empire, rather than southern Chinese, vernacular ones more appropriate to the school's location in Hunan Province.

The narrative unfolds chronologically, exploring first what formed and prepared Murphy for his career. Next, Cody examines how Murphy built his Chinese connections and practice. Then he goes into the problem of specialization in educational construction and the difficulties of maintaining a multinational practice. Into the mature phase of Murphy's development fall issues of reputation and conflict, as well as the exploration of large-scale urban proposals that Cody ranks with those of Luytens in India, Ghijsels in Indonesia, Burnham in the Philippines, and Jansen in Turkey. Finally, Cody examines Murphy's legacy and its place in the continuing search for an appropriate architectural idiom in China. He does this so well that one American architect in China found the book to be an uncannily accurate reflection—almost a century later—of his own tribulations in defining and balancing tradition with the aspirations of current architectural practice.

Cody writes lucidly, and his multiple issues neither intrude upon the flow of the narrative nor draw attention to anything other than his topic. His occasional use of untranslatable Chinese terms, like guangxi (interdependent social-professional-personal relationships, p. 107), or maiban (commercial go-between, p. 120) demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the conditions his subject had to deal with, serving to remind us that alternate social systems function in Chinese culture. For the ordinary Western reader, because of a regrettable lack of knowledge of China and its history, a glossary of such terms...


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