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Allegorical Architecture

Living Myth and Architectonics in Southern China

Xing Ruan

Publication Year: 2006

Allegorical Architecture offers the first detailed architectural analysis of built forms and building types of the minority groups in southern China and of the Dong nationality in particular. It argues that Dong architecture symbolically resembles its inhabitants in many ways. The built world is an extension of their body and mind; their experience of architecture is figurative and their understanding of it allegorical. Unlike the symbolism of historical architecture, which must be decoded through a speculative reconstruction of the past, the Dong tell stories about inhabitants in their living state in the recurrent process of ritualistic making and inhabiting of their built world. This book thus offers architectural analysis of both spatial dispositions (building types) and social life (the workings of buildings). Xing Ruan likens the built world to allegory to develop an alternative to textual understanding. The allegorical analogy enables him to decipher minority architecture less as a didactic "text" and more as a "shell," the inhabitation of which enables the Dong to renew and reinvent continually the myths and stories that provide them with an assurance of home and authenticity. Attention is focused less on the supposed meanings (symbolic, practical) of the architecture and more on how it is used, inhabited, and hence understood by people. Throughout, Ruan artfully avoids the temptation to textualize the built world and read from it all sorts of significance and symbolism that may or may not be shared by the inhabitants themselves. By likening architecture to allegory, he also subtlety avoids the well-worn path of accounting for rich traditions via a "salvage ethnography"; on the contrary, he argues that cultural reinvention is an ongoing process and architecture is one of the fundamental ingredients to understanding that process. Ruan offers "thick description" of Dong architecture in an attempt to understand the workings of architecture in the social world. Paying attention to Dong architecture within a regional as well as a global context makes it possible to combine detailed formal analysis of settlement patterns and building types and their spatial dispositions with their effects in a social context. Architecture, in a broad sense, is assumed to be an art form in which the feelings and lives of its makers and inhabitants are embodied. The artifice of architecture—its physical laws—is therefore analyzed and contested in terms of its instrumental capacity. Allegorical Architecture is a work of refreshing originality and compelling significance. It will provide timely lessons for those concerned with the meaning and social sustainability of the built world and will appeal to architects, planners, cultural geographers, anthropologists, historians, and students of these disciplines.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Front Matter

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pp. ix-xii

This book has had a long gestation period: the primary research and fieldwork were conducted between 1989 and 1993; my PhD dissertation of 1997 grew out of the fieldwork; and a great deal of the fieldwork has been used in the current book, which was written between 2003 and 2004. Although 2004 did not have the opportunity...

A Note on Names and Terms

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pp. xii-xiii

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pp. 1-12

The American architect Louis Kahn contemplated a romantic picture when he designed the Salk Institute (1959-1965), a science laboratory for biological studies in La Jolla, California. In the central plaza, which is bound by two rows of concrete buildings and is open to the infinite Pacific Ocean on the cliff edge, scientists would walk up and down between the laboratory building and the plaza; they would...

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pp. 13-37

Lu You from the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), well known for his poems and extensive travelling experiences, had the following observations on the southern minority groups in his Laoxue an biji, or “Notes from an Old Study Shed...

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2. MYTH AND RITUALISTIC POSTURES: The Workings of the Settlement

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pp. 38-88

The Italian architect Giuseppe Terragni, in 1936, depicted his newly completed Casa del Fascio (Fascist Party local headquarters) in Como with a famous photomontage: the building, with a coffer-grid open frontage, is presented as the central stage of a mass rally in an open square (Figure 2.1). The scene is so singularly compelling, it is as if Casa del Fascio, the building itself, were addressing this massive congregation....

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3. CHORAL SYMBOLIZATION: The Social Life of Public Structures

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pp. 89-137

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera could not reconcile beauty in the European sense with that of New York. Despite his distaste for New York’s “unintentional beauty,” Franz, Kundera’s character, admits that it sparkles “with a sudden wondrous poetry.” Yet, although intriguing, the beauty of New York frightens him...

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4. TYPE, MYTH, AND HETEROGENEITY: Pile-Built Dwellings

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pp. 138-166

In 1986, the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier, together with his partner Pierre Jeanneret, published the famous “five points” for new architecture, which have become some of the key criteria for defining modern architecture in the twentieth century. The five points are piles...

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5. OUT OF TIME: Ahistorical Architecture and Cultural Renewal

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pp. 167-178

In 1985, an exhibition of “Dong Architecture and Customs in Guizhou” was staged in Beijing by the Guizhou provincial government. In the planning stages, the curators wanted to borrow the drum from the drum tower in Zengchong village as a significant item among the exhibits, for the Zengchong drum tower is considered the oldest in the entire Dong region...

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pp. 179-182

Appraisals of the splendor of architecture deal only with spatial and dispositional conditions to the degree that what is behind the “exterior” image is neglected altogether. To discern the life of the “interior,” circumstantial social conditions need to be considered in relation to physical laws of form and space...


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pp. 183-190


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pp. 191-214


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pp. 215-219

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824861384
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824821517

Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Architecture, Dong.
  • Ethnic architecture -- China, Southwest.
  • Vernacular architecture -- China, Southwest.
  • Symbolism in architecture -- China, Southwest.
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