The historian EH Carr stated that “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present”. Architect David Chipperfield complains that the early Modernists ignored the “established history of forms” and created a “disconnection with history”.
But isn’t that the point of Modernism? After all, Corbusier was offended when his “Plan for a Contemporary City of Three Million Inhabitants” was labelled a “City of the Future” because he didn’t want to wait. Corbusier also famously thought that the past was a “dead epoch”, preferring instead, to look towards the possibilities of creating a new epoch.
So where does China’s architectural debate stand on this issue of past, present and future? One academic suggests that we must explore “the essence of Chinese tradition to make contemporary architecture more meaningful”, while another explains that Liang Sicheng the father of modern Chinese architecture “advocated a rebirth of a national architecture through adhering to the best principles of Chinese architecture in history.”
The question for this discussion is: what has history to tell us about the modern condition? Should we learn the historical rulebook, or should we make new rules. Why is the West looking to the past for answers; while China seems incapable of looking to the future without referencing traditional values?