control, synthesis, hierarchy
In the 1740s, William Chambers was on three trading voyages to China. On these trading voyages he was the first European to study Chinese architecture systematically. All his scientific research Chambers combines in the book “Designs of Chinese buildings”.
In the United Kingdom, Chambers became part in the high-status circles due to his successful researches, which is also visible in the list of subscribers who paid for publishing the book.
The book is separated into temples, towers, houses, columns, machines and dresses and gardens. In these chapters he often compares the Chinese architecture with European architecture and even with the ancient ideas of architecture. To make these comparisons as complete as possible, Chambers gives a lot of detailed information. He describes the measurements, materiality, usage, and social value of different building types in the empire of the middle. In his text, Chambers tries to treat these comparisons with a scientific, neutral view.
In Cambers book, the houses of the ordinary people also play a key rule. On pages 7 and 8 Chambers makes the point that Chinese architecture was rigorously controlled according to social level. Having a house anything even faintly beyond the expected design was socially divisive and could be politically dangerous. In fact, the emperor was the only person in the whole empire that was allowed to commission any adventurous or unexpected designs.
“The houses of the Chinese are all distributed in one and the same manner. It would be impertinent, and even dangerous to be singular in this respect. Le Comte mentions a Mandarin, who, having built a house more lofty and flately than the rest, was accused before Emperour, and fearing the consequence, pulled it down while the affair was under consideration.”
William Chambers, Design of Chinese buildings, P. 7/8
Another very important part of the book are the gardens. According to William Chambers, Chinese gardens represent a perfect synthesis between nature and art. He also uses these often rather small gardens to describe the Chinese Taste. They manage to combine the most pleasing objects from nature in a way that these pleasing things form an elegant whole.
In order to support his text, he drew many layouts, sections, views and details of the mentioned buildings. He also produced some precise drawings of the traditional machines and the common furniture in China. He even wrote down some signs of the Chinese language and made some detailed pictures of the inhabitants.
William Chambers detailed observations and drawings created an integrated and intelligent view on the Chinese architecture in the United Kingdom. In the years following Chambers’s death in 1796 “Designs of Chinese buildings” became an authoritative guide for Chinese decoration in the United Kingdom, and the impact of the book’s copies was also significant in Germany and France even through the second half of the eighteenth century.