Theses Master's

Rethinking the Vernacular in China: Understanding the Dynamics of Social Transformation and the Evolution of Rural Architecture

Liao, Cheng

The physical forms of vernacular architecture and spatial use reflect the social systems and ideologies of the rural environment. This thesis seeks to rethink the preservation of vernacular architecture by analyzing the physical manifestations of three eras and their respective architectural layers, characterized by social identities in the history of China. In this sense, this thesis does not take a necessarily follow past practices of studying vernacular architecture, which prioritize formal, structural, and material analyses. It instead recognizes a paradigmatic shift in heritage theory and policy that seeks to understand and valorize the relationships between populations and their environment.

From ancient China to the PRC (before 1949), rural society was based on the autonomous “village community.” Vernacular architecture styles gradually evolved after generations had inhabited the same territory. The physical forms interpret the social connections among individuals in the village community. From 1958 to 1978, the national government implemented policies of collectivism in the country. Land ownership was transformed from private to collective. The original “village community” became a part of a national institution – the “commune.” Communal life style and production have introduced new architectural and spatial typologies in the rural villages. From 1978 to the present, members of society have been individualized by the market. On the other hand, individuals still rely on the national government. Rural vernacular architecture has been transformed both autonomously by the local residents and systematically by top-down governmental control.

In many cases, the physical fabrics and social systems of the different time periods coexist in the village. The hybrid status of “village community,” “commune” and “individualization” evolves the notions of vernacular architecture and community, and challenges existing preservation approaches. The significance of transforming social constraints and the dialectics between modernization and tradition compel rethinking of the vernacular, and may suggest new methodologies for researching and preserving these communities and their architecture.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for LiaoCheng_GSAPPHP_2017_Thesis.pdf LiaoCheng_GSAPPHP_2017_Thesis.pdf application/pdf 35.6 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Avrami, Erica C.
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
July 5, 2017