An Atlas of the Chinese

Middle Ground 3-Storey House

Hong Kong 2020

The Beauty of Everyday Buildings


“What I would like to do, if it were at all possible, would be to visit abandoned houses in the countryside, salvage their dust-covered tea bowls, and prepare a fresh serving of tea. Doing that, I could return to the roots of tea and commune with the earliest tea masters to my heart's content.”


Inspired by Soetsu Yanagi’s book “The Beauty of Everyday Things” (1933) this elective investigates how normal buildings are built, the default buildings no one talks about but we all use.  In the footsteps of Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal book “Architecture without Architects” (1965) we will compile an atlas of China’s Middle Ground, that amalgamated territory that exists between rural villages and urban centres.  Students will compile a book, a taxonomy of 3 story house typologies, following a material and tectonic analysis that draws upon Kenneth Frampton’s book “Studies of Tectonic Culture” (1995).


“The house is the begging of Architecture; the history of architecture is the history of houses where we live”

Eduardo Soto De Moura


House and Home, what is the difference?


In architecture school we are obsessed by the concept of “original”, to the expense of the ordinary.  The typical and the usual are often marginalized as unavoidable flotsam.  This elective is interested in the normal and common, buildings that no one sees yet exist some will argue allow the whole country (China) to work. The generic three storey Chinese house is an architectural typology with huge potential: flexible, economic, pragmatic and easy to build.  Paradoxically it is also a typology that does not need an architect, usually it is self-built or assembled with the help of local builders.


China’s “Middle Ground” is a infinite territory that interests few (architects) and seems to relentlessly develops via a lethal combination of market forces and design osmosis. We have an opportunity to propose and establish a new integrated vision. 


Giancarlo De Carlo stated “Architecture is too important to be left to Architects” (De Carlo, Architecture's Public, 2005, p. 13) advocating for a considered form of architecture, with the community actively participating in the transformation of their environment.  His ideas are rooted in creating a sustainable sense of place, where new infrastructural realities feedback into new structural realities.  Via collective participation, architecture can contribute to society’s transformation, but in order to be effective it has to follow a scientific methodology with a plurality of objectives whose outcome cannot be always seen and measured.  In many ways his philosophy was the antithesis of the contemporary architectural “Star Practice” that plans “for” the users rather than planning “with” the users.


In this course there is no design, we simply observe and decipher, understand how the house works. Through forensic observations we construct the narrative of the house, how it was built, how people live in it, what kind of society need use it.


Course Instructor

Prof. Peter W. Ferretto