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5th year Thesis for Hutong Architecture School Project.


  • THE TRANSLUCENT CRAFTThe combination of paper and wax

  • Acknowledgements

    I should like to thank Eva MacNamra, my thesis tutor, for her supervision and steady advices on producing this thesis. Dr. Peg Rawes and Mark Smout, the course coordinators, Izaskun Chinchilla and Carlos Jimenez, my design unit tutors, for their helpful advices. Mohit Mamudi and my mum for their support and proof reading.

  • THE TRANSLUCENT CRAFTThe combination of paper and wax

    Lulu Le Li


    April 2013



    2.0 CONTEXT 2.1 History of Hutong and courtyard houses and their decline in modern era 2.2 Hutong architecture (courtyard houses) 2.3 The decline of traditional craftsmanship 2.4 Modern technologies and reinterpretation of traditional materials


    4.0 THE RETURN OF PAPER - Role of paper in Chinese culture and architecture 4.1 The historical use of paper in Chinese culture and architecture 4.2 The translucent threshold in Chinese philosophy 4.3 The application of paper in architecture

    5.0 INTRODUCTION TO WAX - A combination of paper and wax

    6.0 PROTOTYPE PAPER-WAX TILES 6.1 Paper wax tile technical requirements and ideal properties 6.2 Site climate condition 6.3 The choice of wax 6.4 Paper-wax tile early samples 6.5 Selected paper wax tiles 6.6 Construction of test tiles 6.7 Simulation and evaluation Test 1: Structural performance Test 2: Thermal performance Test 3: Light transmission performance Test 4: Melting performance 6.8 Technical summary and analysis





  • 8China is experiencing an exponential growth and modernization. High technology and digital means are often incorpo-rated in the new urban Chinas construction boom. The result very often has been technification of urban environment with large scale architectural developments which have erased local cultural richness, turning cities into standardised modern mega-city. The rapid transformation of major cities like Beijing means the traditional vernacular building fabric such as Hutong (narrow lanes lined with traditional courtyard houses) has been either demolished for redevelopment or coexists uneasily alongside new generic steel and glass towers in a seemingly chaotic agglomeration.

    A possible reaction to this could be a romantic crusade to rebuild the past. The aim of this study, on the contrary, is to find new links between cosy cultural traditions and contemporary technical capacities; looking for a practical hybrid of past and present for the future. More specifically, this essay proposes that the beauty and delicacy of traditional paper craft, Chinese lattice art and wax could be reinvented and developed with the help of contemporary digital fabrication, to create temporary architectural elements in harmony with culture and climatic condition. This could then be used to regenerate the traditional architecture albeit on a smaller scale and less permanent - to counter-balance the permanent modern architectures currently void of any cultural awareness.


    1. To offer background study of the Chinese cultural traditions in relation to architecture, the issue of modern architecture and the potentials of contemporary digital fabrication.2. To initiate a technical study in reintroduction of paper as architecture material and test how paper can be used together with wax to create temporary architectural elements fit for the culture and weather, through a combination of craftsman-ship and contemporary fabrication.


    The first part of this paper reviews the general cultural traditions of Hutong architecture in relation to the concepts of craftsmanship, nature connections and boundary conditions. Secondly, examples of brutal modern architecture will be used to critique the current building environment in Beijing, which is not respecting the culture and context but is primarily visually driven, striving for challenging structures and in-novative appearances. Thirdly, some related modern technologies will be briefly introduced in relation to digital fabrication and how they could be used to design cosy digital architectures that have cultural awareness.

    I will then study the role of paper craft in Chinese culture and architecture in relation to the idea of temporary and trans-lucent threshold, followed by an outline of a project for which the temporary and cultural based architecture and translu-cent threshold are being studied. In general, it is in relation to a disbursed architecture school design as an insertion to the existing Hutong fabric. The school architecture has a 7-year life cycle and will be used as an overlaid organic system to evolve together with the otherwise dying Hutong culture. Therefore, the tension between the students and locals, the school program and local activities, school developments and Hutong modernization will be addressed through the de-sign of the threshold and boundary conditions.

  • 9In the second section, I will first introduce wax as a potential material to work with paper in order to develop and regener-ate the paper craft to form temporary walls with tiles or screen units. I will give a basic scientific study of the production, processing, properties and applications of different waxes, followed by the properties necessary in a wax for it to be used as a structure material, and a series of sample tests to find the appropriate wax and a range of paper insertions as reinforcement and light filter.

    I will then attempt, through a series of experiments, to evaluate:

    Paper-wax tile:1. The structural support, use of paper and thickness of wax to withstand the strong wind-loads in Beijing, China2. The thermal performance of paper-wax tile, its potential as a thermal storage and the thickness necessary to match

    the U-value of a wall or single glazed window as defined by the Building Regulation in China3. The light transmittance properties and the quality of shadows for different types of paper-wax tiles4. The melting point and melting effect of the paper-wax tiles, how that affect the structural stability and potential for


    The results of the experiments will be analysed in comparison to the hypothesis, leading to the ideal paper-wax tile, with the right thickness of wax and paper insertions.

    The thesis will conclude with a discussion of the results in relation to the design of paper-wax architecture with advantage and disadvantages, possible other applications and improvements, and a re-evaluation of the paper-wax architecture design as a new link between Chinese cultural traditions and contemporary technical capacities.

  • 2.0 CONTEXT

  • 11

    2.1 History of Hutong and courtyard houses and their decline in modern era

    Historical Street - Hutong - Courtyard house system and hierarchy diagram

    Fig. 1: The city plan

    Fig. 2: The district plan

    Fig. 3: The courtyard house plan

    Fig. 4: A birds-eye view of the Hutong and courtyard houses

    With the 1949 communist revolution, the social and cultural values of China were cataclysmically shaken and altered to such an extent that even the long-practiced building methods (Hutong and courtyard houses) that had defined urban living in Beijing were viewed as outdated and no longer rel-evant. Chinese communists sought to create a fresh, new socialist utopia, and any cultural icon (including Hutong and courtyard houses) of Chinas past became suspect. In a race to build up Chinas industrial capacity, many Siheyuans (courtyard houses) were destroyed.

    Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been implementing a housing relocation plan called the Weigai system (Old and Dilapidated Housing Redevelopment). The goal is to transform old Hutongs into new high-density residential neighbourhoods with modern utilities, but it has led to a mass destruction of Beijings cultural assets.

    Many Siheyuans have also been demolished for the citys concentric circled ring-road highway system, developed in the 1990s. The 2008 Olympics Games put even more pressure on these unique aspects of Chinas cultural heritage, and Beijing further accelerated the destruction of courtyard houses to make way for sports venues and infrastructure for the games. Between 1990 and 1998, 45.2 million square feet of Siheyuans were demolished, to raise the total destruction since 1950s to 150.7 million square feet.

  • 12

    Here is an map of central Bejing with historical areas (highlighted in red) still in place by 2003.

    Fig. 5: Map of historical areas by 2003

  • 13

    Examples of some of the modern buildings in central Beijing (2012).

    Fig. 8: Television cultural center

    Fig. 6: Beijing city skyline

    Fig. 7: Beijing national theatre

    Fig. 9: CCTV Headquarters

  • 14

    2.2 Hutong architecture (courtyard houses)

    Confucianism, which respects individualism and emphasizes self-discipline, had tremendous influences on Siheyuan design. Siheyuan was enclosed by thick brick walls with usually only one main entrance located near the southeast cor-ner of the building. Isolation from the outside environment was supposed to reinforce the sense of individualism and self-consciousness. It created a tranquil environment and a place for meditation. Inside, the house was divided into different buildings. This symbolic division idealized individualism, suggesting a greater social structure around these discrete elements. It was also meant to provide privacy and more harmonized relationships for the residents.

    The ancient Chinese believed that humanity should exist in harmony with nature. In Siheyuan houses, the connection with nature