/ The Yingzao fashi project / Teaching materials / Coursework / Reaction / Papers / Who's who / Related sites /

                         / Title page / Introduction / Approach / Assignments / Findings and discussion / Conclusion / Notes & References /

The approach

Theoretical background: Why virtual models?

We use virtual models to avoid the disadvantages of physical models and to highlight the conceptual framework of traditional Chinese wood construction. We see two disadvantages with physical models. First, they are usually detail models, which emphasize subassemblies and their constituent components. This makes it difficult to communicate a comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding the functions and relations of the components. Worse, it gives the impression that traditional Chinese architecture is nothing more than an arbitrary collection of building parts with strange names. Second, physical models are difficult and time-consuming to make: a complete model can have hundreds of pieces that must be individually formed. This is a further disincentive against exploring the capacity for variation inherent in the rule-based system of traditional Chinese wood construction.

This rule-based system, however, is exactly what we wish to emphasize. It establishes a large set of sanctioned building designs by defining two small sets. One is a set of prototypical building components, like columns and beams, which are repeated individually and in groups throughout the structural frame. The other is a set of rules for assembling those components. Not only is this rule-based approach more elegant and sophisticated than simply listing each possible building, but it also demonstrates that Chinese architecture is as developed and intellectually stimulating as any other. It is to teach this rule-based system that we use virtual models.

Our source is the Yingzao fashi, or Building standards, an official building manual from the Song dynasty (960-1127), published in 1103. It has been a critical document in Chinese architecture for the simple reason that it is one of only two books on architecture surviving from the imperial era. (The other is the Qing manual Gongbu gongcheng zuofa zeli, published in 1733.) In fact, the "discovery" in 1919 and subsequent reprintings of the Yingzao fashi led directly to the establishment of the field of architectural history in China, and the manual has remained an important object of research. [Note 1]

Teaching materials

In our teaching, we have been using two types of materials: the virtual model kit and supporting materials. The virtual model kit is a set of prefabricated prototypical components, like columns and beams; in virtual modelling terms, these are primitives. Students copy the prototypical components as required; that is, they instantiate the primitives to obtain instances. They then construct models of buildings by assembling the copied components (the instances) according to the rules of assembly and composition. Virtual modelling expedites the required large-scale repetition of components, which frees students to grapple with the rules, which we believe are the most meaningful and interesting aspect of a rule-based system.

The kit presently contains thirty-eight primitives, from columns and beams to dou and gong (blocks and bracket arms). These are sufficient to make a simple three-bay building composed of 310 instances. In 1995, we implemented customized AutoLISP graphical menus and commands for inserting components and placing them into position. This eliminated much time-consuming manipulation in AutoCAD, reducing the average time for constructing a standard model from one and a half weeks to one hour.

In addition to the model kit, we have supporting materials ranging from a cardboard model of a bracket set, to readings in English and Chinese, to on-line materials, including instructions, historical examples, a glossary, and a construction animation.

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