An Introduction to Chinoiserie: When European Monarchs Tried to Build Chinese Palaces, Houses & Pavilions

Today it would be viewed as cultural appropriation writ large, but when Louis XIV ordered the construction of a 5-building pleasure pavilion inspired by the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing (a 7th Wonder of the World few French citizens had viewed in person) as an escape from Versailles, and an exotic love nest in which to romp with the Marquise de Montespan, he ignited a craze that spread throughout the West.

Chinoiserie was an aristocratic European fantasy of luxurious Eastern design, what Dung Ngo, founder of AUGUST: A Journal of Travel + Design, describes as “a Western thing that has nothing to do with actual Asian culture:”

Chinoiserie is a little bit like chop suey. It was wholesale invented in the West, based on certain perceptions of Asian culture at the time. It’s very watered down.

And also way over the top, to judge by the rapturous descriptions of the interiors and gardens of Louis XIV’s Trianon de Porcelaine, which stood for less than 20 years.

Image by Hervé Gregoire, via Wikimedia Commons

The blue-and-white Delft tiles meant to mimic Chinese porcelain swiftly fell into disrepair and Madame de Montespan’s successor, her children’s former governess, the Marquise de Maintenon, urged Louis to tear the place down because it was “too cold.”

Her lover did as requested, but elsewhere, the West’s imagination had been captured in a big way.

The burgeoning tea trade between China and the West provided access to Chinese porcelain, textiles, furnishings, and lacquerware, inspiring Western imitations that blur the boundaries between Chinoiserie and Rococo styles

This blend is in evidence in Frederick the Great’s Chinese House in the gardens of Sanssouci (below).

Image by Johann H. Addicks, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Samuel Wittwer, Director of Palaces and Collections at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, describes how the gilded figure atop the roof “is a mixture of the Greek God Hermes and the Chinese philosopher Confucius:”

His European face is more than just a symbol of intellectual union between Asia and Europe…The figure on the roof has an umbrella, an Asian symbol of social dignity, which he holds in an eastern direction. So the famous ex oriente lux, the good and wise Confucian light from the far east, is blocked by the umbrella. Further down, we notice that the foundations of the building seem to be made of feathers and the Chinese heads over the windows, resting on cushions like trophies, turn into a monkey band in the interior. The frescoes in the cupola mainly depict monkeys and parrots. As we know, these particular animals are great imitators without understanding.

Frederick’s enthusiasm for chinoiserie led him to engage architect Carl von Gontard to follow up the Chinese House with a pagoda-shaped structure he named the Dragon House (below) after the sixteen creatures adorning its roof.

Image by Rigorius, via Wikimedia Commons

Dragons also decorate the roof of the Great Pagoda in London’s Kew Gardens, though the gilded wooden originals either succumbed to the elements or were sold off to settle George IV’s gambling debts in the late 18th century.

Image by MX Granger, via Wikimedia Commons

There are even more dragons to be found on the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm, Sweden, an architectural confection constructed by King Adolf Fredrik as a birthday surprise for his queen, Louisa. The queen was met by the entire court, cosplaying in Chinese (or more likely, Chinese-inspired) garments.

Not to be outdone, Russia’s Catherine the Great resolved to “capture by caprice” by building a Chinese Village outside of St. Petersburg.

Image by Макс Вальтер, via Wikimedia Commons

Architect Charles Cameron drew up plans for a series of pavilions surrounding a never-realized octagonal-domed observatory. Instead, eight fewer pavilions than Cameron originally envisioned surround a pagoda based on one in Kew Gardens.

Having survived the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era, the Chinese Village is once again a fantasy plaything for the wealthy. A St. Petersburg real estate developer modernized one of the pavilions to serve as a two-bedroom “weekend cottage.”

Given that no record of the original interiors exists, designer Kirill Istomin wasn’t hamstrung by a mandate to stick close to history, but he and his client still went with “numerous chinoiserie touches” as per a feature in Elle Decor:

Panels of antique wallpapers were framed in gilded bamboo for the master bedroom, and vintage Chinese lanterns, purchased in Paris, hang in the dining and living rooms. The star pieces, however, are a set of 18th-century porcelain teapots, which came from the estate of the late New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor.

Explore cultural critic Aileen Kwun and the Asian American Pacific Islander Design Alliance’s perspective on the still popular design trend of chinoiserie here.

h/t Allie C!

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Big Ben Works: A Detailed Look Inside London’s Beloved Victorian Clock Tower

If asked to name the best-known tower in London, one could, perhaps, make a fair case for the likes of the Shard or the Gherkin. But whatever their current prominence on the skyline, those works of twenty-first-century starchitecture have yet to develop much value as symbols of the city. If sheer age were the deciding factor, then the Tower of London, the oldest intact building in the capital, would take the top spot, but for how many people outside England does its name call a clear image to mind? No, to find London’s most beloved vertical icon, we must look to the Victorian era, the only historical period that could have given rise to Big Ben.

We must first clarify that Big Ben is not a tower. The building you’re thinking of has been called the Elizabeth Tower since Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, but before that its name was the Clock Tower. That was apt enough, since tower’s defining feature has always been the clock at the top — or rather, the four clocks at the top, one for each face.

You can see how they work in the animated video from Youtuber Jared Owen above, which provides a detailed visual and verbal explanation of both the structure’s context and its content, including a tour of the mechanisms that have kept it running nearly without interruption for more than a century and a half.

Only by looking into the tower’s belfry can you see Big Ben, which, as Owens says, is actually the name of the largest of its bells. Its announcement of each hour on the hour — as well as the ringing of the other, smaller bells — is activated by a system of gear trains ultimately driven by gravity, harnessed by the swinging of a large pendulum (to which occasional speed adjustments have always been made with the reliable method of placing pennies on top of it). Owens doesn’t clarify whether or not this is the same pendulum Roger Miller sang about back in the sixties, but at least now we know that, technically speaking, we should interpret the following lyrics as not “the tower, Big Ben” but “the tower; Big Ben.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Gas Station in Minnesota (1958)

In the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota stands a piece of urban utopia. It takes the surprising form of a gas station, albeit one designed by no less a visionary of American architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright. He originally conceived it as an element of Broadacre City, a form of mechanized rural settlement intended as a Jeffersonian democracy-inspired rebuke against what Wright saw as the evils of the overgrown twentieth century city, first publicly presented in his 1932 book The Disappearing City. “That’s an aspirational title,” says architectural historian Richard Kronick in the Twin Cities PBS video above. “He thought that cities should go away.”

Cities didn’t go away, and Broadacre City remained speculative, though Wright did pursue every opportunity he could identify to bring it closer to reality. “In 1952, Ray and Emma Lindholm commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build them a home on the south side of Cloquet,” writes photographer Susan Tregoning.

When Wright “discovered that Mr. Lindholm was in the petroleum business, he mentioned that he was quite interested in gas station design.” When Lindholm decided to rebuild a Phillips 66 station a few years later, he accepted Wright’s design proposal, calling it “an experiment to see if a little beauty couldn’t be incorporated in something as commonplace as a service station” — though Wright himself, characteristically, wasn’t thinking in quite such humble terms.

Wright’s R. W. Lindholm Service Station incorporates a cantilevered upper-level “customer lounge,” and the idea, as Kronick puts it, “was that customers would sit up here and while their time away waiting for their cars to be repaired,” and no doubt “discuss the issues of the day.” In Wright’s mind, “this little room is where the details of democracy would be worked out.” As with Southdale Center, Victor Gruen’s pioneering shopping mall that had opened two years earlier in Minneapolis, two hours south of Cloquet, the community aspect of the design never came to fruition: though its windows offer a distinctively American (or to use Wright’s language, Usonian) vista, the customer lounge has a bare, disused look in the pictures visitors take today.

Image by Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many such visitors, who arrive from not just all around the country but all around the world. But when it was last sold in 2018, the buyer it found was relatively local: Minnesota-born Andrew Volna, owner of such Minneapolis operations as vinyl-record manufacturer Noiseland Industries and the once-abandoned, now-renovated Hollywood Theater. “Wright saw the station as a cultural center, somewhere to meet a friend, get your car fixed, and have a cup of coffee while you waited,” writes Tregoning, though he never did make it back out to the finished building before he died in 1959. These sixty-odd years later, perhaps Volna will be the one to turn this unlikely architectural hot spot into an even less likely social one as well.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why the Leaning Tower of Pisa Still Hasn’t Fallen Over, Even After 650 Years

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has stood, in its distinctive fashion, for six and a half centuries now. But it hasn’t always leaned at the same angle: to get the most dramatic view, the best time to go see it was the early nineteen-nineties, when its tilt had reached a full 5.5 degrees. Granted, at that point — when by some reckonings, the tower should no longer have been standing at all — it was closed to the public, presumably due to fears that the sheer weight of tourism would push it over the tipping point. The 1989 collapse of Pavia’s eleventh-century Civic Tower also had something to do with it: couldn’t something be done to spare Pisa’s world-famous landmark from a similar fate?

Attempts to shore up the Leaning Tower up to that point had a checkered history, to put it mildly. Built on soft soil, it started to lean in back in the twelfth century, before its construction was even complete. The process of that construction, in the event, took nearly 200 years to complete; during one decades-long pause during a particularly embattled period for the Republic of Pisa, the tower actually settled enough to prevent its later collapse, though it remained aslant. In the late thirteenth century, the best solution available for this condition was simply to build the rest of its floors in a curved shape in compensation.

For centuries after, the sight of the Leaning Tower tempted generations of structural engineers to straighten it out. It even tempted non-engineers like Benito Mussolini, who in 1934 ordered large amounts of concrete pumped into its foundation. Like most such operations, it only made the tower lean more; only in the second half of the twentieth century did the technology come along to analyze its foundations and the soil in which they were embedded clearly enough to devise an effective solution. This ended up involving the removal of soil with a slanted drill from under the tower’s higher end, which eventually brought it back to lean about four degrees, as it did nearly two centuries ago. After subsequent stabilization work, it was guaranteed to remain upright for at least another two centuries.

You can learn more about the construction and re-engineering of the Leaning Tower in the videos above from TED-Ed and Discovery UK. But you may still ask, why was it never brought down by an earthquake? “It turns out that the squishy soil at the structure’s base that caused its fetching infirmity – the tower was tilting by the time its second story was built in 1178 – contains the secret to its structural resilience,” writes Joe Quirke at Global Construction Review. This means that “the softness of the foundation soil cushions the tower from vibrations in such a way that the tower does not resonate with earthquake ground motion.” The very element that caused the tower to lean kept it from falling over, an irony to match the fact that such a seemingly misbegotten building project has become one of Italy’s proudest tourist attractions.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The 5 Innovative Bridges That Make New York City, New York City

The Brooklyn Bridge ignites the passions of tourists and locals alike.

For every 10,000 visitors who pause in its bike lanes to snap selfies, there’s an alum of nearby PS 261 who celebrated its birthday with a song that mentions the fates of its engineers John and Washington Roebling to the tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.

(A sample chorus: Caisson’s disease! Caissons disease! Caisson’s disease is really bad!)

Native son Adam Suerte of Brooklyn Tattoo estimates that he inks its likeness on a half dozen customers per month. (A temporary option is available for those with commitment issues…)

In 1886, a hustler named Steve Brodie claimed to have survived a jump off of it, a tale propagated by Bugs Bunny.

We watch movies at its feet and draw attention to causes by marching across it.

It continues to mesmerize artists, poets, filmmakers and photographers.

But, as architect Michael Wyetzner makes clear in his most recent video for Architectural Digest, it’s not the only bridge in New York City.

Also, despite what you may have heard, it’s not for sale.

Understandably, the hybrid cable-stayed/suspension superstar connecting Brooklyn to lower Manhattan takes the lead in Wyetzner’s coverage of five bridges that have had an enormous impact on the development of a city whose five boroughs were once traversable solely by ferry.

The other notable players:

The Hell Gate Bridge – a feat of WWI-era railroad engineering connecting Queens to Randall’s and Wards Island over a particularly perilous stretch of waterway, it was once the longest steel arch bridge in the world.

In his 1921 book New York: The Great Metropolis, painter Peter Marcus noted that “if laid over Manhattan it would reach from Wanamaker’s store at Eighth Street, to One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street.”

Macomb’s Dam Bridge, a low lying swing bridge whose center portion pivots to accommodate boat traffic on the Harlem River. When construction began in late 1890, the New York Times gushed that it would be a “street built in mid-air” between the Bronx and Washington Heights in upper Manhattan:

It is hardly enough to say of it that it will be the greatest piece of engineering of the kind in the world. Nothing like it has ever been attempted.

The High Bridge – Originally part of the Croton Aqueduct, it is technically the oldest surviving bridge in the city, as well as a community-led preservation campaign success story. Having languished in the latter part of the 20th century, it is now a beautiful pedestrian bridge whose killer views can be enjoyed without the hassle of Brooklyn Bridge-sized crowds.

The George Washington Bridge – a major money maker for the Port Authority, it’s not only the world’s busiest bridge, it puts a lot of the bridge in “bridge and tunnel crowd” by connecting Manhattan to New Jersey.

Architecture buffs can geek out on the Concrete Industry Board Award-winning bus station and storied Little Red Lighthouse in its shadow.

The GWB’s most ardent fan has got to be artist Faith Ringgold, who immortalized it in her Tar Beach story quilt and related children’s book:

 I never want to be more than three minutes from the George. I could always see it as I grew up.  That bridge has been in my life for as long as I can remember.  As a kid, I could walk across it anytime I wanted.  I love to see it sparkling at night.  I moved to New Jersey, and I’m still next to it.

Wyetzner, whose architectural round up shoehorns in a lot of interesting information about public health, economics, transportation, labor practice and New York City history, is actively courting viewers to suggest bridges for a sequel.

We’ll throw our weight behind the Manhattan, the Williamsburg, the Queensboro, the Verrazzano, and the admittedly dark horse 103rd Street Footbridge.


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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design: The 19th Century Book That Introduced Western Audiences to Japanese Art (1880)

In 1880, architect Thomas W. Cutler endeavored to introduce his fellow Brits to Japanese art and design, a subject that remained novel for many Westerners of the time, given how recently the Tokugawa shogunate had “kept themselves aloof from all foreign intercourse, and their country jealously closed against strangers.”

Having written positively of China’s influence on Japanese artists, Cutler hoped that access to Western art would not prove a corrupting factor:

The fear that a bastard art of a very debased kind may arise in Japan, is not without foundation…The European artist, who will study the decorative art of Japan carefully and reverently, will not be in any haste to disturb, still less to uproot, the thought and feeling from which it has sprung; it is perhaps the ripest and richest fruit of a tree cultivated for many ages with the utmost solicitude and skill, under conditions of society peculiarly favorable to its growth.

Having never visited Japan himself, Cutler relied on previously published works, as well as numerous friends who were able to furnish him with “reliable information upon many subjects,” given their “long residence in the country.”

Accordingly, expect a bit of bias in A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design (1880).

That said, Cutler emerges as a robust admirer of Japan’s painting, lacquerware, ceramics, calligraphy, textiles, metalwork, enamelwork and netsuke carvings, the latter of which are “are often marvelous in their humor, detail, and even dignity.”

Only Japan’s wooden architecture, which he confidently pooh poohed as little more than “artistic carpentry, decoration, and gardening”, cleverly designed to withstand earthquakes, get shown less respect.

Cutler’s renderings of Japanese design motifs, undertaken in his free time, are the lasting legacy of his book, particularly for those on the prowl for copyright-free graphics.


Cutler observed that the “most characteristic” element of Japanese decoration was its close ties to the natural world, adding that unlike Western designers, a Japanese artist “would throw his design a little out of the center, and cleverly balance the composition by a butterfly, a leaf, or even a spot of color.”

The below plant studies are drawn from the work  of the great ukiyo-e master Hokusai, a “man of the people” who ushered in a period of “vitality and freshness” in Japanese art.

A sampler of curved lines made with single brush strokes can be used to create clouds or the intricate scrollwork that inspired Western artists and designers of the Aesthetic Movement.

While Cutler might not have thought much of Japanese architecture, it’s worth noting that his book shows up in the footnotes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Traditional Japanese Art and Architecture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Take a peek at some Japanese-inspired wallpaper of Cutler’s own design, then explore A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design by Thomas W. Cutler here.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a 1930s Architectural Masterpiece Harnesses the Sun to Keep Warm in the Winter & Cool in the Summer

Keeping the summer sun out and the winter sun in has figured prominently among the tasks of architecture ever since antiquity. As Aeschylus said, “only primitives and barbarians lack knowledge of houses turned to face the winter sun,” and he’d never even lived through a Chicago winter. Two and a half millennia later, in the suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, the architect Paul Schweikher built a house not just turned to face the winter sun, but ingeniously and elegantly designed naturally to stay warm in the cold months and cool in the hot months. Architectural design educator Stewart Hicks explains how in the video above, an introduction to what’s now known as the Paul Schweikher House and Studio.

What will strike most visitors to the Schweikher House, which now operates as a museum, has less to do with its comfortable temperatures than with its look and feel. “The house doesn’t give all its secrets away at once,” says the site of design and furnishing company Trystcraft.

“Instead, the visitor is teased with hints that lead you under and past a carport, along a long board and batten wall around the perimeter of a lush courtyard with a magnificent tree — providing a wonderful contrast to the linearity of the structures surrounding it.” This “entry sequence” also introduces the house’s main materials: brick, most visibly, but also redwood now weathered to “a range of beautiful dark browns and grays.”

Schweikher used these materials and others to construct what Hicks calls a “direct gain passive solar system,” whose openings and overhangs are “positioned so that it lets in winter sun, while blocking the summer sun,” which beats down at a slightly different angle. “Elevated, operable openings on the other side of the building allow warm air to rise, and draw in air from outside,” in addition to other features that maintain a temperate interior climate without the use of any electrical or even mechanical apparatus. Having designed this residence for himself and his wife in 1937 put him on the vanguard of what would later be recognized as the American interpretation of mid-century modernism, as well as what’s now called “solar home” building technology. Arguably, Schweikher’s techniques are even more valuable today: the climate may change, after all, but the sun’s seasonal angles stay the same.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Ancient World Comes to Life in an Animation Featuring Istanbul’s Islamic, Ottoman, Greek & Byzantine Art

Travel for travel’s sake can be wonderful but nothing beats traveling with a purpose.

Syrian German filmmaker Waref Abu Quba was so taken with Istanbul’s timeless beauty on his first visit in 2021 that he resolved to photograph as many examples of it as possible.

Having amassed some 2,900 photos, he set about animating them using a flash cut technique, rapidly toggling between similar images to bring life and movement to fixed architectural and decorative elements.

(Warning: the resulting content could trigger seizures in viewers with epilepsy or photosensitivity.)

Takrar –  Arabic for ‘repetition’ – took two years to complete, condensing the sense of wonder Quba experienced on his travels into four astonishing minutes.

His collaboration with composer Alex Story and percussionist Robbe Kieckens brings added vitality to these ancient patterns on stone, wood, ceramic, and tile.

Among the forms Quba infuses with life are 140 unique columns from Hagia Sophia, each carved with the emperor’s monogram and their land of origin’s capital.

The domed ceilings of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques achieve a kaleidoscopic effect.

The three institutions that comprise the Istanbul Archaeological Museums proved a rich source of material, from Assyrian sculptures and mosaics from Mesopotamia, to ornaments decorating the 4th century BCE Alexander Sarcophagus, to the Hellenistic Sarcophagus of Crying Women, whose titular mourners now shimmy in a ritualistic dance.

Even doorknobs manage to captivate, while a cobalt blue Iznik charger plate from the Museum Of Turkish and Islamic Arts possesses true star quality.

Watch more of Waref Abu Quba’s films here.

via Aeon

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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