From Beijing to Berlin: The New ‘Thinglyness’ of Chinese Architecture Models

Investigation of three extraordinary but hitherto-forgotten architecture models (tangyang), built by the Chinese Lei Family for the Qing emperors more than a century ago and currently stored in the Ethnographic collection in Berlin, from a new ‘thingly’ perspective.

Together with a team from Tsinghua University School of Architecture (Beijing), scientists from the Ethnological Museum and the Technical University of Berlin will study three architectural models (tangyang) of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. These are scale models of mausoleums from the late imperial period, including the model of the burial mound of the legendary Emperor Guangxu (r.1875-1908) (I D 25383 1-61).

So far too little research has been done on these intricately painted models, which are skillfully and with the highest precision made of different types of paper, as well as wood. The models can be disassembled, in up to 65 handmade individual parts that fit together perfectly. Each of them is marked with an indication of its function and position in the model, as well as information about the planned execution of the design they represent. The models were shown to emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) interested in architecture for their inspection, and were then used by officials of the building authorities as models for building implementation. There are only a few models left in the world that are in a similar complete condition as the Berlin models.

The project is based on a new research approach by the Tsinghua team, which builds on several years of investigation of a similar, university-owned model (the Mausoleum of the Empress Dowager Cixi) through UV, X-ray and X-ray fluorescence tests, optical and polarized light microscopy, and energy dispersive X-ray and Raman spectroscopy. To strengthen the underlying novel hypothesis - materials science as the key to understanding Sino-German cultural heritage objects - the Chinese and German experts will conduct a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and cross-cultural investigation to address (old) familiar problems of architectural design, the relationship between original and replica, model making, and ownership history through a new focus on the materiality of objects and the historical materials (papers, adhesives, pigments) and manufacturing techniques that produce them.

In addition to independent research, the teams will engage in intensive exchange during planned annual one-month research visits to Germany and three 7- or 14-day workshops in Beijing and Berlin.

Research under this project is of great importance because it will enable a more comprehensive analysis and interpretation of culture-specific design and model-making practices through scholarly examination and comparison of Chinese practices with the (equally) long-standing traditions in Europe that developed in Renaissance Italy and flourished in Germany since the Middle Ages (cathedral building). This will ensure the deserved recognition of physical models as primary mediators of tangible and intangible (Chinese) cultural heritage and underpin the centrality of the China-Germany cultural dialogue.

As a long-term goal, the applicants will develop conceptual strategies for future transnational conservation science projects of architecture-related objects in German and Chinese museum/university collections.


Project management: Dr Alexandra Harrer (Tsinghua University, School of Architecture in Beijing), Henriette Lavaulx-Vrécourt (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Project coordinator: Dr. Alexandra Harrer
Project collaborators: Prof. Dr. Stefan Simon and staff of the Rathgen Research Laboratory Berlin, Dr. Hermann Schlimme, Kim Ho (TU Berlin), Prof. Liu Chang Prof. Wang Qingchun, Wen Wen (Tsinghua University, School of Architecture in Beijing), Dr. Klaas Ruitenbeek
Project executing organisation: Sino-German Centre for Science Promotion
Project sponsor: National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)
Duration: January 2021 to December 2023