Dougong – The Ancient Chinese Building Technique That Lasts
In the age of glass and still, architects are going back into the past for inspiration, in the search for aesthetic influence; however, dougong is an exception
The building innovation named dougong consists of a series of interlocking brackets and it is more than 2,500 years old. It has helped many of China’s oldest buildings, such as Beijing’s Forbidden City and Bao’en Temple, withstand earthquakes and natural disasters.
Now, Asia’s architects are looking to bring that technique back.
The structures built during the Tang and Song dynasties had “curtain walls” that were non-load-bearing. As a consequence, the unsupported wooden beams that shouldered the weight were prone to cracking and splitting.
Designers needed to find a solution that would more evenly distribute the burden across their structures. They discovered dougong.
Dougong means “Cap (and) block”, and it is a system of wooden brackets that can support the overhanging roofs which are found in Chinese architecture. The interlocking brackets transfer weight to vertical columns, lessening the strain on the horizontal beams. This makes nails or fasteners unnecessary.
Dougong meant that even buildings made from latticework and mud could sustain the weight of a heavy temple roof. Moreover, wooden frames became much more flexible while still maintaining their structural integrity.
This flexibility came with two main benefits: it protected building against natural disaster, and gave the illusion that buildings are “floating” in their frames.
In his book, historian Klaus Zwerger traces the origins of dougong: “The Chinese building system is based on ratios and proportions,” he wrote. “It draws on thousands of years of observations, on which dimensional proportions were structurally suitable and practical, coupled with a growing understanding of which proportions were aesthetically pleasing.”
On the other hand, as time passed by, dougong started being used more for decorating, rather than as engineering.
“Decorative rather than functional components first appear in the 13th to 14th centuries,” she said in an email interview. “As bracket sets became decorative, they also became smaller in comparison to the height of pillars which interlock with them.
“As one of the most recognizable symbols of Chinese architecture, the use of dougong always references not just Chinese architecture, but China (itself).” Said Nancy Steinhardt, professor of East Asian art at the University of Pennsylvania