Transformation of Architecture and its impact on society

Yiwei Wu and Chang Gao



Architecture as a representation of power is always undergoing changes. When encounters different forces, such as new ideas, religions or regimes, architecture might be given new meanings, change its form or even act as victim in an event. In return, the changed architecture will affect the development of the society, whether it’s a positive or a negative effect. A number of historical events reveal this hypothesis, such as the prosperity of Beijing 798 Art Zone, the demolishing of Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden and the religious change of Hagia Sophia.


The prosperity of Beijing 798 Art Zone

798 Art Zone, Beijing, China, 2000, Tabata Yukihito, Huang rui, Xu yong


On one hand, social forces can change the basic function and purpose of the architecture. Such transformation in properties can bring prosperity back to the neighborhood and further affect the city’s urban development and planning. Recently, the 798 Art Zone at Dashanzi, Beijing, China became a famous presentation of modern art and young artists. Its origin traces back to the former 798 Electronic Components Factory designed by East German experts in 1950s with the support of the Soviet Union. The factory was shut down and sold for public uses during the late 80s and early 90s.

The deserted 798 Factory in 1990s.[1]
The deserted 798 Factory in 1990s.[1]
In early 2000s, the great spaces and low rents of the factory attracted artists to enthusiastically transformed the simple Bauhaus style factory into their stylish studios, galleries, bars, art centers and commercial offices. The discarded industrial plant now has workshops with new, fantastic façades and functions other than lumbersome, heavy-duty mass production. As an old factory, the large vacant space, the grey tone, and the straightforward brick walls without any decoration seem so desolate. On the contrary, the modified factory seems much more vital with those colored brick walls and added ‘transparent boxes’, which also act as the divider of the giant space. What’s more, looking through those giant glasses on the factory wall, there are art studios with various styles; steel frames and ‘glass boxes’ attached to the original boiler room revealing a typical modern architectural form; numerous distinct sculptures stand on the plaza, in hidden corners and everywhere else people might think of.

Pottery shop converted from a worker dormitory at a street corner in 798 Art District.
Pottery shop converted from a worker dormitory at a street corner in 798 Art District. [2]
With those elements, visitors could know specific function of each part of the district rather than feel perplexed in a giant vacant space. This district, not only the factory itself but also the neighborhood, changed into the famous Beijing 798 Art Zone due to the impact and construction of contemporary arts. Later, more and more artistes joined in the art zone. In 2001, Mr. Tabata Yukihito from Japan’s Tokyo Gallery set up Beijing Tokyo Art Project[1] inside Factory 798’s main area, this was the first renovated space featured with the high arched ceilings, which became the synonymous with the Art District later.

At BTAP’s 2002 opening exhibition “Beijing Afloat”, more than 1,000 people all over the world were attracted to 798 Art Zone, which marked the beginning of the popular infatuation with the area[2]. In 2002, a designer artist Huang Rui (黄锐)[3] and a hutong photographer Xu Yong (徐勇)[4] set up the 798 Space Gallery,which is still one of the most symbolic art centers of the whole district.

The high-arched workshop. One of the symbolic exhibition areas in 798 Art Zone.
The high-arched workshop. One of the symbolic exhibition areas in 798 Art Zone.[3]
The 798 Art Zone transformed from an old factory into a vibrant community due to the new thoughts such as contemporary art. In return, it brought Chinese contemporary and street art to the cutting-edge of the world’s art development.



The Demolition of Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden 

Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden, Beijing, China, 1860-1900, Lei jinyu


The Plan of Yuanmingyuan.
The Plan of Yuanmingyuan.[4]
On the other hand, the social forces applied to the architecture may not always transform the architecture in a positive and progressive direction. Instead, architecture is more frequently damaged and even total demolished. Yuanmingyuan is one of the most luxurious gardening works in the whole world and took more than 70 years’ construction to finish. However, in 1860, the Eight-nation alliance led by Britain and France invaded Beijing during Opium War II. After pillaging treasures from the imperial palace, they burnt the whole garden down to rubbles. The misfortune stroke this masterpiece for the second time in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, the eight-nation alliance invaded Beijing. This time, the Qing government had lost complete control of Yuanmingyuan. Just in a few days, the greatest work of Chinese gardening, the representation of the great national power of the Qing dynasty, was ruined as the victim of the war.

Nowadays, the garden remains the state of a ruin and opens to the public as a mournful reminder. Whereas, the ruins can also play a positive role in the society and the world, some significant incidents of destruction of architecture led to progress of people’s mind and the society. The most symbolic gardening scene in Yuanmingyuan was the ‘Dashuifa’, the ‘water magic’. This scene was symmetrical, in the middle there was the main building, ‘Haiyan Tang’, a Chinese-western style building with brick walls, white jade columns with western flowers relief, a typical Chinese wudian style roof made of colored glazing and baroque pediment. In front of the building there were grand stairs and a shell shape fountain with twelve Chinese zodiac sanding in two rows, the most magic thing is that they would spray water in certain order every two hours.

A perspective design drawing of Dashuifa by the architects of Qing dynasty.
A perspective design drawing of Dashuifa by the architects of Qing dynasty.[5]

By contrast, now the only things left in the same place are pieces of lifeless engraved columns and decorations. Although the once magnificent royal entertainment park was burnt to rubbles, the spirits of the ruins stayed with us. The broken walls and fragmented sculptures have blended into the natural context, becoming a precious green space in Beijing: the ruins have grown an aesthetic of their own. When visitors staring at it, the memories of glorious gardenings carried by the ruins are bring into life in front of their eyes. The ruins seem to shock people with its eternal silence and remind people of the shame due to their weakness from time to time, then forces them to become stronger in order to protect their country.

A photograph of Dashuifa in Yuanmingyuan relics park
A photograph of Dashuifa in Yuanmingyuan relics park.[6]
Right after the Opium War II, some ministers of the Qing government started to initiate a great movement, which was later called ‘Westernization Movement’. They expected to defeat the invasions of the western countries by learning modern technologies, which was indeed stimulated the modern industry development and later social revolution in Chinese society. Recently, there has been debate on whether Yuanmingyuan should be rebuilt on its original site. Some people believe that the rebuilt would restore the actual views of the imperial garden, therefore it’s better for present people to experience the grandeur of the imperial palace. Meanwhile, some other argues that rebuilding the garden will make future generations forget its history. Although the plans of rebuilding are still being proposed to the government, the rebuilt of YuanMingyuan remains unsettled. Whether rebuild it or not, as a victim but also the great reminder of the tragic history, Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden is more than just useless rubbles. It was demolished due to wars, but it will exist forever as a part of the most magnificent Chinese gardening work in the world and an encouraging power to stimulate people to move forward.



Religious changes of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, 1453-1935, Isidore, Anthemius
Moreover, some cases are all together different from the other two scenarios listed above. Although functions and properties of the architecture remain the same, its religious meaning changes. This transformation is always related to new regimes and religions, for the ruling classes are tend to transform the symbolic architecture into their own religion and announce their ownership of this place. For instance, the Pantheon, a former temple for all the gods of ancient Rome, was changed into a Rome catholic church since 7th century, and luckily, it survived because of its transformation. More evident, Hagia Sophia, a former Greek basilica built by Emperor Constantine to serve the Byzantium from 537 until 1453, was forced to change its religion several times.

Plan drawing of Hagia Sophia
Plan drawing of Hagia Sophia.[7]
Section view with geometry analysis of Hagia Sophia.
Section view with geometry analysis of Hagia Sophia.[8]
Between 1204 and 1261, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire[5], then it served as a mosque from 29 May 1453 until due to the invasion of Ottomans[6]. On 1 February 1935, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, secularized and opened Hagia Sophia as a museum[7]. Though Ottomans added Islamic elements and meanings into Hagia Sophia, the old Christian elements are still coexist with the new ones. For example, the main column order of Hagia Sophia as a basilica is ionic order, but after being transformed into a mosque, its columns were added lots of leaves, geometry as well as Islamic pattern engrave.

The moment which two religions meet in architecture: Photograph of the ionic style column with islamic decoration in Hagia Sophia.
The moment which two religions meet in architecture: Photograph of the ionic style column with islamic decoration in Hagia Sophia.[9]
Also, Ottomans drew new Islamic decoration on the architrave and the original Christian mural. Besides, they added four typical Islamic minarets around the Hagia Sophia to further change it into a mosque. Later, the converted architecture brought along changes to the society, because the architecture served as a propaganda of the new regime and religion more than just a church or a mosque. Like Catholic Church made religious paintings and built new churches to advertise the Catholicism, Hagia Sophia as a mosque could influence people’s religion and the object of their loyalty. Also, for ruling class, religious buildings are a place to collect people, making them in control. Thus, the change of regimes and religions changed the architectural form of Hagia Sophia such as its decorations of columns and murals, then the changed form acted as the propaganda of the new religious to help the ruling classes collecting people and making people be loyal to them.




In conclusion, the change of ideas, regimes and religions can cause the transformation of architecture, which is a representation of ownership and propaganda. Although various forces on architecture might lead to different effects, whether they are positive, negative or neutral, the influence of the architecture on the society always seems to be inspiring and promotive to society’s development.



1. Art Space Tokyo. “Between Tokyo and Beijing – An interview with Yukihito Tabata” Last modified March 11, 2009.

2. Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. “798” Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. Compiled by EdwART. 2011. Accessed on November 3, 2013.,9:1

3. Huang Rui, Chinese artist, vocal advocate for the 798 Art District.

4. Xu Yong, Chinese artist, photographer.

5. Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia). “Church Period” Accessed November 3, 2013.

6. Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia). “Mosque Period” Accessed November 3, 2013.

7.  Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia). “Museum (Present)” Accessed November 3, 2013.


[1]. The deserted 798 Factory in 1990s.

[2]. Pottery shop converted from a worker dormitory at a street corner in 798 Art District.

[3]. The high-arched workshop. One of the symbolic exhibition areas in 798 Art Zone.

[4]. The Plan of Yuanmingyuan.

[5]. A perspective design drawing of Dashuifa by the architects of Qing dynasty.

[6]. A photograph of Dashuifa in Yuanmingyuan relics park.

[7]. Plan drawing of Hagia Sophia.

[8]. Section view with geometry analysis of Hagia Sophia.

[9]. The moment which two religions meet in architecture: Photograph of the ionic style column with islamic decoration in Hagia Sophia.



Project 1 controversy link:


Topic 1 (1900-1989)


Beijing 798 Art Zone – China news, weather, business, travel & language courses. “Artists Find New Haven.” Last modified April 23, 2003.
Lindemann, Adam. “Betting on China.” The New York Observer. Last modified June 9, 2010.
Topic 2 (1750-1900)


Eight-nation alliance invasion ruined Yuanmingyuan imperial garden
Wong, Young-tsu. A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

Focus | China Heritage Quarterly. “Editorial | China Heritage Quarterly.” Accessed

October 7, 2013.

Wang, Daocheng. “People’s Daily Online — Should Yuanmingyuan be rebuilt?” People’s Daily

Online. Last modified January 21, 2005.


Topic 3 (1500-1750)


Hagia Sophia was changed from a church into a mosque


Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Hagia Sophia,” accessed October 07, 2013,

Nicol, Donald MacGillivray. The End of the Byzantine Empire, 90. London: E. Arnold, 1979.

Runciman, Steven. The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, 147. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

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