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Looking around, I see most high-rise residential buildings are slabs with multiple cores having either one or two double-sided sided apartments per side. In this first image, the end wall windows of the new build in the distance are most likely bathroom and kitchen windows.

This means that in order to illuminate and ventilate them, a deep indentation isn’t necessary as with the inner, non-end apartments in these two buildings for example.

Structure continues across those deep indentations that have no floors since their overriding purpose is to encourage updraft and not to provide balcony space. If the structure isn’t continued across then all you get is an interesting shadow gap even though that’s not the point.

People see value in different things. In other countries and other cultures, the construction industry builds what the construction industry wants to build and in the way it wants to build it. A preference for an apartment with good cross ventilation may be a cultural and/or pragmatic choice or it could be instinctive feng shui. For that matter, feng shui may just be millennia of vernacular intelligence embodied. Either way, it results in bright and airy spaces that function with a minimum of energy input.

Residential point blocks exist but the default orientation in what little I’ve seen of China so far is for residential slab buildings to be oriented east-west. Curiously, the living rooms aren’t necessarily the rooms facing south although in the case of this new-build complex they are.

The south side will have a balcony with a fitted line for laundry drying and airing quilts but it doesn’t matter if this balcony opens off of a kitchen, bedroom or living room. In passing, allowing clothes to dry naturally means less energy used. The laundry drying balcony may or may not be the balcony with the washing machine, and whether this is off a kitchen, bedroom or living room is also irrelevant. It’s easy to imagine that much laundry gets done in China because most of it is seen drying on balconies. Student housing and studio apartments often present an orderly facade of balconies and equally orderly lines of clothes drying. In passing, airflow would activate this layer of wet fabric to provide a degree of passive evaporative cooling during the humid summers.

Using the additional surface area of end-of-slab apartments for kitchens and bathrooms and not for additional windows to living areas implies a that ventilation and sunlight is preferable to view. New-built apartment towers such the ones of my first example bear this out. You can see them here to the top right of this next image. I could’ve chosen other locations more extreme, but you can see how the general rule is for east-west orientation.

It’s a general rule because effort is made to make multiple slabs fit east-west on the site. Again, I’ll use the example of this complex where the closest building int this next image has only the one core because the site wasn’t long enough for another two-core slab. No problem. It’s also not 100% mirrored around that core as one side of the floor plate has been displaced northwards for a better site fit while maintaining distance. You can’t see it in this image but the leftmost portion of the building behind has a similar thing happening. Solving a problem in the simplest way possible is always good.

So far this all makes sense. Different cultures have different priorities but it’s not as if we don’t understand the importance of sunlight, natural ventilation and cross ventilation. But while we may understand and appreciate energy-saving and all that, we don’t allow them to compromise more important things like the added value a good view brings. These nearby luxury apartments suggest that an apartment with cross ventilation and a south-facing laundry drying balcony is valued more than one having a view of forested mountains across a rather grand river.

So far so simple but there are complicating factors. In China you’ll see many buildings with holes in them, like this one.

A colleague relates a conversation:
“What’s with all the holes?”
“They allow dragons coming down the mountain to pass through.”
“I see. They represent gates for dragons to pass through.”
“No, they are gates for dragons to pass through.”

These dragon gates aren’t to be confused with the rooftop dragons you see on building ridges and that are just one of nine types of rooftop beast, each of which protect the building in a different way. Rooftop dragons are associated with water and protect the building from fire because they can create rain to extinguish it. I’ve yet to find out what buildings like this one are, but I see a lot of them.

Another kind of rooftop dragon ornament is said to symbolize imperial authority but let’s not talk about symbolism so early in the year.

A few clicks and I learn that dragons must fly from the mountains to the sea each day and that blocking their path can bring misfortune. Hmm. Dragon gates are particularly common in Hong Kong where it must be impossible for a building to not be between a mountain and the sea. Mainland, they seem obligatory if your building is adjacent to a mountain – as in the case of my example above. Note also how the corners of that building have also been opened up plus there’s a rooftop hole open to the sky, providing dragons with more options. Here’s another example.

These next buildings have no holes but the uppermost floors have been roughed up in a similar way. The 19th floor is the rooftop and communal laundry drying area while the 18th floor has only two apartments instead of the four apartments of the floors beneath. We’d think of these spaces as large but detached balconies for those adjacent apartments that don’t access them directly but they’re not for their benefit. At first I thought this was some kind of design affectation but these are state government apartments and there’s little fat on them. These rooftop pergolas are simplified dragon gates that provide the residents with peace-of-mind for little structural contrivance and at the cost of only two apartments.

Looking around me, all of the buildings in my complex finish with some sort of dragon playground. Not one finishes with a parapet.

There’s something systematic happening in what at first seems like design flim-flam. Here’s another mountainside example.

Even this next apartment complex links the rooftop elevator machine rooms to make some gateways at little additional expense. You can also see corner balconies which are another way of creating a hole in a building for dragons to pass through. Chinese dragons are famously twisty.

Corner balconies are a good thing to have but that doesn’t explain the closest corner in this next image of a building closer to home. These spaces have no floors and are probably nothing more than half an indent of a layout designed to be mirrored. It’s a fortuitous accident that was allowed to happen.

You can see its mirror (and the mirror of that) on the other side of the stairwell. End-of-slab apartments on the other side of the building have corner windows that also provide less obstruction to moving dragons.

What I make of this is that if the budget doesn’t extend to the dragon gate, it’s still okay to build one on the rooftop or to cut away the corners. What then of my first example that has neither?

I’ll need to find some plans to test this hypothesis but, if all apartments are double sided then it’s possible to design the layout to have a direct path from a window on one side to a window on the other, thereby turning each apartment into a dragon gate. Whether we call it a dragon gate layout or a see-through layout makes no difference. It’s not a shotgun plan as the air/dragons pass through habitable rooms.

As luck would have it, I was walking to the supermarket when someone thrust a flyer for some new-build apartments at me – “House?” The exterior isn’t unlike my example and I expect the plan’s not that different either.

This is what can be done when there are only two apartments per core. There are two direct lines from window to window through the apartment, as well as three more more twisty. Even the elevator lobby has its own window. This apartment is unusual in also having a large second reception room. Note the washing machine on the living room balcony, and the isolable kitchen. [Now I think about it, I’ve yet to see a bathtub in China.]

A little design intelligence when planning an apartment can thus restore the benefit underlying the cultural preference that value engineering would otherwise have caused to atrophy and die. It’s a significant victory for performance over representation and gives me hope for the 2020’s – at least in China. I suspect the same thing is going on in these recently completed towers in the background of this next image.

The towers are known in English and no doubt in Chinese too, as The Relocation Towers because the residents of the village were displaced so the university campus could occupy the fortuitious location of the valley surrounded by mountains on three sides and the ocean on the fourth some 20 kilometers away to the east and south-east. University and towers thus have perfect Position and Alignment, facing due south and in the direct path of dragons moving between mountains to sea.

In passing, if you think of the dragons as real and tangible beasts then the Position and Alignment of university and Relocation Towers are perfect examples of aesthetic effect 1:UNITE but if you think of the dragons as intangible or mythical beasts then the physical unity with the mountains still holds but the movement of the imaginary beasts is now an Idea of Unite which produces the equally strong effect of 5:COMBINE.

Ever pragmatic the Chinese, windows on both sides and the resulting cross ventilation could turn all of those Relocation Towers apartments into dragon gates and this is not a bad thing for man or dragon. Having said that, there’s more than a few holes on the north and south sides of my university’s new architecture building.

I’m told it’s a custom in China that, when a building is completed, it’s left unoccupied for one month in order to allow any bad spirits to leave. This is always good.

Wenzhou-Kean University New Architecture Building



  • Nice article Graham. You know in OLIVER! when Oliver asks for “more”? That is, the question that no one has ever asked due to fear. Wondering if an architect ever posed: “How about we just slightly raise the short, end-wall parapets to demarcate an implied path so the dragons can just…swoop…right over the tops of our buildings? No loss in building area or unit count. No hardship dragon twisting. It’s a win-win.” ;P