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The Tao of Architecture

The Tao of Architecture

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The Tao of Architecture

106 pages
1 hour
Apr 4, 2017


Frank Lloyd Wright first noted the affinity between modern Western architecture and the philosophy of the ancient Chinese writer Laotzu. In this classic work, Amos Ih Tiao Chang expands on that idea, developing the parallel with the aid of architectural drawings and Chinese paintings. Now with a new foreword by David Wang, this book reveals the vitality of intangible, or negative, elements. Chang writes that these qualities make architectonic forms "come alive, become human, naturally harmonize with one another, and enable us to experience them with human sensibility." The Tao of Architecture continues to be essential reading for understanding the intersection between architecture and philosophy.

Apr 4, 2017

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  • Or, according to the degree of manifestation, we may say that the tangible aspect of a thing is positive and the intangible aspect of a thing negative. The order could be reversed.

  • On the other hand, no matter how complex a composition is, its complexity will not always clearly exist in the mind when it is experienced by us at leisure.

  • The individual is asked not to be blinded by momentary or fragmentary states of being, but to be aware of what is not seen yet destined to come.

  • The basic idea of Laotzu’s thinking is, as has been said, that once the point of tangible fulfilment is reached, the potential of growing is exhausted.

  • We will see that, as exemplified by the interdependency between male and female, every individual thing has its insufficiency, the negative and intangible content.

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The Tao of Architecture - Amos Ih Tiao Chang



Amos Ih Tiao Chang

With a new foreword by David Wang


Princeton and Oxford

Copyright © 1956 Princeton University Press

Foreword to first Princeton Classics Edition

copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,

Princeton, New Jersey

In the United Kingdom: Princeton Univeristy Press,

6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TR

All Rights Reserved

Formerly titled The Existence of Intangible Content in Architectonic Form Based upon the Practicality of Laotzu’s Philosophy

Printed in the United States of America


First Princeton Classics Edition, with a foreword by David Wang, 2017

Library of Congress Control Number: 2016960851

Princeton Classic Edition paperback ISBN: 978-0-691-17571-3

Printed on acid-free paper. ∞


10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1


The Tao¹ of Architecture was one of the first books that stirred a nascent question in me: How does philosophy relate to architecture? How indeed! That was well over thirty years ago. It is a pleasure now to write this foreword to Amos Chang’s book upon its re-release, and to revisit that question I asked long ago.

The formative years of Amos Ih Tiao Chang’s life (1916–1998) were tumultuous ones for China. Chang was born just five years after the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1911. By the time he graduated from high school in 1935, the new Chinese nation had already gone through several attempts at national governance. During his college years at Chongqing University, the Japanese bombed the city repeatedly, as it was the seat of the Nationalist government during the second Sino-Japanese War.² After graduating from college, Chang worked as an engineer in China prior to going on to pursue graduate study in architecture at Princeton University; he earned the Ph.D. in 1951. Chang then practiced as an architect in Thailand until taking his academic post in the architecture program at Kansas State University in 1967. He retired in 1987.³

This was clearly an educated man. What pertains for us is this: in what way was Chang an educated man? Prior to the twentieth century, neither engineering nor architecture were lines of professional pursuit in traditional Chinese culture. Up to 1905, and for centuries prior, young men (and it was always men) vied for good jobs and social standing by scoring well in civil service examinations based on the Confucian classics. The sea change in learning, from competence in Confucian metaphysics to mastery of the nuts and bolts of technologizing nature, is central to the question of how to define, for lack of a better term, Chinese modernity. Technologizing nature describes the harnessing of nature mechanically not only to increase human comfort, but also as the only way to define what is true. As we read The Tao of Architecture, it is helpful to keep this term in mind. What we have here is a work written by a thinker trained in disciplines of praxis originating in Europe-engineering and architecture-but processed through principles from ancient Chinese philosophy, specifically, the Daodejing. This blending of two ways-of-being permeates the pages of Chang’s book.

We can take this blending of Daoism with European characteristics as a negative, on the grounds that Chang does not stay true to a literal (whatever that means) application of Daoist principles. Or we can take this blending as a positive thing, for the following reason. At a time when critical theory consumes much of the oxygen of architectural theorizing, looking to Chinese sources to comprehend architectural concerns can be a fresh way to enrich design thinking and process. In this sense, Chang’s work sets an example. Permit me to add a personal note. Those of us design theorists who have roots in China but were trained in the West are largely a respectful—which is to say, a quiet—bunch. Maybe this is the result of a cultural disposition. But I believe that drawing on Chinese ideological sources more vocally to bring new perspectives on current architectural issues would be a significant contribution to the field—and, of course, I don’t limit this invitation to those of us who are ethnically Chinese.

To introduce Chang’s work, I first provide a brief overview of Daoism to help readers see where Chang gains entrée into the Daoist worldview. Second, I briefly review Chang’s chapters, which he does not number; nor does he provide any captions for his enigmatic line sketches that abound in the book. These ambiguities themselves in no small measure give Chang’s work a Daoist texture. But the reader would benefit from a general assessment of the major divisions. In the conclusion, following my own exhortation above, I offer brief thoughts about how Daoist ideas can inform architectural discourse moving forward at this, the beginning of a cyber revolution that may well change how we live in more fundamental ways than did the Industrial Revolution.


With one exception,⁴ Chang cites exclusively from the Daodeing, using the citations as subdivision headings throughout his book. The Daodejing itself is a short work consisting of slightly more than 5,000 Chinese characters. It is not only the outstanding text of Daoism; it is also one of the major works of world literature. Aside from the Bible, it is the most translated text in the world.⁵ Writing in the 1960s, Wing-tsit Chan noted that there were already over forty English translations.⁶ There are more today.

The provenance of the Daodejing is an enduring topic of scholarship.⁷ It emerged out of a very fertile time of philosophizing in early China called the Hundred Schools period, from the sixth century to the middle of the third century BCE. The Hundred Schools period roughly overlaps the Warring States period (476–221 BCE), and the juxtaposition of these two periods is relevant for our concerns. To wit: these centuries were times of great suffering and bloodshed as many warring factions strove for supremacy. Hence the hundred schools, or so the historiography tells us, all promoted varying solutions for ending warfare and achieving peaceful community. This is one explanation for why Chinese philosophy tends to focus on ethical concerns (What to do?) rather than on abstract-propositional ones (What is the case?). Indeed, the word dao4, meaning path or way, was a common preoccupation of these early schools. What is the dao to good government? What is the dao to a peaceful life? What is the dao to individual integrity? In further explaining this ethical focus, the twentieth-century Chinese philosopher Fung Yu-lan recounts (and modifies) a Han dynasty view that suggests these early schools at one time were all different departments

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