From Mao to Market: A Study of State-owned Design Institutes in China, 1950 - 2015

Project: Research

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After the Communist Party took power in China in 1949, the country was determined to walk on thesocialist road under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). During the process of transferal to publicownership, private design companies were gradually phased out and replaced by state-owned “designinstitutes.” The blueprints for most buildings, from the capital city and coastal metropolises to countytowns, were created by the design institutes of ministries, provinces and cities. These design institutes alsofulfilled hundreds of “construction aid” projects in developing countries as part of China's diplomaticstrategy. Since 1978, China has adopted an open-door policy and has witnessed a huge amount of urbanconstruction throughout the country. In the 1990s, private design firms were permitted to return to China’smarket, although state-owned design institutes have retained a predominant position. Many of the recent,prominent mega-structures built in China were designed by foreign (star) architects. However, thedocumentation and construction of these projects were implemented by the design institutes. Over the pastsix decades, the design institutes have fundamentally transformed and redefined Chinese society andpeople’s everyday lives, translating China’s on-going modernization project to the built environment.In China, professional services (such as lawyers and accountants) have been privatized since 2001. Thisstudy hopes to demonstrate that state-owned firms once played a unique role in the construction of thesocialist state. However it is not clear whether these firms can continue to contribute to building a betterquality of life in Chinese cities. There is a large body of literature documenting modern architecture inChina, especially the achievements of the past 30 years. However, few studies have explored themechanisms and phenomenon of China’s unique system and its design institutes. The scarcity ofscholarship is often attributed to a lack of practical knowledge among conventional historical researchersand the difficulties for English-speaking scholars in understanding the Chinese governmental system.Additionally, the architects who experienced the early period of these design institutes are now either over80 or have already passed away.To address these gaps, this study will divide its inquiry into several salient topics related to the designinstitutes: (1) the establishment of design institutes in the 1950s and the phasing out of private practices; (2)the interplay of ideology and design in the 1950s and 1960s; (3) the open door policy, market economyand design institutes from the 1980s onward; (4) the place of individuals in big design firms and (5) thedesign institutes’ “economic aid” projects in developing countries, which gave Chinese architects animportant opportunity to create architectural projects and export Chinese products at a time when thecountry’s economy was still relatively weak. In reference to the title of this study, “Mao” represents theperiod from 1949 to 1977, when the country was ruled under a socialist planned economy, and “market”refers to the “open-door” period from 1978 to the present day. The research team will investigate typicaldesign institutes in seven Chinese cities to address these topics. The PI has a great deal of experienceresearching architecture in Greater China and has produced several books and more than a hundred bookchapters and articles on the subject. In witnessing and describing various phenomena, the PI strongly feelsthat only by digging into the practical system behind the phenomena can a more comprehensive historicalpicture of Chinese architecture be presented.Focusing on a rarely explored yet vitally important aspect of architectural production, this study willendeavor to systematically investigate the emergence, development and transformation of state-owneddesign institutes in the Chinese political and cultural context. Given that China’s state-owned designinstitutes have played a crucial role in implementing the state’s agenda both in constructing architectureand cities as part of the socialist program and in providing architectural aid to developing countries, thisstudy will demonstrate the value of the large, state-owned firm. The outcomes of this study will make animportant contribution both to the history of architecture in China and the practice of policy making in thecurrent system.


Project number9042287
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1628/10/19

    Research areas

  • Chinese architecture,design institute,practice and history,architectural creation,