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UIA Beijing Charter

Updated: 2021-03-07 22:06

Adopted by the XXth Congress of the UIA, Beijing, 23-26 June 1999

On the eve of the New Millennium, we architects from all nations of the world gather in Beijing, an ancient capital of the Orient, for the 20th Congress which celebrates the year of Jubilee for the Union of International Architects. 

The present is born of the past, and yet the future rests with the present. We are here to reflect on the past, to account for the present, and ultimately to formulate a conscious plan of action for a better and liveable human habitat of the 21st Century.

The world's geographical distances has shrunk, although the regional disparities are growing. Yet the age has endowed all of us with a common mission. It requires us to come to terms with the present, face the challenges, develop a holistic thinking and co-ordinate our efforts.

1. Coming to terms with our Centuries

1.1 The 20th Century: unparalleled construction and destruction

The 20th Century has seen unprecedented magnificence and progress, and also incomparable calamity and confusion.

The 20th Century has enriched the history of architecture in its unique manner: architects have played an admirable role in the reconstruction that followed the two calamitous world wars; technical and artistic innovations on a massive scale have introduced fine examples of design to the populous like never before.

But, this is not to deny that much of the built environment is still in a deeply unsatisfactory state. The very survival of the humankind is under threat amidst  squanders of the world's natural and the cultural heritage. In the affluent regions, redevelopment was often to become destruction by construction; in the poorer areas, pauperised masses are struggling to build their own cities of tomorrow.

Over the past Century, the world has turned into a very different place. Yet one thing remains the same: we architects are again at a cross road as a world profession.

1.2 The 21st century: a turning point

The diversity and complexity of the world has created much confusion; yet it is but part of the eternal process of change. The present century has seen remarkable reform and development in politics, economics, technology, and society, and the resurgence of human ideas. In the coming century, the pace of transformation is expected to accelerate, though its direction may be even harder to tell.  

In the coming century, the coexistence of globalization and pluralism will bring to a head the conflicts and the contradictions that characterise our age. On the one hand, modern means of communications have brought into close contact diverse cultures and traditions; global integration of production, finance and technology continues to dominate decision-making. On the other hand, the gap between the rich and the poor are widening at an alarming rate; regional strife and financial uncertainties cast a sinister shadow upon the human habitat.

Whilst we should not take on tasks outside our professional remit, it would both irresponsible and foolish to ignore the torrent of social and cultural change that are redefining the scope of the architectural profession. A conscious reconsideration of the role of 21st Century Architecture calls for our enthusiasm, strength and courage.

2. The challenges that we face

2.1  Interwoven questions

Nature's revenge

The Industrial Revolution unleashed tremendous human power, yet many a triumph over nature was achieved at a harrowing cost. The past Century has seen population explosion, encroachment of farm land and deterioration of water, air and land resources. Environmental crises impinge on the very existence of the humankind.

We do not know enough about the ecosystem, yet ecological disasters have revealed its fragile confines. From a historical point of view, we do not own the world that we live in: we simply have it on loan from our children. In what state shall we hand over town and country to our children? In what way can an architect contribute to the future of human civilisation through planning and design?

Overwhelming urbanisation

To better their lives, people congregate in the city, where science, technology and culture brought about productivity that had never been foreseen.  The 20th Century has seen the brightest lights so far of metropolitan life. Nevertheless, the Century ahead is the true urban era, as for the first time in history, urban dwellers will outnumber those live in traditional rural ways.

Yet, hardly had the slums been demolished, when the cities saw the resurgence of the underclass. Segregation of the rich and the poor, congestion of traffic and land use, and persistence of noise and emissions have worsened in cities large and small. The traditional outlook of an architect is shuttered by the schizophrenic divide of the urban communities. Can our cities survive? We build the cities; yet why do we feel so powerless when we attempt to make any change? In what way can we shape the urban habitat, as it shapes us at the same time? Will the traditional concepts survive in the cities of the next Century?

Technology as a double-edged sword

In the past century modern technology increased productivity to a degree never before experienced. New materials, new structures and new equipment have provided unique opportunities for the designers of the 20th Century. Modern means of  communications have brought the diverse cultures in close contact.

Technology has lead the mankind to a new cross road, yet we are still in the process of harnessing its power and potential. Technology modifies the traditional relationships between man and nature, and thus constantly challenges the existing norms of life styles and values. In what way can the humankind derive benefits from technology, whilst avoiding harm of which it is shown capable?

Genius loci in default

The culture of architecture comes from a local accumulation of history. It manifests itself among the built forms and in day to day living, exerting a voiceless influence on the experience and behaviour of the inhabitants. In a sense, it is the soul of our cities, towns and villages.

However, globalization of technology has made people more and more separable from their land. Standardised commercial production interrupts the evolution of local built forms. Traditional cultural diversity is curtailed. Local identities fade away. What contribution can an architect make to bring back the soul of cities and towns which characterised them during the past centuries?

2.2 A common theme, a common future

The challenges we face are multifaceted and overwhelming. They are in fact embodiment of complex social, political, economic and cultural processes at levels local and global. Our discussion must not stop at the mere manifestations of such processes. Rather, an effective solution only comes from a thorough understanding of the dialectic nature of the forces that are shaping our built environment today.

The search for effective solutions at a global level is supported by our common aspirations for a sustainable future on this Planet. Our world is an interdependent world. By the same token, the future of Architecture depends on an understanding and assimilation of the achievements of other disciplines and professions. It is this common theme that will bring us together to lay out a common future in the 21st Century.

3. Towards an integral architecture

During the past century, the architects of the world met to debate over a large number of issues. These debates have much furthered our understanding in all branches of Architecture. It is therefore appropriate to review the progress so far and redefine the limits, the contents, and the organisation of our discipline and profession.

3.1 The theoretical premises

Over the centuries the role of an architect is constantly modified to suit the needs and requirements of its time. Where traditional methods are shown to be inadequate, new approaches are developed to take their place. Yet without exception, each redefinition pushes the boundary of Architecture outwards for a wider coverage, as well as inwards for higher degrees of sophistication in the component parts. The 20th Century is exemplary in this regard.

A wider coverage of its contents and finer degrees of specialisation have empowered the 20th Century architect with unprecedented professional opportunities and potential, yet at a personal level, an expanding profession with growing specialisation can seem elephantine. In a sense, the architects' Babel Tower appears to have fallen: although the body of knowledge has grown collectively, the outlook of any single designer tends to become paradoxically narrow and fragmented. The specialist expertise is brought together through financial ties and managerial skills, rather than a coherent intellectual framework. As a result, the role of an architect continues to be marginalized in the decision making over the human habitat today.

From the point of view of an architect, his or her ability to propose creative design solutions depends critically on the intellectual and professional spheres he or she commands. Whatever professional talents, expertise, or preferences an architect may have, these techniques can only realise their true value when guided by a larger, intellectual perspective.

Past and contemporary Masters have shown how an integral understanding of architecture has helped them to achieve magnificent heights in the profession. However if such understanding could be regarded as some luxury enjoyed by the Masters in the past, it will increasingly become goods of necessity for all architects in the age of information explosion.

3.2 A fusion of architecture, landscape architecture and city planning

The professional identity of an architect in the wider world is focused on the built forms that are ultimately created. Yet increasing scale and scope of modern development provide architects with unprecedented opportunities to deal with architecture, landscape and urban planning as a whole. This enables the designer to search for solutions within a wider sphere in through all stages of development, from site choice to planning and design, and ultimately to the co-ordination of individual indoor and outdoor spaces. This approach suggests a definitive shift of focus on individual buildings and structures to the building context. A thorough understanding is required of the entire development process, so as to make such a tripartite integration possible not only in the realm of past and present pioneers, but also in the rest of the professional world.

3.3 Architecture as a cyclic process

Metabolism is a useful metaphor for the evolution of the human habitat.  Individual buildings and their environments undergo a continuous process from planning, design, construction, maintenance, preservation, rehabilitation, to renewal. The relatively long life cycles of the built environment demand foresight and vision in Architecture. An integration of the temporal phases of architecture will become a corner stone of sustainable development.

3.4 Multiple technology rooted in the indigenous cultures

Regional differences imply that technology will continue to operate at very different levels in the world. Whilst we appreciate the power and influence unleashed by hi-tech innovations, the key to successful development still rest with creative adaptation of the technical means to local culture and economy. The exchange of experience and knowledge among countries and regions does not mean a transfer of ready-made solutions; rather, it is a process to stimulate local imagination to particular contexts. The use of technology must be considered in the realm of human feelings, besides any scientific and engineering concerns.

3.5 Architecture of variety and harmony

Architecture is by definition a regional product: buildings serve, and derive their significance from local contacts.  Regional architecture is yet by no means a mere product of a region's past. Rather, it is derived from the concerns for its future. The relative permanence of buildings offers an emotional anchor in the flux of day-to-day aspirations and priorities. Yet the evolution of communities ultimately redefines the context within which architects work. The significance of our profession lies in the creative designs that bridge the past and the future. We use our professional knowledge to guide an informed choice amongst the options that increasing open to the local communities. Whilst we are inspired by our local traditions, we must not forget our duty is to create an architecture of variety and harmony for a future community.

3.6 Architecture as an ultimate manifestation of Art

In the histories of all cultures, architecture became the ultimate manifestation of fine arts and craftsmanship. The call for an integral art for the built environment take on a new meaning as the growth and decline of the cities tear apart the apparent wholeness and integrity of a bye-gone age. It demands an in-depth understanding of the forms and functions of contemporary life, and the ability to define a new visual order at an ever growing scale.

3.7 Architecture for the whole community

Of critical importance is the architect's relationship with the client and wider society. This relationship is not restricted to the aesthetic sense, but also in the practical sense, because in many regions involving the householders is the principal way to provide sufficient shelter for all.  In many traditional societies, the architect played the part of master co-ordinator of all trades that built in town and country. Yet today, by large majority, the architect is perceived as a style freak, irrelevant to real decision making. As people come to grips with the human habitat, the role of the architect is paradoxically marginalised. As a professional of indispensable social responsibilities, architects must regard society as the ultimate client.

3.8 Learning architecture

It naturally follows that we adopt an integral approach to architectural education. This approach will bring together the whole body of knowledge, and encourage an intellectual methodology that absorbs, rather than work against, the wider sphere of disciplines of the human habitat. Architectural education is a life-long process, and it involves clients, government officials, and the general public as well as professional architects.

3.9 Towards an integral architecture

Half a century ago, Walter Gropius proposed the idea of 'the architect as a coordinator, whose business is to unify various formal, technical, social and economic problems that arise in connection with buildings'; he also foresaw a 'new architecture' that would be built up 'from the investigation of the details' yet would advance 'towards an ever-wider and profounder conception of design as one great cognate whole'. These words are as valid today as it was then. They summarized concisely the call for an integral architecture.

This by no means demands an architect to be Jack of All Trades. On the contrary, it promotes positive development in his or her specialization because an integral outlook of architecture offers an intellectual vantage-point, whereby the architect may begin and assess ideas in planning and design taking into full consideration of the complex processes that take place concurrently.   

4. All pathways for a common destiny

In a world of change and variety, it is neither possible, nor desirable, to impose identical solutions. In fact the conflicts and contradictions may only be resolved within the specific limits of space and time.

Yet in the wisdom of Yi Jing, 'for all the means in the world there is but one end, for all the concerns there is but one destiny.' It is this common aspiration and objective - to create and sustain a livable habitat for all - that have brought us together. The basic needs of the people to require access to shelter and services have not changed despite economic and technological progress. However, we have become more and more conscious of the fact that the development process in many regions tends to prevent a large section of the population from benefiting from it.

It is poignant for the architects of the world to declare an integral approach to architecture in an ancient capital of the Orient. For centuries, holistic thinking has been the corner stone of the Eastern Philosophies. Today it is becoming a common heritage and blessing of the global village.

Moving into the next Century is but a transitory moment in the current of social and political change. Nevertheless what we have learnt in the past will help us to find ways in which to build a better and more equitable human habitat within the confines of the Earth's resources.   We look forward, with caution and optimism, to this historic duty.

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