by YUEBAI LIU & JUNNI OGBORNE
There’s a kind of building found across China that combines a Western-style “body” with a rather incongruous Chinese-style glazed tile roof plonked on top. This style of architecture had its heyday in the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward, when Chairman Mao ordered architects and engineers to design and construct ten gigantic buildings in Beijing in the space of just ten months.
In indigenous Chinese architectural designs, tiled rooves are structurally integrated into the rest of the building through posts and beams. In these 1950s designs, the “Chinese hat” (dawuding, lit. “big roof”) is reduced to a decorative afterthought to give some vague Chinese character to the imported design. Architect Liang Sicheng criticized the mismatched structures as “wearing a Western suit with a Chinese hat.”
Multinationals’ efforts to conquer the Chinese market often remind us of this “Chinese hat” analogy. Many times over the years living and working in China, we have seen marketers,...