Ten Centuries of Timber Framing

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Next we swing over to the center of Beijing to see the Forbidden City. It was the Ming and Ching

Imperial Residence and government capital from 1420 to 1911. The Forbidden City contains within

its moat and 30-ft.-tall rampart walls arguably the largest intact group of timber buildings in the

world, numbering several hundred.


One gets a sense of “imperial” when ones sees the large open plazas, the marble railings, the

virtuosity of triple-hipped towers, and the second largest timber building in China, the Taihedian,

with its white marble, red columns, yellow glazed tile roofs, and blue, green, red, and orange painted

lintels and beams. The scale of the buildings is grand, the colors dazzling. Inside, one peers into

mysterious darkness. Sometimes one sniffs the fragrance of wafting incense smoke. One feels small

in the presence of such wealth and power.

In one corner of the Forbidden City, carpenters climb scaffolding around a newly raised

timber-frame replica of a building burnt down in 1925 by a eunuch suspected of theft. The

two-story timber-frame building with a pyramid roof rests on a raised earth platform covered with

unpolished granite pavers. As prescribed by Ching building regulations, it has round posts, large

beams with rounded edges joined with triangulating diagonal beams at the corners, bracket clusters,

round common and fan rafters which carry square flying rafters, segmented hip beams, and varied

roof pitch.


Around the site these days, carpenters use the ink-line for snapping layout lines on timber posts and

beams, and dangle the ink-pot by its string as a plumb bob for sighting vertical lines on round

post-ends. They also fabricate gates, doors, windows, and lattices. We see large and small frame

saws, push planes, hammers, chisels, gouges, and adzes. Painters will cover every visible inch of

wood, first with tung oil, then with paint made from natural ground pigments, stone powder and

pig’s blood as the binder. They will do special fancy decorative patterns on lintels.


Roofers lay down a bed of mud, fair it into a graceful curve, and then lay interlocking convex and

concave tiles that abut the curving hip ridges, which are capped with different tiles. They tie a stone

onto the end of a string and hang the string from the ridge, then sight along the string when they

set the roof tiles in order to achieve a straight line. (Concave and overlapping convex tiles are laid in

vertical rows from eave to ridge, starting from the eave. The concave tiles act as a gutter to funnel

water down the roof. The convex tiles shed water into the concave “drains.” Tiles are bedded in mud

on top of wood plank roof sheathing. The drooping string makes a straight line that the roofer can

sight when placing tile courses up the roof in the mud bed.)


Other workers will lay fired floor tiles, and lay and plaster brick infill walls. On opening day, this

building will be reborn as the youngest sibling in the distinguished and ancient family of Chinese

architecture.

Richard S. Wiborg