Chinese architecture on Auckland streets for Artweek

As Auckland steps down into Level 1, it’s the perfect time for artists to step out onto the streets for the city’s annual Artweek. 

Rosemary Li, a fifth-year architecture student at the University of Auckland, is one of those artists - the 22-year-old is taking part in a village of structures on O'Connell St, called Urban Art Village.  

Her #hashtag Wish Tree installation is constructed completely of timber – no nails, no adhesive – in a traditional Chinese joinery style known as dougong. 

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A rendering of Li's #hashtag Wish Tree structure. Li will install the structure onsite on October 13. Photo: Supplied/Rosemary Li

“For my [Masters] thesis, my whole topic is based around looking into this traditional Chinese technique called the dougong. Dougong is used largely across historic Chinese architecture that acts as structural support for the overhanging roofs.” 

Timber brackets interlock closely together, forming little units. Each unit stacks on top of each other, creating a larger structure - in Li’s case, a rectangular box four metres long and tall enough for people to walk through 

In traditional Chinese construction, dougong is used often to support heavy roofs as the interlocking pieces of timber distribute weight more evenly and work as an earthquake strengthening measure. 

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The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple in China's Shanxi province uses the dougong method to support its heavy roofs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So, I took [dougong] as inspiration and modified it, turning it into kind of my own design. 

“Because it is the traditional Chinese joinery, it's a motif of China, of that first case in Wuhan, and I think that resonates with me strongly, because it's a reflection of my personal identity. 

While she’s Auckland born and bred, Li is ethnically Chinese and alongside the traditional joinery method, she’s also incorporated another traditional Chinese element into the design: red ribbons for luck and good health.   

Once the structure is installed, every hour, a box of red ribbons will be put out. People can come by and write their experiences of the pandemic and New Zealand’s lockdowns on the ribbons, which will then be tied to the installation, creating a reflection of New Zealand’s Covid curve. 


Rosemary Li with samples of the dougong structure she's created. Photo: Supplied/Rosemary Li

“[Using the ribbons] is similar to what people do at traditional Chinese temples.” 

Li said at temples, people would tie red ribbons to structures and trees, as a form of prayer for good health and fortune.   

In her installation, people can walk through a ‘void’ through the structure, where the red ribbons they’ve written on will be hung up.   

“It's providing a sense of involvement, contributing to the community and drawing people together as they hang up their ribbons,” Li said. "Over time this red curve will evolve.” 

Everyone was going through the pandemic together, she said, and she hoped #hashtag Wish Tree would provide a sense of community for people and draw them together as they hang up their ribbons.  

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Li's design process, using the traditional Chinese joinery technique of dougong. Photo: Supplied/Rosemary Li

The joinery she’s created reflects this sense of community too: smaller interlocking parts coming together to create something much stronger and bigger than themselves. 

“Looking at it, I'm actually quite fascinated about this traditional technique. The intricate craftsmanship and the complexity that’s put into every detail really intrigued me, and I see it as a personal reflection of an experience and a whole commemoration, dedicated as a tribute to this global pandemic. 

Li said there could be mixed feelings for people as they interacted with #hashtag Wish Tree – the installation acknowledges those that have lost loved ones to Covid, but it’s also a space for people to reflect on all aspects of the pandemic.  

“It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it,” she said.  

The Covid curve in #hashtag Wish Tree will be formed over one day on Tuesday, October 13. A box of ribbons will be set out each hour for people to write on and over eight hours, the ribbons will be added to the structure. 

Artweek is a weeklong festival in Auckland, celebrating visual arts – and it’s come at a perfect time. 

Artweek is really a good platform and I think this opportunity to get this platform and showcase artworks and talent from multiple artists is a good way to reactivate the community after Covid,” Li said. 

Urban Art Village will be installed in O'Connell St in the City Centre on October 13. Entry is free. Artweek Auckland is an annual, week-long festival celebrating the visual arts of Auckland and runs from October 10 to 18.

 - Asia Media Centre