Foundations: Ben Lee, AIA, Reminds Us The World is Bigger Than Just the United States

January 3, 2024

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Photo by Ben Lee: Hakka Tulo in Fujian Province


Foundations: Ben Lee, AIA, Reminds Us The World is Bigger Than Just the United States



After a lengthy career in Architecture and Managing a mid-size firm in Morristown, I realize there is a gap in our education and training. Our education system in the United States rarely mentioned the architectural history of the East & Far East and focused mainly on the Western world.


I have always been aware of my Chinese heritage. At NK Architects, we have pursued architectural work in China.  However, when I visited my ancestry home in China recently. I was inspired by a new perspective of how architecture is so much more than just buildings. There are cultural influences, societal & family traditions, and historic heritage that we can embrace in developing design solutions and solving social and societal issues. Historically, many countries around the world have developed their built environments over thousands of years for everyday living, building social and economic infrastructures not just a few historic monuments to glorify their existence.

My father’s family home is located in Xingning, Guangzhou, built in the Hakka family tradition. It is a large complex of over one hundred families living in three rings of a concentric semi-circle with a family shrine in the center, shared common spaces for work and social gathering, and a water well and drainage infrastructure for family kitchens. The outer walls are thickened adobe walls with limited openings except gun portals to protect the people within the Lee family clan. My father was the fourteenth generation. The front of the complex is a large semi-circular pond to raise fish and surrounding vegetable gardens. It is a communal living arrangement for over one hundred families across many generations, with farmlands in the surrounding areas.

My mother’s family home in Minqin, Fujian, is one of the largest family compounds in the country with six hundred rooms for the extended family. It is a fully enclosed compound with several large interior courtyards. It has a family temple shrine, a library, and a school within the compound. Individual families have dedicated living areas and courtyards. There are servants’ quarters with a separate gate for deliveries. The building has incorporated a firewall design and water system to avoid catastrophic fires. The compound is designed with lockdowns to defend against outsiders. There is a large public square in front of the compound with farmland and sharecropper’s houses.

The visit to my family homeland has encouraged me to seek design solutions beyond my traditional architecture school education. It is through historical reference that we can help to find new solutions for housing, and socio-economic models for the built environment. For the younger generation of architects, I ask you also to go beyond the normal school of training in the U.S. Embrace your heritage and the vast landscape of global architectural history to seek ideas and solutions throughout the world.

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