Evolution of Asian Architecture: The Condensed Guide (2021)


If you ever find yourself scratching your head wondering about the differences between the numerous types of Asian architecture buildings – this guide will help you identify the key differences.


Without further ado, let’s dive in and explore the different influences that shaped what we know to be ‘Asian architecture’ today.

Is there an Asian Architecture?

First off, what is Asian architecture? Asia is made up of 48 countries: all with their own unique methods of construction & architecture, most of them influenced by ancient religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

As Silk Road trade routes flourished and allowed for cultural exchange between countries, these methods of constructing temples, mosques and sanctuaries gradually spread. 

Some ideologies have been more influential than others, which explains why we see lots of Buddhist architecture originating in India spreading to far-flung places like Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia … each with its twist on the original concept.

Image credit: Gunawan Kartapranata

400 – 500 CE 

Buddhism spread along Silk Road trade routes to China. Buddhism arrived in Korea and was made the state religion. Buddhism crossed into Japan from Korea, with influence from Korean architecture, and defined early period of Japanese Buddhist architecture. Gupta rulers of north India fused Buddhist practices into their own to form Hinduism.

700 – 800 CE 

Buddhism formally established as the state religion in Tibet
Islam’s spread to Xi’an, China where the first Chinese mosque was established.

800 CE

Southeast Asia expanded trade links with China and India; with India predominantly spreading its variants of Buddhism and Hinduism to the Southeast Asia regions. Buddhist and Hindu stone temples were built in Indonesia. Hindu kingdom was founded in Cambodia.

1000 CE

The start of Islam’s spread to Southeast Asia through trade routes from Western Asia to Far East.

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture simply means architecture originally built during pre-industrial periods by the local people that made use of local materials and resources.

These usually refer to ‘everyday’ and practical buildings that catered to domestic life rather than religious & state architecture. Because these buildings served domestic living, they made modest use of locally sourced and readily available materials, with their construction methods evolving over time to respond very well to natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

Even in countries with similar environments, regional differences in architecture are still observed due to a variety of factors including culture, beliefs, and socio-political decisions, lending to the diversity of what is commonly seen as Asian architecture.

Key Architectural Features of Vernacular Architecture:

  • Natural and readily available materials from local species
  • Climate responsive features like raised floors (buildings joined by -open decks, platforms, covered walkways) or prominent overhanging roof eaves to provide shade for decks
  • Unique carpentry joints to allow easy adding, dismantling, and rebuilding; or to cope with seismic activity

Chinese Traditional Architecture 

Chinese architecture is influenced by a multitude of ancient philosophical ideas like Wuxing (five elements), Yin and Yang (dualism) and Feng shui (harmonising energies with the surrounding environment).

A balanced appearance is very important as it symbolizes harmony – oftentimes elements are arranged to achieve symmetry in all aspects.

The quintessential Chinese traditional architecture is defined by populations that resided in large plains where large scale agriculture was possible, hence earth and brickwork were significantly used.

China later adopted widespread use of bricks due to significant growth of its cities, with much fewer trees relative to the population – as well as the higher load capacity of brick that allowed them to build larger compounds. Larger compounds are often inhabited by more prominent families and was thus a signifier of prestige.

Courtyards are often found in the typical historic Chinese residential houses – helping to regulate temperatures by serving as vents for hot air and drawing cool air from lower parts of the building.

Typical ‘siheyuan’ compound

Typical ‘siheyuan’ compound

Photo Credit:  Gisling /  CC BY-SA 4.0

 Large singular courtyards are found in Hakka ‘tu lou’ architecture

These earthen structures ‘yao dong’ also adopt the use of courtyards while being sunken – ideal for climate control in allowing homes to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter without a heating system

Photo Credit: Meier&Poehlmann

These earthen structures ‘yao dong’ also adopt the use of courtyards while being sunken – ideal for climate control in allowing homes to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter without a heating system

Korean ‘Hanok’ House

Korea’s mountainous region provides building materials such as timber and granite – resulting in a form of architecture defined by stone and woodwork.

Korean ‘hanok’ houses were built on elevated platforms due to their innovation of a unique floor heating system ‘ondol’, where the smoke from ovens would run underneath the floors and heat up the room.

As this feature only worked on compact spaces, Korean vernacular architecture favoured single storeys.

Elevated ‘hanok’ houses to allow for floor heating system

Elevated ‘hanok’ houses to allow for floor heating system

Japanese ‘Machiya’ House

Japan is situated very closely to tectonic boundaries which makes it more prone to earthquakes; this has defined Japanese architecture to rely on innovative woodwork construction to survive years of earthquakes.

Most houses were wood framed with non-loadbearing walls as they did a better job at providing stability. Stone and brickwork were avoided.

Japanese homes were designed to be multi-functional, using wood-frame sliding doors with rice-paper panels as dividers between spaces, allowing rooms to be enlarged or closed off depending on the need.

Wooden frame ‘machiya’ houses

Wooden frame ‘machiya’ houses

Southeast Asian ‘Rumah Gadang’ House

Dramatic roof form and size of the building serves as an identifier of the social standing of the owner, hence buildings are made to be easily extended to reflect expansion of the family size.

Most buildings follow their strict local ‘rumah adat’ rules for construction – for example, a tree trunk used as a column should be placed in the same way as it was extracted, with the root end of the trunk facing downwards into the soil.

Southeast Asian Longhouses

Built standing on piles above ground with an extremely durable local wood called bilian, which survives tropical humidity better than iron and is impervious to termites.

Elevating these houses allow for protection from flood and heat in the tropical monsoon climate; clustering houses in a long line is more economical than building separate dwellings.

Overhanging roof eaves are significant to make for a ‘life’ outside of the private space – usually for socialising & commercial activities.

Longhouse in Borneo

Longhouse in Borneo

Religious Architecture

A lot of what we perceive as traditional Asian architecture is influenced by religions stemming from west Asia. By 600 CE, Buddhism from Northern India spread along silk road trading routes to China, which exported its form of Chinese Buddhism into Korea and Japan.

At the same time, another form of Buddhism travelled from Southern India to the rest of Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand. Asian architecture in these places took concepts of Buddhism and transformed them along with their local flavor.

What we call Hinduism today emerged from 400 CE when the Gupta rulers of North India fused Buddhist practices into their own.

Hindu temple architecture and construction was codified in 1100 CE by a written series of technical manuals, incorporating elements of astronomy, sacred geometry, and their own form of ornamentation that differed from traditional Buddhist architecture.

Let’s look at the key differences between the religious Asian architecture.

Buddhist Architecture

Photo Credit: Heaven'y Army / CC BY 3.

Stupa in Borobudur, Indonesia

  • Core sanctuary: innermost sanctum where the deity resides
  • Stupa: solid, hemispherical free-standing structure
  • Ascension of Terraces: tall stepped bases representing the ancestral sacred mountains
  • Halls: function as a monastery or the front area leading to the core sanctuary

Hindu Architecture

Gopuram of Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore, with artistic embellishments

Photo Credit: RM Bulseco

Gopuram of Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore, with artistic embellishments

  • Core sanctuary: innermost sanctum where primary deity resides
  • Main temple spire: may be curvilinear (Shikhara) or straight-edged pyramidal (Gopuram)
  • Halls: pillared hallway for public rituals (mandapa) such as - circumambulation (pradakshina)
  • Sacred pools: built near a natural source of water where possible
  • Aesthetic independence is encouraged – for each artist to exercise their creative expression through intense decorative embellishments

Notable Examples of Hindu and Buddhist Architecture

Temple complexes are often a mix of the above elements in different regions, assembled according to different regional rules and interpretations of Buddhist and Hindu cosmological concepts and symbolisms of various mandala, including:

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple in Central Java, Indonesia expressing east-west axiality and has a square form

  • Square form: four equilateral sides and equal angles symbolizes order, unequivocal form, the male, the celestial sphere and The Absolute
  • East-west axiality: pivotal for both Hinduism and Buddhism, with the direction where the sun rises symbolizing the ‘male principle of sun, day, light, seed, and idea and the direction where the sun sets as representing female entity, of moon, night, darkness, the ovum and power or energy, i.e the womb

Photo Credit: Arabsalam / CC BY-SA 4.0

Prambanan in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a Hindu complex that typifies the ‘peaky’ straight-edged pyramidal look of many Hinduist temple architecture

  • Concentricity in a temple’s layout that converges to a central peak of a main temple mimicking the mythical Mt. Meru in which the Gods reside in

Photo Credit:  Supanut Arunoprayote / CC BY 4.0

Angkor Wat with its multiple galleries

  • Galleries surrounding the temple core, punctuated with lesser towers that resemble the main tower

Variants of Buddhist Architecture

Chinese Buddhist Architecture

The Chinese adopted their own ‘Feng shui’ approach to classical Buddhist architecture – temples and palaces would follow have a southern entrance, with the northern half of the compound belonging to the inner court or more private space. Red was commonly used for most part of the building (including walls) and gold for roof tiles.

Pagoda of Fogong Temple

Photo Credit: Charlie Fong

Pagoda of Fogong Temple 

Pagoda is an evolution of the Indian stupa – a tiered tower with multiple eaves 

‘Dou gong’ bracket system

‘Dou gong’ bracket system

Wooden Buddhist monasteries that have survived to today is characterized by low-pitched roof slopes, deep eaves, ‘dou gong’ brackets. The mesh of cross-reinforcements from using radial ‘dou gong’ brackets has allowed it to endure for a millennium unharmed by numerous earthquakes.

Korean Buddhist Architecture

Korea followed principles of Chinese Buddhism but incorporated their own traditional decorative colouring using pinks, greens, and whites.

Traditional art ‘Dancheong’ found in Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

Photo Credit: Baron Reznik

Traditional art ‘Dancheong’ found in Jogyesa Temple, Seoul

Japanese Buddhist Architecture

Traditional Japanese Buddhist architecture and Shinto architecture evolved to adapt to Japan’s wetter and more humid climate as compared to China.

By 800 CE stopped using heavy materials typical of Chinese Buddhist architecture such as stone, mortar and clay and opted for simple wooden walls, floors and partitions. Native tree species such as cedar, pine and larch were used for structures while brick roofing tiles and cypresses were used for roofs.

Tokyō bracket system found in Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tokyō bracket system found in Kamigamo Shrine, Kyoto

Developing their own version of the Chinese ‘dou gong’ structural bracket system called ‘Tokyō’ to support the weight of a visually impressive roof – the eaves usually extend far beyond the walls to cover their verandas

Structural elements including ‘Tokyō’, ‘nuki’ and the base

Structural elements including ‘Tokyō’, ‘nuki’ and the base

Innovated a style of carpentry joint connection called ‘nuki’ of penetrating tie-beams without the use of steel nails, stabilizing buildings during earthquakes.

Flexible inner space divisions: room size can be modified using screens with paper panels or removed entirely

Balinese Hinduist Architecture

Sequences of courtyards with distinctive gates like ‘candi bentar’ and ‘paduraksa’ mark the threshold into the sacred core of the temple. The ‘paduraksa’ is an adaptation of the classical Indian gopuram.

Paduraksa (left) and Candi bentar (right), distinctive traits of Balinese Hinduist temple architecture

Photo Credit: Uwe Aranas

Paduraksa (left) and Candi bentar (right), distinctive traits of Balinese Hinduist temple architecture

Islamic Architecture

Muslims do not require a building or consecrated place to worship, but rather Islam is based on five ‘pillars’ and the most important being the five daily prayers performed while facing Mecca. 

Photo Credit: Ariff Shah Sopian / CC BY-SA 4.0

Minaret & domes can be seen in Putra mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia

While being influenced by Chinese and Mughal architecture, it developed some of its key characteristics

  • Minaret: a tall, slender tower situated at one of the corners of the mosque symbolising the calling of the faithful to prayer
  • Domes: hemispherical or even onion-shaped domes
  • Prayer hall (musalla): absent of any furniture and the walls do not contain images of people, animals and spiritual figures; only Arabic calligraphy and verses from Qur’an are allowed
  • Qibla wall: set perpendicular to a line leading to Mecca, where prayers are held facing
  • Ablution fountains and areas for washing: worshippers are required to wash their hands and feet before entry

What are your thoughts?

The breadth of famous Asian architecture is simply astounding. This is by all means a non-exhaustive list.

Do you feel like you can you better distinguish between different Asian architecture styles now?

If we missed out on the type of architecture that you wanted to learn about, leave a comment below to let us know and share this guide with your friends!

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.