Over thousands of years, the building science of timber framing developed independently in both Northern Europe and China. But one big difference between the regions is that China, by virtue of its size and geological traits, is prone to devastating earthquakes. Ancient Chinese builders thus needed a way to create wooden structures that could not be shaken apart, and that were not so stiff that its support members would shatter.
They designed and engineered the solution at least as early as roughly 500 B.C. The builders created a series of brackets known as dougong.
When interlocked together, these could transfer the incredibly heavy weight of a temple roof to the supporting columns, and they contained so many redundancies that they could not be shaken apart.
They also, by spreading their tolerances over multiple joints, contained a measure of flexibility that prevented them from cracking and splitting.
Check out the ingenious way that they fit together in the computer animation below:
The craziest part of that system is that the columns are not sunken into the foundation nor moored, but are freestanding, and yet they stayed in place during the shake test.
The video below, which is of a modern-day architect demonstrating dougong with a scale model, is a bit slower but really gives you a good look at the components and how they fit together:
It’s crazy to see how wobbly it all looks, but how it all gets locked into place by the immense weight of the roof; and that wobbliness of course affords the flexibility required for the structure to withstand an earthquake without shattering.
Also, this architect must look at people playing Jenga and think “Idiots.”