The Stories of Contemporary Chinese Architecture
THE STORIES OF CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ARCHITECTURE
Thank you for giving me this chance to share some my thoughts and feelings about Contemporary Chinese Architecture with you. Why am I going to tell you some stories here? When it comes to design concepts, you can find plenty of these in the reference books and architecture magazines or in other architects’ lectures. I don’t need to repeat them here. But my own experience in the Chinese architecture world and my friends’ experiences may give you another view of what has been happening in China that you can’t read in books or other media. I hope it opens another window for you on China and the architecture world.
Before I start to share some stories with you, I’d like to briefly review traditional Chinese architecture, even though it is usually not a source of contemporary Chinese architecture. To spend 5 mins to look back may help us to understand what’s going on and how to look into the future.
As you may know, traditional Chinese buildings were mostly made of wood. Just the opposite of traditional Western architecture which was made of stone. For the Chinese, to quarry or “mine” the stone was, in a sense, to violate the natural landscape, but the use of wood, which was renewable, was a material that, for the Chinese, seemed more like a continuance rather than a violation of the natural order.
“Save the good wood to wait for the good craftsmen”, that’s how Chinese took the first step to building a house – from the seedling of a tree all the way to the construction of a space where one could live. Workspace was a long process of hope. It was the fathers’ generation to plant the tree in order to have the son’s or grandson’s house built ready.
“With its root remaining, the regrowth of a lopped tree will be unavoidable. With its source remaining, the restoration of obstructed water will be unavoidable. With its basis remaining, a disaster, which has temporarily disappeared, will surely reappear. ” This quotation is from the Chinese historical recorders Discourse of States written around 5th century BC to tell the people what we learned from the tree and how we use this knowledge to create livable habitats for humans.
But wooden structure is just a general concept. In each different area, the local architectures were quite distinctive. There was strong adhesion to gather all those local architecture as “The Chinese Architecture”, that was the language.
Western languages are most often derived from Latin and Roman script[s] that later evolved into separate languages. The result was that adjacent areas were divided into different countries because of the language differences. The Chinese language which is the language based on the Han nationality’s language and culture was like a super adhesive that put the broken pieces back together. History has its own adhesives: “power politics” and “ a unified language”. The Chinese language and its power politics brought different regions, cultures, and even ethnic minorities into precarious union.
Ancient Chinese didn’t treat architecture as art deliberately. Deliberation means conscious intention; it maintains artificial elements. The Chinese character for artificial or fake is a composite of two characters, man plus make, so man-made is artificial or fake. In other words, it is not quite right. From that theory, architecture was born between the man-made and nature to be developed in such a way that humanity is an integral part of nature.
From this idea, the traditional Chinese architecture acquired some special features.
The tenon joint structure in which all wooden parts are joined by a special design without nails. The more pressure, the more stable the structure will be. The old maxim, “Walls fall down but the buildings remain,” is the way to describe how stable the wooden structure remains after an earthquake. With age, the wood will be loosened, but because all part’s connections lead in different directions, the stress achieves a new balance to make it as stable as before.
The standard of modular construction was established from 1093 BC and the horizontal instead of vertical extension of architecture allowed the 720,000 m2 forbidden city be built within 14years. 300 thousand people were working at same time. It saved on materials, it was on budget. Modular units not only were prefabricated but also could be moved and reused on other different buildings and in different places. All buildings were being built at the same time, so all the parts could be replaced and renovated. If the bigger parts suffered wear and tear, they could be cut into smaller parts in order to be reused.
Besides that, there are other unique characteristics of traditional architecture. For example, fly rafter brackets are both functional and decorative. But this time we are not going to focus on tradition but on the contemporary, so now, let’s see how it developed.
In fact there was no gradual development. Every aspect of traditional culture including the traditional Chinese language, performance such as opera, painting styles and architecture all ended with the Chinese empire. I remember in our history class from primary school, we were often taught that powerful Western military attacks bursted the closed-door policy of the Qing dynasty, the last empire of China. With the entrance of Western culture, the first international city, Shanghai, celebrated its glory days during the 1930’s, and many experiments arrived there with the combination of Chinese and Western architectural styles. A good example is Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. Sun was the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. His mausoleum was designed by Chinese architect Lu Yanzhi at the age of 28. Some examples were designed by Western architects like the Beijing Public Library designed by Molev. These declined with the advent of World War II.
Shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established, in Beijing, the political center, Socialist Realist architecture based on the Soviet model became the dominant style of public buildings. The most famous were the so-called Ten Great Buildings to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. You may have heard of Yung Ho Chang who was head of the department of architecture at MIT several years ago. His father was the architect who participated in the Ten Great Buildings program with his China History Museum design. When the cultural revolution started in 1965, construction in the whole country was stopped for over ten years. After the reform and opening policy of Deng Xiaoping began in the 80s, there were another Ten Great Buildings being built in Beijing. Then in the 90s, again Ten Great Buildings. There were almost no Western architects involved during those two decades. During this period, you could see that, besides imitating Western modern architecture styles, Chinese architects tried to impose traditional Chinese elements. There were lots of criticisms of the tendency to add a Chinese roof to Western buildings when I was at university in the late 90s.
Then the influx of Western architects had their glory days in the late 90s. Unfortunately, you missed it. It started with Jean Nouvel’s grand opera house, after lots of opposition. But once supported by leaders of the central government, this tendency gave rise to many projects, especially with the coming of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Conservatives began to call China a testing ground for Western contemporary architecture.
Although I am not here to tell you the circumstances of Herzog de Meuron winning the national stadium contract. I was doing my intern at Ai Weiwei’s studio at beginning 2013. Herzog de Meuron were introduced by Uli Sigg, one of most influential contemporary Chinese art collectors, to Weiwei. The current leader at that time, Chairman Hu Jintao knew Weiwei personally for Weiwei’s father was a famous communist party poet, so Weiwei had a chance to present Herzog de Meuron’s design to Hu. I was there when he prepared the presentation. In a flea market he had found a big batch of thread. It was not on a spindle or in a ball. One person had held out his two arms and another hastily wound the thread around the extended arms in a chaotic way so that it came out looking like a bird’s nest. It had been part of a wedding dowry in the old days. It meant the couples’ relationship in their marriage should last forever like this endless thread. We can’t deny that the friendship or the access of Weiwei to the Chinese head of state was helpful to realize this project. Perhaps equally important were the architects’ desires to find inspiration in Chinese culture, and devise a method to forge a relationship between the design and traditional culture.
When Zaha Hadid got her first project from Soho China, one of the biggest Chinese real estate developers, in 2004, her student Yansong Ma was working along with the Japanese architect Yosuke Hayano at her London office. These two were sent to Beijing to start working on her project. But soon after, Soho China had financial troubles, and did not go ahead with the project. The young architects had no chance to go back to London to work with Zaha again, since Zaha wasn’t sure if she could get another project in China. So they opened their own studio called MAD. I was also there at the beginning, facing all the difficulties with them. To have the first media coverage wasn’t that difficult. There were very few architecture studios in China at that time. Most of Chinese architects were still working in state architecture companies with hundreds of architects and engineers working together. MAD was very lucky to be one of the forerunners that all the trendy and cultural magazines were looking for. MAD became famous in a very short time. But still in the first three years, although lots of people knew their designs and they won some competitions, they did not manage to get any real projects. The studio almost went to bankrupt when Qun Dang joined and became a partner. Her husband was a banker and provided a loan to MAD, so MAD survived. When it came to MAD’s first real project, the client knew it was the first, so he negotiated hard on the design fee and kept it very low, but despite this, the project ended with the bankruptcy of the client.
You may know more of these kinds of stories than I do. You may have to face similar difficulties one day yourself. But the main point is still design. I don’t want to make any comments on their design, but most of the concepts were created at Yale when Ma was studying with Zaha, and you could see her influence. After that there was little time for him to continue working on the design aspect of the enterprise. Some young architects in his office even resigned. They reasoned that, because there was no consideration of function but only of form, they couldn’t learn anything. And how often did the firm have to survive in an atmosphere where it was commonplace for architectural competitions to be tainted with scandal.
On the subject of survival strategies, I was working at the Beijing office of the German firm, KSP, in charge of the strategy of our office and marketing in China. Endless dinners with clients and potential clients, holding events regularly and courting the press, this was my routine. Then I had to run the whole office of other 20 architects in Beijing, before I moved to Germany. During these days, I managed to participate along with so many others in seeing China take its first tentative steps on the way towards a new architecture.
But China is not only Beijing. This is also China. The countryside. After the cities were occupied by contemporary architecture, rural development became the new topic for Chinese architects, and with typical Chinese velocity. Lots of Chinese rural areas have been built up like this. It’s a village that happens to be in the northwest, but it doesn’t matter, most of them look the same.
And this is also China; the pictures are from my architect friends. When they visited the place the first time, they were shocked to find that there were still some exciting places around. The old broken houses were empty inside, there were no furniture, no accessories, only some potatoes on the ground. The local people don’t speak Mandarin; their local dialect is far from the standard Chinese. Difficulties of communication marginalize the whole area. Besides that it was close to the Golden Triangle, one of Asia’s two main opium-producing areas. As marginalized people, they can’t find normal jobs without speaking Chinese. Very often the young people move to the city and fall into a life of drug trafficking. AIDS orphans many of the children. Once the governor of Sichuan himself visited the village, and he couldn’t believe what he saw either. He and other governors implemented the New Village Planning like other rural area had been doing. And used the same building here, but this mountainous geography and climate are not fit for the buildings designed for plains. Soon after, the new houses were destroyed by storms. The Women and Children development centers were willing to help the children. My architect friends aYA Arch heard about this, and came to help build the new local school. Besides the school design, they enlisted the help of some traditional architecture scholars to devise local development plans. With their help, the new design comprises real local buildings with local materials. Besides that, they are working on how to develop the local agriculture and economy. This may not be the conventional role of architects, but it offers hope to the whole region. With a limited budget, construction of the school was forced to stop, so they they forged links with QQ, a huge company in China, to raise money to finish the project. That is the story I wanted to tell predominantly. Being architects, to help the local people, and become involved in the development of a rural area for me is more important than chasing formal innovation. That’s why, when Xi’s lecture mentioned there’s enough weird architecture, I disagreed with his general outlook, but all the same I recognized that architects should reflect on the social benefit of their work, on what they really should do, what kind of design we need today. As Alastair Parvin has said, “The uncomfortable fact is that actually almost everything that we call architecture today is actually the business of designing for about the richest one percent of the world’s population, and it always has been. The reason why we forgot that is because the times in history when architecture did the most to transform society were those times when, actually, the one percent would build on behalf of the 99 percent, for various different reasons, whether that was through philanthropy in the 19th century, communism in the early 20th, the welfare state, and most recently, of course, through this inflated real estate bubble. And all of those booms, in their own various ways, have now kicked the bucket, and we’re back in this situation where the smartest designers and architects in the world are only really able to work for one percent of the population.” As some of you might like to become an architect one day, think about whom you would like to work for, and what would you really like to do for others. These really ought to be the first questions about the direction of one’s career.
This is another project done by the aYa Arch studio, the post-earthquake reconstruction building in Sichuan. China Foundation supported it for Poverty Alleviation. The project includes the village hall and an agricultural cooperative society. The architects studied the local building features and continued the local architecture’s half indoor and half outdoor design and the pitched roof. The two buildings formed an L shape to define the public enclosed space. They retained almost everything including the trees, the pool and surrounding buildings, this village hall merged into the environment. Drinking tea is a favorite pastime in Sichuan, this village hall, the activities center, gave the local people a place to gather for tea, creating for the place a sense of community that had been lost.
Another story I want to tell here is that of another architect WANG Xin, who thinks those New Village plans are just an arbitrary rule from the top down rather than a real urban plan. Frankly, it was a disaster for the countryside to destroy local styles and features. As an architect, to bring back the design to the local people, and let them decide what they should build individually is the way to create a wide variety of the resource of design. He is trying with his The Shadows of Pines Tea Garden to bring vitality to the future development of the countryside.
The site is in the yard of the teacher’s house, only 7 meters by 8 meters. Two sides are houses and two sides are walls. WANG Xin designs a 2 meters by 4 meters building on the site. It’s more like an object than a building. The whole site was decided into two parts, the Chinese tea garden outside and a Japanese teahouse inside.
The outdoor Chinese tea garden is more like a party space. The traditional Chinese painting Hui Shan Tea Gathering, which has several intellectuals gathering under the pines, enjoying tea and talking, inspired the architect. WANG Xin planned to have five pine trees in the garden and named the project The Shadows of Pine Trees Tea Garden.
In the transition between the outdoor tea garden and the indoor teahouse, there are several stairs which also work for sitting on. Step on the stairs, and the spaces become narrower and smaller as though you were entering a cave. The door is only 1,5 meters high. You have to crawl through it. Like the traditional Japanese spaces, when you sit down, you feel different in the space than you would stand up. Through touching the space, everything scales the sizes between furniture and building in order to see the bigger things through the smaller ones. You hear the sound of water coming from the corner. When you open the window where the plantain leaves are, you will see the water from the mountain drops into the tea garden as a foundation, then flows through the tea table… Other sides of the windows can be removed as well, each side presents a view like the picture, a lamp in the corner, pine trees etc. The house is situated obliquely on the site, like a boy in the old Chinese poem “sat sideways on moss silhouetted against the green grass”.
The entrance and exit refer to Japanese Tea Ceremony. Those stylized and symbolic demands make you feel as if you were in a theater set and became an actress or actor, because all your movements are very close and related to the space – even though the outdoors and indoors present two different ways of drinking tea. But WANG Xin doesn’t treat it as a difference between the culture of the two countries. He thinks of it only as a question of time, since Japanese culture was strongly influenced by Chinese culture 1400 years ago. And the two spaces form a dialogue. To drink tea in such a space will give us a different impresssion of the relationship between people and environments. When we imagine how our ancestors used to enjoy tea, another kind of profound feeling arises by virtue of this historical memory.
Conflicts are bound to arise from the different cultural backgrounds of architect and client. From the outset, the client didn’t want to lose his ten-year-old no-name tree in the middle of the site. He asked the architect to add a path of rocks he had collected, WANG Xin always offered better solutions without losing the sense of the original design. The whole process became unexpectedly pleasant.
I was curious how an ordinary teacher without fortune and from the countryside decided to hire an architect to design a teahouse and garden. To find out the reason, we have to go back to WANG Xin’s antique tea set collections. One of his students continues his study in Japan. He wanted to have a part-time job to support his study. WANG Xin suggested him to import Japanese antique tea sets as a business. The student became very interested in the tea ceremony culture and built a following of tea fans. After a year and a half, besides his expenses, he saved some money. He wanted to use this money to build a teahouse for his father in the countryside. In this way, his father became the client in our story…
At the commencement day, WANG Xin mentioned this tea garden as the the dream gift of a son to his intellectual father. The teacher (the client in this project) couldn’t hold back his tears…
From early times, the traditional Chinese garden was an intellectual ideal. It materializes the dream in your heart, and has nothing to do with reality. That’s why the old gardens in Suzhou didn’t related to the urban environment. Once you enter, you forget the outside world. This is how the garden owners kept their distance from the outside world. The design of a Japanese teahouse derives from a similar wish. Although it’s small, it’s not like a snail shell that encloses. It opens you to another world…
Like all the traditional Chinese gardens, The Shadows of Pine Trees Tea Garden is also very small, maybe even smaller. From this small point, WANG Xin is trying to create new possibilities of human relationships through design, that it may add dignity to people’s lives by embodying and nourishing their highest impulses.