Founder of one of the first independent architectural practices in 1993 with partner Lu Lijia, Yung Ho Chang has made his Atelier Fei Chang Jian Zhu (FCJZ) a legendary name in contemporary Chinese architecture. As one of the key figures of China’s Experimental Architecture in the 1990s, his practice continues to explore the dynamic between concept and craft, narrative and form while trying to cross over the boundaries between architecture and contemporary art, or between design and everyday life.
Yung Ho’s non-conformist ways do not end up with millions of square meters built up as many of his peers have done in China today, where “Bigness” has permeated most construction. Instead, testifying to his versatility and craftsmanship, his design works range from jewelry, tableware, costume, furniture, stage and interiors to architecture and micro-urbanism. Yung Ho takes all these forms of design, big and small, as a unity or as a piece of architecture. Moving across different scales gives the office opportunities for introspection, helping it to avoid all kinds of obvious architectural clichés.
From Split House (small house, 2002) to Hebei Education Publishing House (small city, 2004), from The Bay Houses (not so small house, 2010) to Chang An Canal Club (big mansion, 2011), from Anren Museum Bridge (small museum, 2012) to King’s Joy (not so big courtyard, 2012), and from Vertical Glass House (smaller experimental house, 2013) to Great Wall Amphitheatre (big stage, 2014), the playful juxtaposition of big/small stands out in their recent architectural projects. The alternating sequence of big and small projects unexpectedly coincides with Yung Ho’s story-telling approach to architectural conception.
A close reading of two projects, Chang An Canal Club (big mansion) and Vertical Glass House (smaller experimental house) reveal the common and differentiated strategies Yung Ho adopts for big and small buildings. In both, a lot effort was spent on maintaining an integral and unitary physical mass. Exterior openings and windows are minimal in order to create a monolithic façade. However, a different narrative informs each building: façade material in the big building, and interior transparency in the small.
In the Chang An Canal Club the main formal operation is merely subtraction. Vertical slits have been cut in the black lava stone exterior walls to bring natural light into service spaces, while step-backs and cutouts create upper level courtyards. The key “tell-the-story” element is the cladding tile. As a section of the ancient Ming dynasty city wall was unearthed on the project site, the typical brick of the wall was adopted for the building and used as a generative motif. At ground level, lava stones blocks were cut to brick size and laid in the original layered manner. Two side surfaces of the brick also became the templates for stone tiles of the second and third floor. The connection with historic context was thus established in a sophisticated conceptual way with neither style replica nor symbolic metaphor.
The Vertical Glass House was original a winning entry to the annual Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competition two decades ago. Its design concept was picked up again and executed as pop-up pavilion for the 2013 West Bund Biennale in Shanghai. With a footprint of less than 40 square meters, the 4-story residence is enclosed by solid concrete walls leaving little visual connection to its immediate surroundings. The glass floor/ceiling created an inner transparency and peace in rejection of the exterior riot of sounds. Although small, the building stands alone above others, totally different from the Chang An Canal Club’s contextual continuity between the big mansion and its site. Here the self-referential aura provides an ideal domestic meditation environment while living/working/thinking visually penetrate each other to form a conceptual unity.
Another project of note is the choreography and costume design for “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”, a play about seven Chinese literati in ancient Wei-Jin period. This is a daring attempt to bridge big and small spatial narratives and combine a highly abstract space-time experience with performer movement. Symbols of mountains, clouds and moon onstage were mounted on a movable scaffold that rose or sank along with the plot development. The costume design also follows simple rules. The seven sages wore identical hollow non-woven cotton tubes with seven cuts to allow different ways of configuration. The project is a perfect example of Yung Ho’s interest in different kinds of art and design, and his ability to turn the simplest craft logic into varied things that all end up in the same way.