A focus on four Chinese architects
Turmoil and totalitarianism gave Chinese architects few opportunities to participate in the experimentation of the
20th Century and independent firms have been allowed to practice for barely two decades.
They have to compete with large state institutes and most of the prestigious commissions still go to leading Western architects.
Creatives thrive on constraints, and that may have strengthened the determination of the best talents to find fresh paths. Four small offices in Beijing exemplify the diversity and creativity to be found in the new architecture of China. For this quartet of inventive architects, engaging the users is a goal that shapes every project, large and small.
Though their resources are modest they may, by example, inspire other Chinese architects and clients to follow their lead and develop a new language that draws on a rich legacy as well as Western notions of modernism.
Han Wenqiang founded Archstudio in 2010 and has won acclaim for his transformation of courtyard houses in the hutongs of Beijing, giving them new roles while respecting their integrity. Many of these labyrinthine low-rise residential neighborhoods were swept away as the capital mushroomed; others have been over-restored for tourists. But a few retain their historic character, and the authorities are imposing ever stricter regulations to keep them that way.
Inspired by Wang Shu, the Pritzker laureate, Han employs traditional techniques of construction, often using scavenged materials. And he is skilled in negotiation, persuading city officials to let him reinterpret rather than mimic traditional forms. A few minutes’ walk from the Soviet-inspired vacuity of Tien’anmen Square and its pompous official buildings, is Twisting Courtyard, a three-room guest house located on a raffish alley. Behind the ornate portal is an enclave as tranquil as it is spare. Gray brick paving arches up to enclose a new kitchen and plays off a dry garden of white pebbles and bamboo. Slatted wood screens shade walls of glass and built-in furniture makes small rooms feel spacious. A block away, Layering Courtyard amplifies the same concept on two levels, enclosing plantings with walls of glass to pull in natural light.
In another hutong neighborhood to the north, Archstudio employed mirrors to create the illusion of infinity within a house turned antiques and fashion showroom, and made extensive use of timber in remodeling a private residence as an upscale tea house. The refinement of these projects contrasts sharply with the deliberate earthiness of conversions by ZAO/standardarchitecture (THE PLAN 110). Han draws on these transformative exercises in his ground-up buildings, which include an organic farm and the Poly Wedo music and dance school for children. Both share the tactility, intimate scale and love of detail to be found in the hutong projects.
“Smash the Old” was a mandate of the Cultural Revolution and much of China’s legacy was wantonly destroyed in that decade of collective madness. Plenty more has succumbed to the sudden influx of wealth, but there is a growing appreciation of the traditional vernacular in Chinese cities and the countryside - if only as a profitable lure for tourists.
DnA_Design and Architecture
The local authorities of Songyang, a county 280 km southwest of Hangzhou, invited Xu Tiantian of DnA_Design and Architecture to explore villages in the county and respond to their needs. The goals were to improve amenities while strengthening their sense of identity, and to draw more visitors to the idyllic landscapes of this region.
Over the past five years, Xu has designed 30 structures, abstracting traditional forms, connecting to context and heritage, and harnessing craft skills. She likens the program to acupuncture - an insertion that radiates energy through the body - and considers it to be a
socio-economic venture as much as architecture. There is an extraordinary range of typologies - from workshops to memorial halls, museums to a covered bridge - using materials as varied as steel and rammed earth, brick and stone masonry, bamboo and glass.
The Dushan Leisure Centre is the latest of these interventions: a cylindrical wood structure serving locals and visitors. Ramps link the main levels and extend out to provide overlooks - of a river and a temple that crowns the isolated peak of Mount Dushan. The timber was imported from Canada, but the gridded screens and organic forms have deep local roots, and the interior spaces host a diversity of cultural activities. Thanks to Xu, Songyang has become a widely celebrated showcase, inspiring other provincial authorities to take similar initiatives. There is a direct link between the need to enhance the livability of remote villages to encourage people to stay on the land, and the reinvigoration of urban villages embedded in a metropolis.
Li Hu was a partner of Steven Holl and his wife Huang Wenjing was a senior designer with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York before returning to China. Li moved back in 2005 to open Holl’s Beijing office and oversee their megaprojects in Beijing, Shenzhen and Chengdu. In 2010, Li joined Wenjing in their own practice OPEN Architecture. A passion for nature and open spaces, which are rarities in Chinese cities, infuses their buildings for the arts, education and community. They launched their own practice with the Garden School, the Fangshan campus of the renowned Beijing No. 4 High School, located in a new town on the southwest edge of the capital. In the Garden School, four levels of classrooms branch out from a central spine to define six courtyards, and they are raised above an undulating landscape within which the skylit pool, gym, lecture theater and other large spaces are embedded. The dormitory for students and staff occupies a separate wing. Shifts in level, overlooks and connecting stairs turn the interior into a social condenser, with intimate enclosures for study and play. The layering and concentration of 57,000 sq. m of enclosed space frees up the ground plane for recreation and a sports field. Sustainability is the key note of the design, and the roof is divided into 36 farm plots, one for each class in the school, which provide an education in the processes of nature.
Fusing architecture and nature has become a central theme for OPEN. In Shanghai they converted five oil storage tanks into versatile art galleries embedded in grassy mounds. The tanks led on to the widely published UCCA Dune Art Museum, a complex of organic voids, lit from above and concealed within sand dunes on a beach east of Beijing. Nearing completion is the Qingpu Pinghe School, in Shanghai, and the Chapel of Sound, a man-made concrete grotto for musical performances located in the mountains northeast of Beijing. As Li observes, the chapel is space shaped by sound and it becomes an integral part of the landscape.
Zhu Pei has a passion for art and draws inspiration from contemplating and creating ink wash paintings. Early on he rehabilitated a courtyard house for the artist Cai Guo-Qiang, and he has created a succession of innovative art spaces, ground-up and in former factories. His goal is to re-integrate art and architecture, restoring a unity they lost over the past century, but he admires industrial buildings for their honesty and lack of concealment. He recently relocated Studio Zhu-Pei to the former Panasonic factory, and designed the Minsheng Museum of Modern Art (THE PLAN 086) in one section of the south wing. A tilted cube of quilted metal defines the entry and creates a dynamic lobby in which walls and bleachers are washed with natural light pulled in obliquely at different points. Expansive galleries open off this central void.
In Jingdezhen, the “Porcelain Capital” of China where pottery has been made for 1,700 years, Zhu recently completed the Imperial Kiln Museum, on a site adjoining a historic temple and ruins of past kilns, reinterpreting the original workspaces in a complex of brick tunnel vaults. The kilns had to be rebuilt every two or three years as their thermal performance declined, and the site is littered with old bricks, many of which were incorporated into the new structures, along with new multicolored bricks made in the traditional fashion and attached to the inner and outer surfaces of a poured concrete shell. That ties them to the site, physically and spiritually, and gives visitors a tactile sense of the place where the exhibits were fabricated.
By varying the shape and placement of each vault, pulling them apart, and incorporating five sunken courtyards, Zhu has created an architectural promenade of great complexity and beauty. Light filters in from tiny apertures in the roof or from the open ends and is reflected off a pool that evokes the river close by. One vault frames another as the boundary between inside and out is eroded, and low-set openings encourage visitors to crouch and look out at the ruins. There is a constant shift of levels since most of the exhibition spaces are partially buried. The interlocking volumes, varied tones and textures engage the senses and they illustrate Zhu’s conviction that most contemporary museums are too complete and perfect. Just as ink wash paintings contain large areas of empty white space, so - he argues - should buildings leave room for one’s imagination to fill in the gaps and experience the physicality of space.