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Rethinking the origin as a building principle

Zhu Pei

A conversation on Mind Landscapes with Lu Fan, PhD Tsinghua University lecturer Lu Fan: Your exhibition of selected projects by Studio Zhu-Pei at the Aedes Gallery in Berlin is named as Mind Landscapes. What does the concept “Mind” mean to your projects? Pei Zhu: I think the art of architecture represents a process of recreation. It can be understood in the same way as painting, drama and other types of arts, not only because it has an origin, but also because there is a process of brainstorming and creating. So for me, the concept of “Mind Landscapes” can be equated with “not traveling far from the communion of the soul”. For me, instead of simply representing nature, the core of architecture is a process of recreating nature. L.F.: Your focus on “Mind” and “Mind Landscapes” came from your research into traditional Chinese landscape painting. What kind of inspiration do you think these traditional landscape paintings have provided you with? P.Z.: Chinese artists have never thought that landscape painting merely captures a visualization of nature, rather it is perception, experience and mediation. Chinese artists have never sat down in front of mountains simply to sketch them; rather, they want to travel inside them to experience the beauty of nature, and when they return home, try to recapture the moods, memory and experience in their paintings. L.F.: This reminds me of the old phrase “having the images of bamboo ready in one’s bosom”. Tong Wen, from the Northern Song Dynasty, not only drew the image of bamboo on paper, but also the bamboo image in his mind. He used his mind as a mirror to reflect the outside. The reflection and its anatomy constructed his spiritual world. Therefore, the works are based on reality but also go beyond mere reality. P.Z.: I also take the landscape painter Kao K’o-kung from the Yuan dynasty as an exemplar. It is hard to tell where the water and the mountains are in his painting since he included his own experience and interpretation of nature in the painting. Architecture should also be understood in the same way: architects rebuild nature from its origins. And that is the main concept behind the projects presented at the Aedes Gallery. L.F.: Even though the selected projects shown display different styles, they share an inner consistency. Your design always starts from a detailed analysis of the context to then extract the essence of the project and represent it in a concise form, which in turn, creates site-specific architecture. P.Z.: The five projects exhibited at the Aedes Gallery are all in different contexts, and their architecture styles also vary a lot. But representations of the abstraction of time, material and perception I am searching for are consistent. Nowadays, many museums are not site-specific. They have lost any link to their context and origins; it is as if they are floating without roots. A museum space can be used to exhibit porcelain or airplanes, or neither of these. For the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, we have captured the abstraction of the kiln since they are the cells of the city. People used to construct kilns to produce porcelain, then factories alongside the kiln for further production, and homes near the factories. A city of migration, the prototype of Jingdezhen was formed by many kilns. The city used to have kilns everywhere alongside workshops and living quarters, and this became the structure of the city. So the kiln was an inextricable part of people’s lives and memories. In the regions south of the Yangtze river, kilns warmed you in winter. Children would place a brick from the kiln in their bags; their elders would move inside to work; women would hang clothes up near the kiln to dry. The kiln was an integral part of their memories. So, the museum is not just about the form of the kiln. It is also a representation of this memory. We must respect the fact that the kiln and people coexisted. The design should reflect that reality and give it a new interpretation. When we take an abstraction of kiln, transfer it into forms and place them together without limitation, they will be reconnected by the intersection of spaces and vertical courtyards. Yet while the experience going through the spaces recalls the memory of the presence of the kiln, the reality of the actual space creates a new perception as well. As a result, the architecture builds up a familiar but also unfamiliar perception and experience. Nevertheless, the Yang Liping Performing Arts Center is very different to the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum. When we were designing a relatively large modern performing space, there were no architectural precedents from the Bai minority or the Dali residents for us to use directly. Simply scaling up the residential housing and the pavilions would have been artificial. Therefore, we explored the natural environment of Dali. Dali is more natural and was less built up over time. Its ancient city is only 4 sq. km, the rest is hills and farmland. This is unlike the northern cities with their more developed culture, where there were complete city grids and a true Confucian lifestyle was prevalent. For the majority of Dali’s inhabitants, life was lived outdoors, with singing and dancing in the fields. Most of the museum’s performances are now also outdoors, with audiences mingling between inside and outdoors. I believe this is a reflection of the essence of Dali’s climate and culture. Therefore, the architecture also holds an impression of the local hills. The form is abstract, the material site-specific. Performances will start outdoors with the audience enjoying and participating in a performance under a natural roof. In addition, in the Shou County Culture and Art Center, we captured the primitive typology of traditional local housing. The streets, alleyways and courtyards in the ancient city of Shou County are small and narrow, which creates shady environments for inhabitants during summer. The Culture and Art Center has four main programs, including a museum, art gallery, library and archive etc. We assigned one or two courtyards to each program, connecting them with long public corridors. Like a “sponge” architecture, it is permeable and open to the public. We did not use traditional architectural dimensions or the traditional white walls and black tiles. Yet when people walk in the abstract courtyards and alleyways, they will recall the perception of walking in an ancient city. We researched the traditional architecture style and inserted our modern living experience into it based on the local culture and climate. China is so diverse geographically, with many different housing typologies. The five projects in the exhibition all capture an environmental characteristic with the aim of going back to the origins - origins that are neither an appearance nor a symbolic language but rather a construction principle shaped by local culture and climate. Once this principle is adopted, we can create.


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