Architecture is not important. You can make a microclimate or situation, but you cannot have more influence about life or the urban situation, it’s just a very small operation you are working on, and you cannot control the situation of the city.. But even if you are just working on a single object here, you can always try to have more or less a positive influence on the city, you can always contribute in your way to the city, to the citizens. But in a larger view it’s not that important; it’s you or somebody else. The people are happy or not, their happiness is not relying on your architecture.” - Qi Xin, Beijing, 2013
Shedding light on topics from China's rapid urbanization to the issue of copycat architecture, this interview of Chinese architect Qi Xin conducted by Pier Alessio Rizzardi questions the role of architecture in Chinese society, and reveals the mindset of the modern Chinese architect. Qi Xin's answers challenge many of the myths surrounding Chinese architecture, often through one-line gems such as “what is permanent for Chinese people is the spirit, not material,” and “the most important thing is that we don’t know where we are going... we are making the future cities.”
PAR: Currently in Chinese society, nothing is permanent, everything is transitional, and everything is evolving. Experimentation is actually something that is really common. Is your differentiated approach to design a reflection of this?
QX: Yes. We are human, we are not God. And if you are not God, you’re not that sure what you are doing, so you cannot say one style or one way to do architecture is hundred percent correct - you have to admit that you are not the guy who knows the truth. Once you admit this point, you need to create pleasure with what you are. So that is my way. Pleasure to me is that you don’t know; it’s not that you know everything. And you can play with what you don’t know. In other words, it’s a bit like what Deng Xiaoping said; “摸着石头过河(Mo Zhe Shi Tou Guo He),” which translates to “cross the river by feeling the stones.” He tried to cross the river and to find where to step on different rocks and stones, without knowing exactly what direction he’s going to take. I think this way of crossing is like this profession. You don’t control everything; a lot of things are out of the architects’ control - you have a lot of constraints. The fun thing in doing this profession is to enjoy these constraints, instead of avoiding them or hating them. Every time there are different constraints, the challenge is to play with them, and each time you will find a different issue.
PAR: Compared to Europe, China has very few architects - one architect for every 40,000 people - yet in China you find one third of the entire world’s construction. How is this condition affecting architecture?
QX: I think at this moment, we don’t have the same notion about architects in China as in Europe. In Europe, architects are more like a creator, and here they’re more just like an engineer. Here not every architect has an opportunity to make a kind of creation, but rather to solve a social and economic issue. So at this time, you don’t need that many architects. In Europe maybe you have a lot more architects, but you don’t have a lot of work to do, but here you have to build everything for a lot of people. It’s not the same way to explore this profession. It’s more about the quantity than the quality. In Europe you have a long urban and architectural tradition; you have to consider what is this relationship between the existing urban situations and what work you are going to do. Here you don’t have to think about this kind of context, so it’s more or less an easier way to make architecture. This is the general situation in China; we are creating an existing situation for the future.
PAR: Usually the starting point of design is to consider the surroundings and what meaning the project will have in relation to them. In China the urban environment is created from zero or it’ll change fast in the near future, so how can you deal with the absence of context?
QX: Actually this was a very big challenge when I came back to China. For any architect, it’s pretty important that you know what the constraints are when you start your job. I started my career in Europe, so when I came back, every time I got a new scheme to do I would find different maps at different scales, to understand the situation about the region, the city, the district, and the neighborhoods. But it doesn’t work at all in this way in China, because when you look around almost any city in China it’s a big myth. You have the tall buildings and the low buildings, the square and the round building, the red and black, the “European style” and “Chinese style”; everything is put together. So what is your reference, and with what do you want the dialogue? Especially when you have a neighbor here, another neighbor there, maybe when your building is built, your neighbors would have disappeared already! So this is the urban context. More than often we have to start with an agricultural field. You have nothing, just agricultural field. You have no reference, so it’s just like we are put on the moon, and apparently you can do anything you want.
Architecture is Not Important
PAR: So with maximum freedom you can just experiment?
QX: Yeah, but once you don’t have this reference, you are lost; you don’t know what to do or how to start your work. So at this moment, you have to find out how to make your constraints by yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do. For instance, if you work in Beijing region, you can refer to the physical urban situation, but also to cultural influences, or to something else totally different. The most important thing is that we don’t know where we are going. I mean we don’t know what the future situation of the city will be or what it will look like; we are making the future cities. All we have been told about the city is that it’s disappearing, because the physical world becomes less important, and we are living more with the Internet, you are living everywhere or anywhere. So you are not constrained in a physical street or a physical square, all those architectural terms are not adapted to today’s situation. This is more or less the reality and this reality means architecture is not important, style is not important. We have to admit it - as an architect, you are not important at all.
PAR: So what should be the focus of design? Users, future users, or permanency?
QX: I mean architecture is not important. You can make a microclimate or situation, but you cannot have any more influence than that on life or the urban situation - it’s just a very small operation you are working on, and you cannot control the situation of the city. But even if you are just working on a single object, you can always try to have a positive influence on the city, you can always contribute in your way to the city, to the citizens. Here everything is more or less an independent event but with this independent event, you can still make something for the city. So it depends on how you are going to treat it. But in a larger view it’s not that important; it’s you or somebody else. People are happy or they’re not, their happiness is not relying on your architecture.
PAR: So you don’t think that architecture can solve the world’s problems?
QX: No, definitely not. Even Obama cannot.
Follow What is Taught
PAR: I’m really interested as an outsider, in understanding what characteristics of the Asian space remain in contemporary architecture, and how do these concepts influence the architecture that you produce?
QX: Every tradition is changing, so a lot of people carry out research and try to apply the tradition into our creation. But is this tradition still alive? That’s a big question. That’s the reason why you have all kinds of architecture now in China - a lot of European, Australian, American style, because the tradition is disappearing and people can adapt and live like everyone else. But the big difference between Asian people and European or Western people is that we are much less conservative. It’s very difficult to make something new and different in France, especially in the countryside or in the small towns. But here everybody is expecting something new and different. In this way we don’t have the same expectations about our future or life. Another fundamental difference between Chinese and Western people is this kind of harmony of materiality. In China, maybe in Japan as well, none of the material things are permanent. So we think it’s normal that the architecture will be damaged over time or by other events. But in your country, since the Roman times, you put a concept of permanence on architecture for everything. Here we build it just for a very short, human life period, and it can disappear or be replaced. Every material thing is permanently replaced by something similar, so what is permanent for Chinese people is the spirit, not material. For instance, when we built Beijing city we applied an urban scheme that was established in Confucius’ time, and we built exactly the same dimension of the city, same number of the main roads and the same place for the Forbidden City. So that is something very old, I mean thousands of years ago; we are still working in the same way. The same thing applies to single architecture. I mean single architectural work hasn’t evolved for thousands of years, so if you are not an expert, you cannot distinguish which is Han style, which is the Song style, and which is Tang style, every style is just a small variation.
PAR: The style evolves, it doesn’t change completely but it is being refined just a little, piece by piece.
QX: Yeah, anyway it’s a kind of variation. So it doesn’t matter that you replace something with something of the same style. Actually the big fight nowadays is about the copyright or intellectual right. Because actually Western people attack Chinese people for making copies everywhere, but this is what we have done for thousands of years. You are expected to follow what your ancestors taught you; that is the right way for Chinese people, to respect the existing rule. If you are working in another way, it is wrong; if you are copying, it is right. So everything is changing permanently, but the style is staying there. I think that is a big question of understanding between two people. Western people cannot understand why we are destroying large amounts of ancient architecture, and replacing it with the new architecture that looks exactly like the old ancient style.
PAR: How is this concept reflected in the new constructions?
QX: Actually in China we haven’t got our own urban architecture style or typology. In Europe you have urban architecture; meaning the density, the relationship between the buildings. You have for instance the common wall shared by two neighbors, but here from an Emperor to a farmer, they live exactly in the same typology of architecture. This is more or less a rural architectural typology, not at all an urban typology. Every house is an independent element, and they are not touching each in order to make an urban feature. Urban features were made by the wall between the buildings or by a gallery. Nowadays instead of one building with a three meter high wall you have twenty or thirty level buildings. So this wall may be still there but you cannot build a wall for a thirty level building, so you find a different picture, which is very difficult for European people to appreciate. That is the reason why you can find a single object everywhere. It is the reason why the people don't know how to live together side by side; they just know how to live by themselves with a kind of distance.
PAR: So with the ancient city there was a common life, but now the translation is a new way, it’s no longer a community. The individuals are physically separated in independent cells, so the space is completely changed.
QX: Yes, in architecture school we were always taught about this community life but actually nowadays nobody or few people are still working in a physical community. For most people their community is on the computer, it’s everywhere. When you see how the community lives, it’s quite a funny way in China. You can see light everywhere, people dancing and singing on the street. But this space is not at all one resource of the very nicely built and considered urban space. It can be anywhere; it can be under the express road.
PAR: In numerous projects you did, you deal with the traditional Chinese space, the small scale spaces and the cluster of elements that create complex systems. For instance in many different projects that you have done in collaboration with Dashaus we can see clearly that the clusters generate the project. Could it be described as a common feature of your design approach?
QX: It really depends on the project. When you work on small buildings, it depends a lot on the physical environment and function, so sometimes I try to play with that, with putting a compound of the units together to make something. Actually I’m trying more and more to make something that always relates to a local situation. I don't know if it is a Chinese situation or if it is a very local situation but I try to make something with it. Something that I realized from a scheme I started last year is that actually it’s a kind of debate that has been going on for almost hundred years in China: how are we going to translate our heritage into new architecture? When you look at traditional Chinese architecture you realize that it is Chinese, it has engaged a certain way to express the Chinese mind. It becomes a kind of pattern that we can definitely say is Chinese style, and that leaves us a lot of space to explore Chinese architecture and the Chinese mind. So in this way, certainly you can get a lot of of freedom to create something that is very much Chinese. But it doesn't look like traditional Chinese architecture at all. That is what I have been trying to do in recent projects; making Chinese architecture that doesn't look like Chinese architecture. That is the point that I’m interested in.
PAR: How do you consider Iconic architecture and what is the relation you have with Iconic architecture?
QX: I will tell you a story about the Olympic Park site. The city was organizing a new group of cultural buildings with three museums: the new Namoc National Art Museum, the Art and Crafts and Immaterial Heritage Museum and the third one is the Sinology Museum. The city wanted to build something that had a kind of coherence between the buildings, but every single client organized their own international competition and the result was that you had three buildings that had nothing to do with each other. I worked quite close with Jean Nouvel and NAMOC. From the beginning he, like every architect, thought that we should try to have a kind of coherence and dialogue between these three buildings and once he found out that his building will just be beside the "Chinese architecture" and that the buildings were totally different, he asked how we can change those two buildings? I told him that if we could save his building and have it built as he wanted it; it was already a victory. So you don't even have to think to change other buildings. In another way this is the situation of our time, you have a different understanding of architecture, that may not be the perfect result in terms of urban or architectural creation but it is the perfect answer to our time. It's a bit like the medieval age in an Italian village, everybody was working on their own, but together they made something; from our point of view today there is coherence, there is a kind of vitality.
Architect: Qi Xin / Qi Xin Architects and Engineers
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi (TCA Think Tank)
Date: 25th July 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi
Text Editing: Edna Gee, Katie Watkins and Rory Stott
"An Interview with Qi Xin, Qi Xin Architects and Engineers" is part of the book: “The Condition of Chinese Architecture” published by Chinese Architectural & Building Press. The research is in collaboration with Venice Biennale Fundamentals, l’ARCA International Magazine, STUDIO Architecture and Urbanism Magazine and patronaged by Polytechnic University of Milan.