Recently, lots of controversial "Jumbos" have been erected on mainland China, leading most of their creators, architects from Western countries, to be placed at the centre of public discussion. Furthermore, China’s President Xi Jinping's recent comment about "no more weird buildings" has led the Chinese central government into this whirlpool. What can western landmark makers learn from all of this?
We met Joseph di Pasquale, architect of the Guangzhou Circle, in Milan some days after “weirdness” became the most used word in Chinese architecture. In the following edited talk with interviewer Yifan Zhang, the architect of the latest landmark in South China's largest city discusses his new project, the real circumstances in China, and the future for foreign architects.
Define Weirdness, Please
Yifan Zhang: Your building is quite controversial due to its uncommon shape for a skyscraper, especially since China’s President Xi Jinping's recent comment.
Joseph Di Pasquale: Yes, I know. But the issue has everything to do with the interpretation of what weirdness means. I am sure hundreds of experts on weirdness would appear in order to give explanations on being “not weird.” What does it mean? We have to make a cube? This is just going exactly in the direction of real-estate value. Also, there are other examples in history of heads of state who were interested in architecture. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini… they had very clear ideas on what architecture should be. I love the Stalinist architecture in Russia, and I think there is a sort of greatness in this kind of architecture but it can be very dangerous for politicians to get into this field. I like more what Mr. Xi said elsewhere in his statement: that art and architecture should serve the people and the goal of harmony. I like this because it can open new possibilities, for instance, in terms of reinterpretation of traditions. But saying no to “weird buildings” is very dangerous because what does “weird” mean? You have to reinterpret it. It can be a limit of creativity.
ZH: Or, can we regard it as a way to limit some foreign architects from misguiding their Chinese clients for their own profits? We know nowadays lots of Western architects are really doing well in the Chinese market.
DP: I have some problems with considering China as a market, reducing the universe in China, especially in terms of culture. I went to China for the first time in 2008, during what was probably a significant period for China to show the world a flourishing and powerful image. The Olympics came first and they had the EXPO two years later. For me, it was a great meeting with an extraordinary culture. It is a shame to think of China only as a market.
And also, it is totally wrong to imagine a western architect who comes to China to make some experiments and then go back to Europe. Chinese people want to have these buildings, and it is them who pay for the projects, not architects. Not only the clients, but also the planning bureau that approves the projects. They want to have something special. Otherwise, the building would be totally different. It is a very important point to say.
As a Western architect, I still persist in thinking about reviving the local culture where I work. It is absolutely important. The responsibility for me is not to come to China to make the same thing I did in Europe. From this point of view, I understand some of the upset which is now going on in China over some buildings. What I consider as fantastic and extraordinary buildings like CCTV headquarters or Zaha Hadid’s residential building maybe miss a sort of cultural translation or metabolization. On the other hand, they are perfect symbols of a certain historic age of China, the global China, when development stimulates the nation to become a worldwide benchmark in every field including architecture.
ZH: You showed the proposal of the Guangzhou Circle to Mr. Xi Jinping once.
DP: Yes, it was during an official dinner when he came to Milan in 2011 before coming into power. It was a nice experience, and I showed him the renderings of the Guangzhou Circle, which was under construction then. He said it was good and he liked it. Now it seems like that was diplomatic talk. (Laughs)
Birth of the Circle
ZH: If we treat architecture as a local cultural issue, like you mentioned, what was the context in your mind when you built the Circle?
DP: First of all, I did not build anything, it was the Chinese who built not me. It is very important to understand that the will to build a building is something belonging to clients, rather than architects. Without this client, this building probably would not exist. And without his desires, this building would not be the building it is. When I met this client, the first thing I asked him was about his expectations for the building, because I would probably design something different if the client just wanted a normal building. So it was him to kick off the design, not me.
Even the colour, for instance. I designed the building in another colour, not this golden one. This colour was the will of the client. The client wanted to have the symbol of gold, as gold is a very important element in tradition. It is very important to understand this point: we just give a shape to the design and the design starts with the Chinese.
This building is an attempt to take an element which is probably the earliest physical document of Chinese civilization, the Bi-disk or jade disk. It was the ancient documentation of Chinese civilization that I tried to use as a symbol of the building. Maybe it can be seen to be too easy but actually it is a very deep process. In my opinion, it is well designed because it successfully revives an object.
ZH: So the taste of clients and the culture of China is changing foreign architects in its own way.
DP: If you see my projects before I went to China, they are very different. I have been influenced by China, rather than misguiding Chinese clients. When I make contact with Chinese clients, they are wanting greatness. It changed my approach to architecture very much. Of course I don't stop being myself, but I understand something about myself I did not know before meeting Chinese clients.
ZH: Should they always be so big?
DP: I think my building is a small building in terms of dimension. It is only 145 meters tall. At the moment in China, I think the tallest building is 600 meters or maybe even more. My building stands out just because there are no other surrounding building like this. It actually works like an ideogram, which I call the urban ideogram. It is very interesting how people recall the building as big. This is a good attempt at making design appear bigger than it actually is, especially for landmark buildings.
ZH: Did you feel any influence from politicians when you worked on the project?
DP: For myself, not very much. But I felt an influence when I found limits in proposing other designs. At one point, I won a competition for a new city near Tianjin with 75,000 inhabitants, and I proposed a totally different model of urbanization based on the traditional courtyard, with intimate inner spaces and public outside spaces. I won the competition and I was very happy, but after that, some information arrived from an office of Tongji University (where the Shanghai Expo was planned) and they said this was impossible and totally wrong. Now, they are developing something which is the same as always: some blocks, roads, green, skyscrapers and so on. I think it is a total tragedy.
China's Mutation and Future
ZH: Now is an interesting moment for China. Do you think the culture should hold the relationship with the past, or just move on?
DP: Culture is always moving on. In Italian and also English, there is the word “original”. It really fascinates me. Because “original” means something new, but at the same time, in the word it also includes “origin” which represents something old. Then, innovation is exactly what makes something old into something new. I think China has a different approach to innovation because the cultural attitude is to replicate.
Take the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, which has been rebuilt seven times. They built it the first time in the 15th century, the Ming dynasty, replicating something from the Yuan dynasty. Then it caught fire seven times and was always rebuilt the same. The last time was in the second half of 17th century, which was particularly interesting: they could not rebuild the building after the fire because they did not have the people who knew how to rebuild it in the same way. Then luckily, they found a script from a very ancient writer and it described the way the building was built. If you consider the history of architecture in Europe from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 17th century, you can see maybe six or seven different styles because the desire is to make everything new all the time in Europe. While we are quite affected by the idea of the person, the Chinese are affected by their tradition, the idea of “all people”, which is the heritage of Confucian philosophy. This is affecting their society nowadays. They refuse the individual, even in creativity. They like to say “we create this”. The Chinese Expo pavilion was created by a team, rather than a single architect. I am sure there is a person who has that idea, but the Chinese are always afraid to put one individual in front of others.
ZH: Chinese culture is rooted in collectivism. But now things are to be changed: there is a boost of individualism because the people are getting rich. That brings a lot of opportunities for architects.
DP: I think it is really interesting to see what is going to happen. What I perceive are strong tensions in China. There is a huge heritage of cultural tradition, but a present situation resulting from thirty years of erasure of every track of tradition. I saw urban design master plans in many parts of China and they were always the same: the green, the blocks, and the skyscrapers… This is not the Chinese tradition but American.
ZH: They are ruining their own culture now.
DP: Exactly. I have seen this since 2008 when I travelled in China. I visited 23 cities in China, not only the great cities but also the second or third level cities. The third level cities I am speaking about are the ones with 5 million people and their dream is to become New York. I think this is totally wrong. I can understand Shanghai maybe needs to have this sort of reference - even if I think it is wrong because I think China should find its own model of global city and not just copy the American one. Why don’t they go and find something in their tradition that can become global and universal?
The more I study Chinese culture, history and the different philosophies linked to their different dynasties, the more desperate I feel to do something to realize this reinterpretation of the Chinese approach - not only for China, but the whole world. Western civilization and Chinese civilization are two lungs of the world; it is very difficult to breathe only with one or the other. China needs to appear as a culture active subject. Now there is a sort of revival trying to revive the tradition, and also there are more related signals from their central government. Some may say it will be the end of a twenty-year Chinese architectural golden age soon, so what? The architectural golden age will come to an end but maybe a diamond age will start, more shining and more precious!
This interview was carried out in the name of the MEC (metropolitan experiments circle). We are an open group of young architects, urban designers, and landscape architects, with intriguing thoughts on the urban context, conditions and development.
Yifan ZHANG: Architect, based in Milan (Italy), with study and work experiences in China, Italy, Germany and Austria.
Dichen WANG: Architect, based in Milan (Italy), with study and work experiences in China and Italy.