“We have to try to work with scale and memory. I think in the last twenty years the main problem is that we lost the 归宿感 [sense of belonging]. The people here have been moving from house to house for a long time, the result is that we don’t have a feeling of home… even if you are staying in a nice house or villa you don’t consider it as an ideal or permanent home where you could stay. This might be considered the problem. More than ten years ago we used to have that feeling, the sense to belong to a specific space. We used to live in neighbourhoods where we had a social background, a community, now you don’t have any community, you don’t see the neighbors any more. Now Chinese people are becoming lonely, they are losing that feeling and becoming 'homeless'.” - Zhang Lei, Nanjing, 2013
STARTING FROM SPACE
Pier Alessio Rizzardi: After you spent a period in Europe studying in Switzerland, what was it like to start working back in China and how did you start to develop your conceptual ideas into physical designs?
Zhang Lei: We started in 2002; one of our earliest projects was the Research Center at Nanjing University. My ideas were clear since the beginning; I wanted to express the qualities of the modern, contemporary space. I did everything I could to avoid traditional or cultural concepts. So the design was just the result of a combination of function and space. Nothing related with traditional materials or ancient shapes. In order to support these ideas I used a minimalist architectural language… This [the Research Center] was the first project where I expressed myself as an architect. Here at AZL Architects we don’t talk that much about the issues of tradition as so many of our Chinese colleagues do.
PAR: In the early 2000s this approach was different from other architects of your generation who were predominantly concerned with researching “Chineseness” and identity.
ZL: Yes, if we look back we didn’t fit in. At that time it was one of the earliest projects by Chinese architects entirely focused on space. There were very few projects able to deal with space in a clear and rational way… For me this was the starting point of my design basis that shaped my career.
PAR: Slit House [Nanjing 2007] is an integration of space, environment, and construction. How do all these issues come together in such a small-scale project?
ZL: This building is the first and only new project in that area that actually looks new! [laughs] This project had very specific conditions compared to the rest of the city. To make it work we had to deal with many issues and we had to integrate aspects of construction, environment and space all together. In this area it’s difficult to do a new project and the new project must somehow imitate the traditional buildings. This trend started at the beginning of the last century and now it has become a kind of brand of Nanjing, we call it a Minguo-Era style - not Chinese vernacular architecture but Western villas from the concession age. This way of designing is different from traditional eastern architecture; they have several floors without any courtyards. These buildings are so paradoxically different from the local tradition that they could easily fit today's urban planning regulations, including the setback from the property line. For us the challenge of the project was to create a relationship between the surrounding buildings while using a contemporary language.
PAR: How did you find the right balance between a design which fits these strict regulations and the taste of the bureaucracy, without giving up your experimentation?
ZL: During the initial discussions with the client, we had to push the relationship with the surroundings. So in the rendering we showed the urban planning bureau that the facade was made of bricks, not concrete. We explained that we would use the same bricks as the surrounding buildings. We claimed that in this way we would be all part of the same “family”... With this we got approved. After that we approached it with a wider angle; when this context was built at the beginning of the last century, bricks were the main and essential construction material. Nowadays if we were to use these kinds of bricks we would probably use them as decoration, applied on the facade, not really for construction… So in the second stage I changed the material and I used concrete. In China concrete is used mainly for fast and rough construction. Normally you don’t have enough time, money and precision to do delicate work like Tadao Ando. We have to face the real conditions of our very high speed and low budget standards, that’s the reality. That means the situation here is against architects who are trying to design with concrete in an elegant way. The challenge of the project was to go against the general way of doing things and to show the quality and potential of the material in itself. So we experimented, we started playing with textures and patterns on the concrete surface using several 1:1 physical models directly on the wall on site. We didn’t stop until we found the right one; the one that could recall the rhythm of the bricks, linking the contemporary building with its historical surroundings. Most of the time in China the work site is the most difficult issue to solve, the management, the skill level of the workers, and the type of machines and material used etc., seriously affect the final results of the construction. In this case we were lucky to resolve most of it, because as a secondary result of the concrete surface treatment, we found a perfect way to reduce the visibility of possible imperfections in the finishing. So the finished building appeared to be a clean and accurate construction.
PAR: Slit House is quite a small and different design, compared with what we usually see in your practice.
ZL: Yes, it was a compelling design considering the scale, the historical background and the context. If we look at the model we see the house is split and separated in two parts, then it splits again into two parts with a half-floor height difference. The slit is combined with the staircase, going from top to bottom. The light from above comes from the sky, through the slit. All the lighting is directly from the top at the center. It is interesting to notice that in China, the spiritual center for each home is the courtyard. From this place you can look at the outside world: the sky, the ground, nature… the heavens. Maybe in the ancient Western countries this center could have been the fireplace, where the whole family gathered around it. In China, still, the center of living is the courtyard. In this way, for each house, you should build the relationship between human beings and the outside world. In this area we didn’t have the possibility for a courtyard house, we didn’t have a center, so we created it. This slit is the center, the spiritual energy of the house. In this slit you can walk up or walk down the stairs and you can feel that you are connected with the outside through the view.
PAR: What’s the difference between designing in the middle of the city with a consistent urban fabric, and to design outside of the city, in the peripheries or a new part of the city?
ZL: The design takes quite different directions but somehow the approaches are similar. In different cases you might face different densities and different contexts. If we are in the city, the way of approaching the design should try to make not only a building in itself but also an element that can create a positive reactivation of the place and the people. Normally in our cities, the public buildings have no public space. That’s the problem. You call them “public buildings” but they are not meant for the public. In all Chinese cities important buildings are basically monumental. There is no public accessibility, they are closed and monumental; ordinary people cannot go inside. People cannot even come close or they don’t want to come close. One reason is because it is not made on a human scale, or to be used by people. The building's only use is to be looked at. Urban planning is an important thing in all Chinese cities, because in China this fast development really relies on urban renewal. So the whole department in the Chinese government is like a big developer. They use the land of the city to make a lot of money, and then push to further the development and build all these facilities not for human use but to show they are there, to represent the government. Buildings designed for public use, for public accessibility is what our society needs.
PAR: What goals should architects and professionals involved in shaping the country in these days be striving for? What kind of work ethic should the university embed in the young minds of the students?
ZL: In China this fast growth, this “urban revolution” creates issues and demands that we were not used to before, so to deal with this demand we have to observe our cities and learn through practice. The university didactics should be related to this reality. Of course we should do more research on the real condition instead of just blindly reproducing languages and forms from the west. Our teaching should relate more to the topic of society, solving social problems, and examining urban and social issues. If we didn’t just focus on form and shape, on whether it should look like traditional or modern Chinese, the results would certainly be a lot more meaningful.
For me good architecture means something positive, it is something able to create places where people would like to be, to develop activities and enjoy the space. We see all these different shapes of buildings in magazines but those buildings have no relation with people. People say that this expresses contemporary Chinese architecture, but in fact that expresses only some symbols.
PAR: What can you do in your practice to influence this system in a positive way?
ZL: We have to try to work with scale and memory. I think in the last twenty years the main problem is that we lost the 归宿感 [sense of belonging]. The people here have been moving from house to house for a long time, the result is that we don’t have a feeling of home… even if you are staying in a nice house or villa you don’t consider it as an ideal or permanent home where you could stay. This might be considered the problem. More than ten years ago we used to have that feeling, of belonging to a specific space. We used to live in neighborhoods where we had a social background, a community, now you don’t have any community, you don’t see the neighbors any more. Now Chinese people are becoming lonely, they are losing that feeling and becoming “homeless”.
In our designs we always try to use specific materials, and to use a humanized urban and architectural scale. This means that also compositionally we can create these memories; we can create these spaces where people can relate to their neighbors. In this way we create a new society which feels the sense of belonging. Every day ancient urban fabrics in the centers of our cities are being demolished. We lost so much culture and we won’t see it again. Since the beginning the government has been like a developer, they work with the GDP, trying to make more money. Slowly things are changing and they are getting better, because they are realizing that's not sustainable. So maybe we can preserve these traditional areas inside the city, we would love to but the reality is different. If we are invited to do big scale projects in these areas we, try to push developers to preserve them and sometimes we can. On the other hand if these areas are already demolished and we have to build new projects we still have to remember the social background of the previous neighborhood. For instance we can develop a small street, a human scale environment, and create a space that inherits a certain legacy, that feels that memory. This is something we can do: to base certain parts of the new design on the legacy of the pre-existing environment.
THE CHANGE IS THE ANSWER
PAR: As an observant audience looking at China to discover new, inspiring approaches to architecture, what should we look out for?
ZL: In Western countries you have a very sophisticated system, a rigid structure of the city where you cannot do big changes like here in China. If you look at our cities, we change a lot, but the opportunities to make something good are few, for so many reasons… the only opportunities that we have as architects are the small-scale projects, to create something special. In the same way I think you should learn from the situation here and do some changes in order to create small scale points of action… like acupuncture, you don’t act on the whole body as you cannot change everything in the city, but you can act in a small spot and make the whole body feel better. It can change a lot.
Architect: Zhang Lei / AZL Architects
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi & Edoardo Giancola (TCA Think Tank)
Date: 11th September 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi, Edoardo Giancola, and Courtesy of AZL Architects
Transcription: Edna Gee
Text Editing: Rory Stott
“An Interview with Zhang Lei, AZL Architects” 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.