“If you don’t know or really didn’t study the local culture, do universal design. That’ll keep the quality. If you want to do something that you don’t know, there is a big chance that it’s going to fail and have a bad impact on the city and the people here. Do it in your own way. If you do something good and beautiful back home, you should do exactly the same type and put it here. That’s also a good contribution because you show good architecture quality… Do something universal!” - Liu Xiaodu, Shenzhen, 2013
Founded in 1999, Urbanus is led by its trio of partners Meng Yan, Wang Hui and Liu Xiaodu, all of whom studied first in China and then abroad in the USA before returning to their native country at the very beginning of its construction boom. In this interview Liu Xiaodu discusses the changing realities of Chinese architecture education, the beginnings of their firm and the positive side to the “chaos” of the country's current urban expansion.
BEING READY WHEN YOUR CHANCE COMES
Pier Alessio Rizzardi: For this generation of students, an overseas education seems to be a “must.” Is an international degree essential to start a successful firm?
Liu Xiaodu: I must say no. You can see that there are a few very talented Chinese architects practicing now who are completely domestically trained. On the other hand, there are obviously a large number of successful offices that have an overseas background. When we got back from the US in the 1980s and '90s, young architects of my generation who hadn’t traveled had very limited knowledge about the outside world. So back then, students like us had to get experience abroad; to see relevant architectural works with our own eyes and to learn the contemporary system of thinking. It can be compared to what the first generation of Chinese architects did in the early 1920s of the last century, when they studied in the US, in Pennsylvania, and they came back to China. But I think now it is different; it’s no longer true that one has to go overseas in order to achieve success. You need to be a visionary and have a strong sense of design, and find allies from different working fields but most of all you need to be ready when your chance comes. You have to get the right project, and then you have to be in the right league. We’re not talking about a coincidence, but there’s a time when you see the chance, and you have to take it.
PAR: What was your chance back in the '90s?
LX: In 1998 when we decided to come back from the US to start Urbanus, the economy had just begun to recover from a 5 year recession; it was the dawn of the grand and rapid construction wave. The opportunity arrived with our first project in Shenzhen, which made us discover this new immigrant city; young, open and energetic but with a flat social structure. At that time there were neither strong domestic architectural firms, nor foreign design firms that rushed in to take the lead. It was a situation with no competitors and we found our space easily. We developed our first project, an urban design, which led us to enter the public building market and we quickly got some works built, starting with a few public urban plazas and planning buildings. To look back, you see that it was the right moment to start. We didn’t know at the time, we took a risk and we had the right timing. We just said: “This is a big chance for us to realize our architecture over there”. But we couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen in the next ten years.
SPACE BASED ON PHILOSOPHY
PAR: Coming to the fundamental aspects of the Chinese space; Urbanus developed many studies and projects referring to traditional and cultural concepts [URBANUS Research Bureau]. What are the results of these experiences? And what might be a contemporary use or application?
LX: Among others aspects, enclosure was a key point. In the past people constantly wanted to develop a sense of enclosure to try to fence themselves from the wildness. In China, the landscape is characterized by mountains and the plain land is very limited. This might somehow explain why primitive dwellings all have a courtyard inside. Beside the functional aspects, the courtyard is a spiritual space based on tradition, on the philosophy of linking man to heaven. So in the end the Chinese courtyard house in the north of the country is not so different from the south. In the west it’s so dry and arid, and then you go to the south and it is rainy, but even though the climate difference is so big the traditional houses remain practically unchanged. China has one of the oldest cultures in the world; tradition carries through its whole history before modern times, representing a certain Chinese quality.
SOMETIMES CHAOS IS PROBABLY A GOOD THING
PAR: Under the circumstances of the architectural frenzy of the last decades and maybe even the next ones, what can you learn from your practice day by day?
LX: What we learned in this period is from reality, from the city, not from theory. Urbanus has been working in China for fifteen years now and we constantly have to come up with new ideas… we love this urban environment because it’s all re-thinkable! How the world actually works, how the city actually works… You know sometimes the chaos is probably a good thing.
PAR: How could the chaos be a good thing?
LX: Because there’s no single thing that can control or change the whole situation. For example, why does the city need a central axis? They're for underlining power. They only happen if there is a very dominant power able to build and create this kind of city-level organization. If such an element cannot be built then it means they are losing the power, that their power is not strong enough. It is like in Chinese cities, you’ve got all those strange shaped buildings everywhere! [laughs] It means they’ve lost control. Why do they lose control? Because of individual freedom - they can express themselves as individuals. Everyone wants to be iconic. Everyone wants to be a superstar! [laughs] This is a weakness we are assisting now.
PAR: Why a superstar? Why does everybody want to have the best?
LX: Uhm… How old are you? Twenty-eight?
LX: Ok, you were born in the 1980’s…in Italy?
PAR: In Italy.
LX: So you never experienced a poor situation, when your country, your family, your life was affected by poverty.
LX: Poverty became deeply rooted in our minds because we had nothing to expect and nothing to buy. Just one generation is not enough to change these thoughts; it’s going to take generations, not only mine, to ease that feeling. My parents, they still have sensitive memories of all the poverty and hunger, of the situation they experienced. For instance in the 70’s the whole society, almost like 99 percent of Chinese people, were living in poverty. We consumed very little energy, for everything. We walked, we rode bicycles and we didn’t go so far.
PAR: Yes, this situation might be compared to what happened two generations ago in Europe, after WWII.
LX: Yes, I saw some old pictures once of a suburb in Rome, people living in slums. But in Europe this memory is too far-gone. Even when you look at those pictures you cannot have a connection between you and this picture. In China, suddenly people have become rich like this. But subconsciously they still have the poverty in mind. Everything happened in such a short time. So this is the reason. That’s why after escaping their state of poverty they want to show their personal freedom so much, to “show off” their richness. They want to say: “I’ve changed my life!” This is their social identity. They want the respect and they want to get it through money. Even if you are not that great, you have to tell people you’re great! [laughs] But if you are really great then you wouldn’t show it.
PAR: In Latin “Urbanus” describes what belongs to the city. What part of your architecture relates to your favorite environment: the urban context? In the West, the idea of the design concept is strongly related with the context of the design… without a solid and permanent context, starting from scratch, seems to many architects just like a pure exercise, not real. But with the present condition of city making, the demolishing, the fast architectural construction speed, you face a condition of “evanescence”. How does this affect your daily design practice?
LX: Well, it does affect our idea buildings; before we thought a building could stand forever, or for at least a hundred years. Right now seemingly no buildings can stand for 40 or 60 years. This should make us think: do we really want to make architecture that permanent; permanent iconic architecture? If I’m allowed, I’m more inclined to create a temporary structure than a permanent one. It’s fun and it’s changeable. It’s full of energy and diversity. See, this is challenging and you can refine it constantly! The world's architecture is changing: the fabric of buildings is getting older and you have different choices: you can renew it, you can demolish it or you can re-use it all in different ways to make a change. I think this is actually the spirit of the new world, the modern world.
PAR: How can you drive the design in this uncertain situation? How do you get inspiration out of “making the best of it”?
LX: Well, not so long ago we had a very bad experience. We built our first project here in Shenzhen, a park design, and it was demolished after two years. It was not supposed to be temporary and we spent huge amounts of energy and effort to make it work in the best way. For a year, we were constantly going to the site, trying to ensure high construction quality, every day, every week. Then suddenly they demolished it and they built something new on it; they really deceived us. That’s the speed! This is something that can happen. So we asked ourselves: why do we want to spend that much energy on this? And then we released and we said: ok, this is probably a normal thing that could happen, there's the chance that it’s going to be demolished in two years, or maybe in ten years, or thirty years. We started to think: What’s the difference between two and thirty years? This question opened up many different ways of thinking.
BETTER TO FIND A TECHNICAL FIRM
PAR: In the Shenzhen cultural Plaza competition, you collaborated with OMA. You might say that collaborations with a foreign office are a common situation for sensitive and representative projects. The different ways of designing and working of two big firms might create issues in understanding the situation.
LX: We know OMA a little bit, so we personally got some contact with Rem himself so this is somehow an expected result. I think it’s a really nice project we did together. And we won the project; it was a big win because we got first place in all three categories.
PAR: What was the story behind the design?
LX: There are lots of fun aspects when you have to discuss and argue. You have to do a lot of things, but the advantage is that by the time we did the project together, each person had their specialties, they had capabilities and specific ways of developing programs. We split the job into two different parts but the ideas where coming from both sides. This created a melting pot of different ideas all put together which produced interesting results. I think, even for the big names of foreign companies, they really need to precisely hit the target, and those who are able to guide them to the precise target are firms like us.
PAR: How did you develop the collaboration?
LX: It was very difficult to develop this kind of relationship. Honestly we’re very careful about collaborating with foreign architects or foreign firms because usually we don’t see any reason to do that! Normally what happens is that the local firm is not a partner. They’re not at the same level so in the end the two firms can’t help each other. For a normal project, we could do it, they could do it, so there is no reason to put two strong firms together.
BRING YOUR OWN ARCHITECTURE AND BUILD IT HERE
PAR: How are foreign architects changing the Chinese urban panorama? And what should Western architects keep in mind working in China?
LX: I think most Western architects have no sense of the context here, they don’t understand the Chinese context. They are borrowing lots of bad Chinese Feng Shui, bad Chinese things or cultural things…that’s not the way.
PAR: So what should they do?
LX: Well, if you don’t know or really didn’t study the local culture, do universal design. That’ll keep the quality. If you want to do something that you don’t know, there is a big chance that it’s going to fail and have a bad impact on the city and the people here. Do it in your own way. If you do something good and beautiful back home, you should do exactly the same and put it here. That’s also a good contribution because you show good architecture quality… Do something universal!
Architects: Meng Yan, Liu Xiaodu
Interviewee: Liu Xiaodu / URBANUS
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi / TCA Think Tank & Zhang Hankun / TCA Think Tank”
Date: 2nd Sept 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi, and Courtesy of URBANUS;
Text Editing: Edna Gee, Rory Stott
“An Interview with Liu Xiaodu, Urbanus” 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.
Pier Alessio Rizzardi is an architect, researcher and theoretician, founder of TCA Think Tank, an international research group founded in Shanghai in 2011.