“If we look at architecture from a cultural point of view, we see we are in a special moment where we are trying to figure out our identity. I think we are too focused on how to transform old Chinese architecture into contemporary architecture; but in no way can you transform it, you can see it with your own eyes. For instance you cannot transform a Roman building into today’s buildings! Sometimes you have to forget about history to create contemporary and unique architecture.”
- Zhu Pei, Beijing, 2013
I Never Consider Architecture as a Profession
PAR: Your educational background is shared between Tsinghua and Berkley. How did these different approaches in education influence your actual practice?
ZP: The difference between these two education systems is that one emphasizes the image and the other emphasizes the concept. I must say that the latter one deeply influenced my practice. At the time I was studying in China, it was still very closed. When students like me tried to find out information about current architecture we couldn’t count on the university, we had to rely on the few available magazines like Architecture Review, Architecture Digest etc.
PAR: What about your experience in the US?
ZP: After I arrived in the US, I started traveling. I visited many places in the US and Europe. You could say that the most important experience I had was traveling, not studying! [Laughs] Once you know different realities, from both sides of the world, culture definitely has the potential to influence you and to give you the necessary background when you practice your work today.
PAR: Not absorbing but combining cultures.
ZP: You start to feel that you belong to the world, whereas before maybe you only belonged to a specific city or country. After I studied at Berkeley I met so many interesting people: architects, artists, musicians, designers, and I learned so much about creation, ideas for ground breaking architecture, for art, for performance… Suddenly you realize that architecture is not a unique closed discipline in itself, nor a profession as we are used to describing it.I never consider architecture as profession. I believe that architecture is art, nothing else, it is more individual or personal, and we shouldn’t all work with the same system. Our education always tells us what the basics are, which guidelines to follow, but this is not everything. What we learn is the past of architecture. So those ideas only allow us to know what the past is; but they never teach us what the future is. It is fundamental to overturn the idea of architects as professionals that are supposed to learn a static discipline. Architecture needs input from the outside to be revolutionary and to create innovative ideas every time.
PAR: A design very closely connected to experimentation and not implementation.
ZP: Yes, I think experimentation is the key. If you leave out experimental thinking or processes, I don’t think that your design is going to have soul or energy.
From Different Angles
PAR: You have studied and worked in the US. What was it like to come back to China after eight years? How was it different?
ZP: When I came back the city was still the same. The culture, the traces of history, the city and country were still the same as when I left, but right at that time it started to change, most of all in terms of the infrastructure. Actually the greater difference was that I had changed. Looking at the city I started to use different judgments, I looked at the city and architecture from different angles.
PAR: Which aspect did you notice the most?
ZP: When I was experiencing this Chinese change, I noticed that it was very dramatic in terms of physical infrastructure. I also felt lost because the whole city started to change not only its face, its image, but it also started to become something that doesn’t belong to this specific area. Meanwhile I felt that many interesting spaces inside the city were disappearing and being replaced by meaningless spaces. And then you feel uninterested.
Beauty and Poetry
PAR: Did you want to create something new? I mean in your first experiences starting with Urbanus, what was the philosophy that influenced the work?
ZP: I still remember my first project with Urbanus; it was the Shenzhen Urban Planning Bureau Building, and my first building realized in China. Shenzhen was historically the first city open to the capitalist experiment because of its proximity to Hong Kong. At that time, capital was everything. Architecture started to lose its quality, there was no life. This design wanted to create an alternative to this: not only creating a new typology for the government’s office, a new image, but also a state of mind in which you feel intimate, you feel the transparency,you feel “poetic”. Basically most Chinese government buildings are the same: a big solid block, based on an image created through a collage of classical architecture from Rome or Greece.
PAR: Why do they tend to use that architectonic language?
ZP: The architecture symbolizes power, this is what they think. So when you see a temple-image building, you are never going to feel that it is a building that belongs to you: you can look at it but you can’t get inside! Our design totally overturns this idea. The users can flow naturally into the building, they can really feel comfortable. It is the transparency of the architecture surrounded by the peace of the water and nature. When people see this building they can feel the beauty and poetry. What’s important is using simple materials; almost the entire building is pure concrete. I like the rough and precise use of curtain walls. The quality of the building is in the details.
No Way We Can Rebuild the Past
PAR: How can you include nature in architecture and the city when the urban environment is deprived of it?
ZP: The OCT Museum in Shenzhen might explain this relationship. It uses nature, not in a real sense but as an abstract idea. I created a space of contrasts: on the exterior, you have the specific profile; you have limits well defined by the form. Since we have used a shell-shape, you have a very clear limit, profile, and geometry but on the contrary the interior was treated to create a boundary-less sensation, a sense of infinity: no definition.
PAR: How does the OCT Museum deal with its surroundings?
ZP: This area is new, almost outside of the city; it is more like suburbia close to the ocean. I used this pebble - or let’s say a sort of organic shape - in soft reflective material, and in this way it is always reflecting its surroundings from all directions. A lot of people go right to the surface; they look at it and interact with it. When there are clouds or a thunderstorm, it is caught on the surface and is reflected so the building starts to disappear. So that’s the idea; reflection is another way to allow your building to have a dialog with its surroundings. There is a similar idea that started with the collaboration with the Guggenheim Foundation. I was invited to design the Guggenheim Museum in Beijing. The site is in the center of the city surrounded by the Ming Dynasty buildings and the Forbidden City. I felt that this special environment was something to preserve and respect. My idea was to change it as little as possible. The design was to create an invisible museum, or one that it is almost disappearing. First of all we needed a dialog with our history that is something we cannot destroy… but at the same time we cannot just make a pastiche of the old buildings.
PAR: How did you achieve this?
ZP: You have to look very hard to see where the building is; it’s more like an art installation.I feel that this choice of dialog with the historic buildings is a different way to go. Otherwise the only solution is to build nothing. If you build, you need to build a temporary building or you attempt to build a building that has little impact on the surroundings. For instance here there can be a temporary installment outside that can maybe disappear after its mission. That’s my idea… I really admire Chinese tradition but that means we cannot build “fake architecture”. We cannot copy, we have to build something contemporary, something new.
PAR: Right in the center here in Beijing, next to this site there is Qianmen Street, a traditional new district where the design was based on pictures and movies, and everything is new now.
ZP: One cannot consider this architecture, I consider this trash. How much money did they invest to build this “fake architecture”? This is much uglier, much worse than the original. And now, nobody knows which one is historic, and which one is real. So that is the idea: we cannot just build a Ming dynasty style building; I feel the reason I consider architecture as art is because art needs to tell the truth. Art demonstrates yourself and truly demonstrates what you want, it does not have any pretense. But sometimes architecture pretends to do one thing or another… that is a disaster. There is no way we can rebuild the past. The thing is, you can never rebuild history, and you can never repeat it. History has memory, time cannot be built. This is the reason I hate those buildings because those buildings pretend to be old. It’s meaningless, and actually it destroys culture.
PAR: How can one interpret traditional architecture without making “fake buildings”?
ZP: Blur Hotel is an example: we brought the courtyard into the big box building, the existing structure. We opened up this huge box and started to bring a courtyard in… In this project I did not repeat the old language of traditional architecture but I created a dialogue between the shape and space with the small-scale courtyard.
Continued on the Same Path
PAR: For thousands of years here in China people rebuilt buildings with the same language and style, with only small changes. However society changed with the arrival of modernity, especially after its bloom in the 1960s and '70s and this practice started to disappear. What should we do now? Do you keep changing it or try to rediscover this disappearing culture?
ZP: First of all, we have to respect and preserve the past: we need to make a huge effort to protect existing traditional architecture and fabric of the city. Secondly, we have to rediscover and integrate: discover the DNA of the city and then follow these ideas to integrate new systems into the city. In the old times, from the Yuan or Ming Dynasties and even the Qing Dynasty, architecture didn’t evolve that much; basically they rebuilt the building piece by piece, or in the Ming Dynasty they applied a Ming Dynasty language to new buildings. I believe that until the Ming Dynasty they used a similar type of architecture, with no fundamental revolutions. In the west the language changes, it renews itself. Instead the Chinese language is created by a continuous flow. In Chinese architecture there is no common knowledge or common sense of what architecture means. In ancient China architecture was temporary; that’s the tradition of Chinese architecture, the material can be changed but typology-wise it continued on the same path. In Rome they learned something from Greece. And then the Renaissance learned something from Rome, and even the Gothic period learned something from what was before. So I think everything goes step by step.
PAR: What has changed?
ZP: People changed the architectural language but the only time when there was a ground-breaking change, a total change of attitude, was modernism. I think the industrial revolution introduced the power of technology; it became a really powerful thing and then revolutionized architecture.
PAR: What is the difference between the two cultural paths?
ZP: Today’s Chinese architecture has problems in connecting with tradition. This is not only concerning China but it is an issue for the entire world. When architecture started in more primitive times, both in the West or China, everybody lived in caves first. Time passed and it developed into a more complicated system, introducing stone elements, from trilithon systems to the arch. But for Eastern architecture it was different; the material changed from stone to wood, developing a nest typology. In the far southwest of the country, you can even see the locals still use similar methods of construction. Chinese architecture continued to use this idea until recently and at the same time Western architecture continued to use the “cave” idea: a stone “cave” and a wood “nest”.
This is a recurring concept in my designs. As a union of these two concepts, I’m now working on a theatre for the Yang Liping Performing Arts Center in Dali, Yunnan. It combines these two ways of designing and the strong concepts related to Chinese culture about yin-yang, positive-negative; the cave is negative but the nest is positive. Despite the strong image of modern architecture this building is very natural, using natural sunlight; special attention was given to thermal comfort, always striving to rediscover a simple and natural way of designing. I believe we need to learn something from this primitive typology: a design inspired by the past and inspired by nature.
Dialog with the Surroundings
PAR: I see that most of your works are based on a certain “architectural meaning”. This approach is visible in projects like Blur hotel, as well as in the OCT Museum in Shenzhen were you pushed the concept of escaping from pure functional architecture to research a kind of “meaning beyond architecture”. How do symbols, icons and signs affects the creation of your concepts?
ZP: We need to create a new experience for the people. That is the key. Then maybe this new experience is going to result in your building becoming iconic or different, or creating identity. My purpose is to create an experience using an innovative typology, design or invention. The image is the result. If you want to create innovation, a special form will be a consequence. I think if you go to the area of the OCT, the “pebble” I designed matches the surroundings because everything is new. When I went to the site, I realized that the museum will be surrounding by very complicated commercial buildings. Every building wants to speak out; instead, I would like to make this museum more pure, to make you feel peaceful, to feel the poetry of the place, to feel the inspiration of nature. I feel this design is going to let people feel close; there is the ocean on one side, it is inserted in nature. People need a gathering space, they need a plaza, they need some place to stay, like a little church in the medieval town. You need something to break the whole generic area.
PAR: So, a design that is different from its surroundings is the way you create a new meaningful landscape?
ZP: Yes, creating a more organic composition, and a surface that catches the surroundings. But at the same time, when you have this relationship, you feel that the design creates a dialog with the surroundings.
Who is Going to Buy It?
PAR: What kind of limitations or possibilities have you felt in your years of practice?
ZP: I think now, in terms of creativity, the atmosphere is very good. The challenge for the architect is not the same as an artist; as an artist when you think of an idea, you can realize it. Sometimes my designs are considered too experimental, so I don’t have the chance to realize them. For instance an artist could create an installation or a work of art realized by himself. In architecture you cannot do this because you have to rely on other people. Who is going to build this architecture? So, I think most of the challenges for my designs are in terms of conditions. Not that a lot of people go against your freedom, actually you can do whatever you want, but architecture has to deal with today’s market and the question is: who is going to build it? Who is actually going to buy it?
Architect: Zhu Pei / Pei-Zhu Studio
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi & Zhang Hankun / TCA Think Tank
Date: 29th July 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi, and Courtesy of Pei-Zhu Studio;
Text editing: Rory Stott, Edna Gee
"An Interview with Zhu Pei, Pei-Zhu Studio" 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.