“We use two aspects to express architecture: Qing [emotion], Jing [pattern]. Jing is the architectural pattern that we apply, to certify the living and working style, to consider what our architecture can bring. Another thing is the relationship between architecture and the site, the city and nature. Ancient Chinese dwellings are usually enclosed by walls, creating an introverted space. This is the second aspect Qing, more related to traditional customs, aesthetics, and our attitude towards the environment and nature. The enclosed space originates from our interpretation of Qing. What we have captured about the ancient spirit of aesthetics is a kind of uncertainty, a kind of blurry and ambiguous feeling.”
- Chen Yifeng, Shanghai, 2013
EMOTIONAL DESIRES HAVE NOT CHANGED
PAR: You explore the ancient idea of space, the relationship with the surroundings, the creation of enclosures - why is it important to follow this path? Or to put it another way: why do you use ancient concepts to create new architecture?
CY: I feel we relate to the past more in terms of the attitude towards the environment or the relationship with aesthetics, instead of ancient concepts... Nowadays Chinese people are living a global lifestyle, which is extremely different from the past, but we still feel that there is something valuable in our tradition for contemporary Chinese people, like aesthetics, the concept of nature and the environment, interpersonal relationships, and certain attitudes on a moral level. So we would like to keep and extend these values, and express them with a contemporary method in our designs. It is of great importance for every Chinese person.
PAR: Why is it important to restore these values in the new society?
CY: All these values are metaphysical; they are all on a spiritual level. Nowadays Chinese people’s lifestyle is really similar to the West - our clothes, our furniture, and the use of space - but people need to be attended to and comforted, emotionally or spiritually. Many of our emotional desires have not changed along with our lifestyle, nor our cognition or attitude towards aesthetics. The good and beautiful things that we used to feel were aesthetically comforting and satisfying haven’t changed that much in our culture. On the physical level we would like to offer a better lifestyle through our design; on the spiritual or aesthetic level we also provide solicitude. From our point of view, the traditional Chinese lifestyle and cultural concepts have basically been interrupted. We are completely living in a daily, Western style. So we feel that Chinese people need to be attended to, especially emotionally and spiritually.
[AESTHETICALLY] VAGUE AND AMBIGUOUS CONCEPT
PAR: How can one incorporate the cultural spirit into a contemporary design?
CY: Our design concepts can basically be described with two keywords: one is Qíng (emotion), and one is Jìng (pattern). The word Jìng, as we understand, is an architectural pattern. Architecture, especially in the modern world, is much more than just providing shelters with a decent appearance. In ancient times it was a container to accommodate a safe interior space. Then gradually, the demand for its appearance has grown, it started to include some symbolic functions and meanings. Currently, if we consider all the technical developments, architects have got much more freedom in doing architecture. It is no longer the mission of contemporary architecture to sculpt the appearance.
PAR: So what is architecture for?
CY: From our point of view, it is to determine a certain way of living and working. What we consider is what architectural design could bring to people and what kind of impact it would have on their living and working style. For example this kindergarten [in Jiading New Town]: a common pattern is to arrange a lot of classrooms along a horizontal corridor and place staircases on both ends, but in our case, we combined the horizontal corridor with the vertical transportation by creating a system of slopes. This is one of our patterns; the usage of this pattern directly affects the living and working style of the children and the teachers. The corridor is no longer merely a corridor; it becomes a playground on rainy days for games and performances or a space to set up exhibitions on the walls. This is one of the aspects of Jìng. Besides this consideration for human beings, another aspect is to consider the relation with the surrounding site, even the city or nature. To create a Jìng is to ensure a pattern which directly influences how people use the space inside, as well as the relation with the site, the city and nature.
PAR: How can we include the environment in an enclosed space?
CY: In this project we were less concerned about this point. In different projects we focus on different aspects regarding Jìng. In this building we designed this enclosed space because of the reaction to the site. This building is in a new town with empty surroundings. It is a place for kids’ activities; there is an emotional desire to have an enclosed space. It is also an emotional desire based on Chinese tradition which differs fundamentally from the West. A traditional Chinese dwelling is enclosed by walls; on a bigger scale the city is all the same, it is all about enclosure. This concerns our second keyword: Qíng. Qíng in reality relates much more to our traditional habits, concepts or approaches and contents about aesthetics and Chinese tradition. We wish to create a Jìng (pattern) that carries traditional Chinese aesthetics, in connection with an attitude towards the environment and the nature. The enclosed space we referred to before is one example of our recognition of Qíng. In terms of aesthetics, we consider the spirit of traditional Chinese aesthetics an uncertainty, an undetermined state, a vague and ambiguous concept.
PAR: To create architecture in relation with the present, the architect sometimes has to be both a sociologist and an anthropologist. Where is Chinese society going? How could architects read this change?
CY: The points of view are different for different people… for us we hope China will catch up with the highly developed Western conditions materially, but on the other hand we hope to extend and carry forward our own traditional culture... What you see in our contemporary society is a result of Chinese people not being attended to spiritually or emotionally comforted. It is also a result of cultural interruption.
PAR: How would one solve this dilemma: doing architecture for people versus pursuing experimentation or “education”?
CY: We prefer making architecture for the people, but during the design procedure we constantly have to overcome this state of mind that we are doing architecture for architecture itself. Architects are often tempted to think that they design for the subject of architecture. This is an obstacle when making architecture for the people. No matter what, an architect should have his own sense of social responsibility. He should take his responsibility to be an architect.
WE DIFFER GREATLY IN DIMENSION
PAR: There is a clear connection between your architecture and Japanese design: the use of the space, the relation between architecture and nature represented in the simple composition and the use of pure shapes. Even though Japan shares the same cultural roots with China, over the centuries the two cultures took opposing directions…
CY: We differ greatly in dimension. For example this building of ours [Kindergarten of Jiading New Town] is 100 meters long from one side to another, but for Japanese architecture it would have smaller dimensions. So under different dimensional systems we concentrate on different aspects. What we are focusing on is how the living and working conditions will be with these huge dimensions, while also considering how this huge architectural volume is related to the surroundings.
PAR: The bigness gives the specificity.
CY: Yes, the scale.
PAR: How does this work with your small scale approach?
CY: That’s the point. In fact it’s not that we have to make our design big, but that we don’t want to make it big. [The Youth Center of Qingpu] is in Qingpu, an ancient small town, and we wanted to separate it into different volumes. Qingpu used to have its own dimensions; the streets and the buildings were all small. So we hope that our building, which is in Qingpu New Town, will preserve the tiny yet exquisite dimensions just like in the old town. We recalled the context of Qingpu’s Old Town; we liked the dimension of the little lanes, little streets and the little buildings, and we think this is good for the New Town. We don’t like the large dimensions, very wide or high-rise, so this for us is the correct way to solve the issue.
WITHOUT ANY CONTEXT
PAR: You used the concept of the “Old Town” context, a specific type of urban structure that is now in direct contrast with what is the actual area (real estate and high-rise buildings). Moreover, all these Old Town spaces are destined to be demolished soon and the environment around them is changing fast. How should one consider these disappearing traces in this new and very temporary environment?
CY: [The Spiral Gallery] is without any context, so we are going back to the aspect Jìng (pattern) that we were explaining before; it’s all about how we choose the pattern. This means that when a building is located in a site without any context, what we have to study is the logic in itself. In this case we took the pattern of paths in traditional Chinese gardens and plant it into this architecture. Tradition for us is also a context. If a building in the site is without any context, we will think about tradition, the traditional way.
ACCORDING TO THE REAL CONDITION
PAR: Your architecture is really pure, really detailed; it stands out from the environment in which it is generally built... How can one achieve high quality construction with less skilled construction workers?
CY: It’s true that the construction workers are farmers… That's the situation here; it means architects should spend more energy in dealing with it. In the beginning of the design process we have to design the huge amount of details and draw them. Then when we're actually on the site we would ask the workers to make a sample at 1:1 scale, and then we modify our design according to the real conditions. It goes back and forth several times, design and modify and design again, to reach a final result. It also requires the architect’s presence on the site every day [laughs].
IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE SPEED
PAR: Where do you see the architecture developed in China compared with the level and achievement of rest of the world?
CY: For a really long time we have been learning from the West, probably since 2001. In just over 10 years China has achieved such booming development. It is inspiring that Chinese architecture has achieved so much in such a short time. Meanwhile, we don’t really have such good social conditions as the West. Architecture is such a strong social subject; to sustain it you need a lot of other forms of support aside from architects. On this point we are still far behind the West. Under these circumstances, our architectural achievement proves our passion and our efforts during the design process and during the construction process. We make too much effort. You have to fight with the farmers, fight with the clients, and fight with some authorities because for architects the society, our environment, in China is more difficult today than Western countries.
PAR: What is the most important experience that a Western architect must have when visiting China?
CY: The one thing I hope Western architects can learn is the speed at which development takes place. The reason China has developed so fast in recent decades is mainly because of the speed of construction. There is a common anxiety for each and every Chinese person to catch up with the West; it all depends on speed.Once you reach a high speed, you will have the capability to realize a lot in a short time, but on the contrary you might lose a lot of other things because of this speed. For Western architects it is important to learn how to adjust to the high speed of designing and its process.
Architect: Chen Yifeng / DESHAUS
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi & Edoardo Giancola / TCA Think Tank
Date: 3rd Sept 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi and Courtesy of Deshaus
Text editing: Rory Stott, Edna Gee
“An Interview with Chen Yifeng, DESHAUS” 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.