"It’s really easy to build a building. From the very beginning to the realization; it’s very easy! You just give it an interesting form and you get approved. But the real issues are how to make it user-friendly and to enhance the quality of the life of the people trying to escape the influence of the “system”. That’s the challenge. In my experience […] I’ve learned that for architects, both Chinese and foreign, the use of form to create an object is easy but how to do the right thing is very challenging."
- Zhang Bin, Shanghai, Sept 2013
DIFFERENT FROM THE CLIENT REQUEST
Pier Alessio Rizzardi: Which experiences have defined you as an architect?
Zhang Bin: Teaching was a big part of the path that formed me as an architect. After I studied at Tongji University I became a professor and I taught for eight years. After this intense period I quit the university because I wanted to practice, and set up my own studio. In my practice I learned through observation. I wanted to explore the real connection between architecture and Chinese society: how to create meaningful architecture, and how to produce functional space for our society's special moment in time. It was a unique experience - it’s totally different from what you learn in University. There is a very specific relationship between power and capital and, in the gap between these two, we could do something interesting, useful and connected to the people who use it.
Sometimes you have to hesitate, to do what is important for architects, in order to develop architecture that has a value for society. To bring something helpful is not so important for clients, so the challenge is to convince the client to understand that we need architecture that reflects those needs.
PAR: How can one design under the influence of such power?
ZB: In China we don’t usually have a chance to make buildings for the true needs of the users; most of the time architecture is just for promotional operations, directed by the leaders. So the question is what should architects explore in order to do meaningful architecture? That’s a challenge for all Chinese and Western architects practicing in China. For this reason, in our practice, what we want to achieve differs a little from what the client requests. Usually we combine the two parts and we persuade the client to accept a proposal that is not in the program. Sometimes it is possible, despite appearances! [Laughs] We are helped in this by the fact that in China the program is normally not so fixed.
IN CHINA, IT’S REALLY EASY TO BUILD
PAR: Which practical aspects should be considered when you design to solve the issues of Chinese Cities?
ZB: Nowadays, in China, it’s really easy to build a building. From the very beginning to the realization; it’s very easy! You just give it an interesting form and you get approved. But the real issues are how to make it user-friendly and to enhance the quality of the life of the people trying to escape the influence of the “system”. That’s the challenge. In my experience, after more than ten years of practice in Atelier Z+, I’ve learned that for architects, both Chinese and foreign, the use of form to create an object itself is easy but how to do the right thing is very challenging.
PAR: It is a controversial issue: somehow architects are not free to do what they would like to do, yet on the contrary there is an extreme freedom in creating shapes.
ZB: Well, for Chinese architects it’s very free to create form, it’s very easy! But if we talk about residential buildings, we need to take into consideration that in China we are just beginning to establish a system for social housing. Most of the residential developments are created for promotional operations and for marketing… so it’s not a normal topic of architecture! [Laughs] I think you cannot see the same situation in any other country: all over China you can see the same type of layout and all that differs is the styles of the façades. The developers always want to talk about the living quality but only as a means to sell more. So it is very hard to talk about the real quality; the quality is unreal, just a vision; an image. Most of these complexes are done by commercial specialists with a short term plan; at the same time they are very mass produced. This work is done by big corporations very different from a studio like ours and the opportunity to participate in this kind of operation is very rare.
THE SYSTEM IS SICK!
ZB: …Since the beginning of the 1990s developers have been transforming all the cities. These operations spread like a cancer to the isolated areas in the city. Twenty years ago everyone could buy an apartment in the market, but now for young people it’s overpriced. It’s a very frustrating situation for the new generation in China. The system is sick! The problem exists and it should be changed little by little, but we haven’t seen the beginning of this change yet.
PAR: How does one solve this situation?
ZB: This problem comes from our system of land use and ownership. The people in rural areas have the right to build a house by themselves on a plot, but people in the city have no chance of getting a small piece of land to build a house. The government controls the land and they sell it only to the big developers.
PAR: What can independent small studios do in this system?
ZB: At this moment we have no chance to participate in the real-time operations of mass production.
PAR: How can you use the small opportunity that you have?
ZB: These occasions are not residential projects; they are projects like commercial, cultural, offices or industrial space… Indeed we have some chances but most of the time it is in the suburbs or in the gap between the center and the suburbs. Here the architectural context is very strange with no clear definition. The entire environment could change in one or two years. So what you see at the beginning of the project could disappear by the time it is realized. So our goal is not just following the typical architectural operations that we have learned at university or have sought in Europe or some other country.
Another issue in China is that even when the architect has the opportunity to make good architecture, once the building is in use it is affected by very rapid changes that influence its beauty and the performance. The architect can refuse to face the real conditions, but when the building faces real people it changes, most of the time for the worse. How could you guarantee that architects develop a quality operation in this kind of context? I personally try to work with the traditional quality and average and simple architecture, and also try to balance it with the urban quality and the consideration of the social aspect.
PAR: What should be done now?
ZB: We must face the real conditions and collaborate with the government, but at the same time architects should persuade them to do something besides images, and to do something truly useful for the city and for the people. That is our responsibility. Chinese architects, or architects in China should learn to deal with conditions like this.
PAR: What kind of unique experience can China bring to architecture worldwide?
ZB: There is no common ground, common culture and common experience among this generation of architects in China. We have only individual experiences. We are just at the beginning of developing a common discourse, and right now all the attention is focused on how to solve the issues of mass production of architecture in these last twenty or thirty years. If we compare it with the situation in Japan in 1960s; they had Metabolism, it was a unique experience that Japanese architecture gave to the world. In China we can't have a common utopian discussion like they did in Japan back then because the world has changed! [Laughs] Now I think the utopian discussion has no use in China.
TWO DIFFERENT THINGS TOGETHER
PAR: When I saw the Sino-French center in Tongji University campus I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience of Mediterranean architecture; the materiality and pure shapes, an architecture which the international panorama approves and pushes. It is an architecture that can coexist with different surrounding situations.
ZB: Several years ago I met some foreign architects. When they saw the Sino-French center they told me this building has a specific quality. I asked them: why do you think that? The answer was that the way of thinking was very similar to Western designs. In the Sino-French center there are two different systems joined together. The university wanted to show that our relationship with European countries is different from other universities.
The building’s program was rough: they just gave me a certain square meterage and a certain budget and asked me to develop the idea for this site. So the issue was centered on how to represent the relationship between these two countries, of two cultures or two points of view in one building. I think, everywhere in this project there is some tension between these two different things. The challenge is how to solve the differences between these two countries and to balance this tension. I wanted to make a structure for a project that supports every different kind of aspect. I think this is a typical architectural technique… I mean because this architectural way is something that comes from outside of China…
BUILDINGS NOT ARCHITECTURE
ZB: … If I talk about architecture, architecture is a European concept; it’s not a Chinese concept. In China, since the beginning, we have no architecture, we have buildings and we have space but we have no architecture! [Laughs]
PAR: China has a long built history, why do you not consider the ancient buildings architecture?
ZB: It’s different. In a Western way or in a European way architecture consists of two parts: one part is related to daily uses and another part is a topic of discussion, knowledge or culture. We consider whether something is inside the discipline or outside of the discipline. But I think that’s not a typical Chinese conception; in the Chinese understanding we have no gap between inside and outside. In the Chinese way we don’t think about beauty, environment or the space where people live in an architectural way, it’s different. These are concepts which are disappearing for the younger generation of Chinese architects, because what they have learned is a typical Western approach toward architecture. The big question is: how can architects, with a background like us, learn from this type of university and from Europeans, and how can we implement our knowledge to consider real people, the real condition?
PROJECT-BY-PROJECT, ONE BY ONE, I DO MY BEST TO MAKE THINGS BETTER
PAR: With all these problems that we discussed and all these different approaches that we can see from many different architects, do you think that China and Chinese architecture needs a manifesto to follow?
ZB: I think in our contemporary situation we have no chance of doing something like that. I’m not so optimistic. Perhaps ten years ago I believed that the new generation of Chinese architects could create some interesting, common values, like Japanese architects did through their practice, but now after ten years I don’t think it’s possible.
PAR: Why is it not possible?
ZB: Because we share things in common with the whole system, with Chinese mass production of buildings and architectural construction. There are too many problems, and we haven’t changed anything, and we don't have the ability to change it, we just react to demand in a professional way but not in cultural or critical way.
PAR: When is this situation going to change?
ZB: It’s not clear, we should wait. Something I can do is just to do it project by project, one by one; I do my best to make things better. If someone talks about common values in China, I think it’s fake. It’s fake because if you want to discuss it, you have the ability to create some tension to change the system. If you just collaborate with the system, how can you talk about differences?
Architect: Zhang Bin / Atelier Z+
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi, Edoardo Giancola, Zhang Hankun / TCA Think Tank
Date: 3rd Sep 2013
Photographic credits: Zhang Siye, Su Shengliang, Pier Alessio Rizzardi, and Courtesy of Atelier Z+
Text editing: Rory Stott, Edna Gee
“An Interview with Zhang Bin, Atelier Z+" 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.