"In China there’s history but there’s no existing context. All the contexts are made for the future. Most of the designs, most of the buildings are only designed for a planning scenario lasting five or ten years. And in that case, first of all, you need to accommodate functions for the future, for the planned purpose. I’d say even though the current project is in a very rural area, it could soon, let’s say in just one or two years, become a populated area. So that’s a different challenge here when you are designing in China."
- Xu Tian Tian, Beijing 2013
Spontaneous Artist Community
Xu Tian Tian: What condition is Songzhuang in, in general? I haven’t been there for quite a while.
Pier Alessio Rizzardi: Songzhuang is developing very rapidly, everything was under construction, and especially in the areas around your three projects the residential buildings were growing fast… I must say that all the projects you designed [Songzhuang Artists’ Residence, Museum and Cultural Centre] were extremely damaged.
Xu Tian Tian: That’s quite disappointing...
PAR: The surfaces were scratched, paint was missing, and metal parts were oxidized. They have put numerous air conditioners on the facade, affecting the profile of the buildings.
XTT: Those buildings need renovation right?
PAR: Yes. My concern is the location of this place. Why did they put the art district so far away from the city in a place where it is difficult to access? Very few users can visit it so the consequence is that the maintenance is neglected. Except for the low prices of these areas, are there any other reasons for choosing this site?
XTT: Art has just recently, in the last six or seven years, become mainstream in society whereas before it was always a very underground thing. Songzhuang started in the early 1990s, in 1994, when a few artists were expelled from the old summer palace art commune. Then some of them found this place that’s away from the city but still not too far away, with much cheaper rent and bigger studios. They founded this village and then kind of settled down there. They bought houses, local houses and then converted them into art studios and now it has been ongoing for over ten years. I think it was in 2005 and 2006 that they started with development in the area.
PAR: How did the settlement develop?
XTT: Just a few artists started that village in the 1990s and somehow it became a kind of attraction for other artists around China. When artists went to Beijing they always came to this place and eventually it got more and more artists. I think when we built our projects there the population had already reached around five thousand artists living in that village. So this is different from the conventional art community, right? Normally they have a lesser number of artists, maybe living next to art galleries.
PAR: Yes… Thinking about art areas in the city like 798 District in Beijing; these are closed places, isolated and almost unrelated to the city. Like in a bubble, it stays within itself; there is no integration between residential, shops and urban life…
XTT: 798 is quite interesting, it’s got a lot of edgy but really good art galleries, but fewer artists living in that area, right? Songzhuang was different, it wasn’t in the middle of commercial galleries so it was more like a spontaneous artist community - and somehow the people in this group became the attraction for more and more artists to come over here. But like you said, it wasn’t something associated with the market, with the commercial side of art then, and it wasn’t very selective of work. There were all kinds of art; it was just open, welcoming almost every artist in the country. Then in the past five or six years there were a lot of developments in the area as you saw. But I doubt whether there were any really good art galleries in that area, most of them were sponsored by the local government and this creative industry policy of China. It is promoting design, art and creative industries in general as a business. So it was really like suddenly, overnight, there were many facilities and constructions going up in Songzhuang, and because of the booming art market a lot of artists started to build fancy, really nice residences in the area.
XTT: At the time I went to Tsinghua it was a much more engineering oriented school. I think Tsinghua is also transforming, it has a different atmosphere now but when I graduated sixteen years ago it was very different. It was much less about architectural design and more about engineering, about technical design. On the other hand Harvard contrasted this because it was really going into the design, into the whole process of making a building more approachable and accessible. It placed a lot of focus on perception, on how you use the building and how you use the space. I followed the M.A.UD program – Master of Architecture and Urban Design – and it gave me a larger scope. It wasn’t just focusing on one building, it was teaching you to look at the building in a larger context, and thinking about a building in a much more sentimental way… to think about building through many different perspectives.
PAR: What still remains of this experience?
XTT: During those years in school I was still trying to understand what architecture is, but eventually because of my experience working in Boston for a few years, going to Rotterdam and coming back to China, I started working with lots of artists and the art community in Beijing. I would say that the experience working with artists would be the most inspiring. When you look at architecture from the perspective of a different discipline, it gives you a totally different feeling, a different understanding.
PAR: What did you learn from your experience in the Netherlands?
XTT: That was very short, less than a year, and we worked really hard on the CCTV project but it was just the energy of the office. You have these arty architects from all over the world and they’re all very energetic and very enthusiastic and passionate about architecture. And I think that was mostly about the attitude and passion toward architecture, that’s probably the most important influence.
PAR: Is there anything that you would like to change in the university system?
XTT: To be more open. Especially for the students in their early years of architecture education, it is really important to open up their minds, to see more architecture and look beyond architects. There’s a lot of inspiration from others, from art, from culture, from literature, from everything, from life in general. So you need to get that as your foundation when you start in architecture. Tsinghua is making a good transition, for example all the teachers and I went to a critique in Tsinghua district a month ago and everything was in English and they had students collaborating with the schools in other countries. They’re really becoming very international, there's a lot of exchange between the schools and the students as well.
NO EXISTING CONTEXT
PAR: Which project are you working on at the moment?
XTT: We have a project that’s in Tianjin; it’s not too far away from Beijing, and it’s quite a small project, 2000 square meters. It’s like a kind of building for tourists; it actually has a lot of programs. It’s a family hotel but also more like a tourist center, smaller scale public building. It’s not a private business but it is still not totally open to the general public.
PAR: Is it in an urban area?
XTT: It’s outside of the city. It’s by the canal in Tianjin; it’s quite a rural, more natural environment at the moment but it could become part of the city or a new city, anytime.
PAR: When you were designing this building, how did you approach your idea in this fast changing environment?
XTT: It’s always a challenge; I think you are not designing for the moment right? You’re really designing for the future. A lot of projects are like this, so maybe it’s a different approach compared to a European city. There you think about architecture as fitting into the existing history, the existing culture and context. In China there’s history but there’s no existing context. All the contexts are made for the future. Most of the designs, most of the buildings are only designed for a planning scenario lasting five or ten years. And in that case, first of all, you need to accommodate functions for the future, for the planned purpose. I’d say even though the current project is in a very rural area, it could soon, let’s say in just one or two years, become a populated area. So that’s a different challenge here when you are designing in China.
LIKE A SEED YOU PLANTED ON THE SITE
PAR: What do you have to take in consideration when designing for a future situation?
XTT: For the Songzhuang Art Centre, before we worked on the project it was an abandoned sand factory where they excavated sand… so it was totally an abandoned site, with no people, no life and no context at all. The first building was really meant to be like a temple or church for the artist community in that area. So when you design you need to get yourself into that feeling or atmosphere, picturing this as a very active artist community in the future. At the moment Songzhuang has become very active, a lot of things going on. There are a lot of buildings, a lot of artist studios built in that area. It did become like a seed you planted on the site. It’s less about fitting into the gap and more about bringing forth more activities, bringing out more possibilities in the future.
PAR: Like turning the issue around by creating a new type of situation.
XTT: Exactly, you become the new context for the next buildings, for the new buildings. In Ordos we did this art museum as well, we wanted to have a dialogue with the site and the landscape and always have an open view towards the different directions. So it became like the central piece - it was actually the first building on the site but it could really evolve. We wanted to be open to the future developments around it. But then, the Ordos Museum, was a different story, because the development didn’t continue, right? So I’m really curious to see what might become of this site next. They had this Ordos one hundred project some years ago as consequence of the description as the ghost city... When I went there in 2006 it was like the whole city was a hill, none of these existed. There was the main street coming into this future city, and then there was only the city hall under construction. It was a huge city hall; the working area per person was 108 square meters in a totally empty city.
RESIDENTIAL AND REAL ESTATE
PAR: The majority of the projects built in Ordos are residential, real estate buildings, a type of building that shapes the image of the city all over China…
XTT: I’m not working in the real estate business! [Laughing] But I think there’s a certain efficiency in housing units. I mean, in each apartment you have to shape it according to efficiency but this efficiency, type of plan, layout, that’s defined or demanded by the market. I must say that if we had to deal with these kinds of typologies our approach would be totally different. If I were that architect I would rather start from scratch.
PAR: In what way should it be different?
XTT: I don’t think that’s wrong but just that there should be more effort. For instance if we had to design a housing community, I would start from the community itself. If we built such a large scale housing community, there should be a lot of effort to make it a nice community with a public area which also focuses on the relationship between the community, the city, and the landscape; nice courtyards, nice public facilities, and public space in the community. Instead of something like that; it’s like another mistake, another piece of evidence of a ghost city.
It’s about social issues; it’s probably not just an architectural issue. So when you ask me about this housing, I say first ask someone really working in the real estate business. Maybe the clients, or the developers, need to be more educated - they need more education, right?
Architect: Xu Tian Tian, DnA Design and Architecture
Interviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi & Zhang Hankun / TCA Think Tank
Date: 29th July 2013
Photographic credits: Pier Alessio Rizzardi
Text editing: Rory Stott, Edna Gee
“An Interview with Xu Tian Tian, DnA Design and Architecture” 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.