Guangzhou-based multidisciplinary firm O-office Architects specializes in refurbishment projects. Founders Jianxiang He and Ying Jiang are known for exploring what architecture can do within the contemporary Chinese context, including a recent project in which they transformed an abandoned Shenzhen factory into a dynamic cultural and community center.
In this interview with ArchDaily, the founders of O-office speak about their philosophies regarding refurbishments and the current state of architecture in China.
ArchDaily: A lot of your design work, including your own studio, consists of refurbishments of existing buildings--usually industrial buildings, in fact. What is it that attracts you to refurbishment work?
O-office: For the past five years, our practice at O-office involved a number of refurbishment projects. This stems from our interest in the city’s historic past and creating a dialogue between the past and present in this urban context. We are passionate about city dwellers and the built environment they interact with on a daily basis and we want to work together with people to create a continuous narrative for the city. Many of the existing structures we have renovated were disused or empty, and yet they offer greater possibilities than a blank slate could. They are capable of revealing untold stories.
ArchDaily: What is your philosophy with regards to altering and caring for existing buildings?
O-office: The study of regional cultures and various ways of living are the primary processes that inform our design of architecture and space. Through the innovative use of space and material, we intend to "reweave" the urban fabric so as to reinvigorate urban life. Our design decisions are founded upon critical observation and in-depth research on the city’s socio-economic conditions. When working on a refurbishment project, it is exceptionally uplifting to discover the inherent spiritual qualities of space that were previously obscured by its material appearance. We expose these qualities and further enhance them. This process of investigation and discovery is executed differently in every project, allowing us to develop unique concepts and strategies to treat the space. We embrace diversities and challenges at O-office.
ArchDaily: Do you think that working in China has played a factor in the work you do in refurbishment architecture?
O-office: Urbanization in China is unique for its pace, scale, and fragmentation of non-industrial areas. All of our refurbishment projects were confronted with many uncertainties, due to incomplete archives of architectural history, and the unpredictable future of other external factors. There is a sense of unsettlement in the cities. Currently in China, economic growth is the fundamental force of urban development. The city regeneration plans will catalyze more changes in the built environment, adding to this sense of unsettlement. In response to the above circumstances, we do not race at the speed of urbanization to integrate the existing industrial architecture fully into the urban fabric. Rather, the renovated project is designed to set itself away from its surroundings; inconspicuously, it maintains a critical distance from the rest and allows for a refreshing narrative of the urban space. The old structure takes on a new life, represents the cultural identity of a specific place and time, and promotes cultural changes in neighboring cities. Methodologically, we aim to use the opportunity of introducing new programs in an abandoned, vacant building, to construct a more pragmatic narrative of the renovated space, and, ultimately, to curate the knowledge of architecture and space.
ArchDaily: What do you think of the development of Chinese cities more generally?
O-office: Urbanization is shaped uniquely by the laws and regulations of each country. Looking back at decades of rapid urban growth in Chinese cities, we have not seen many effective planning and design solutions. There are, however, a small amount of rare and inspirational cases. We believe the key to a successful urban development in the future is to transform the preconception of the city as an end product of economic growth and technological advancement. Instead, we should conceive the city as a much broader yet integrated cultural subject.
ArchDaily: Is there a particular type of building that you think would be the most exciting to refurbish?
O-office: There are two types: The first being the unconventional structures, such as large industrial plants like silos; the second being projects that are concerned with forward-thinking topics such as collective living, and urban hybridity.
ArchDaily: What is your dream refurbishment project?
O-office: The ideal refurbishment should be capable of providing tangible experience of utopian visions.