It is now expected of architects to turn away from designing iconic buildings/objects and focus instead on creating engaging built environments; from imagining idealistic, form-driven projects driven by the artistic pursuit to focusing on downright pragmatic solutions. China, of course, holds a large mirror to these tendencies, as so many Chinese architects quickly produced exactly the kind of projects that critics favor – modest in scale, straightforward in their expressions, reliant on indigenous construction techniques, and with inventive use of traditional materials. The results, however appealing, seem to lack both variety and risk-taking. There must be another way, not so formulaic.
I liked it right away when Dong Gong of Vector Architects told me that architecture is a struggle for him. There is no substitute for working things out, trying numerous options, relying on his very own gut feeling. Dong Gong received his Bachelor and Master of Architecture degrees at Tsinghua University in Beijing where his parents are engineering professors. He then acquired another Master of Architecture at the University of Illinois. Prior to establishing his practice in 2008, he worked for Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates in Chicago and at offices of Richard Meier and Steven Holl in New York. In the following interview at Vector Architects’ Beijing office, surrounded by numerous study models and piles of hand sketches, Dong Gong talked about his roots, design process, and intentions in unusually concrete and frank terms. The architect said, “The only way to achieve high-level architecture is by taking it very personally and emotionally. The only way to be able to communicate with the society and the universe is to be true to yourself.”
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You have done a variety of projects over the past decade. Could you summarize what is your architecture about?
Dong Gong: It is actually quite hard because I feel that my work keeps changing. My understanding and interpretation of architecture are changing. What is the ultimate goal – is it a personal expression of an artist or is it about giving back something to the people who will ultimately occupy your spaces?
VB: Did you solve this dilemma for yourself? Do you treat architecture more as an artform or a tool to respond to society’s pragmatic needs?
DG: More and more I am becoming convinced that there is no contradiction between these two. Before, I had to find my place between these two extreme solutions – being an artist by focusing on my own agenda and addressing the needs of the clients and users.
Now I feel that first, you need to be a good architect. You need to be confident in your knowledge and experience. But then you need to realize that the only way to achieve high-level architecture is by taking it very personally and emotionally. Architecture should be treated as art. An artist by definition has social value because of what he brings to society. An architect has a responsibility but he has to elevate his work to the level of art. Of course, many people criticize this position. But that is what I believe in. Because the only way to be able to communicate with the society and the universe is to be true to yourself. Architecture can be very superficial if you simply address all the immediate needs and pragmatics.
VB: The scale of your works tends to be small. Building types seem to be limited, so far, to a particular range – small hotels, libraries, community centers, sales offices, showrooms, an elementary school, and a chapel, among others. How do you see the mission of your practice? What do you focus on?
DG: Here in China, there is one building type that I purposely avoid working on and that is a multistory apartment building. That is because these buildings are not defined by architects but instead, are shaped by market forces that are set by developers. These high-rises are not designed for real life but simply provide a commercial product. So besides that, I am willing to do anything. But unfortunately, the building types you just mentioned were not chosen by us. The truth is that my office and other similar independent offices, we don’t have too many chances to work on bigger scale public projects because most of that work is taken by the huge system of national design institutes. Only by accumulating a number of small projects it is possible to increase the scale and variety of projects. This is a gradual path. The more architects become known the more chances they get to be invited to work on bigger projects. So I can predict that in the next few years we will see an increase of scale for avant-garde Chinese architects.
VB: You compare your design process to a chemical reaction. Can you talk about that? What are the key ingredients that you rely on from project to project?
DG: Every project is a kind of painful process to me. Because when you just start there are so many unknowns – you don’t know enough about the site, program, and you don’t have enough imagination about the potential spatial qualities. So it is bits and pieces of issues that are in front of you. I need to face all the issues. And for me, the only way to find a solution is to spend time by sketching and modeling one option after another. There is no shortcut for this. I have to spend at least four to eight weeks warming up. I never had a project when I would come up with a satisfying solution after just one week of work.
VB: Your chapel on the beach project seems so simple. Is this simplicity deceptive?
DG: Yes, it was very hard. We did three distinctly different schemes – complete with many sketches and models. But usually, after these many weeks of struggling there is a moment when all questions and issues are dissipating and one particular design emerges. And when that happens, that’s what I call that chemical reaction. Then I know that I found my solution. This has become a standard process for me. When this happens you know that from now on – this is the direction. And then my team joins me to test more minor variations.
VB: Where do you derive your inspirations from?
DG: During the design process it is mostly about struggling and testing ideas. I don’t get distracted with inspirations. It is really about being together with yourself. But when I am not designing I am simply spending a lot of time with artists, visiting exhibitions, traveling. But during the design process, it is very personal and intense, and I don’t even want to discuss it or talk about it to anyone. This process is not only in my brain but in my entire body. I can feel it. And I don’t need to explain anything to anyone.
VB: Here in China, I heard this term “pragmatic regionalism” a number of times. Do you think you fit into this description at all?
DG: I don’t want to see my work this way. I think the important question is this – what is the problem? I believe in questions that are eternal, no matter what is the time we are living in today. So many architects think today that it is more important to respond to whatever is going on immediately around the site and other most pressing concerns that we have at this moment. But I believe there are more important issues that we need to address. It is very fundamental – it is about your body, your scale, your physical limitations, and senses. Look at all the changes around us. Our way of life changed so much over time, but our body is still basically the same. So there are some constant values that don’t change. There are certain constant relations of our body to the outside world. Of course, architecture has changed despite what I am saying, but I believe in achieving a balance between these core values and our modern world. Architecture is made up of two entities – inner core that responds to the eternal values and the outer skin that responds to all the changes. That’s the power of architecture – no matter when you live you always have to answer these questions – how do you live? What is it like being human? These are very basic questions and architecture has the power to answer them on a very personal level. What is humanity? What is the relationship between the human and the world?
VB: What is a good building for you?
DG: A good building should provide a feeling of intimacy. That’s very important and this is what so many contemporary buildings lack. No matter how gorgeous a building may be, if you don’t feel a part of it, it is very cold. And within this intimacy, some space should be left to allow for a kind of spiritual connection to the place. If that intriguing balance is achieved that for me is a good building. It is important not to go too far and not to turn a building into a spectacle. There are quite a few good examples. But the two that jump immediately into my mind – the Pantheon in Rome and the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria by Peter Zumthor. They were built at different times but I don’t think that matters. Architecture needs to deal with the limitations of the technology of a particular time. It needs to come up with an intelligent solution that goes beyond these limitations. The materials, forces of gravity, atmosphere… When I go to such spaces it seems that I can talk to the architect in person. The message is there.
VB: I had a chance to visit your Alila Yangshuo hotel near Guilin. Unquestionably, it is a seductively beautiful place. The only thing I would question is a lack of tension between what is new and what is old there. The result is somewhat ambiguous. Do you see this project as a contemporary place? What, in your view, is the role of contemporaneity in architecture when it engages history?
DG: I am not quite sure why you insist on having “tension” between “historical” and “contemporary.” I like the word “ambiguous.” For me, the ultimate design goal of this architectural intervention is to pursue an atmospheric harmony with the existing industrial structures, as well as the surrounding characteristic karst peaks and the Li River. I think of all of them together as a new place.
VB: What single words would you use to describe your architecture?
DG: Boundary – beyond boundary. Limitation – beyond limitation. Dark – light. Time – timeless. Weight – weightless. I am intrigued by these paradoxical opposites. This is what ultimately humanity is about. But I get lost when I am looking for the right words. Feelings are very imprecise.