Beijing-based architect Zhang Ke was educated first at China’s leading school, Tsinghua University, going on to later graduate from Harvard’s GSD in 1998. The former equipped him with technical know-how, while the latter encouraged him to question the essential elements of the profession, such as why we build. After working for three years in Boston and New York, Ke returned to Beijing to open his practice in 2001.
Ke represents a new generation of ambitious architects who spent some time abroad and now reexamine both traditional ways of building in China and western architects’ attitudes in their country. They are much more pragmatic than leading western architects who after building some of their signature projects in America and Europe went to China to scale up their established visions without much of an adjustment to local culture and place. In contrast, the Chinese architects start small and they stay away from challenging local building industry with foreign materials and techniques. They deal with what is possible. They actually found pleasure in it. In the process, these young architects developed their own identity unlike anything else in the world today. In my conversation with Zhang Ke at his Beijing office, he talked about his work in relation to the output of his countrymen and contemplated their quick success and what is next.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let me start with the name of your practice, ZAO/standardarchitecture. Could you say a few words about it?
Zhang Ke: ZAO stands for Zhang Architectural Office. And in Chinese "zao" means to build, to make, to put things together. It is also the last character of “标 (Biao) 准 (Zhun) 营 (Ying) 造 (Zao)”, the Chinese translation of standardarchitecture.
VB: And the second part, stadardarchitecture is all written in lowercase letters and in one word.
ZK: Just by writing it in such an unusual way we wanted to underline the fact that our architecture is not standard at all. And the other thing I wanted to emphasize was that it is our own work that becomes the standard for us. With every project, we revisit the fundamentals. In other words, there are no standards, no stereotypes. We put together two words to create a new one – standardarchitecture. We are very ambitious, we want to be the standard ourselves, for ourselves, and, hopefully, for others as well, every time, with every project.
VB: I read this on your website: “Although standardarchitecture’s built works often take exceptionally provocative visual results, their buildings and landscapes are always rooted in the historic and cultural settings with a degree of intellectual debate.” Does this mean that with every project you tend to make a particular point?
ZK: Definitely. Just think about it – every year millions of buildings are built all over the world. We could just build our share of so many of these expedient things. But I think it is important to inquire this: what is the essence of building in our time? We raise questions. We try to provoke and inspire people with our architecture.
VB: That’s how you see the mission of your practice – to provoke and inspire, right?
ZK: Of course! For example, one of the questions that we raise is about our attitude toward heritage. What is our interpretation of history? For us, it is important to come up with an unambiguously contemporary solution. And each time the solution must be our own. So many architects copy what they have seen published. But for us, architecture is not about copying, it is about thinking. Can we look into our roots and reconnect them to our own contemporary culture?
VB: What I find very attractive in your work is that there is both – there is this connection to the roots, meaning history, and there is this striking contemporaneity that is not passive but very active.
ZK: I think the work should be active and it may be striking. But my question is this – is there anything behind it? I try to push this first impression further. I am interested in achieving sensual qualities. So I am interested in going beyond the visual effects. Architecture should be intelligent and we should ask such questions as – how can we relate to the place where we build? How can we address the local community and all people that will use our buildings? Is it possible to be innovative and inventive, and yet, respective of history when dealing with historical buildings? I say – all of these are possible. We need overlaps of histories, programs, materials, spaces; this is where we will discover many new possibilities. This is what architecture is about – discovering, reinterpreting, and inventing new possibilities.
VB: A couple of years ago you had an exhibition at Aedes in Berlin called “Contemplating with the Basics.” What was the main idea for that show and why did you choose such a basic title?
ZK: We exhibited several of our projects there, in which we combined living and working models. We contemplated what is possible. I think that every new generation of architects needs to revisit this very basic question about architecture – why we build? Of course, we need housing, offices, cultural buildings, infrastructure. But beyond that, how do we mark our time? By asking these fundamental questions we will achieve different results and enrich architecture. Bauhaus architecture was a great revolution against historical styles. Architects then needed to create a radical shift to reflect on the revolution in their own technological age of the machine. Is a new revolution possible today?
VB: You said that while studying at Harvard what you learned most is to doubt everything you are told and look for your own ways and solutions. Could you talk about that?
ZK: What this refers to is about being always subconscious of what we do and whether it is relative to our time. We were taught about what was done in the past, but now I am much more interested in what my contemporaries are doing. I studied for eight years at Tsinghua before GSD. There was little information exchange at the time and we were always told what is right and what is not. There was no place for questioning. We had to believe our professors.
GSD was different. Of course, we also had to believe quite a few dogmas but we were given reasons for believing in them. What I tell my students at GSD now is that they should never accept anything they are told. The most important thing is to question everything and develop a position.
VB: About the time when you just started your practice you said, “When I returned home, I was quite rebellious and felt that architects at that time were lacking a sense of mission. I was enthusiastic to show myself succeeding in a fine project. I was highly self-conscious and refused to imitate architectural styles in Europe, the US, or Japan. I was thinking of creating China’s original style.” Could you talk about your mission in architecture?
ZK: Did I really say China’s original style? I don’t think I used the word style, which is something fixed. I would use the word character. In any case, there are many ways to talk about architecture but my way is to do a project and show what can be done. What was good about our education at Tsinghua is that we were taught of the importance of doing something before talking about it. We had to prove whether we were right or wrong by doing, not by talking. [Laughs.] But it is true when I just returned I was very rebellious. I had a lot of anger. I was angry about the superficiality of our culture of architecture. There was so much copying and imitating, while a whole layer of the original, historical layer was being erased. I wanted to find something of my own. How to express my ideas? How to preserve what was being erased? Architecture is a struggle. I am struggling but I think I am on the right way.
VB: You really think that you can establish yourself through many years of struggle? Don’t you think that most architects find their way with their very first project and then go back to it again and again, perhaps developing and improving? But careers are made on the success of the first project. Disagree?
ZK: Sure, you define your direction right away. You choose your focus in the very beginning. But nothing is easy or predictable. And here in China, everything is changing so fast.
VB: Are you concerned with your architecture being recognized as regional?
ZK: Well, it is obvious. Such historians as Kenneth Frampton and Alexander Tzonis would say that critical regionalism is not a style, not an individual style. I believe in architecture as local practice. I believe in architecture that reflects its place.
VB: The Chinese Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was a revelation for so many people. China is now producing its own architecture. While other countries discuss and speculate, China builds. And frankly, the work may lack risk-taking, but it is much more relevant and compelling than projects brought here by starchitects whose buildings are grossly out of place.
ZK: Yet, the work of so many Chinese architects is becoming very trendy. We have become very playful with identifying what is local and how to articulate it.
VB: There is a strong concern for historical continuity. But what about generational continuity, building upon what was achieved in terms of philosophical inquiries and the idea of architecture as an autonomous project? Architects such as Peter Eisenman and some other intellectuals are brushed away; they have become irrelevant. Architecture is being dumbed down and it is pretty much about what is in front of you – building with stone, brick, wood, and so on. Material is just one aspect of architecture, but what is behind it?
ZK: I have to agree with you. The work of these architects is strong but there is no intellectual rigor behind it.
VB: You think you can continue reinventing yourself formally?
ZK: I want to keep trying. I refuse to acknowledge that something is settled or frozen. I feel something new is emerging and will transform my work. That is my standpoint.
VB: You said that your mission is not simply about beautifying spaces. How do you see your mission?
ZK: Architecture has its own spiritual power. No one can deny it, no matter what is the size. It is possible to create architecture that spiritually powerful, that transmits a very special energy. That’s the essence of architecture. This is what will be communicated to many generations to come. The beauty of architecture is that it can touch so many people.
VB: What single words would you use to describe your architecture?
ZK: Spirituality. Will I get there? I strive to achieve subtle, emotional spaces that can have multiple readings.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written nine books, including New York: Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019), Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: world tours of the work of Harry Seidler (since 2012), Emilio Ambasz (2017-18), Sergei Tchoban (since 2016), Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15), and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has lectured at universities and museums in more than 30 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest conversations with the most innovative international architects. Since 2002, he interviewed over 300 architects. These intimate conversations are featured in the curator’s ongoing site-specific installations made up of voice recordings and thought-provoking quotes.
Zhang Ke is the founder and partner of standardarchitecture, an architecture firm based in China. Still relatively new, the firm has roughly 40 staff members, half of which are from China. Despite their status as a fledgling office, standardarchitecture has already completed a varied range of projects, including urban interventions in the iconic hutongs of Beijing and tourism infrastructure in the Nepal region.