Meeting with many leading, independent Chinese architects and visiting their built works throughout China in recent years has shaped my understanding of their contributions as regionally sensitive, poetic, photogenic, and even seductive. Yet, so many of these projects can be confused as being produced by a single, narrowly-focused practice. These works are often small in scale and built far from urban centers where ordinary people could benefit from them most. There is a lack of diversity and risk-taking. The following excerpt from my interview with Beijing-based architect Li Hu on his recent visit to New York overturned my doubts and gave me much hope for China’s urban future.
Being educated at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Rice University in Houston, Li Hu worked with Steven Holl for a decade – first in New York and then as the director of his Beijing office, collaborating on several major projects in China. That unique experience prepared him well when together with his partner Huang Wenjing, Li founded OPEN Architecture, an experimental design and research studio based in Beijing. Since then they have realized a series of fantastic urban projects that we discussed along with Li’s inspirations, intentions, and why architecture can give people hope.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You worked very closely with Steven Holl. Could you talk about his influences on you?
LH: There are many influences, but I intentionally avoid any formal similarities with Steven’s work. [Laughs]. First, any project needs to be driven by a clear and strong concept from the very beginning, in order not to be compromised as easily. There is always a compromise – budget, time, and so on. But if your idea is strong it will survive to the end. I am talking about real ideas, not mere beautification. Every project –is framed by the original idea in the beginning and the details at the end. Steven always said, “Skip the middle step,” such as dressing façades. You start with an idea and you end with details that bring a human touch and, in a way, spiritual quality to the project by focusing on the texture, materials, and key details.
The second lesson I learned from Steven is the importance of being an idealist. To survive this very tough profession you must be an idealist, meaning not making any compromises to your values. You can say no to a project but do not compromise your values. And the third influence – he works like an artist.
VB: Is that how you work? Do you see yourself as an artist?
LH: Not literally. We work differently. I don’t start every project with watercolors. But to me, an artist is someone who does what he truly believes in. Architecture is a means of expression. You are saying something with your work. To me that’s art. Every project must resonate with the architect’s ideas and intentions.
VB: Your Chapel of Sound project was inspired by a stone that you brought from India. To me this insight is quite refreshing because architects no longer openly admit to having such inspirations that may be spontaneous, irrational, and random. Is it a typical process for you or was it uncharacteristic?
LH: Inspirations come from different directions. Any design process is a search for ideas. And ideas must work with forms. I brought the stone from the site of our very first project, the Metro Valley Business Park, that we did in India in 2008; it has not yet been realized. I always collect something from the sites where we work – rocks, shells, driftwood. I just pick up things that may be strange or special for no particular purpose. I may use them for something or I may not. They are just memory pieces. So that piece of rock was among many other objects that sit on shelves in our office. Sometimes you glance at something and it sparks an idea.
VB: This example proves that architectural design is quite spontaneous and can go into many directions.
LH: It proves that architecture is about both the intentional and unintentional, rational and irrational. It is never as simple as one plus one equals two. So sometimes, the design process can take a long time; other times, it can be very fast. Still, even when ideas come quickly, we may need to spend months developing them.
VB: So, if you look at that stone from India and the final form of the Chapel of Sound you can still recognize that form, right?
LH: Yes. [Laughs.]
VB: Let’s talk more about your inspirations. For example, you said that your Dune Museum was inspired by children digging in the sand. How was that concept developed?
LH: Well, there were so many things there. Yet, when you decide to design in the dunes your choices are limited. In the case of that museum, I woke up one morning and did a sketch that very accurately resembles what ultimately was built. One of the inspirations was Louis Kahn’s phrase that a building is a society of rooms. The Pantheon with its oculus was another idea, as were natural grottos and caves, such as Benagil Beach Sea Cave in Portugal. Nature as an inspiration can be found in all of our work. And all of these things were researched before I did the sketch that I mentioned. So, there are multiple inspirations in that project: digging into the sand, the feeling of sand’s softness and formlessness, the exploration of forms that are optimal to withhold the sand’s pressure all around, and so on.
VB: And there was no particular program, right?
LH: Well, initially, there was a fussy program with no operator, which is the nature of many Chinese projects—unlike in the West where everything is run by huge boards of directors who hand you a very detailed program that needs to be followed with little space for reinventing it. In China, you work on fussy programs, with fussy budgets, and often with no operator. So, you start with an interesting idea and you use your imagination all the time. That kind of freedom is very important for the work. This project was approved right away. It is important to be able to convince your client with a kind of unbound idealism. Then it took us a year just to develop the forms. And if we didn’t have the deadline we would be still working on it, because you can keep improving things endlessly. That’s the nature of architecture.
VB: You said that contemporary cities should offer “a space of joy.” And you added that your work “tries to inject pleasure and poetry into space.” Could you elaborate on that?
LH: We always try to create space with an expression. Architecture is not just buildings and objects. It could be if we are talking about mediocre architecture. But good architecture radiates with emotions. Poetry, joy, spirituality, inclusiveness, connectedness. I just came back from Brazil where I visited many modernist projects by Lina Bo Bardi, Oscar Niemeyer, Paulo Mendes da Rocha; I find these works to be very poetic, inclusive, and spiritual. These buildings are about many things; I really connected with them emotionally. They are very beautiful, inclusive, and spatially generous. I want to do architecture of generosity, which is missing today. Architects used to be very idealistic and now they are more opportunistic.
VB: You said, “We seek to use architecture to express our emotions and reactions in the simplest, yet most powerful way – to create a kind of spectacle, a delightful, and touching experience.” Is this the ultimate goal of your architecture – to create “a kind of spectacle, a delightful, and touching experience?”
LH: In the most idealistic way, yes. A building should become a spectacle—not for its strange form, but for raising itself to the level of art. If you look at the Dune Art Space, in a way, it disappears and becomes a humble background for the art. At the same time, it is a spectacle in and of itself. So, a good building should be both – at once a kind of shelf or platform to anticipate many things which will happen there, and a meaningful, special place which stands out on its own. Architecture is so complex; it can’t be summarized in a word.
VB: Still, when you try to pick the right words, it forces you to examine your work in the most fundamental ways. You often use such words as openness, connectedness, and reaching out. What other single words would you use to describe your work and the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
LH: I would use the word hope. Architecture is hope. No matter how angry we get about our world, when we work we express our hope. We inject it into everything we do. We work as artists, we express in our architecture everything we believe in.
VB: Critiquing the current situation in China, or perhaps around the world in general, you made this comment: “We build too much, too fast.” What do you think about this – construction and design process time are only going to compress further, how should architects adapt to that reality?
LH: This is true, we build too much, too fast. Architecture has become a commodity, political propaganda, an engine for the economy rather than a work of art to serve the public by bringing people closer together. Particularly here in China, architects are not ready to take on this challenge, the building industry is not ready, our politicians and developers are not ready. We have created projects that already have become our regrets in the future. We can’t easily rebuild what we accumulated in the last couple of decades. We are going to live with that for a very long time. We have built not only stupid architecture but stupid cities. We didn’t have time to plan something smart. We have amassed a mindless production of junk.
VB: And it seems that so many of the Chinese independent architects who are doing good projects, completely gave up on the idea that they could be relevant in cities. So many have retreated to the countryside to work on tiny projects, which are actually encouraged and celebrated by the international press. While the mainstream architects keep destroying Chinese cities.
LH: I agree. It's an unfortunate reality that the opportunity to build in urban centers is, for the most part, given to larger corporate firms and design institutes rather than to young independent Chinese architects who are often denied the chance to make full use of their talents by working on more relevant urban projects. We try to work in cities despite all the struggles involved. I believe in celebrating public architecture.
VB: Chinese architects told me that to produce good work you need to follow one of the two models. You either open a successful business unrelated to architecture such as a restaurant or hotel. Or you prioritize by breaking projects into two groups so that large, mediocre, and profitable projects would subsidize the ones that are small, experimental, and losing money. Is it true for you?
LH: Well, I can name many examples of those two types; some of these architects are quite famous now. But I don’t believe in that. I am not a very good businessman. [Laughs.] I heard Henry Cobb once told Frank Gehry, who was actually following the second model you are referring to, “You have the front door and the back door. You close one of them or you will end up doing something that’s not important your whole life.” Since then Gehry closed the back door. This is how I started from day one. To me, everything must be idealistic. Architecture to me is not business. You are either a good businessman or a good architect. I want to do what I know and love best.
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.