It is the end of May 2016, Alejandro Aravena’s “Reporting from the Front” Biennale is about to kick off the next day and I just landed at Venice airport. Vaporetto waterbuses are no longer running at this late hour, so I am heading for a water taxi, thinking that it will cost me a bundle to get to the city. But maybe not! I see a lonely figure, “Are you going to Venice? Would you like to share a taxi?” A young Chinese woman agrees without hesitation. As soon as the boat leaves I keep pressing my luck, “Are you an architect, by any chance?” Yes! The next hour flew unnoticed, as we discussed our discipline and common friends. Two years passed, and I am back to Venice Biennale. At the opening of the Chinese Pavilion, I am hopping from conversation to conversation until I am introduced to Xu Tiantian, “China’s most promising female architect.” We looked at each other and said in unison, “The taxi girl/guy!” We finally exchanged contacts and on my next trip to Beijing we met at Xu’s DnA Design and Architecture studio. What follows, after a brief introduction, is an excerpt from that conversation.
Since opening her experimental practice Xu has achieved a strong reputation in China with numerous cultural and educational projects. She is committed to building relevant public projects in rural areas, particularly in small villages in Songyin river valley of Songyang County in Zhejiang province. In this picturesque region, south of Shanghai the architect has completed over 20 projects to date. She calls these intriguing structures “architectural acupuncture.” We discussed their significance and beauty, although Xu insisted that it is not their beauty but a capacity to make a social impact that’s important.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I have visited a number of your projects built in the last few years in Songyang County. I particularly enjoyed my time at the Brown Sugar Factory in Xing Village.
Xu Tiantian: Because of the workers’ choreography in their orange robes against thick, white steam. Everybody likes that.
VB: Not really. I enjoyed it because of two things – the beauty and intelligence of your architecture. Because of the inventive use of details and the building’s strong position. It is unquestionably modern and universal. At the same time, the building responds to every minute detail on the site and it can be unmistakably identified as an integral part of its region and culture. There is a lot going on there for such a modestly scaled project. And each one of your projects has a strong vision on its own, but there is not much in common between them. They are very specific to their places, even materiality is very different. I didn’t find any repetition in thinking or even detailing.
XT: I think this has to do with the overall story. There are over 400 villages in Songyang County. Architecture there is used as the acupuncture strategy targeting local rural symptoms. These buildings bring public programs and they reveal the culture and heritage of each village. So, it’s really case-by-case situation – to analyze the village, to diagnose the symptoms, and to find the right architectural intervention by setting up the program and location. This will impact the design of the buildings to be more about the place and people rather than a signature architectural style. And it’s more about the logic behind each project that is always consistent. The architectural acupuncture is to look for a systematic, sustainable strategy. The idea is not just to cater to tourists, which is, of course, a major impulse for local economic development, but to restore these villages’ identities. We are talking about infrastructure, industry, social structure, cultural facilities, and so on.
VB: Let’s start from the beginning. What first brought you to architecture?
XT: I was preselected to enter Tsinghua University in Beijing. For a 16-year-old, I just picked Architecture, which was at the top of the list of all the departments. Well, I suppose, I went by my intuition. As you can imagine, the list was pretty long, but the architecture was the most interesting possibility to me at first glance.
VB: Did you know anything about it?
XT: No, I didn’t. And there were no architects in my family. I made this decision entirely on my own, without consulting my parents. But you know, later I realized that my decision may have something to do with the house in which I grew up, in Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China. It’s a very old wooden house with a sequence of endless, open and closed courtyards, refined details, and very beautiful spaces. This house once accommodated over 100 people.
VB: After Tsinghua, you went on to GSD at Harvard. Then worked in Boston for several years and later for OMA in Rotterdam.
XT: I worked in Boston for 3 years and then in OMA Rotterdam for less than a year. I went there mainly because of their CCTV project in Beijing. But then I went on a short break to visit Shenzhen and was totally overwhelmed. It was post SARS and there was so much energy – people going out, stores and restaurants open around the clock. It was then that I decided to come back to China, especially since we had to work very long hours at OMA. I hated that. [Laughs.]
VB: Well, you thought you were working long hours until you started your own practice, right?
XT: But we don’t work long hours here! Our hours are very reasonable. I started my practice in 2004, after working with Ai Weiwei on Jinhua Architecture Park in Zhejiang Province. I collaborated with artist Wang Xingwei to design a group of public toilets in the park. And Songzhuang Art Center was my studio’s first building.
VB: What would you say you learned most from your collaborations with artists?
XT: Architecture can provide practical solutions to a real problem. But most of the times projects are commissioned by clients. And artists, particularly conceptual ones are working in a very different way – they identify important issues and address them with their work. This is what could be adapted into architectural thinking and working. The idea is not just to provide answers but raise the questions.
VB: Let’s go back to your projects in Songyang County. I remember, it was back in 2012, when everyone was still talking about ever-growing cities and increasing the pace of urbanization, especially in China, when Rem Koolhaas pointed the other way by saying, “Half of mankind lives in the city, but the other half doesn’t.” When did you start paying attention to the countryside here in China?
XT: It was coincident that my work shifted to the countryside. I was first contacted by Songyang County a few years ago for a hotel project and then we were periodically asked by the county to serve as advisors on their village development issues. So, we worked for one year to take on these projects, pro bono. For example, the Pingtian village center was a cluster of abandoned small village houses that most people preferred to be demolished. But we considered them as a crucial building fabric of this traditional village and proposed to offer the design for free so that county government would sponsor its construction cost. It became a successful project for the village community and started a pattern of working together with local communities and county government in initiating programs to target different issues. Eventually, we came up with the architectural acupuncture concept, which was accepted by the county and led to a systematic collaboration.
The Songyang Story is one singular project for us. And each of these small interventions is done with modest budget and local materials and techniques to engage and motivate the local communities. These individual projects will also create interactions between the neighboring villages. I like to say that acupuncture is performed to release the trapped energy in various places to remedy the whole organism of a particular village.
VB: And each of these villages has its own character and distinctive culture.
XT: Yes, unlike cities. So many of our cities have become alike, or homogeneous and they are losing their identities. But each village has its own history and focus – the architectural acupuncture is to re-activate it by restoring each village’s identity, which will also reflect on the architectural identity.
VB: I understand that this project attracted a lot of attention in the media because the results already are very tangible. People are coming back to these villages, right?
XT: There have been many changes in this region. Young people are moving back to their home villages, and starting new businesses – from e-commerce on local products to tourism programs. When we first started in Pingtian Village three years ago there were only 20 people left and mostly elders. Now the total number of inhabitants has increased to over 100. In Shicang Village, the Hakka Indenture Museum has attracted an investor from Shanghai to open businesses at what used to be vacant houses next door. Now local villagers are motivated to initiate different enterprises that have resulted in a significant increase in economic revenues. People are now proud of their heritage and are optimistic about their future.
VB: How would you summarize what your architecture is about?
XT: For me, architecture is not just about crafting an object. It’s about a place and its people. It is a mediam to respect local history and to address specific issues. Architecture should be able to connect the past and the future.
VB: And how would you describe your architecture in single words?
XT: I never thought about it… It would be too easy, no? No, I would leave it open.
VB: Open is a good word.
XT: No, I mean I would leave these conclusions completely open. No conclusions. I am still exploring and learning. I really like to continue the Songyang Story. We can explore the capacity of architecture and expand on that.
VB: Do you worry about Chinese identity in your work?
XT: What is Chinese identity, anyway? China is too big to even have a particular identity. I think it would be too shallow to generalize it.
VB: Would you say there is a particular evolution in your work from project to project? Are you concerned with developing your own personal voice? Do you see a connection between your projects in different villages?
XT: When we work in villages, it is more important to integrate the program with the village history and the current needs, then to adapt the building techniques or material fitting with a given context and on budget. And we always respect architecture without architects. Every project is different. For example, the Brown Sugar Factory is about the celebration of life and production, a modern light steel structure, a common rural light industrial building form. It is used as a social space for the village and for performances. Whereas, the Indenture Museum in Hakka is a quiet place constructed out of the excavated nearby ancient stone to contemplate local history. It’s about the weight and the ancient history of Hakka. Architecture is also about storytelling. Each project has its own plot to merge with its village context. I don’t think you could swap them around. The consistency of the logic, the intellectual thinking behind each project, the message, is more important than individual expression. In fact, we have been very cautious and skeptical about developing any particular style. But I think it’s inevitable to leave certain traces in our projects. Certain commonalities come through, I am sure of it.