Last year I was invited to teach design studio for the first time by Tsinghua University in Beijing, home to the top architecture school in China and one of the strongest in the world, according to the latest international ratings. There, I met husband-and-wife teaching practitioners Qing Fei and Frank Fu. As soon as I witnessed their unorthodox way of teaching by challenging students with rigorous questioning, I wanted to interview them. Their innovative approach did not fit my impression of how architecture is tackled in China. Fei and Fu are Tsinghua graduates; they moved to America in the late 1980s where they studied, worked, and researched both art and architecture for almost two decades.
They opened their experimental practice after coming back to Beijing in 2005. Since then they produced urban masterplans, design guidelines for public spaces in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, and exhibited their work in galleries. We met before their class where they oversaw students’ designs for a new architecture school in place of the current one, articulating what works, what doesn’t, and how to make it a more exciting place to explore architectural possibilities. We discussed their teaching, the impossibility of solving a problem without questioning it first, why they see every one of their projects as a fight, and the importance of fun. They said, “Architecture is a game and we want to play it seriously.”
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your practice is called Renhe (pronounced Ren He) Architecture. Renhe, in Chinese, means any or anything. Why did you choose such an undefined name?
Frank Fu: Because we are interested in many things. We get our inspirations from art, books, music, history, films, science. We run a multidisciplinary practice. We don’t want to limit ourselves as purely commercial architects. We are not restrained to any particular building type. We want to do everything and anything – be it graphic design or book design. And, as a matter of fact, all of our books we designed ourselves. We couldn’t find anyone we liked. [Laughs.]
Qing Fei: We are interested in any design-related problems. And one more thing – whatever we do must be fun. Architecture must be fun.
VB: Why fun is important?
QF: Because we are doing it, so it must be fun! [Laughs.]
FF: Teaching for us is a lot of fun. We want to build our projects but now we spend a lot of our time teaching because we enjoy this process. It is more important than building.
VB: Before our meeting, I asked you to show me some examples of your work. To that, you said, “It is not about work but thinking.” Could you both elaborate on that? What would you say are the main intentions of your architecture?
QF: Our architecture is about responding to the changes around us. We treat architecture as a medium and we use it in such responses both to global and local conditions.
FF: Of course, we didn’t mean that work is not important to us. It is very important both to us and our clients. But thinking is more important than our daily routine. What I think lacks in our profession today is forward-looking thinking. We are now at the closing of the second decade of the 21st century. By the same time in the 20th century already there was such an important spearhead figure as Le Corbusier. Do we have such a leader today? This does not mean that the times are bad. Perhaps our times are not ripe for a single coherent voice. It is time for many voices. We value diversity. This is fine. What we are missing, particularly here in China, is critical thinking. There is not enough attention to research and historical analysis here.
VB: If I may add to that… The earlier parts of this and last centuries are not quite comparable because then the departure from the immediate history was much more drastic. While, now, so many of our leading voices are still the echoes of the late 20th century, and the departure from the previous century to the current one is not that radical and clear. Who can be compared to Le Corbusier today? Rem Koolhaas? But just as Le Corbusier, he is the product of the 20th century.
FF: Well, if you ask us who is the architect that influenced us most, among others, I would cite Koolhaas. But it is true – Koolhaas belongs to the 20th century.
VB: It is time for a new voice, right?
FF: Different, for sure.
VB: We do have new voices, but they are still very closely associated with Koolhaas. Therefore, they are not different, they are more focused. And if he produced questions, they are now preoccupied with producing answers and even formulas. We are not naming them, but we don’t have to.
FF: Koolhaas brought many ideas. But you are right, so many of his so-called disciples are now providing answers and to me that is like mannerism and a purely formal play.
QF: We don’t see serious questioning coming from the young generation. So far, we are not challenged. We hope our international students here at Tsinghua can come up with that challenge. We challenge them with our questions, so they can challenge us back with their own. We don’t tell them how to do their work. We want them to think and find their ways. We don’t worry about their production and what kind of projects they can design. I am much more interested in having them ask questions that would challenge what we already know. You can’t solve a problem without questioning it first. That’s the first step.
VB: You were classmates here at Tsinghua University. You both graduated in 1985 and then received your master degrees from NJIT. Once in the States you stayed in New York. What goals did you set for yourselves originally when you left China?
QF: That is exactly the question we were asked when we applied for our visas at the American Embassy. My response was – I want to become a great architect. We wanted to be open. We wanted to learn so many things. This could not be achieved in China. I still believe that today because it takes a while for such things as mentality to change. On the surface, many things changed. Architecture changed a lot. But I don’t see good questions asked here.
FF: And we never wanted to leave China for good. We wanted to learn how to become good, both technically and artistically. Once in New York, architecture and everything around it was a non-stop learning process. The city itself became our university. We worked, went to school, and we constantly attended gallery openings, museum exhibitions, conferences, lectures; we wanted to learn, and we used every opportunity towards that goal. I don’t think we missed any openings. We were like a sponge, trying to absorb everything around us.
VB: Then in 2005, you came back to China. Why?
QF: We were going back and forth between New York and Beijing and at that time we were offered to teach. We saw it as a great opportunity to have direct contact with the young generation and to share our experience because we believe in experimental architecture and we want to teach our students something different.
FF: We always wanted to be mobile all the time. To satisfy our own curiosity and our professional interests, we decided early on that we didn’t want to have children. In a way, our projects and students are our kids. No one initiated this; we simply came to this conclusion.
QF: Architecture is our life. We are both very dedicated to it.
FF: Architecture is a game and we want to play it seriously.
VB: Why do you think it is a game?
FF: Because if you take yourself too seriously or if you take the work too seriously, you can’t get a sense of what is around you. But we want to stay alert to all things that happen around us. And then we want to make an immediate response or an educated guess. We want to be on edge, and we always prefer to be outsiders and observers. That way we can bring more excitement into the work.
VB: Where did this position come from?
FF: Early on. Even before we left, and when we discussed this stance with Peter Eisenman back in the early 2000s. He told us that he also wanted to be an outsider and that he felt like an outsider.
VB: You just mentioned your discussion with Peter Eisenman. I know that you also were in contact with Bernard Tschumi, Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid, Bill MacDonald, and Sulan Kolatan, Jesse Reiser and Nanoko Umemoto. Could you talk about these encounters and how they influenced your attitudes toward the profession?
FF: Actually, we met all of these architects quite late. If we met them in our teens or early 20s they may have influenced us a lot. But we were already registered architects by then. We had many years of experience. By then we already had our own ideas about architecture. But we had great respect for their work. And we never wanted to copy any of their ideas. Simply because they are their ideas. What we wanted to experience from them was their passion for generating ideas. But we didn’t share their ideas; we didn’t want to. We were looking for ideas that would be our own.
VB: You are talking about the happy, carefree times in architecture before this idea that architects need common ground was introduced by the 2012 Venice Biennale. It interrupted everyone’s quest for being unique and original. Before that common ground was the last thing architects wanted. Now it is all about aligning with each other. But you didn’t want it then and you don’t want it now, right?
FF: We always wanted to be ourselves. Even looking back into history, we always try to delete and erase what was done before. We are not nostalgic about the past. We want to create new things.
QF: We are pursuing our own quest for beauty, sensuality, openness, passion.
VB: One of your projects is called Jelly and another one – Spaghetti. Why is that?
QF: The idea for the Jelly project was to achieve a kind of in-between state – not solid and not liquid. I like this kind of uncertainties. The project was a response to how quickly things have been changing in China. The departure point was an oil painting. It transitioned from painting to sculpture, to skeleton that could become a building on a larger scale. It was playful and a lot of fun.
VB: Was that project driven by a form?
QF: By an idea!
FF: And emotions. Human emotions are always a starting point for us. Architecture should produce a reaction, be it affinity or anger, but something. So many buildings have no blood and no flash, just dead bones. A particular form is not important; it can emerge in the design process. Whatever the result, we’ll take it. But we are not looking for any beautiful form consciously. We know that our own teste (I know it is an old-fashioned word) will guide us about how to add the final touch. But before that we don’t worry about the final form.
VB: In one of your interviews you said that you question such principles as symmetry and center. Do you envision a kind of architecture that is not defined by such principles?
QF: I said it in reference to the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium by Herzog de Meuron here in Beijing. You may think of this building as a very chaotic and dynamic structure, but if you look carefully, you will see a particular form with symmetry and center. And once you see its fragment you can imagine the whole thing. Our vision is a kind of architecture that is entirely open and free. All fragments are slightly different from each other and in every part, you discover something new and unexpected, unpredictable, uncertain.
VB: Do you see yourselves aligned with other architects in China or internationally? Do you share anyone’s interests?
QF: We may like certain projects. For example, we once categorized our favorite architectural projects that we personally visited into meals such as the main course, appetizer, and dessert. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao is a great main course, while Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station is the most delicious dessert for us.
FF: We enjoy architecture just as other people may enjoy reading a novel or watching a film. From now and then we come across our “soulmates” and they may be from different times and even different disciplines. But it doesn’t mean we want to be like them. We want to enjoy the work, enjoy the fight.
VB: Enjoy the fight?
FF: Each and every one of our projects is a fight. We fight for the public good. On a personal level, we fight for what we believe could be the best quality possible within the given budget and timeframe. So, our work is not about aligning ourselves with our peers.
VB: Do you believe architecture is art?
FF: No, Architecture is architecture. And art is art. We do both and we understand both.
VB: If a friend from New York came to Beijing for just one day, what one project would you like him to see and why?
QF: We are lucky to have here a few good pieces by Hadid. We enjoy her work here, as well as her opera house in Guangzhou.
VB: Any work by a Chinese architect you particularly like?
FF: We are working on it! [Laughs]
QF: We only look at the work. We don’t care about who did it. We are still waiting for a good project by the Chinese architect. They may be interesting, but we don’t see the right questions asked yet.
FF: I want to see another work by Koolhaas. I wonder if there is still any juice left within him. I want to study that and learn from it. I am that greedy. And if it is not any good, just forget it!