When architecture has been evolving within the context of “Chinese characteristics”, Shanghai as one of the national creative centers provides us with a glimpse of the transformations and the prospects of Chinese contemporary architecture. Based in Shanghai, architect Liu Yuyang, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in America, has conceived his personal architectural approach with the multicultural background and shared his visions with others by a number of built projects. In the following excerpt from a conversation between Liu Yuyang and the author, he talks about his design philosophy, origins of the practice, the attitude to the profession, and more.
Yifan Zhang (YF): By looking into your various kinds of projects, it is hard to find any obvious personal style. Overall, it conveys an impartial feeling.
Liu Yuyang (LY): The word “impartiality” is an accurate description. The Latin-originated phrase a priori was frequently mentioned when I was going through architectural school. It can be understood as holding a preconceived notion prior to starting a design. From my perspective, I would avoid any preconception before I start to work. Everything from site, typology, or even client’s personality is being viewed equally in the beginning. I will try to search for specific themes during the progress rather than starting with the preset perspective of forms, materials, or techniques. It is like watching horse racing. All horses start from the same line, then gradually some move ahead of the others, which means out of the pack of possibilities, some potentialities emerge. However, do not forget, all those in the race should be horses! What it means is that the choices are still carried out within the architectural terms, including building regulations, social factors, economic considerations, etc.
YF: This approach vaguely shows a sense of generic tolerance, which can probably result in a steady state. But some projects seem to show deliberate disturbance within this state by some design elements.
LY: This is perhaps just one final result you have seen, rather a certainty. Speaking in terms of tolerance and generic-ness, it may date back to the environment where I grew up. Cities in Taiwan show an image of being landmark-less and tolerant, with the exception of monuments such as the Presidential Palace, the Taipei Grand Hotel which don’t really participate in the local daily urban life, while the Taipei 101 tower was built after I moved from Taiwan to the U.S.
I lived in Taipei for a few years, and also in other places including Taichung, Tainan, Taitung, even Miaoli which is very small. As a youth, I had experienced different kinds of urban space. Furthermore, spontaneous and emotional aspects can also be sensed in Taiwanese cities. These experiences have enduring effects on me and make me naturally receptive to the concept of tolerance and generic-ness no matter in urban, architectural or interior projects. But it does not mean our cities cannot have landmarks, or our project cannot be a landmark itself—but what kind of landmark will it be? Surely not one with exaggerated but meaningless forms.
YF: This kind of tolerant and generic mindset reminds me of the word “commercial”, and it connects with another definition “pragmatic”.
LY: Actually, it’s about forming a relationship with the society. If all of your projects shy away from commercial world, to some extent, you lose contact with society. It is not a right or wrong situation, just a personal choice. Personally, I like to see what I can learn from the commercial logic and then re-interpret it in the design process, and these days it is often the design that in turn guides and challenges conventional commercial logic. More importantly, it does not mean to compromise our design by creating something we don’t believe in.
Let me explain it in two ways. First, the versatility of space. For instance, if we have a space, can it only be used as a guest room, a living room, or a lecture hall? Can it have other possibilities? How to encourage the versatility and make it happen by design? Second, under certain circumstances, the very existence of space can trigger the function which is not asked for initially. If you look at the yoga pavilion in the Yunlu Resort, our newly finished project, which was not designed for any meeting or party function according to the client’s requirements, you will find the grand opening event was a seminar amongst China’s top financiers. Recently they also hosted a wedding as well as a birthday party there. Through architecture, this space provides users with contemporary rural experiences that were previously un-imagined.
YF: The explanation you made about space and use sounds familiar to people knowing the phrase of Louis Kahn: form evokes function. I assume they are related. Although we talk about impartiality, there is consistency appearing in your projects with constant attention on linkages, resulting in a systematic order.
LY: At the operational level, I like to make a biological comparison: each function mass in a project can be regarded as different parts of a body, and between those parts exist the soft tissues, or more specifically tendons and ligaments which connect and empower bones and muscles. The existence of the “soft tissue” as an architectural system endows the connections between different parts with ambiguity, instead of crashing into each other or being completely independent. Facing the change of conditions, e.g. site, forms, functions, this system is resilient enough to respond to the external force by its internal force to ensure the design will not be overturned by other factors. And it has a lot of potential from a typological point of view. For instance, other programs or special functions can grow from this “soft tissue”
YF: Besides all we have talked about, let us go back to your early age when you were changing from the medical study to the major of architecture. Your experience of seeing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies seems quite dramatic to me.
LY: That was a process rather than a sudden move. I was thinking about my future career at that time. When I visited the Salk Institute for the first time, everything clicked. Several other trips predated my visit to the Salk. I visited Bangkok when I was 15. There I saw the Royal Palace and temples which for the first time made me feel the order of space strongly without prior architectural knowledge. I visited Japan when I was 18, and in a small town named Atami, I saw a temple which was similar to many others in Japan. A long sandō or path of procession precedes one’s arrival at the first gate. Upon entering, one then takes another path towards the next gate, such is a classical spatial sequence of a temple. Memory of these experiences was rooted in my mind and created a sense of order in a sequential way, one segment after another, alternating between presence and absence, as a kind of interrupted continuity.
The subsequent undergraduate years at the University of California San Diego was also a catalyst. The campus provided me with an experience of planning integrated with topography and landscape. Each building there had its own character while collectively all were designed in a coherent modern-brutalist language. In a sense, before starting to learn architecture I had already been influenced by a relative sense of order instead of an absolute one.
Of course, Kahn’s building is very pure. I went to see the Salk before starting my formal architectural education. Upon hearing of the building, I went without having seen any of its photos. It was somewhat of a shock after passing through the woods and then seeing the scene of the building unexpectedly, which I believe would have been a very different experience if I had prior architectural knowledge of it. I have revisited it many times since. Besides the sacredly symmetrical courtyard, I also like to observe how the passageways connect the functioning units. Probably these have helped me understand order. Obviously, this building is so classic that many architects take it as their starting point.
YF: It sounds like an unforgettable primitive feeling, just naturally.
LY: For me, it was a very straightforward or intuitive experience, without any professional mindset involved. That feeling itself can be regarded as unrepeatable, meaning many experiences you can only have them once with a fresh mind. If you are sensitive enough, you can absorb the specificity brought by this first-time encounter. Freshness is very precious to me, which can explain why repetition can hardly be seen in my projects. During the past years, I have tried to keep, or re-create, this feeling of freshness as much as possible.
YF: This description made me think of Arthur Schopenhauer's aesthetics, which connects with some “truth” or “ideas”. More intriguingly, speaking of architects’ “creation”, the beginning of the well-known story of Genesis also implies the similar topic: what the form’s origins are. There are various explanations of it, one of which agrees on the existence of “Forms” or “Ideas”.
LY: Instead of going after so-called ideal forms, each of my architecture keeps pursuing an ideal condition, including responses to the topography, dialogues with surrounding buildings, communication with clients, etc. An ideal condition of a project results from conversations. Emotions and intuitions are part of it, as well as a lot of experiences I have got. I am always trying to know more about theories through reading, but I am not a theorist. As a practicing architect, I focus more on how to deal with every project—sometimes good, and sometimes acceptable—and by gaining experience each time, so as to sharpen myself bit by bit.
Concerning “creation”, architects still have some top-down feelings of power. We do not simply act as the clients ask, and creativity is a sure thing. Actually, there is another message from Genesis: God was very pleased with his creation. It contains a feeling of pleasure. From this point of view, the pleasure goes beyond all forms, methods, styles and theories. This is what I want to maintain in my design. But together with the “freshness” I mentioned before, it will be more and more difficult to keep as time goes by. To some extent, the repetition is hard to avoid after certain years of practice. It has become a challenge to always retain this feeling of freshness. And the other challenge lies in the topic of context. I am practicing mainly in the Chinese contemporary cities, e.g. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, where most of the situations lack urban compactness, and the new towns lack significant topographical conditions.
YF: As you mentioned in some files, do you mainly focus on “historical context”, “community revitalization”, and “smart future” now?
LY: About three years ago, I sorted out all of the works I had done and arrived at these three thematic types. Surely this is also a kind of labels with which others can have a quicker understanding of the projects. They are neither a goal nor a manifesto. It is more like a tectonic detail, which plays its own role in the overall structure while not being a complete structure by itself. Since I got these three points, I have started to think about the thematic types when I take on a new project. Will I continue to care about it or just give up on trying to classify more? I do not know yet.
Actually, it is more important to keep an attitude that most of the time the meaning you want to express is not always so comprehensive and there is no need to make everything a complete narration. I think there is space for changing, growing, and evolving. A couple of days ago, I came across the official documents of Shanghai 2035 master plan when I was working on another article. I suddenly got a feeling of familiarity because these are the type of documents I had read lots of while working on the Pearl River Delta research with Koolhaas and the Harvard team in the mid-90’s. It had been a long time since I paid attention to things at this macro-strategic level, which contains interesting insights and possible prospects about the direction a city may take to grow and evolve.
YF: The influence from the China’s Pearl River Delta research you conducted under Rem Koolhaas can still be seen in your perspective. Besides all these professional talks, I am also curious about one of your statements where you said rhetorically “architects are like angels” to “revive the extinguished light”. What does it mean?
LY: This is an allegory based on professionalism. For a doctor, he or she is also an angel, because there is a responsibility to tell patients what is right and what is wrong. Speaking of professionalism, it is not a simple question of respecting others’ opinions, and there is something need to be held on to. And the “light” stands for the feelings brought to people by architecture. Because I had experienced it even before I studied architecture. By our creations, no matter big or small, you can sense the pleasure from users when they step into space. I think this is the light we can bring to people, and they can feel it either consciously or unconsciously. This is the goal: not to change the world, but to cast people with a ray of light. (Laughs)