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. As a matter of fact, corporations are the main actors in shaping Shanghai’s cityscape, among which state-owned design groups play a significant role. As the chief architect of Tongji Architectural Design, Zeng Qun stays in the core of an institutional power with many large-scale built projects and has been experiencing the evolving of contemporary architecture in China. In the following excerpt from a conversation between Zeng Qun and the author, he talks about the corporation situation, the development process, the personal standpoint, and more.
Yifan Zhang (YF): Chinese cities are influenced a lot by design corporations. You have been deeply involved as the architect in charge of Tongji Architectural Design.
Zeng Qun (ZQ): If you look at the status quo, it is phenomenal that big design groups have such impacts on the architecture and cities, or on the design industry, in China, which possibly cannot be found in other countries. And it will be difficult to talk about my position without considering this situation. The environment in China is very interesting, and it is like the sea where you can find various kinds of life, including big whales.
Speaking of public buildings, lots of landmark ones are designed schematically by foreign companies in first-tier and second-tier cities, especially in the first-tier, then Chinese big institutes are responsible for the later process of more than 90% of those projects. This is a matter of technical strength. When facing big and complex projects, it is this kind of big groups that is competent to cope with the situation in their ways of management and operation. However, concerning the issue of the architectural design proposal itself, I feel rather disappointed. As a Chinese architect, I think reflection is as important as appeals.
YF: From your perspective, is there any non-market factor in the architectural design industry of China? What is the relationship between the collective identity of being state-owned and individual design activities?
ZQ: The design industry in China has been a competitive field since the 1990s, when Tongji Architectural Design became a company limited by shares and completely market-oriented. Maybe some very particular projects ask for the participation of big design institutes, which is based on the technical concern, rather than the consideration about the designer’s identity of being inside the system or not. Honestly speaking, being within the system brings some more constraints which can make the design activities trapped in some patterns, and sometimes pushes us to get used to something else. If it is an independent private office, it may operate more freely. But I think this is China’s reality, which is normal, and it is unnecessary to complain.
The term “reality” is very important, but it does not mean to be spineless. It is a very crucial topic for architects that how to integrate architecture with contemporary society. Integration comes first, then we start to talk about individuality, creativity, and about ourselves. This is more meaningful and more interesting. It is actually much easier to be a personality, acting following personal ideas. In my opinion, it is more difficult and important to keep a social perspective. And the attention of Chinese architects, especially the ones in big institutes, has never been away from society.
YF: Talking about “reality”, we have seen many medium and small-scale design offices pop up following China’s recent development. What is the status of the big group?
ZQ: For big groups, I think it is the case of the transition from quantity to quality. Let us draw an arbitrary line. The first decade of the 21st century is when China had its fastest economic growth, and it was a quantitative change period for the corporations, after which the qualitative change happened. You can find many big institutes declining. Because the transition is not always in a good direction, and the accumulation and growth may bring problems. I had an assumption that the number of design institutes in China, both the big and the small, would decrease by 1/3 after 20 years, and it might wither faster if the office was bigger.
YF: Looking back on the course of your career, it somehow represents one typical kind of path that many contemporary Chinese architects have taken.
ZQ: In the very beginning, my generation took architecture as our livelihood, a profession. I always say that my personal development is bottom-up, which started from the grassroots level directly facing the professional demands, and after lots of practice I gradually began to think about some topics. The architects of my generation growing in big design institutes, including some having really good independent offices now and the start of their careers in corporations, have done various kinds of projects before, and during this process having suitable opportunities, nice design outcomes have been reached with the evolving of personal perception.
This can sound different from the experience of many young architects today, who possibly have a slew of academic training in the first place, knowing many theories and concepts, then try to apply and develop the knowledge in practice.
YF: Actually, many people changed in varying degrees from the end of the 1990s to the beginning of the 2000s. Was it because lots of information flooded into China from outside during that period of time?
ZQ: It is part of the reasons. The contents introduced to China were very diverse and chaotic then, and before that foreign information had already been around. It is the beginning of more effective communication and mutual understanding between China and outside world that played an important role. On the other hand, the attempts to find different possibilities began to be seen in the Chinese architectural field at that time with positive feedback, which had hardly been found before. Around 2000, the level of acceptance of architecture in China is not lower than what is now.
From the perspective of an architect, the high speed of economic growth and the development of building industry after 2000 have given everyone many opportunities. When the pressure of daily life was relieved, many people started to explore for new things and quite a few independent offices came into being. Meanwhile, many who were abroad came back to China, and I began to know them. I remember once there was a forum where big groups like us and small offices sat together and discussed with each other, which is relatively rare nowadays. Back then many architects were still seeking possibilities in uncertainty, and when it was around 2008, most of them got their own nice results—there have been different sides since.
YF: The turn of the century can be seen as a special and meaningful period for Chinese contemporary architecture. Let us look at you as an individual. In 2002，you designed the Wheatgrass Estates for the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. Now, it is almost impossible for any architect in his or her early thirties to get this kind of chance.
ZQ: Yes, and if it had happened 10 years earlier and even I had been at the same age, it would not have been possible. Because the values of society did not allow this kind of work.
Looking at it now, the Wheatgrass Estates may not be called as a great design result. At that time, it realized some sensitive ideas to apply different construction methods and materials. It is like watching movies—you cannot tell clearly why some film is good but it may rightly be part of the expectations of a typical era. Personally speaking, this project did not contribute too much academically. It has brought some recognition and helped me to build up the confidence to try something different.
YF: What has your design approach been since?
ZQ: I do not hold on to a definite design language constantly, not like some other architects who are easier to be known by the media and the public, and become famous with personal icons. In my view, they are more similar to artists, with more personalized features. My personality does not make me want to be put under the spotlight always. Furthermore, my role in the big design institute seldom provides the chances to act like that. To be honest, I do not like to be tagged with a typical image so much. Every time, we should be open for different strategies which can bring more challenges. But it does not mean the missing of consistency and focus. The site conditions and the surrounding environment are very important to me. As well as characterized, architecture should be inclusive, which does not mean to be banal.
YF: Most of your works are big-scale buildings, e.g. the theme pavilion of the Shanghai Expo, which is a mega exhibition building. What do you think about the term “scale”?
ZQ: There are two different types: small-scale buildings should be treated “big”, in terms of diversity and complexity; big-scale buildings should be handled with “small” strategies, which means the clear expression of tectonic logic, and to be more rational.
From the urban perspective, exhibition architecture is the temporary buildings for the city. While the structure itself is surely not temporary, it is not permanent for every user. Although an exhibition building is also a big-scale urban structure, it is different from a museum and a theater, which are the spiritual bastions of the city and may ask for strong sculptural or monumental feelings. Exhibition architecture is more like the storage room for the city. It stands there with constantly changing contents; it is a container for temporary activities to happen at their own specific times. My attitude is to use a straightforward approach to deal with this container.
The Present Day of the Future
YF: The 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo are the iconic events for the development of contemporary China, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka Expo also have very important positions in the postwar history of Japan, which witnessed the movement of Metabolism. The special relationship between these two countries makes it interesting to have a comparison. As one of the main participants of the Shanghai Expo, what is your feeling?
ZQ: The best two exhibitions I have visited within more than ten years are the “Metabolism: The City of the Future” at Mori Art Museum and the “Latin America in Construction” at the Museum of Modern Art. Both of them demonstrated the impacts architecture could have on society. I always like the things from that period, but I can say clearly that a similar age will not arrive again. Nowadays, there can be some people, but not a group, marching towards a same or similar destination, which needs a strong belief.
Architecture is a traditional field, not high-tech. No matter how advanced building technology is, architecture still has some aspects of craftsmanship. The influence of contemporary architecture on society is obviously weaker than what was during the time of Modernism and the 60s to the 70s. This is not just a problem in China, but a result of a flat contemporary world. The Information Age is different from the past. It will be less and less possible to effectively influence society by some kind of architectural idea.
Perhaps architecture is turning into a commodity. The deeper value and traditional architectural contents are being deconstructed by this era. The social and cultural meanings architecture bears are not so significant. In the future, it will be very difficult to have some architecture which can lead the way of progress or become a cultural icon of the age. Although everyone says China has been developing so fast, relatively speaking, it is steady and mild here. China is an environment full of realism.
YF: Then, how do you look at “theory” and “practice”, “vision” and “reality”?
ZQ: It is a normal thing that theories go beyond practice, and it should be. But on the other hand, as a practicing architect, it will be very hard for you to realize your design if you do not know how to envision the future based on reality. This actually conveys an idea that to create the present day of the future is the most important. The design you make is a representation of the future of the contemporary, and it grows from the present. Based on the understanding of reality, to conceive the future. This is critical for practicing architects.
YF: The medium and small-scale independent offices have brought us many inspiring ideas and projects in recent years. In your view, what is the relationship between them and big design institutes?
ZQ: Reciprocity, out of question. These are two important trends pushing Chinese contemporary architecture forward. In fact, I am personally in an in-between state. Leading a big group, I have a small team internally at the same time which carries out a lot of research and also does some small projects. I want to find a balance and intersection between these two ways, a proof of mutual promotion, which I think can be done.