As a Chinese architectural educator and practicing architect, Zhu Pei has founded Studio Zhu-Pei in 2005. Since then, he has been focusing on cultural architecture in both theoretical and practical ways. Based on the concept of 'natural architecture’, he has designed a series of experimental and artistic buildings.
In 2018, Pei became Dean of architecture school at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. On the occasion of CAFA’s 100 anniversary in 2018, he has curated a forum titled “Challenges: Reflexive perspective on architectural thoughts, education and practices”. With the effort of more than 50 international architects and scholars, the forum talked in-depth about our current living environment, including challenges and solutions.
This interview comes after the COVID-19 lockdown in Beijing. We talked about the challenges of designing post-pandemic urban public spaces, the future of design, the experience with online teaching and how to adapt new teaching strategies in architecture schools.
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Han Shuang: When we are discussing the issues about architecture, what do you identify as your mission in architectural design?
Zhu Pei: For many years I have been advocating the philosophy of “Nature Architecture”, which is an attitude towards nature rather than so-called Landscape Architecture or Sustainable Architecture. To put it another way, “Nature Architecture” is the law of organic construction behind architecture, which attempts to bridge architecture with the local culture, geography, weather and nature using an intrinsic bond.
The main values we should reflect on “Nature Architecture” are root and creation. On one hand, architecture is meant to be rooted in a certain ground that connects to a certain culture and natural geographical environment. Architecture should be shaped by its surrounding environment. On the other hand, architecture is an art that is born with a mission to create a new experience.
Han Shuang: During the outbreak of coronavirus in 2020, there have been changes in people’s mental states and behavior patterns. Did you come up with new design thinking in response to the current situation?
Zhu Pei: The unforeseen epidemic has spread far beyond our imagination. In the beginning, the general public suffered an emotional breakdown and soon pessimism grew around people. Historically speaking, this is not the first time that epidemic appears in human history. In fact, the human being has experienced various epidemics as well as natural disasters. COVID-19 may still last for a while, nevertheless, we have the future to deal with. Indeed, COVID-19 has drastically altered the way people live. Before, we had a distinct definition of space, living space, studying space, working space, private space and public space, etc. The epidemic in the past few months has made us ponder how we should deal with our living space wisely.
The way that artists work has given us much inspiration. As the living environment is merging with the working environment, we need to rethink the relationship between humans and the environment, and the possibilities that space may initiate. It’s not merely the epidemic that would remodel our current understanding of residential architecture, the internet would also contribute to this progression.
Han Shuang: Many people have generated fear towards urban public space, which caused the deterioration of the interpersonal relationship. Architects around the globe face the challenge of designing collective living. We can see that you have practiced in urban public space design. How do you observe this topic?
Zhu Pei: It seems that we are all hiding at home during the outbreak, making the conventional face-to-face interaction virtual. The public space, too, has lost its original function. However, to design high-quality public spaces that allow people to interact physically and safely is our answer to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps, “smart” architecture and public spaces will reduce the chances of infection. We need to come up with solutions for better public space in the cities.
Han Shuang: Currently, numerous art museums have launched their online exhibition as a new way of showcasing. Will the art museums no longer require any physical space for exhibitions in the future?
Zhu Pei: I don’t think that is going to happen because the online exhibition and the in-person exhibition would generate completely different perceptions. For instance, if you are standing in front of an oil painting, its smell and texture of oil painting will blow your imagination off so much that an online exhibition will never achieve. We have sight, hearing, smell, and touch, which together create our experience —such experience would not be possible online.
Han Shuang: Will the COVID-19 outbreak affect architectural languages?
Zhu Pei: Certainly. Even when we are in quarantine, we have the urge to be released, to turn the clock back and live our normal life again. COVID-19 will bring our attention to how architecture should be better integrate with the environment. Consequently, architectural languages will shift from the clear separation between the exterior and interior to the blurred boundary between buildings and the environment. For example, now we are so used to open the window and get some fresh air every morning after we get up, this is such a sustained way of living. We should be looking for more ways we can interact with our environment sustainably. The outbreak of COVID-19, to some extent, is a reflection on human attitudes towards the natural environment.
Han Shuang: How do you see the new ways of teaching at CAFA amid COVID-19? How do students and teaching staff adapt themselves mentally to such conditions while being physically confined? Are the school moving to alternative delivery methods for classes due to COVID-19?
Zhu Pei: We have prepared for this as early as the Spring Festival holiday. We have been thinking about how we can utilize the distance education more creatively and broadly in all disciplines. With a focus on the characteristics of the School of Architecture at CAFA, I think we should pay attention to the following three points.
First, despite the fact that the novel coronavirus epidemic has cut off the physical contact between teachers and students, it has also brought individuals more independent space for thinking and creating. Under the online guidance of teachers, students may have obtained more flexibility in reading and researching. Therefore, when we view this situation from a different angle, we can seize the opportunity to train our students to think more independently.
Second, we should put the focus of our teaching more on conceptual thinking instead of concrete thinking. We should be aware that there are numerous students at CAFA that came with an art background, and extensive knowledge and sensibility towards form-making. We should take advantage of this while being cautious about putting too much emphasis on formalism. During the outbreak, it has become nearly impossible for students to work on any large-scale models with great precision. Instead, a more simplistic and abstract conceptual model is needed for our students to explore the meanings behind forms, and shift their focus from form making to the expression of their ideas.
I just attended the final review for the 4th year Experimental Studio at CAFA School of Architecture. We have Peter Tagiuri, a practicing architect and renowned professor from RISD, and our young teachers Liu Yanchen, Zhang Qian from our school, to conduct teaching collaboratively. Under the global pandemic of COVID-19, the topic for the experimental class —"From Daily Routine to Architecture and Urban Living”— can be quite interesting. Our aim is to encourage our students to trace back to the origin and comprehend the essence of architecture. There are socioeconomic and cultural contents behind the forms of architecture that may trigger our reflection on our daily life. The students are encouraged to use the most commonly found materials to build their models, with a simpler concept but richer creativity behind.
Third, we should perceive architecture with a fundamental approach that can lead us closer to the essence of architecture. Architecture is not just visual art; it is also an art of time and space. I personally think that, to some extent, the art of architecture is quite close to that of music and film. I have always been asking our students to express their design concepts through films and videos. By adding time to architecture, we should be able to shape spatial experience with a dimension of time. The internet and video technology have played a significant role during the pandemic, thus we should take advantage of the internet to better train our students the ability to perceive time and space, and see architecture as an evolving art through the lens of time. The key to such teaching is to integrate our knowledge with concepts and physical models through videos and films.
Han Shuang: What do you think of the pros and cons of distance education? What is the biggest challenge?
Zhu Pei: To some extent, the global pandemic has altered our conventional understanding of architectural education for all architectural schools around the world. We have to stand together and learn how to adapt to the latest internet technology, with a primary mission to explore new ways of thinking for art and architectural teaching.
The pros of distance education during the outbreak are the flexibility for the students to participate in different fields and share their learning simultaneously. On the Internet, our teaching could break the boundaries set by classrooms, and make interdisciplinary learning more accessible. Moreover, we could make more open classes happen and provide the public with shared learning opportunities. For example, we are about to launch our online graduation exhibition show for both the undergraduate and graduate classes of 2020. This show will be open to the public as our first attempt to adapt to online teaching.
Han Shuang: Could you share a few insights on the future trends of the design industry, as well as some advice to global architects, architectural teachers and students?
Zhu Pei: Global climatic change is the biggest challenge that architecture is facing. COVID-19 outbreak is just one consequence that climate change is bringing. Ultimately, human being should pay respect to our natural environment, and be cautious when we are building our cities. Do not take anything granted. We should treat our nature sustainably, wisely, and humanely. We should research and rethink the ways we can protect nature and construct future space for living. In today’s world where technology has taken the lead, our Chinese architects, practitioner and students should rethink utilizing the original ecology wisdom and the Oriental philosophy of nature in our future projects.