Jiakun Liu was born in 1956 in Chengdu, China. Architecture was not his first choice to pursue at school, as he originally wanted to be an artist. He heard that architecture had something to do with drawing, so he applied to Chongqing Institute of Architecture and Engineering, not fully understanding what his role as an architect would be. After his graduation in 1982, Liu worked at the Chengdu Architectural Design Academy for two years, the experience he did not enjoy. So, he set out on a self-searching journey that lasted for over a decade, spending time in Tibet and Xinjiang in West China where he practiced meditation, painting, and writing, producing several works of fiction, while officially working at the Literature Academy as a writer.
In 1993, Liu was invited to attend an architectural exhibition by his former classmate. Encountering those projects suddenly rekindled his interest in architecture and he decided to give his dormant passion another chance. He finally started his practice, Jiakun Architects in 1999, in his hometown. Since then his work attracted universal acclaim that brought prestigious awards, including the 2003 Chinese Architecture and Art Prize. The architect’s work was exhibited both at Art and Architecture Venice Biennales and his solo exhibition at AEDES Gallery in Berlin was held in 2017. In 2018, Liu presented his inaugural Serpentine Pavilion Beijing. His architecture is rooted in social and vernacular traditions, oriental aesthetics, close observation of everyday life, refinement of folk skills and wisdom, and is characterized as being fully integrated with nature. The following conversation, a full version of which will be published in the upcoming book China Dialogues, was recorded as I spoke with Jiakun Liu over WeChat video call. Singapore-based graduate student Weili Zhang helped us with live translation.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your architecture is about making, building, and revealing the everyday, and what is authentic about living in China. What else is your work about? What is your main goal as an architect?
Jiakun Liu: There are many issues that I am very concerned about, particularly with the juxtaposition of the utopian and the everyday, modernity and traditions, collective memories and personal memory, as well as sustainability. In every one of my projects, I try to focus on all of these issues. Although each project will face comprehensive problems, the focus of each project will be different. Again, going back to one of my first projects, the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum, my key focus was on lyricism, on the poetry of space itself. But if you look at my West Village project here in Chengdu, you will find that the focus is much more on the social engagement of people. And not only those living there, but even those who live all around it. In fact, many of my projects pay particular attention to how they fit into their surroundings. If Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum is the “poetry,” then West Village is “sociology.”
VB: Could you talk about your design process? In one of your lectures, you said that in most cases you work with unskilled laborers and before initiating your design you meet with them to discuss what they are capable of. I heard that you do that even before starting your design. You said in one of your lectures, “Once I understand what the workers can do, then I can design my building.” Is that right?
JL: This is true, but not in the very beginning. In the beginning, I will still have a basic conception of the overall design. Of course, I want to know what builders are capable of, so I don’t design something they can’t build. But in the very beginning, I spend time to discover various issues. First, I need to investigate the site and fully understand the context. During this stage, I would decide on what the problems are and how to tackle them.
VB: Ever since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake you initiated the use of brick or cement block reconstructed from the rubble of the demolished buildings to facilitate “rebirth” of culture and place. Due to the use of this technique you are referred to as the “architect of memory.” Could you talk about this technique and do you rely on it in your other projects since then?
JL: The origin of that rebirth brick idea was, of course, the fact that the earthquake left so much destruction and rubble. The immediate problem was all about rebuilding. So, it was important to come up with a creative and fast way to rebuild. And this technique proved to be very sustainable. I am very proud of being able to create a so-called building block for producing my own kind of architecture. And I kept using it for a while in a number of subsequent projects, even years after the earthquake. To this day I sometimes use this technique, but the source, the rubble from the earthquake has become very limited over the years and there is not much left of it.
VB: So, your idea of the rebirth brick did not merge into your iconic and unique way of building? Isn’t there enough rubble from widespread demolition in China to keep this idea going?
JL: First, I don’t consider this technique as my unique architectural gesture because I don’t want to be tied to a single architectural element and be recognized for just one kind of attitude. The idea is to use this technique strategically where it is appropriate. The other reason is very mundane, which is the cost of such a process. Initially, right after the earthquake, there was a lot of readily available rubble and, therefore, the cost was very low. Whereas, now, if I want to continue using the same technique, I have to spend a lot of money and effort to find the rubble from a particular demolition. So now it has become more challenging and from the standpoint of sustainability, it no longer makes as much sense as before.
VB: What do you think about the notion of authorship in architecture? Are you at all concerned with how to leave a particular trace, your own mark, as an author? For example, would you say that your reliance on using the “rebirth” brick, even if strategic and not universal, is what makes your architecture distinctive, unique, and identifiable with you personally?
JL: I do care about authorship and personal character, and unique identity, but I don’t think it needs to be conscious or contrived. It should come subconsciously and spontaneously, not deliberately. Of course, there are architects who are known for inventing their own formally recognizable language. But I don’t belong to that camp. What I want to follow is not a fixed symbol or style, but a consolidated methodology and common spiritual temperament. Having a style is like a double-edged sword, it is beneficial for being recognized, but it puts a lot of limitations on what is possible.
VB: What single-term words would you use to describe your work most accurately or the kind of architecture you strive to achieve?
JL: I am not good at making conclusions with single words. Quite the opposite, as I like things to be inconclusive. Let me refer to Martin Heidegger’s poem “Poetically Man Dwells.” I like to think that poetry lies at the core of my work.
VB: What is a good building for you?
JL: I often question this myself – What is a good building? What can we expect from good architecture? Well, it is like defining oneself, which is a very difficult task. I like different buildings for different reasons. But what I particularly like about any building is when I stand in front of it and experience an emotional sensation. At the same time, I like certain unsettledness. Speaking of my own buildings, I like it when I feel that I might have done something wrong. In other words, I like buildings that welcome alternative readings. I don’t like architecture that pretends to be perfect. For example, my West Village is a maxi-courtyard that occupies an entire city block to maximize the inner area with sports activities and park, welcoming a diverse public life. Its key feature is that the entire courtyard was built along the streets, and the elevated walkways along the perimeter, floating above the rooftops. This constant change of altitude is unique, and it activates a dynamic flow of energy within the entire neighborhood. I see this project as a typological innovation, a new way of living together, a new social structure, even an attempt to build a new kind of urban utopia.
VB: In other words, what you are saying is that architecture has reached a certain level of relevance and creativity about a decade ago and since then it has not evolved much besides adjusting itself here and there, and it has turned into a formulaic style with all its rigidity and expectations, right?
JL: You can say that.
VB: Here is my perception – so many independent architects in China are focused on the issue of regional identity. This offers a great alternative to so-called global architecture, but don’t you think this predominant focus on history, traditions, materiality, and regionalism limits architects’ possibilities? There seems to be no such liberating and necessary premise that architecture could really be anything.
JL: I agree that there needs to be a balance. Nowadays we pay a great deal of attention to our history. However, we need to derive our ideas and inspirations from both – our local culture and from whatever is learned and developed around the world. In fact, I disagree with the view that globalization needs to be resisted. That would lead to a closure of ideas and attitudes. Ideas should be shared and multiplied. We should take what is quintessential about different cultures to enrich our own. Architecture should benefit from creative ideas no matter where they come from.
VB: Together with such architects as Yung Ho Chang, Wang Shu, Li Xiaodong, and Zhu Pei you belong to the first generation of independent architects in China. I wonder how you see them – as moving in one direction and sharing a particular common ground or do you perceive your work differently, and if so, in what way?
JL: Compare to some of the architects you mentioned I see myself as a latecomer. I went away for more than a decade and rekindled my interest in architecture when these architects were already practicing for quite some time. I think what we all have in common is a certain hunger for learning and opening up to many ideas that were out of reach before. And most of these architects were exposed to living and studying abroad for many years before coming back, so their work was infused by what they have learned overseas. And there was a kind of urgency to innovate and build after a long period of official government-approved style. Then in the 1990s, we all became free. I relate more to Wang Shu because his focus is on analyzing and reproaching our own culture and utilizing traditions in new and innovative ways. One fundamental difference between my work and Wang Shu’s is that I would never directly recycle ancient materials as entities. I respect tradition. I hope my work carries the spirit of Chinese traditions, but I don’t want to bring ready-made traditional techniques and materials into my architecture, preferring to use contemporary techniques and materials. There is no ambiguity about what is contemporary and what is not.
VB: I read that in one of your interviews you pointed out that “Many contemporary buildings don’t have shadows.” What did you mean by that?
JL: Let me correct that. I must have talked about the necessity for buildings to have what can be described as an atmosphere. Let me refer to the notion of “shadows” in In Praise of Shadows written by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, not typical shadows we find in nature. A shadow is a physical phenomenon, but I referred to qualities that may not be quite visible. Yet, they are very important, nevertheless. For buildings to project a particular atmosphere or aura is very difficult to achieve. It is important for buildings to contain stories, even secrets.