Interdisciplinary architecture and urban design firm, Crossboundaries was founded in 2005 in Beijing by Binke Lenhardt (b. 1971, Mannheim, Germany) and Hao Dong (b. 1973, Shanxi province, China). The two met in New York in 1999, while pursuing Master of Architecture degrees at Pratt Institute. Dong had earned his bachelor’s from the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and Lenhardt had received a Diploma in Architecture from the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund, Germany. Prior to coming to the US, Lenhardt worked in Holland and Germany where she is a registered architect. After graduating from Pratt in 2000, the two architects worked at various firms in New York before moving to Beijing in 2002, at the time when the city was already preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. They started working at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD) after Lenhardt studied Chinese at a local university and became proficient in Mandarin. The architects worked their way up at BIAD.
They registered their own independent practice while still at the Institute. In 2006, they took second prize in the international competition for the design of Ningbo Museum, which was won by Wang Shu. Crossboundaries currently employs 20 architects, a third of whom are foreigners. More than half of the studio’s projects are educational – schools, kindergartens, childcare facilities, as well as youth, social, and cultural centers. Lenhardt and Dong also teach at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and Tsinghua University. The practice maintains a self-initiated design and creative thinking school for children, set up in 2017. It serves as a laboratory to test innovative ideas on how architecture can impact the learning process. In addition to the Beijing location, Crossboundaries established an office in Frankfurt, where Antje Voigt is a partner. The following is a condensed version of my interview with Binke Lenhardt and Hao Dong at their Beijing studio.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You came to China in 2002, after acquiring your Master of Architecture degrees at Pratt Institute in New York. Could you talk about that experience and why you decided to work at the state-owned BIAD, as opposed to either foreign or local independent practices?
Binke Lenhardt: I chose to work at BIAD because I wanted to understand the system of planning and execution in China. Back then I was the only foreigner in this huge institute of close to 4,000 people. Hao and I worked there from 2003 on. In China, Design institutes are responsible for almost 100% of all construction drawings done in the country. And independent practices typically must collaborate with so-called Local Design Institutes (LDIs), so not only foreign offices have to do this. Perhaps in the countryside, some smaller projects stay under the radar of the institutes and more independence is possible. In fact, there are many more opportunities for architects to work on smaller-scale projects that may be neglected by large institutes. Having worked at BIAD for several years gave us invaluable insight into how the architectural profession operates in China.
Hao Dong: For me, the experience was very different, as I spent most of the time collaborating with foreign architects, including such leading international firms as SOM, Foster + Partners, and OMA. I also collaborated with Zaha Hadid and Robert Stern, among others, mostly on competitions. While at BIAD, I spent many months at some of these offices abroad, so I learned more about how these international practices design projects and how they operate. I worked closely with them on coordinating the design and construction documents. I remember when Norman Foster flew in on his private jet, coming to the office at midnight, just before the final presentation for the China National Museum competition. I worked with him until three o’clock in the morning, assisting him during our presentation the following day. So, while Binke was learning how the local system works, I focused on how to adapt projects designed by foreign architects to the Chinese reality. Going back and forth between China and the West, gave us a lot of ideas about how to run our own projects at Crossboundaries.
VB: What would you say your architecture is about? What are your intentions?
BL: Most importantly, we don’t see ourselves as mere creators of buildings. We are not just designing objects; we initiate discussions and interactions. Our buildings are done holistically, meaning – from inside to outside, and with attention to every detail. We are also involved in urban design, landscape, furniture design, graphics, exhibitions, and even the education process that’s taking place inside our buildings. Architects can do so much more to influence our environment positively. But such broad and interdisciplinary hands-on involvement is unusual here. The profession is mainly understood as something very isolated. As an architect, you are expected to work on your building’s architecture. Such disciplines as landscape or interior design are viewed as outside of architects’ expertise. We have proven that many different aspects of designing buildings can come from one team, that we are versatile.
HD: What we, as architects, provide to the society should be broader, deeper, and more meaningful, not just creating buildings. Here in the office we also organize various professional and social events. We want to have an impact on the society overall. We run a design school for children and people who work at our office teach these kids to think creatively. There is always an agenda behind our work. You can see it by going over the kind of commissions we undertake. We go after the kind of work that gives us a lot of power and freedom, not only as architects but also in terms of proposing our own visions for new kinds of programs. We involve clients in our design process. We are interested in architecture that promotes communication and we push for opportunities to design hybrid programs. We believe that a 21st-century building is a hybrid building with fluid programs that cross boundaries in the most seamless ways.
BL: Architecture should be people-centered. That is the most important intention. Style is not important. We don’t want to limit ourselves to any particular materials or means of expression. For example, our educational projects are designed as a result of many meetings and discussions with parents, teachers, as well as people in our own office. We want to empower people. Our work triggers attention and spontaneity. We want to encourage a new kind of experience. Many of our projects don’t enjoy generous budgets or time schedules to design them, so we focus on maximizing whatever resources we have. We sometimes struggle to balance between speed, resources, and quality, but we give our absolute best. If we see a certain potential, we never refuse a project just because there is not enough money to build it. We’ll find a way.
VB: Could you talk about your design process?
HD: We always start with reviewing the briefs in depth. We ask many questions and get very precise. We challenge and sometimes get back to our clients with suggestions to revise briefs. For example, take our Soyoo Joyful Growth Center project in Zhengzhou. Initially, was meant to be an interior renovation of just one floor within an existing round building of 30,000 sq. m. The client had a vague vision for a playful learning environment. But we convinced him to do the extra step of a feasibility study of the original program, as well as the neighborhood and demographic characteristics of that part of the city. Eventually, he decided to go for the refurbishment of the entire building, its façade, and even areas around it. So, as a result, it became the realization of a common vision and we were able to transform the building into a kind of hybrid, containing a high programmatic complexity with a focus on education. The transformation of the building revitalized that whole neighborhood, which used to be quite disengaged.
BL: We look for weak spots in each brief, for “mistakes,” so to speak, and push our clients to rethink and revise their original visions. We also function as a think-tank because why not take advantage of another opinion? We always welcome a discussion and collaboration. In the office, we have frequent pin-ups and discussions, in which everyone participates. Our goal is to find the best possible solution, so it is a very collaborative process. I think the advantage is obvious. As a team, we can put forward perhaps twenty, thirty ideas and discuss the ones that have the most potential to be developed. And I am interested in hearing other points of view and challenging myself. I am far from insisting on my solution always being the best. We try to apply this process to all our projects, no matter how small the scope. This attitude gives us the certainty that the design direction is right and that all aspects have been thought through.
VB: Let’s talk about the school that you started at your office? How did you come up with this idea and, more importantly, why?
HD: The school idea is an integral part of Crossboundaries’ work. When we were working on one of our first educational projects, we became interested in spaces of learning. We were commissioned to design a project called Family Box. Our client wanted us to come up with a new kind of school. The idea was to introduce the learning process through play quite physically. We used a color-coded solution, where each color indicates a particular zone such as a library, classrooms, play areas, café, and so on. Then we had more projects with this client and developed so-called smart volumes that feature a variety of elements to engage children in learning through play. There are slides, climbing zones, movable walls, soft-upholstered seating, and more. That approach became our model for our other projects and, eventually, expanded our potential as educators.
BL: Our educational projects enabled us to do a lot of research and gain knowledge on the topic and we became interested in starting our own school where we developed our own curriculum and we engage our employees to teach here. The school is set up as a real business model. It is for middle school kids. It is a sustainable program, a private tuition-based school with a two-week afterschool design course, both in Chinese and English. It is totally unique.
VB: I understand that your own school serves you as a kind of laboratory. Creative education is in big demand in China and there is a willingness to experiment on the part of clients. So, when they ask you to design a school program you can test ideas right here in your own prototype. By now you have done a number of educational projects such as schools, kindergartens, and youth centers. Would you say that you are primarily interested in this building type?
BL: Education overall, both as a process and building type is very important to us because even the way our studio works is like a school and it is not just about knowledge exchange alone – we also benefit greatly from our educational projects. In terms of our prime interest, I would say that our goal is to work on hybrid programs with educational components that could be mixed with leisure, sports, art, retail, office, and so on.
HD: I believe it is a school that is perhaps the most influential building type, meaning that it can have a maximum impact on people’s behavior. It is true, to us, this line of projects is like a laboratory. We test different ideas in our own school and apply them to our projects. We don’t aim at training architects or designers here. We teach our kids critical thinking and appreciation for design. We offer hands-on training with visits to significant buildings, examining various urban issues, and teach them presentation skills. We are developing a model for progressive interactive education. And we are interested in how this could push and influence architecture itself. We want to understand how architecture could influence the process of education. How can a building play a pedagogical role? Our goal is to develop such a compelling program that it would become a part of public education, perhaps all over China. We are interested in the development of such an educational program, as a whole, not just a look of a particular building. To us architecture is inclusive. Architecture is a result of an interactive process – it can be so much more than a building.