Nanjing-based architect Zhang Lei (b. 1964, Jiangsu, China) does not believe in history, only time. He is convinced that history is something that is taking place in our own time, being shaped by particular circumstances, current programmatic demands, latest building techniques, and contemporary sensibilities.
Therefore, there is no point in looking for specific solutions from the past. Whatever is being built today will inevitably fit into history, and only truly contemporary projects have a chance to become a part of history. Yet, the architect does not believe in starting each project from scratch. He gets his inspirations from vernacular architecture, not from specific architects who left their stylistic mark.
Zhang pursued his architectural degree at Southeast University in Nanjing. After graduating from it in 1988 and teaching there for a few years, he continued his education at ETH-Zurich, returning to Nanjing in 1993 to resume his teaching position at his alma mater. In 2000, Zhang joined a group of young professors to start a new department at Nanjing University – School of Architecture & Urban Planning to offer an alternative education model. He soon was offered to head Nanjing Design Institute, which enabled him to establish his design studio there —Atelier Zhang Lei, the position he combined with being the vice-dean of the school. However, in 2009, the architect resigned to focus on practicing architecture by starting his own studio AZL Architects. His most renowned projects are Model Animal Research Center (2003), Slit House (2007), Brick House (2007), CIPEA No.4 House (2011), and Wanjing Garden Chapel (2014) – all in Nanjing.
I spoke to Zhang Lei in Nanjing over WeChat video call from New York, while Weili Zhang in Chengdu helped with translation. The following is a condensed version of our conversation; its full version will be published in the upcoming book China Dialogues.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I like your observation about how buildings are built in Switzerland. You said, “You make a building like you make a watch." Is that something that you want to bring to China? Is that a kind of personal mission for you?
Zhang Lei (ZL): I really respect the level of professionalism in Switzerland, so I would compare people working in the building industry there to watchmakers. There is an almost religious dedication to precision, which is lacking in commercial mass-produced building industry in China. As far as my mission, I believe architects are tasked with a responsibility to reshape and expand the boundaries of our civilization. So, in my very first built project, the Research Center one would find both pragmatism and utopian idealism. In architecture, you can observe the world and make a better version of it.
VB: “Architects have a responsibility to reshape and expand the boundaries of our civilization.” Could you elaborate on this very poetic idea?
ZL: I see the material world as the conduit of culture. We, architects, shape the material world.
VB: Shape, expand, and transform… And apart from materiality and achieving such obvious objectives as high quality of construction and light ambiance, what are the main concerns that you pursue? How would you summarize what your architecture is about?
ZL: After many years of practice, I am convinced that the most important concern we have right now in architecture is its position towards establishing a good relationship with the environment. The second most important objective is to find the right balance between form and content. There must be a strong consequential link between exterior and interior. They should be related to how we live and experience life, both individually and collectively. Architecture is about establishing a good and lasting relationship between everyone involved, including the public. So, every attempt to design a building is like a journey to establishing a particular relationship.
VB: You called your architecture “simple complexity” and “familiar strangeness.” Could you elaborate on that?
ZL: By simple complexity, I mean a coexistence of form and content, which results in spatial depth. Even simple forms must be built with deep and profound content. And a familiar strangeness is about connecting the strangeness of our future with the familiarity of the past.
VB: You said, “To make an interesting image is not a challenge; our students can do that. The question is: why do you make it?” Could you talk about some of your inspirations?
ZL: Inspirations come from filtration of information and is governed by your own system of values. Even 20 years ago when I was teaching, I would encourage my students to learn from vernacular architecture, by studying similar architecture as exemplified by Bernard Rudovsky’s book Architecture Without Architects. For the last seven or eight years, I’ve been working in rural areas where such examples of traditional ways of settlements are more evident. So, my inspirations primarily come from local encounters. And if you look carefully into the work of the greatest master architects you will always find this link to architecture without architects transformed by personal visions and imagination. So, for me, that’s where inspirations come from, not from individual solutions of other architects.
VB: When I look at your built work, these buildings are all built-in different materials and exploring different geometries and themes. For example, your Garden Chapel is about light and light materials, Slit House is about solidity and materiality, the Internet Conference Center is about relating the building’s gestural form to its context, the Brick House is about the use of a single material, and so on. Each project seems to explore its own logic. So, I struggle to identify the evolution of a single author in these very autonomous works. Is this intentional?
ZL: The projects that you mentioned may be very different but there is a consistency that I see in them. First, I use the kind of materials and techniques that speak of our own time. And second, there is always a strong relationship between the building and the environment. For example, the Internet Center and the Chapel are very quickly constructed projects. Both were built in just 45 days. So, in both examples, we used composite materials in timber and steel that enabled us to build these structures very efficiently. The Slit House was built on-site with very strict heritage regulations. It was the first modern-looking building in the area and therefore, the whole project was a search between the past and present of that place. The Brick House is a house for a poet, situated south of Nanjing and very close to a brick kiln where they are still producing bricks. And they have good bricklayers right there. So, the first and obvious decision was to utilize the brick. Each situation informs me as an architect and that’s what affects my decisions and my work.
VB: In other words, similarly, to what you said that for you there is no history, only time – right now and right here, your own work is responsive to each situation. In a way, you don’t allow yourself to develop a particular personal vision, you let it be driven by specific circumstances – the site, program, client’s vision, and so on. In a way, you start each project with an open mind, without picking up the pieces from previous projects. Is that right?
ZL: I would say so.
VB: You enjoyed your position at the institute and university, heading your own design studio there with access to many prestigious projects. Yet, you decided to give it all up and start your own independent practice. Why is that?
ZL: In 2009, I decided to quit both of my positions – as a director at the institute and vice-dean at the university. I wanted to have more responsibilities and challenges as a practitioner. Before, there was an equal balance between research, teaching, and practice. But I wanted to devote more attention to practice under my own name and to devote all my energy to design. That’s what I enjoy most – being challenged and take risks on my own.
VB: How do you see your own work in relation to other leading independent Chinese architects?
ZL: I would say that here in China, the work of architects reflects their personal qualities. At least according to my own theory [Laughs]. If I could describe my position in the Chinese context, I would name such characteristics as simplicity, neutrality, and directness. And when I say neutrality, I don’t mean that my work is neutral. It is not. What’s neutral is my attitude toward culture, tradition, regional characteristics, and history that we discussed earlier. This position gives me a lot of freedom to address every work directly and independently of other projects and not just precedents by other architects, but even my own.