After studying architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio Beijing-born and based architect Wang Hui (b. 1967) co-founded URBANUS in 1999 in Shenzhen with his partners Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan. After his graduation in 1997, Wang Hui worked in New York until 2002, while also moonlighting for URBANUS remotely. The architect heads the company’s Beijing office, which he set up in 2003, overseeing projects in the Beijing-Tianjin-Tangshan triangle, the Yangtze River Delta region, and other parts of China.
Wang Hui combines practice with teaching at his alma mater and at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture. URBANUS has established a strong reputation as the largest independent architectural practice in China. Among Wang’s works are Pingshan Cultural Complex (2019), Botanic Garden of International Horticultural Expo in Beijing (2019), Environmental Improvement for the Five Dragon Temple (2016), Tangshan Museum (2012), and Tangshan Urban Planning Museum and Park (2008).
I spoke to Wang Hui over WeChat video call from New York about his education, the wide range of projects that his practice undertakes, why it is important to work on ideas that may seem utopian, and what, in his opinion, makes Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building among the most important built works in China since the turn of this century.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): After graduating from Miami University in 1997 you stayed in New York for five years, working for large corporate firms until 2002. But URBANUS was founded in 1999 in Shenzhen. Does that mean that working for others in New York and for your own firm in Shenzhen overlapped?
Wang Hui (WH): Yes, in 1999, we founded our firm in New York City and our partner Xiaodu went back to Beijing first, while Yan and I collaborated with him from United States. As we were still working for other companies in New York, we moonlighted for URBANUS. [Laughs.] Beijing is a very conservative city, so Xiaodu headed for Shenzhen, a fast-paced city and the right place for young entrepreneurs. There is a huge market for young people. Even many developers there are very young. What’s important is that the local government developed confidence and trust in young people, which is very important and unusual in China overall. We were not experienced, but we were still invited to take part in the most important competitions. For example, the headquarters of the Urban Planning Bureau of Shenzhen. Our first successful project in Shenzhen was a landscape design. Then the Bureau chief told us, “Let’s see whether you can do architecture.” He had a lot of confidence in us and allowed us to try many new construction methods, such as exposed concrete and T-shaped steel curtain wall system. We developed our own experimental construction methods directly with the manufacturer. It was this sort of freedom for young architects that inspired us to express the spirit of our age. This uniqueness of Shenzhen was and still is very rare in other Chinese cities.
VB: And you still had to collaborate with local design institute there, right? Could you touch on that?
WH: There is a catch. We, independent architects, always work on small parts of very large projects. Only if the developers want something special, something eye-catching such as a sales office or museum, they would commission us. So good architecture is a niche market. Typically, large institutes do very repetitive projects. So, to them, it is profitable to work on large projects even for low fees. But for us, it is all about doing something interesting and new with very marginal profits.
This is a general background in China. Even a licensed individual architect cannot legally practice independently. Only an enterprise or a company with a license granted to the office can do that. Besides, it is not rewarding to take over the whole job because the lump sum budget is set. The fees for good design architects are squeezed out from all the support work such as mechanical or structural services. It makes financial sense only if you just do schematic and design development, which may amount to 60 percent of the total fee. Although it may seem profitable not to furnish the full service, indeed the design architect has to remedy the deficiency by the Local Design Institutes, and therefore, their profits are eaten out by extra work outside of what is specified in the contract.
VB: What do you think about Shenzhen? Could it serve as a model for future urban development in other parts of China?
WH: Shenzhen is a very atypical Chinese city. It was one of the three original Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that were established in 1979–80 open policy during the transition from a centrally planned system to a socialist market economy. The other two SEZ, Zhuhai and Shantou in Guangdong are not as successful as Shenzhen because they are lacking that sort of unprecedented outpouring of investments from all over the country and the world. Shenzhen’s entrepreneurial spirit is unique and very attractive to young people. That’s why it is very hard to replicate it. Whenever we have a project in a less advanced area, we always warn our clients not to mimic Shenzhen superficially. We deeply believe that locality is the key aspect of each project in terms of its social, cultural, and economic dimensions.
VB: Yet, in 2003, you opened your second office in Beijing. Why?
WH: Beijing is both the political and cultural capital of China. Coming to Beijing was a strategic move because here we can address many political, cultural, and economic issues. So, we decided to open another office here, as it could present us with opportunities all over the country. Also, all three of us were born and raised here. We want to do something meaningful in the city. And Beijing has a better position to reach our missions all over China and hence to better implement our holistic approach toward China’s urbanization. We are not focusing on a particular place. And we want to be challenged by a variety of different issues. We don’t want to specialize in anything. We probably did more different types of buildings than any other independent architectural studio in the country. We deal with different scales and issues. And we don’t have our own recognizable architectural language.
VB: It is interesting that most of the leading independent architects are also Tsinghua graduates and are based in Beijing, as opposed to other cities. Yet, most of their works are either far from the capital or so small that you have to look for them. In fact, if you go to Beijing or other parts of China, they are so hidden that you may miss them entirely. This production is indeed a subculture. But your work is right in the center and highly visible, right?
WH: Still, I would not call us the mainstream. We are also a part of the subculture. What we do is marginal. But you are right, we are not hiding. We try to face all kinds of challenges. We want to be where we are most needed. We have to be responsible and take opportunities. Still, we want to use our opportunities in very different situations and locations. Whenever we go to other places, our clients always expect us to do something that belongs to Tier-1 cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. [Laughs.] So, I always try to convince them to do something particular to their own place and situation. I love to study what the third or fourth tier of China’s cities should be like, as the levels of urbanization in the country are not equally spread out, and there should be a pragmatic strategy to achieve a good balance between the ambition of the development and the affordability of investment.
VB: Could you give an example?
WH: Let’s take a look at our Tangshan Urban Planning Museum and Park built in Tangshan, Hebei Province in 2008. In 1976, Tangshan suffered a devastating earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of people died and 85% of buildings were destroyed. When we were asked to design that planning museum, the city told us to clear the site first. But our idea was to preserve the old flour mill structures that were left there. The original four warehouses were built during the Second World War and two more were added after the earthquake. In recent years, the urbanization movement in Tangshan has been as devastating as the 1976 earthquake itself, as it has eradicated the city’s architectural history. Our idea was to preserve that little history of the place that was left. We introduced something fresh but not terribly shocking, and definitely not from scratch. So, the existing buildings were recycled as showrooms to house the presentation of new designs for the new city. This a clear statement – to emphasize visually that the new respects the old.
Another appropriate example would be my teaching assignments at Tsinghua. Dealing with the issue that such a big city like Beijing is becoming less and less affordable for young professionals, I asked my students to repurpose an existing bus terminal site in downtown area into a miniature city for the youth. I am interested in these research topics because they could influence real policies. When you have case studies you can present them to the authorities and sometimes a study may become a real project. It is important to work on ideas that may seem utopian, but that could be turned into reality. Cities are not just abstractions, they are very real. Architects should exercise real visions. Today young architects have to be very active. They need to look for opportunities in real life much more than we did because our generation enjoyed so much development, we didn’t have to look for work. It was everywhere. So, what I want to teach my students is how to propose projects to address social issues and present useful, interesting, and valuable typologies to resolve them. I believe every generation has a particular role and particular responsibility to design a better life. I am optimistic – every generation has its own mission.
VB: You worked on a number of projects in Beijing’s CBD, which is dominated by Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building. What is your view of it?
WH: Although it looks like a weird building, I would say that this may be the most important building built in China in recent decades. It was designed by a foreigner who, I think, understands China better than any Chinese. He reads Chinese leaders’ and people’s minds very well. That was a very particular time in history when the country’s place in the new world history was to be redefined. Upon then, Koolhaas had to make a decision between two important competition invitations: CCTV and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center in New York. He selected CCTV competition as he believed that China was on the ascending track. What he came up with is a building with a spiral circulation, which meant to turn a government-controlled propaganda institution into a space of open urban promenade in the shape of a vertical loop. Such a program was arbitrarily invented by the architect. It was not given to him by the client. However, such a delirious idea was accepted both by the government and public. It was celebrated and promoted. This could only happen at that moment in history. It was the time when the country wanted to assert a new image of openness that would be recognized by the West.
So, CCTV is an iconic building in terms of an image of a new open China. It is not an icon simply for the sake of being iconic. Many architects have entered that competition with mere buildings, but Koolhaas presented a meaning of a building. Although it does not represent the zeitgeist, it fulfilled an illusion of what the Chinese government and this entire country wanted upon that moment in history. So, my admiration for CCTV is not based on how successfully it works as a building, but how important architecture has become in China.
Read Vladimir Belogolovsky's previous interviews published on ArchDaily.