Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Chinese architect LI Xinggang of Beijing-based office Atelier Li Xinggang about the particularities of working within a design institute, the architect’s philosophy referred to as “poetic scenery and integrated geometry,” and his role in the design of the Bird’s Nest and why he thinks it is the most important piece of contemporary architecture in China.;
LI Xinggang (b. 1969, Tangshan, Hebei province, China) heads Atelier Li Xinggang since 2003, which is one of five autonomous architectural studios within China Architecture Design & Research Group (CADG) in Beijing, a leading government-run design institute with 240 registered architects and over 3000 staff that includes engineers, urban planners, designers, technicians, and researchers.
Li studied architecture at Tianjin University from 1987 to 1991 and started working at CADG immediately upon graduation. In 2003, Li led CADG’s effort to develop the design for Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. From 2006 to 2011 he undertook PhD studies in architectural design and theory at his alma mater. For the last couple of years, the studio has been leading the design of the Yanqing Zone at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Located 74 kilometers northwest of the capital, the zone will be home to National Sliding Centre and National Alpine Ski Centre to host competitions for alpine skiing, bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge. Other Li’s prominent projects include Camping Service Center in Louna Village, Xingyi, Guizhou (2017); Gymnasium at New Campus of Tianjin University (2015); “The Third Space,” a two-tower housing complex in Tangshan, Hebei province (2015); and Jixi Museum in Jixi, Anhui province (2013).
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Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could we start with your experience at CADG? I understand that this is where you started your career at the very beginning and you decided to stay there and build your practice within this very large company, is that right?
Li Xinggang (LX): Yes, when I just started working at CADG 30 years ago, it was the best design institute in China. I always wanted to work at CADG and came here as an intern even before I graduated. I liked the company’s collaborative spirit. As soon as I graduated, I decided to go ahead to start my professional career at the Institute.
VB: What about BIAD, the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design? I am sure they would argue with your opinion about CADG being the best design institute in the country, right?
LX: You are right. [Laughs.] These institutes are quite competitive. Both were modeled after Soviet design institutes. CADG is under the leadership of the Ministry of Construction and is controlled by the national government, while BIAD is under the control of the Beijing Municipal government. So, while they focus on projects in Beijing, we work all over China.
VB: What are the advantages and what are the limitations of working within the institute system?
LX: When studios were first initiated, the idea was to create an independent-like spirit and autonomy, even though, bureaucratically we are a part of a bigger group. Of course, one of the key advantages of being a part of our group is to have access to all necessary support and resources. There is a strong cooperation among various disciplines, and we are able to retain control over the quality, which is a difficult task for independent practices that have to form their teams for every project by themselves. This allows our studios to bid competitively for a variety of jobs – from very small to very large public projects such as the Olympics. And we have full autonomy as far as design freedom. There is a lot more stress for independent architects working with other consultants. But CADG is like a family. And within this family, our Atelier is entirely autonomous.
VB: Could you talk about the main design concept for your Jixi Museum?
LX: First, the difference in my design approaches comes from each site. The Jixi Museum is situated in the center of town with over 1,000-year-old history and surrounded by beautiful mountains and rivers. Jixi is a typical historical Chinese town in the southeast. So, the atmosphere is completely different. The main concept for this project could be described by a poem by Hu Shih, a philosopher, essayist, one of the leading intellectuals, and a former Chinese Ambassador to the United States from late 1930s to early 1940s. His ancestry comes from Jixi County and he was educated there, as well as in Shanghai and in America. He left an extensive legacy and there is a collection of his writings at this museum. One of his poems talks about the relation of man to nature and mountains, about the emotional connection between man’s dwelling and the landscape around it. You open your dwelling’s door and you see the mountains. The museum design was inspired by this visual and emotional sentiment. The site, which was used for Jixi county government throughout history was cleared in the 1940s to build half a dozen government buildings. More than 40 trees were planted at that time. One of them survived from ancient times. It is over five-hundred years old.
All those buildings were removed in 2010 when the government relocated its offices to the new part of Jixi. All trees survived that demolition. We were not obligated to keep the younger trees, but I decided to keep all of them, no matter whether old or new. So, our design was formed around them, which led to the layout reminiscent of a village with courtyards, artificial ponds, and internal streets running along with the fragmented buildings that are all covered by a single continuous roof. The new roof was designed to evoke mountains, visible in the distance. The entire roofscape is made up of a series of pitched roofs –all sloped at one fixed angle of 30 degrees, reaching to different heights and spanning different volumes. This slope profile is characteristic of local houses. Visitors have access to the roof terrace with panoramic views over the ancient town and mountains in the background. This project is also based on the idea of “integrated geometry and poetic scenery.” Poetic scenery is expressed in the roofscape itself and how it is viewed by visitors from the roof terraces. And integrated geometry is expressed in the triangulated forms that constitute the structural logic of this entire project. So, even though these two projects –Gymnasium and Jixi Museum– look very different there is a relationship because each represents a family of related forms.
VB: One of the gardens within the museum is particularly interesting for its geometrically cut, thin concrete blocks that form mountain-like profile against a whitewashed garden wall. That feature reminds me of a similar composition at a garden inside I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum , which is also positioned against a whitewashed wall and reflected in a pond in front of it. Could you touch on that?
LX: Of course, this is an ancient traditional design device. These compositions of stones represent miniature mountains. In the Jixi Museum the idea was to create miniature mountains to play with the scenery of the real mountains in the distance. In a way, there are three scales, in which mountains are represented here – the miniature mountains expressed in stone compositions in the garden, the roofscape represents mountains in the middle, and far away in the distance there are the real mountains. So, there are close mountains, in the middle, and far away. It is like being inside of a painting. And, of course, the miniature mountains at this museum are abstracted and made of concrete, not natural rock and soil as in Suzhou or other ancient gardens. The pond and area all around it are also done in geometric concrete panels. There is no attempt to achieve natural likeliness. It is an unmistakably manmade garden.
VB: How was your collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron on the Olympic Stadium? It started the year when you just formed your studio in 2003, right?
LX: That project was the reason for forming my studio. In fact, the stadium was my first independent project. Before 2003, CADG did not have any design studios, just different departments. Initially, three design studios were formed. Now there are seven studios – five architectural and two structural engineers. These architectural studios consist of anywhere between 10 and 50 architects. As far as my experience of working with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it was very special and memorable. I worked with them from the very beginning and was stationed at their office in Basel during the competition phase. At that time, we also worked with Ai Weiwei who was an artistic consultant during the early stage of the project. The project was unique and complex. It involved the use of the most advanced technologies at the time. It was a historical milestone and not just for China but globally. For us, it was extensive research and a great learning experience. What I learned from that collaboration with Jacques and Pierre is the idea of integrating the structure, form, and space together. That’s a very important design logic that I admire and try to follow in all my work, which is consistent with my own philosophy of integrated geometry and poetic scenery.
VB: The Bird’s Nest is one of my favorite buildings in China. Yet, we can’t ignore a strong criticism of this structure by such prominent critics as Kenneth Frampton who insists that the stadium is excessively overdesigned by using too much steel, concrete, and resources in general. How would you respond to that criticism?
LX: No, I don’t think it is overdesigned. I took part in the entire design process from the very beginning. I can say that the final result of the stadium is based on a rigorous research. From the beginning, the brief asked the stadium to have a retractable roof. The initial idea was to make the stadium porous. But the retractable roof structure is very heavy and required massive supports. To hide the supports additional random-looking steel members were introduced. Then when the project’s design was close to being finished the government decided to eliminate the retractable roof due to cost concerns and, more importantly, safety concerns. That was a response to the 2004 collapse of a section of a roof at Terminal 2E at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. As part of that decision, 9,000 seats were removed to bring down the stadium’s capacity to 91,000 seats. By then the building was already under construction. The structure was adjusted and simplified somewhat, but the system could not be changed. It was too late to completely redesign the project. And if we had to redesign the whole project it would no longer be the Bird’s Nest, which was the symbolic image that won an international competition and the full support of the people.
As built, the building brought a lot of pride to China and its citizens. It was hugely important for boosting self-confidence in China at the moment when the Olympics opening ceremony became the attention of the whole world. And after the Olympics the stadium was used in other major events. It continues to be used regularly and will be used again for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. Of course, now the times are different. We no longer need to demonstrate our confidence. That moment has passed. Now we are focused on sustainability, integration with nature, and serving people. But the Bird’s Nest will remain useful. Its criticism is not justified because it is a long-term project unlike many other Olympic venues around the world. The stadium is criticized for being overdesigned and much bigger than it needed to be. But the fact is that it has been serving people and its generous structure can be used and adapted to a variety of needs in the future. When we question whether a project is sustainable, we need to consider how it is used in the long run. To build something economic for a single event is not the answer.
VB: What would you say your architecture is about and what kind of architecture would you like to achieve?
LX: I am pursuing the kind of architecture that would interact with nature in the most meaningful way. And when I talk about nature, I mean not only the actual nature but also artificial nature. The goal is to make people enjoy interacting with nature in architectural space. Our architecture is for people and their enjoyment. We want to be both idealistic and realistic.
Read Vladimir Belogolovsky's previous interviews published on ArchDaily.