Contemporary Chinese architects can be divided into two main categories. One is a huge network of government and university-owned design institutes and the other –independent, privately-run architects’ studios, a phenomenon that was started by Beijing-based architect Yung Ho Chang when he opened the very first such practice in 1993. While it is these independent architects that succeeded in producing many, mostly small-scale original works that collectively established a new architectural identity that is unmistakably Chinese, it is the design institutes that produce the greatest bulk of the built environment in the country. For this reason, I wanted to talk to Weiping Shao, the Chief Executive Architect of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, BIAD. In a way, Mr. Shao is the chief architect of the Chinese capital. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Architectural Society of China. Shao graduated from Tongji University in Shanghai in 1984 with a master’s degree. Apart from heading BIAD’s design efforts, the architect is the head and leading designer of his 30-architect studio called UFo, which was founded in 2003. We met at Shao’s office, full of international magazines and with an expansive view over Downtown Beijing and spoke with the help of translator and architect Zewo Zhou who works at the studio.
“As Architects, We Should Be Confident in Our Work”: In Conversation with Weiping Shao of Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and UFo
"For Us, Every Project is About Moving Forward": In Conversation with Jason Forney, Jason Jewhurst, and Dana Kelly of Bruner/Cott Architects
Established in 1973 by Simeon Bruner and Leland (Lee) Cott, Bruner/Cott Architects is now led by three second-generation principals, Jason Forney, Jason Jewhurst, and Dana Kelly, who took over the practice in 2016. Architects of a broad spectrum of work regionally and nationally, the firm is widely recognized for adaptive reuse projects of historical, industrial, and mid-century buildings, including MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, as well as future-focused net zero design such as the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
“We Want to Enjoy the Work, Enjoy the Fight”: In Conversation with Qing Fei and Frank Fu of Renhe Architecture
Last year I was invited to teach design studio for the first time by Tsinghua University in Beijing, home to the top architecture school in China and one of the strongest in the world, according to the latest international ratings. There, I met husband-and-wife teaching practitioners Qing Fei and Frank Fu. As soon as I witnessed their unorthodox way of teaching by challenging students with rigorous questioning, I wanted to interview them. Their innovative approach did not fit my impression of how architecture is tackled in China. Fei and Fu are Tsinghua graduates; they moved to America in the late 1980s where they studied, worked, and researched both art and architecture for almost two decades.
“Architecture Making is Like the Unveiling of a Surprise": In Conversation with Leers Weinzapfel Associates
Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates was founded by two women, Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel, in 1982, later joined by a next generation of partners, Josiah Stevenson, and Tom Chung. The majority of their work is done on university campuses across America, but this can hardly be identified as the firm’s focus, as campuses are actually cities in miniature, containing nearly every building type imaginable. The point of difference, however, is that campus buildings are generally designed with more idealism than projects in our chaotic cities and mundane suburbs.
“Intuition Must Be Grounded to The Site and Context”: In Conversation with Oscar Ko of Interval Architects
Oscar Ko was born in Harbin, China and moved with his parents to Hong Kong at the age of five. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Architecture at the University of Michigan and Master’s from Columbia University in 2006. After spending seven years in America, he relocated to Europe where his original plan was to stay for four-five years or longer but after talking to older friends practicing in China he quickly realized that there are more opportunities in his native China. After working for less than two years for several prestigious firms – Josep Lluis Mateo Architects in Barcelona, David Chipperfield Architects in Berlin, and Space Group Architects in Oslo, Norway – he returned to China where he worked at two leading Beijing-based practices: Studio Zhu-Pei and Chiasmus Partners for several years.
The following is an excerpt from our 1.5-hour conversation at the busy Renzo Piano Building Workshop in New York, right across from Piano’s 2015 Whitney Museum that may not be as inventive as his earlier projects, but still, this battleship of a building pulls you in again and again to discover something new with every visit, both within and in the surrounding city from its open decks and connecting stairs. We discussed some of the architect’s current and earlier projects, while he reflected on beauty, intuition, imagination, and, of course, the necessity of a protest.
It is the end of May 2016, Alejandro Aravena’s “Reporting from the Front” Biennale is about to kick off the next day and I just landed at Venice airport. Vaporetto waterbuses are no longer running at this late hour, so I am heading for a water taxi, thinking that it will cost me a bundle to get to the city. But maybe not! I see a lonely figure, “Are you going to Venice? Would you like to share a taxi?” A young Chinese woman agrees without hesitation. As soon as the boat leaves I keep pressing my luck, “Are you an architect, by any chance?” Yes! The next hour flew unnoticed, as we discussed our discipline and common friends. Two years passed, and I am back to Venice Biennale. At the opening of the Chinese Pavilion, I am hopping from conversation to conversation until I am introduced to Xu Tiantian, “China’s most promising female architect.” We looked at each other and said in unison, “The taxi girl/guy!” We finally exchanged contacts and on my next trip to Beijing we met at Xu’s DnA Design and Architecture studio. What follows, after a brief introduction, is an excerpt from that conversation.
I Am Interested in Seeing the Future is an architectural exhibition, that, contrary to what you might expect, includes no models and no drawings. Instead, as soon as visitors arrive, they find themselves surrounded by text. The wall facing the entrance is covered by an installation of single words on posters, interview transcripts on colored paper, and mirrors that reflect the sentences on flimsy scrolls arcing down from the ceiling.
Where does originality and independent thinking come from? The answer is prosaically straight forward – from an inquiring individual, and an experimental environment wouldn’t hurt to stimulate it. Rem Koolhaas is credited with fostering such an environment, both through building his practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), a 300-architect network of seven global offices, and teaching at Harvard’s GSD, as well as lecturing all over the world. Koolhaas now has eight partners. One of the eight, since 2008, is Shohei Shigematsu who heads OMA New York since 2006. The studio originally numbered just a handful of people and over the years has grown into a large practice of 75 architects with a focus on projects in North America.
Meeting with many leading, independent Chinese architects and visiting their built works throughout China in recent years has shaped my understanding of their contributions as regionally sensitive, poetic, photogenic, and even seductive. Yet, so many of these projects can be confused as being produced by a single, narrowly-focused practice. These works are often small in scale and built far from urban centers where ordinary people could benefit from them most. There is a lack of diversity and risk-taking. The following excerpt from my interview with Beijing-based architect Li Hu on his recent visit to New York overturned my doubts and gave me much hope for China’s urban future.
“Form-Generating is Similar to Music – You Try to Compose Music and Suddenly the Melody Comes”: In Conversation with Kevin Roche
American architect Kevin Roche passed away this past Friday, March 1 at the age of 96. He was born in 1922 in Dublin, Ireland, educated at the University College Dublin (1945) and Illinois Institute of Technology (1948). In 1966, he formed Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA). He has designed more than 200 buildings, including renovation to the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012), National Conference Centre in Dublin (2010), Lafayett Tower in Washington DC (2009), J.P. Morgan Headquarters in Manhattan (1992), Central Park Zoo in Manhattan (1988), The Knights of Columbus Building Headquarters in New Haven (1969), The Ford Foundation in Manhattan (1968), and Oakland Museum of California (1966). In 1982 he became the fourth Pritzker Prize winner and in 1993 was awarded the AIA Gold Medal. The following excerpt is from our 2011 interview at the architect’s office in Hamden, Connecticut.
The following excerpt from my recent interview with Tianjin-based architect Zhang Hua continues an ongoing series of interviews that I’ve been conducting during my frequent trips to China. Zhang Hua is leading his design studio, Zhanghua Architects, which is a part of Tianjin University Research Institute. Professor Zhang Hua’s work follows his uncompromising form-generating theory, which is based on the desire to capture the progression of transformational processes. In his many built projects, the architect examines and expresses such formal transformations as turning from something basic to complex or from monolith to disperse. The focus is on the state of transformation itself, how a form is changing and morphing from one state to another. We spoke with Zhang Hua through an interpreter at the institute, with half a dozen young architects and researchers from his studio, seated all around and taking notes.
“A Building Created Just to Perform a Particular Function is a Dead Building”: Pei Zhu of Studio Zhu-Pei
Since the early 2000s, China consistently has been surprising the world as the playground for international superstar architects’ most daring creations. It still does so, but the element of surprise is gone, and with increased concern for building more pragmatically, resourcefully, and overall responsibly, we are much more critical of these spectacular buildings. The script has been flipped: it is the architecture that is produced locally, with humility and social relevance, that attracts attention these days. Nowhere is this process more evident than in China, where the projects led by homegrown talent are by far the most relevant and meaningful architecture that is being built in the country today.
I think that the conversation with Junya Ishigami at his experimental (and very international) studio in Tokyo was one of the most memorable experiences of my recent trip to Japan. Junya's visions for not just of his own architecture but for the profession were wholeheartedly inspiring. He thinks that architecture today is “not free enough.” He wants to diversify it, liberate it from so many architects’ insistence on following particular building types and, in general, our narrow expectations. He wants his architecture to be soft and loose and finds inspiration in such improbable metaphors as clouds or the surface of water. “We need to introduce more varieties of architecture to better address peoples’ dreams…I want to expand architecture into the future by creating new comfortabilities,” says Ishigami, whose two recent manifesto-like exhibitions in Paris questioned the very nature and purpose of architecture. He is a visionary and essential voice in what is perhaps the most unsettled of all professions.
“Architecture Should be About What It Can Do, Not What it Can Look Like”: In Conversation with Michel Rojkind
Born in 1969 in Mexico City, Michel Rojkind was educated in the 1990s at the Universidad Iberoamericana, while also performing as a drummer in Aleks Syntek’s popular rock band la Gente Normal. He opened his practice Rojkind Arquitectos in 2002. Among his most representative built works are Foro Boca for the Boca del Rio Philharmonic Orchestra in Veracruz, a newly expanded film complex Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, a pair of factory additions for the Nestlé Company in Queretaro, and the Nestlé Chocolate Museum in Toluca, all in Mexico. We spoke about how his architecture engages with people, why architects should assume roles that extend beyond architecture, and the importance of generosity and not worrying about designing everything 100%.
The architectural approach of 2011 Pritzker Prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura can be difficult to summarize. His convictions on matters of aesthetics and design are strongly held, but also highly individual and at times even unusual. In his work, this translates to buildings that are enigmatic, yet not flashy—in the words of the 2011 Pritzker Prize jury, “His buildings have a unique ability to convey seemingly conflicting characteristics—power and modesty, bravado and subtlety, bold public authority and sense of intimacy—at the same time.” In the latest interview from his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to Souto de Moura to probe his architectural mind and understand the thinking behind these powerful yet modest works.
Beijing-based architect Zhang Ke was educated first at China’s leading school, Tsinghua University, going on to later graduate from Harvard’s GSD in 1998. The former equipped him with technical know-how, while the latter encouraged him to question the essential elements of the profession, such as why we build. After working for three years in Boston and New York, Ke returned to Beijing to open his practice in 2001.
One of the immediate impressions that I formed of the Beijing-based architect and Tsinghua University Professor Li Xiaodong (b. 1963) is his reassuring self-confidence. Following our interview, Professor Li asked me a question of his own - would I like to teach at his school? “I never taught in my life,” I replied. He quickly countered, “I know. You can teach. Yes or no?” If I have learned anything about life, it is that when opportunities come you should grab them first and think later. "If he is so confident in me, why shouldn’t I trust him?” I reasoned.