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MoMA show highlights Chinese architects' commitment to cultural sustainability

Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China will confront notions of expansive urbanscapes, to redefine and reimagine contemporary Chinese architecture.

by Aastha D.Published on : Aug 20, 2021

China has been ‘the world’s largest construction site in human history’ for the past couple decades. With sprawling megaprojects spearheaded by mostly western architecture firms, China’s megacities have simultaneously expanded and condensed at an unprecedented pace. It has never been clearer that humans have inhabited the planet in a highly unsustainable way and it has begun to now threaten our very existence. Admittedly, the ‘Global South’ bears the brunt of expansive, unfettered, capitalist projects that germinate in the west, especially when it is treated as a sort of tabula rasa-esque playground for architectural objects and urban spectacles.

Studio Zhu Pei, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, China, 2016–2020 | Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)|  STIRworld
Atelier Deshaus, Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, China, 2012–2013 Image: Shengliang Su

Conversations around environmental, social and cultural reparations, a non-extractive approach, and the urgency of sustainable solutions, have found increasing prioritisation across fora that look to reimagine our planetary future. As a new generation of designers, urbanists, artists, pedagogues and architects tackle the global crises—social, political, cultural, material, planetary, economic—their re-calibration of ecological concerns presents itself as a more holistic design research and approach. As a way to expand the discourse and platform the work of some robust young practices, an exhibition entitled Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China will open at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in September 2021. The exhibition is organised by Martino Stierli, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, and Evangelos Kotsioris, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design. Curatorial advice was provided by Prof. Li Xiangning of Tongji University, Shanghai.

DnA_Design and Architecture, Bamboo Theater, HengKeng Village, Songyang, China, 2015.  | Photograph by Wang Ziling (MoMA 264.2020.3) | Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)|  STIRworld
DnA_Design and Architecture, Bamboo Theater, HengKeng Village, Songyang, China, 2015 Image: Wang Ziling (MoMA 264.2020.3)

As noted in a MoMA press release—anchoring the exhibition will be projects by the Pritzker Prize–winning Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu), Archi-Union Architects (Philip F. Yuan), Atelier Deshaus (Liu Yichun and Chen Yifeng), DnA_Design and Architecture (Xu Tiantian), Studio Zhu Pei (Zhu Pei), Vector Architects (Dong Gong), and Aga Khan Award laureate ZAO/standardarchitecture (Zhang Ke). Developed following a four-year research initiative, which has included extensive conversations with the architects and numerous site visits to all the projects presented, the exhibition will include models, drawings, photographs, videos, and architectural mock-ups drawn from a recent acquisition of some 160 works of Chinese contemporary architecture.

Vector Architects, Alila Yangshuo Hotel, Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi, China, 2013–2017. Photograph by Shengliang Su (MoMA 295.2020.2) | Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)|  STIRworld
Vector Architects, Alila Yangshuo Hotel, Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi, China, 2013–2017 Image: Shengliang Su (MoMA 295.2020.2)

STIR was in conversation with Martino Stierli to gain insight into the curatorial vision and process and what to expect at the exhibition.

Aastha D. (AD): The title of the exhibition, three very specific and deliberate action words, Reuse Renew Recycle, how did that come to be?

Martino Stierli (MS): The prefix ‘re’ in English typically means again, or anew, so we felt that the three verbs best relate to the discourse that architecture is engaged with in terms of adaptive reuse, recycling and also material practices. The title has three verbs through which we want to show the plurality and diversity of  the methodology. To renew is a provocation too, to address the fact that this generation has begun practice in times that demand a redirecting of conversation, especially in China, in the face of ecological crisis. Their work is a very strong statement that says they are thinking in ways radically different from the previous generation.

AD: What was your process of shortlisting and featuring the architectural practices you did? What were you looking for and how did you seek them? Is there a methodology you'd like to share with curators when they put together exhibitions featuring 'new' work?

MS: This project came about a little accidentally. I was travelling to China to speak at a university, and as a habit took the opportunity to look around and seek new practices, the local scene, the key players, the various scales they worked with. I realised there was a really interesting young generation at work. We did not have a single work by a Chinese architect in the collection at MoMA, a gap we had been meaning to fill anyway. Out of the idea of a collection came the idea of the exhibit and I realised that there are a number of themes that preoccupy this generation rather strongly which has to do with not just our current global ecological situation, but also the specific cultural and historical aspects in the context of China.

Zhang Ke (Chinese, born 1970), Micro-Hutong, Beijing, China, 2016| Photograph by Wu Qingshan (MoMA 74.2018.5) | Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)|  STIRworld
Zhang Ke (Chinese, born 1970), Micro-Hutong, Beijing, China, 2016 Image: Wu Qingshan (MoMA 74.2018.5)

AD: How does the exhibition problematise the fact that most of China is built by firms based in the west, and that has had a direct impact not just in its visual identity but also cultural disintegration and narrative?

MS: The show does that not explicitly but implicitly by NOT showing those large mega projects that have typically been at the forefront of the global perception of what Chinese architecture is projected to be. We are also hoping to surprise the audience by showcasing Chinese contemporary architecture that they must not have heard about or seen, and through that to redirect our preconceived notions about it. We are deliberately focusing on relatively small scale projects that are responsible and responsive to the region and its potent history, culture, climate, geography etc. as opposed to the tabula rasa large scale urban architecture over the last couple decades.

AD: What fascinates you most about these firms and what is the common string that connects these practices and their non-extractive approach?

MS: I am fascinated by the joint investigation of how an architecture can be at the same time contemporary (in language and relevance on a global scale) but also relating to the specific historical situation, almost a hybridisation. These architects are really interested in defining what is specific to China, in terms of cultural sustainability. This is of course in direct response to the massive urbanisation of China (that I mentioned earlier), that has changed the lives of millions and has uprooted traditional ways of living, in rural China in particular, in a very short period.

Many of these architects are trying to invigorate a certain placeness and timelessness with their work. Revisiting ancient construction techniques is one example of their holistic and sensitive approach, another being the use of building material which were previously used in traditional structures (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu, pioneers of literally reusing fragments and rubble from destroyed buildings). There is also the case where an architect collaborated with the local governments where she gave local masons the opportunity to reintroduce their traditional technique of wood construction. This thinking goes much beyond introducing contemporariness in rural places but also stabilises local economies by providing new livelihoods in rural locations, instead of forcing a migration to megacities, which has unfortunately been a phenomenon.

From the vaulted ceilings of the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum in Jiangxi, to an open-air bamboo theatre in the Hengkeng Village, to a former sugar factory turned into a hotel near Guilin (a great example of adaptive reuse), the exhibition will examine careful yet decisive interventions that serve as a progressive blueprint for a less extractive, more resource conscious future for architectural practice at large. The exhibition is making this history of industrialisation of China visible, and engaging with it in a way that is overlaying the contemporary over the historical, a process that contributes to a better understanding of our position today.

‘Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China’ is on view at MoMA, New York, from September 18, 2021 – July 04, 2022.

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