by Weili ZhangSep 20, 2021
Beijing-based Dong Gong’s (b. 1972, Beijing) path to becoming a practicing architect was long and consequential. The idea to study architecture at China’s top school, Tsinghua University in his hometown was the suggestion of his parents, engineering professors, both teaching at Tsinghua. He admits that he practically grew up on campus. After receiving his bachelor’s in 1994, Dong taught for two years at his alma mater and then proceeded to earn his master’s there from 1996 to 1999. He told me that architects of his generation are remarkably ambitious and even obsessed about achieving relevance and success. So, there is no surprise that Dong then went for another Master of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which he acquired in 2001. He stayed in the US to get a solid experience from some of the top American practices, including offices of Richard Meier and Steven Holl in New York. He returned to China in 2008 to establish his atelier, Vector Architects in Beijing. Dong’s work is very special, it has a great range – it is quite mature and both familiar and exotic. Yet, his projects are not easily achieved, as he readily admits that architecture is a struggle for him. The architect’s most renowned built works include Seashore Chapel (2015), Seashore Library (2015), and Seashore Restaurant (2018), the trilogy of small, strikingly beautiful structures within a short walk from each other. Collectively, they have gained an iconic identity to the Aranya Community in Beidaihe District, a popular beach resort in Qinhuangdao on China's Bohai Sea coast. His Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel (2017), a resort complex on the Li River near Guilin has become a reference model for many architects on how to find harmony in coexistence of architecture that may seem prehistoric, yet sleek and comfortable for contemporary life. This year, this project, and Captain’s House in Fujian province (2017) received 2021 RIBA International Awards for Excellence. The following interview is a condensed version of my recent meeting with Dong Gong over Skype.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could we start with defining the main focus of your work?
Dong Gong (DG): The first few years were about digesting what I learned at school and professional practice, mostly in New York, at the offices of Richard Meier and Steven Holl. It was all about grasping the right scale, choosing the right materials, forms. Now I am asking deeper questions and I try to stretch my abilities to create architecture. So, every day I feel more and more challenging. I pay a lot of attention to architects such as Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura whose works are wrapped in many layers of deep architectural thinking. I particularly like the aura of Souto de Moura’s works. I also like how he tries to break away from the influence of his mentor and friend Siza. He is not relying on any formulas or easy effects. He is not about pleasing anyone. He embraces the heritage, but still wants to be independent and go further. I am intrigued by both their similarities and contradictions. He starts again. I enjoy such process. Architecture is a struggle; I am struggling. I don’t have confidence to say that my work is progressing but for sure it will be different. I can promise you that. I am trying to engage with deeper layers of architectural thinking and culture. I want to throw away what I know well. I want to engage with something new and different. I am not interested in doing what I have done before. I know one thing – it takes me more time to do a conceptual design then before. I want to identify new territories, otherwise, what’s the point? To me architecture is not about producing, not about productivity. Being too comfortable and sure of what you do is dangerous. I think artists do their best work when they are searching, when they are struggling.
VB: Speaking of the most profound influence on you as an architect you mentioned your professor at the University of Illinois, Henry Plummer. Could you talk about that and your fascination with natural light and ways of capturing it?
DG: Plummer wrote about natural light as a fundamental element of architecture. I have one of his books, a special issue of A+U on the poetics of light in Japanese architecture. I always keep this book on my desk. He discussed with me the phenomenon of light as something ephemeral and metaphysical. Yet, light can decisively impact the way buildings are experienced. He talked about daylight as an inexhaustible source of miracles. He is an educator, writer, and photographer. I took his design studio in my first year and he was my thesis advisor in the second year. He taught me things that are hard to put into words, such as the importance of ambience and atmosphere. You can never handle light by itself, without considering such aspects as weight, gravity, air, materiality, texture, transparency, and so on. I never heard of this kind of approach to architecture before, while at Tsinghua. We were preoccupied with composing very physical and concrete forms, and spaces where programs and circulation were more important. We were learning more about engineering of architecture and less about its artistic dimension. I graduated from Tsinghua and I could immediately go into practice. But was I ready? Now I understand the difference and I appreciate what I learned from Plummer. It was the first time I discovered ambience, atmosphere, and intangible, metaphysics. It became a new window for me. Form and appearance became secondary. I try to discover the most inner dimension of architecture. I was also an exchange student in Munich and Plummer gave me a whole list of buildings to visit specifically to better understand the quality of light. These were not just modern buildings, but also historical structures such as churches and train stations. He introduced me to such texts as by Juhani Pallasmaa who helped me to understand architecture on a phenomenological level as a kind of environmental psychology.
VB: You mentioned that you were teaching about light at Tsinghua. Could you talk about that?
DG: Light is a multifaceted phenomenon. When I had a chance to teach, I focused on light immediately and I literally translated Plummer’s teachings into Chinese. But in my second year of teaching, I started personalising this course. I brought examples from Chinese history rather than universal cases. I wanted to be more specific and contextual about the qualities of light. And recently, I was invited to teach about light at Illinois. So, we keep in touch with Plummer.
VB: Apart from your discoveries and experiments with the sunlight, where do you derive your inspirations from?
DG: Light is very important. Anything I draw I start by capturing light first. Then it is mostly about testing ideas. I don’t get distracted with inspirations. It is really about being together with yourself. When I am not designing, I am spending a lot of time with artists, visiting exhibitions, traveling. But during the design process it is very intense. It is very personal, and I don’t want to discuss it or talk about it to anyone. This process is felt not only in my brain but in my entire body.
VB: You said, “Architecture is neither the beginning nor the end. Instead, it is a medium, a medium to connect and reveal.” Could you elaborate on that?
DG: It is easy to think about architecture, as a result of creating physical objects. But, in a way, there is no end in architecture. You cannot finish architecture. Architects are not capable of that. Architecture will keep growing by itself – it will age, change use, and so on. Architecture never simply reveals itself, something else is always reveled through it. The most powerful architecture is not about itself, but what you can see through it or what you can observe. What does space allow you to see? What can space connect you to? The spirit, the power, it should be felt. The meaning of architecture should not be described by scholars or architects, but it should be felt by people. Space has the power to connect people.
VB: Could you summarise what your architecture is about?
DG: It is actually quite hard because I feel that my work keeps changing. My understanding and interpretations of architecture are changing. What is the ultimate goal – is it a personal expression of an artist or is it about giving back something to the people who will ultimately occupy your spaces?
VB: Did you solve this dilemma for yourself? Do you treat architecture more as an artform or a tool to respond to society’s pragmatic needs?
DG: More and more I am becoming convinced that there is no contradiction between these two. Before, I had to find my place between these two extreme positions – being an artist by focusing on my own agenda and addressing the needs of the clients and users. Now I feel that first you need to be a good architect. You need to be confident in your knowledge and experience. But then you need to realise that the only way to achieve high level architecture is by taking it very personally and emotionally. Architecture should be treated as art. An artist by definition has a social value because of what he brings to the society. An architect has a responsibility, but he has to elevate his work to the level of art. Of course, many people criticise this position. But that is what I believe in. Because the only way to be able to communicate with the society and universe is to be true to yourself. Architecture can be very superficial if you simply address all the immediate needs and pragmatics.
VB: You compare your design process to a chemical reaction. What are the key ingredients that you rely on from project to project?
DG: Every project is a painful process to me. Because when you just start there are so many unknowns – you don’t know enough about the site, program, and you don’t have enough imagination about the potential spatial qualities. So, it is bits and pieces of issues that are in front of you. For me the only way to find a solution is to spend time by sketching and modeling one option after another. There is no shortcut for this. I have to spend at least four to eight weeks warming up. I never had a project when I would come up with a satisfying solution after just one week of work.
VB: And finally, what single words would you use to describe your architecture?
DG: Boundary – beyond boundary. Limitation – beyond limitation. Dark – light. Time – timeless. Weight – weightless. I am intrigued by such paradoxical opposites. This is what ultimately humanity is about. But I get lost when I am looking for the right words. Feelings are very imprecise.