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Architect Meng Yan confronts his city of Shenzhen as a battlefield

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Meng Yan of URBANUS about how to turn seemingly impossible, ugly, and negative conditions into something positive.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Dec 04, 2021

Architect Meng Yan (b. 1965, Beijing), together with partners Liu Xiaodu (b. 1962, Beijing) and Wang Hui (b. 1967, Beijing), co-founded URBANUS in 1999 in Shenzhen. With around 100 architects and second location in Beijing the office is now the leading independent architectural practice in China with focus on urban issues and projects. Meng received his bachelor's and master's degrees of Architecture from Tsinghua University in Beijing where he met both of his current partners, and Master of Architecture from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Before getting back home he went to New York City to apprentice at KPF, which in the mid-90s was expanding quickly as a global practice, particularly into China and East Asia. While working primarily on projects in Shanghai, Meng also became a licensed architect in New York State.

At URBANUS the architect designed and led projects such as SHUM YIP UpperHills LOFT (2018), CGN Headquarters (2015), Artron Art Center (2015), Maillen Hotel & Apartment (2011), and Dafen Art Museum (2007) – all in Shenzhen. He is particularly focused on urban research in the context of rapidly growing Chinese cities and has led many urban design and research projects that include a series of studies on Shenzhen's Urban Villages and Preservation & Regeneration of Historic Qianmen East Hutong Area in Beijing. The Chinese architect taught at the University of Hong Kong and Syracuse University, and served as a co-curator of 2017 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/ Architecture and the chief curator of the Shenzhen Pavilion at 2010 Shanghai Expo. We spoke over WeChat video call between New York and Beijing, discussing Meng Yan's choice to build his practice in Shenzhen, why he sees his adopted city as a battlefield, the idea of making the city softer, and in more detail about his vision for Artron Art Center, a factory and a cultural centre.

View from the Artron Art Center's courtyard in Shenzhen, China|Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
View from the Artron Art Center's courtyard in Shenzhen, ChinaImage: Courtesy of ZtpVision

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could you comment on your decision to establish your architectural practice in Shenzhen, whereas most other leading architects in China work out of Beijing and Shanghai?  

Meng Yan (MY): We did not choose Shenzhen. I would say that we were chosen by Shenzhen. We originally planned to start our practice in our hometown Beijing, but at that time Beijing was still very quiet, the excitement of the Beijing Olympics had not arrived yet. In 1988, I visited Shenzhen for the first time. It was a place where – at that time – everything seemed possible. It felt like witnessing an emergence of modernity in all aspects. In 1995, I went there again, and I did not see anything that would attract me to stay – it was still a “cultural desert.”

Towards the beginning of the new century, after almost 20 years of rapid urbanisation, Shenzhen was booming with more challenges and more opportunities. Even though it was still rough and brutal, it started to present potentials like New York City did one hundred years earlier. Everyone goes there to survive and in the hope of success. Attracted by the opportunities of unprecedented urbanisation there, we decided to give Shenzhen a try.

VB: Did you move there to pursue a particular project or was it your conviction that the city needed architects and you and your partners were up to that challenge?

MY: First, we got a project and then we moved here. We seized an opportunity to participate in an urban design competition initiated by the city government. It was a major regeneration project and we won a small part of it, a garden. That sparked our enthusiasm, knowing that even people like us who didn’t have any connections, could win a project in a fair competition, and do something for the city. Wang Hui and I were still in New York then, and URBANUS did not exist yet. Liu Xiaodu was traveling back and forth. Once we had the project, we gained confidence and slowly began building our practice together.

Courtyard of the Artron Art Center designed by URBANUS |Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Courtyard of the Artron Art Center designed by URBANUS Image: Courtesy of ZtpVision

VB: When I suggested to focus on one of your projects you preferred to talk about Artron Art Center in Shenzhen. What was its main vision?

MY: Originally, Artron was a print factory; it was well known in the printing industry, but it was something very obscure from the architectural standpoint. Our client already thought of positioning his business as a cultural centre when reached out to us. He said, “We still want it to be a factory, of course, but it should become a hybrid building. We would like it to contain our headquarters, an art centre, a library, plus a museum with an extensive collection.” They even wanted to add a dormitory for their workers. That was quite an ambition. So, I asked him, “How do you imagine this building to look like? Do you want it as a cluster of buildings, a high-rise, or a monolithic ‘object’?” He did not answer this question directly. But he said, “I want this building to look entirely like an art centre, not a factory.” That was a very clear message to me.

The building’s site was bounded by three highways and was adjacent to a concrete plant. To turn Artron from a factory to a cultural centre would require the building to operate as a space for one-stop printing and cultural services, and to integrate all programs into one single volume. The client also suggested for the building to welcome artists to come there to supervise the printing of their monographs, to give lectures, and so on. With the ambition of becoming a major information centre, it could potentially grow into the biggest artists’ database in China. The vision was to redefine Artron’s business model.  

Inside the Artron Art Center |Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Inside the Artron Art Center Image: © URBANUS

VB: What was your design strategy for Artron as far as its space organisation, programmatic components, and circulation is concerned?

MY: It is a tough project because of the collision of its many different components, such as the factory, headquarters, and ways in which those programs interact with the public zones. It feels like designing a small city. Thus, it is essential to build up a narrative that connects the individual parts, and to form a dialogue between the building and its surrounding environment. So, the challenge was both from the inside and from the outside. From the outside, not only was the site a remote place, it was also full of uncertainties because no one could anticipate what was going to happen with the context around it. We didn’t want to do an isolated project that would end up having nothing to do with its surroundings. So, looking around, the only thing that was determined of the site were the highways. And people would experience the building by driving past it at 60 miles per hour, which is very different from what people inside the building would feel.

One unifying element for the project is the vertical library. Spatially, it serves as a device to connect all the major programs; it forms a gathering space for the public to enjoy. Initially, our proposal was just a simple lobby, but when our client told us that Artron has a collection of over 10 thousand books, we thought that the lobby could take on the role of displaying those books like a library. This “library wall,” right in the middle of the building, turned out to be 50 meters long and four stories high. It was conceived to operate as a vertical urban plaza for a truly interactive experience for the public – to climb and explore this library wall by walking through it, looking around, and peeking into the production spaces of the factory or other parts of the building. The idea was really to create a public forum in the heart of the building.   

Artron Art Center's library |Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Artron Art Center's library Image: Courtesy of ZtpVision

VB: You said you see every project as an opportunity to understand the city better. In one of your interviews you said, “We need to engage with the city more; I think this is one of the most unique aspects of URBANUS – we actively engage and we promote ourselves not only as architects but also as strategic coordinators and as urban curators. We try to do more.” Could you touch on this?

MY: From the very beginning when we started our office about 20 years ago, we have our goal set, which was to engage the city in the architecture that we would create. This particularly applies to the new cities such as Shenzhen. It is rare, here in China, for a design practice to focus on working in a particular city, and many critics say that China is an experimental field for global architects. For us, however, architecture is an urban experiment and Shenzhen is our chosen ground. So, almost all our works are in Shenzhen. I like the idea of always working in a familiar place, and I do think that the architect must be well acquainted with the place where he works. To me, making an interesting piece of architecture is not too difficult, but being able to incorporate ideas rooted in its local culture and to do the “right thing” is very tough, and this, I believe, should really be the most important challenge for any architect. That’s why we do a lot of research before making any design decisions. The point is to truly understand the place and the problem.

Interior offices of the Artron Art Center|Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Interior offices of the Artron Art Center Image: Alex Chan

For example, we rarely work on projects that start off from a scenic site, and I admire many of our colleagues who work on such places, especially those situated in the countryside or out in nature. In contrast, our sites always begin with an unappealing and unsettling condition, often located on the outskirts of the city – and I am fond of that. I like to see when our buildings are framed or cut by structures and infrastructures around it, and how they merge with these rough environments. That's what Artron is about. Confronting existing conditions and proposing a kind of building that could greatly improve the area is how we always start our projects. All our buildings really came out of their sites – none of them are inserted into the context as a mere beautiful object. What we attempt to do is a kind of superimposition of futuristic thinking over the existing context that needs a new energy source and new connectivity. Our interventions aim at improving energy flows on an urban scale.   

VB: If you look at Artron in the context of your other projects, do you see it as a link between them or is it a stand-alone solution? How would you compare it to your other urban interventions in Shenzhen?

MY: Even though all our projects look very different, the thinking behind Artron and our other projects is very similar. The idea is to infuse transformation, to turn a prosaic and boring area into a vivid neighbourhood and community. For example, take Yuehai Community Culture and Sports Center in Nanshan District in Shenzhen. On a typical uninteresting site, we proposed a vertical stacking of various sports programs with culture, hospitality, and social services – all integrated. This will bring new experiences and positive energy that did not exist there before. And if you go to Artron now, already you will see changes provoked by our building, as new developments are coming up around it. We believe architecture can empower a place and make life more meaningful.

Yuehai Community Culture and Sports Center|Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Yuehai Community Culture and Sports Center Image: © URBANUS

VB: Could you talk about the place of URBANUS as an independent architectural practice in China committed to address urban issues?

MY: It is true that URBANUS works more on large scale urban projects. I think it is about our view of the reality, particularly that of the Chinese cities. While some would talk about those cities in a very negative way, saying that Chinese cities accumulate "junk buildings", I would say that this issue should be approached from an alternative perspective. We see our city as a battlefield, and we are confronting the city as an “enemy” – we are like “guerrillas” fighting to improve the urban conditions. And even after working in Shenzhen for 20 years, it is still very tough for us. I would encourage more independent architects to help tackle the urban issues beyond the giant corporate institutes. The cities are so complex, there must be many parallel and collective forces to address all the urban issues from many points of views with many alternatives. There is no single strategy. We need diversity in our visions to better address the city in all its corners.

Yuehai Community Culture and Sports Center - Street View Rendering |Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Yuehai Community Culture and Sports Center - Street View Rendering Image: © URBANUS

We want to learn from conditions that are seemingly impossible, ugly, and negative. And we want to turn these situations around into something positive. Our practice is more about adding new layers of urban substances. Our focus is to superimpose, to accept what is already there and to improve it. And, of course, we can only add more spaces and containers. But the intention is to bring new programs into our spaces and the entire area. We see each of our projects as a fragment of a much bigger urban fabric. We have been working on various parts of Shenzhen's urban fabric since our first project 21 years ago, and we keep inserting our projects into this fabric, making the city softer, in a way. We add softness to the city. Most of all, I like the idea of intervention, that magic moment when something new gets realised out of something lifeless. When a place is born for public gathering and enjoyment. The idea is to intervene and to weave the urban fabric.

Artron Art Center, like all of URBANUS's projects, are born out of the site|Vladimir Belogolovskyinterviews Meng Yan| STIRworld
Artron Art Center, like all of URBANUS's projects, are born out of the site Image: Courtesy of ZtpVision

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