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Chinese architect Li Hua on the future being a transformation of the past

Li Hua of Trace Architecture Office discusses with Vladimir Belogolovsky the significance of modern architecture, interpretation of materials, and the importance of asking questions.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 15, 2020

Li Hua (b. 1972) is one of China’s leading independent architects. His Beijing-based 20-person studio has become known for innovative projects such as Xiadi Paddy Field Bookstore of Librairie Avant-Garde in Fujian (2019), Huandao Middle School in Hainan province (2018), Xinzhai Coffee Manor in Yunnan (2018), and Swan Lake Bridge House and Viewing Tower in Shandong (2018). These and other earlier projects won the architect many prestigious honours and he was shortlisted for 2013 Aga Kahn Award.

Hua is a graduate from China’s leading school, Tsinghua University (1997), after which he received his second Master of Architecture at Yale University in 1999. He then stayed in the US to acquire solid practice experience in New York and returned to Beijing in 2003 to establish first Universal Architecture Studio (UAS) with his former classmate at Tsinghua and then his own studio, Trace Architecture Office, TAO in 2009. Hua is also teaching architecture at his Alma Mater. The following interview is an excerpt from our meeting late last year at the architect’s office in Caochangdi Village, a thriving arts and cultural hub on the outskirts of Beijing.

Xiaoquan Elementary School (2010) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
Xiaoquan Elementary School (2010) Image Credit: YAO Li

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your practice is called Trace Architecture Office. Could you elaborate on this name? Is there a hint at your desire to find inspiration in the past, rather than the future? 

Li Hua (LH): To a certain extent, you may say so. Although I never thought about this that way (laughs).

VB: Is that so? Wouldn’t you agree that to trace means to reproduce something that already exists?

LH: Not exactly. To me, the word ‘trace’ has to do with many layers. It is associated with the process rather than the result. Because architecture is more about complexity and about making it. To me, architecture never refers to a single layer, be it theory, history, aesthetics, or functionality. It is about interweaving all these layers in each project that defines the foundation of my work. I would disagree with you that trace only refers to the past because, in a way, future is also based on the past. What is the future if not transformation of the past?

Forest Building (2014) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
Forest Building (2014) Image Credit: Xia Zhi

VB: Could you talk more about these notions of evolution and transformation in your work? You use traditional materials such as brick a lot. But how do you move into the future by insisting on using the brick? So much of today’s architecture is about the past. It is about warmth, comfort, and safety that’s associated with the past. So many new buildings look intentionally, as if they have been around for a long time. There seems to be a certain fear of the future. 

LH: There may be some connections with the past through brick, but I don’t agree with your assumption that a particular material is identified with the past. The materials themselves shouldn’t be labeled as either nostalgic or futuristic. The meaning of a material depends on how it is used and what needs to be expressed.

VB: What you are saying is that any material has the future.

LH: Sure. Brick does not belong to the past only. Brick is a kind of material that can be used in any era. It is a traditional material, but why can’t it be used in the future? What matters is how you use it.

Rocknave Teahouse (2015) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
Rocknave Teahouse (2015) Image Credit: Hua Li

VB: What I like about the future is that we know little about it. We try reinventing what we already know. What I often see in contemporary Chinese architecture is that the future is seen as mere reinterpretation of the past. I don’t see a commitment to inventing something entirely new. 

LH: Perhaps we have a different definition of the future! (Laughs) Again, to me the past has its place in the future as well. There is no future without the past. It is grounded in the past. History is important here in China, but so much of it was ruined in recent years, so it is natural for us to try to preserve as much as we can. I am not giving up on looking at history, but, in the meantime, I want to achieve something that was never done before. Future incorporates the past; you never lose the connection with the past. Future evolves and transforms from the past, and that’s what makes history.

  • Swan Lake Bridge House and Viewing Tower (2018) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
    Swan Lake Bridge House and Viewing Tower (2018) Image Credit: Chen Hao
  • View to the lake on bottom viewing platform of the Swan Lake Bridge House (2018) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
    View to the lake on bottom viewing platform of the Swan Lake Bridge Bouse (2018) Image Credit: Zhao Yilong

VB: I think this says a lot about our particular time. For example, the fathers of the Modern Movement threw all stylistic references of the past into the dustbin of history. Now the times are quite different. There is no urge for inventing something entirely new. We are more comfortable with what we already know. 

LH: I don’t fully agree. I think every era has an urge for something new. But I would use the word evolution, rather than revolution to describe architecture in our own time. Architecture has many dimensions, connections, and limitations. You never invent architecture out of nothing. Modern Movement to me is an attitude, rather than a style. ‘Modern’ is an action, instead of a result. You may say that my work is affiliated with the heritage of Modern architecture. But I don’t really care how my work is termed or labelled. I believe that valuable architecture always belongs to its time, but also goes beyond its time.  

Main building - Xinzhai Coffee Manor (2018) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
Main building - Xinzhai Coffee Manor (2018) Image Credit: Chen Hao

VB: The current architectural production in China, coming from the offices of leading independent architects, appears to have strong similarities, as far as focusing on projects located in the countryside, similar building types, typically done on a small scale, predominantly out of traditional materials, trying to reconcile architecture with nature, and insistence on preserving ruins, just to list a few key points. Do you agree with this observation?

LH: Not really. From social and cultural perspective, there is certainly some common ground amongst these architects. But how to make architecture is still up to each architect’s own vision and approach.

VB: Here in China, are there architects who you would consider your model figures? Who are your authorities? What kind of practice are you trying to build?

LH: I don’t have authorities. But talking about model figures, I would want to mention Yung Ho Chang, who first started an independent practice in China in 1993, and then influenced younger generations. He served as a strong example showing that it is important to create alternative models and reflect on how architecture could be practiced independently.

Xiadi Paddy Field Bookstore of Librairie Avant-Garde (2019) | Li Hua | Trace Architecture Office | STIRworld
Xiadi Paddy Field Bookstore of Librairie Avant-Garde (2019) Image Credit: Chen Hao

VB: What do you think are the most pressing issues for Chinese architects today? 

LH: Clearly, to ask more questions. I am listening to your questions and I wonder – do I know how to answer them? But I want to address these issues. Over the last two decades, China has gone through so much development. For sure there is not enough debate and how to balance between modernisation and preserving traditions. Architects should challenge the mainstream and even their own past. We do need this critical thinking and questioning. It is healthy to avoid ever becoming too satisfied with your own achievement or success. I think it is important for young architects to think about what else can be achieved, rather than just follow a path that’s already accepted.

What do you think?

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