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Chinese architect Liu Jiakun on accepting imperfections in his works

Architect Liu Jiakun reveals what initially discouraged him from pursuing architecture as a profession, and what rekindled his interest while he practiced meditation, painting and writing.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jun 16, 2020

Born in 1956 in Chengdu, China, Liu Jiakun graduated from Chongqing Institute of Architecture and Engineering in 1982. Working at the Chengdu Architectural Design Academy for two years right after graduation discouraged him from pursuing professional architectural practice. What followed was a decade-long journey living in Tibet, and Xinjiang in west China where Jiakun practiced meditation, painting, and writing, producing several fiction stories while working at the Literature Academy as a writer. In 1993, he visited an architectural exhibition by his former classmate. It reawakened his interest in architecture and in 1999, he started his practice, Jiakun Architects, in his native Chengdu.

Chinese architect Liu Jiakun | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Chinese architect Liu Jiakun Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

Among the architect’s most celebrated built works are - West Village Courtyard (2015), Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum (2010), Museum of Cultural Revolution Clocks (2004), and Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum (2002) – all in Chengdu. He has won many prestigious awards and his work was exhibited at AEDES Gallery in Berlin, both Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, and in 2018, Jiakun was invited to build his inaugural Serpentine Pavilion in Beijing. I spoke with Liu Jiakun with the help of Weili Zhang, a Singapore-based graduate student who assisted with translation.

West Village Courtyard | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
West Village Courtyard Image Credit: Courtesy of JKADS

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): It is very unusual for Chinese architects to give their own name to their practices. In your case, it is unique even for a westerner’s ear because you called your practice very casually, by your given name. Why is that?

Liu Jiakun (LJ): It is very simple – I wanted to be honest with myself and accountable for my work. I wanted an easy and straightforward name; for that my given name is the simplest. But you are right, it is very unusual because when I first suggested this name, Jiakun Architects, there was a lot of resistance from the local authorities who had to approve my company’s registration. They said, “who do you think you are?” They thought it was egoistic and eccentric (laughs).  

Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu, designed by Liu Jiakun | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu, designed by Liu Jiakun Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: You once observed, “If I run out of ideas, I just plant more trees”. Was that a joke or do you believe nature can save architecture by hiding architects’ lack of imagination or mistakes, as Frank Lloyd Wright famously observed?

LJ: Yes, this is true, particularly in the case of the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu, which was my first built project, the very first and essential project for me since I started my practice. I was asked not just to design the building but also to do the landscaping all around it. So, it was no joke for me because at that time I still lacked experience and expertise in so many areas! Additionally, the intention was not to over design certain parts of the building. So, as you can imagine, if I could cover them with trees it was to my advantage. Anyway, who in their right minds would criticise a tree; you know, we all came from monkeys! (laughs)

VB: You are referring to the project where you lined up a row of concrete columns, one of which is replaced by a tree, right?

LJ: Actually, it was the other way around. The tree was there first, so I added columns on either side of the tree, and I cut an opening in the slab above to let it keep growing.

Entrance of the exhibition hall at the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Entrance of the exhibition hall at the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: After finishing university and working as an architect at the local institute you decided that it was not for you, so you went away and spent over a decade meditating, painting, writing, travelling, and basically observing nature and people. What was your main lesson from that experience?

LJ: What I discovered was that design and writing are not very different activities, after all. Actually, both are sort of forms of conspiracies, you know (laughs)? Well, in both cases, you lead your audience to a particular outcome, a climax, so to speak. Interestingly, many of the notions we are dealing with as architects also exist in the literary world in terms of the necessity for structure, rhythm, surprise, even for balance and right proportions. We are operating with very similar tools. Of course, writing is more orderly and linear – line by line, page by page, following a traditional plot structure – the beginning, climax, and ending. Instead, architecture is much more erratic and spontaneous. As a writer, you know what you can achieve as an individual. You build up an anticipation, you create something that leads to something unexpected and provocative. But in architecture, it is about teamwork. You can surprise even yourself. There is more mystery to it. 

VB: I know that you came across an exhibition that made you want to go back to doing architecture after years of being away. Could you talk about that encounter?

LJ: In the late 1980s, I decided to give up on architecture altogether to become a full-time writer. But in 1993, my classmate from the university invited me to his solo architectural exhibition. It was a show of both built and unbuilt projects. That’s when I came across my last hope, a possibility to express individuality through architecture. At that time, I fully gave up on architecture, but after attending the exhibition I decided to pick up my interest. But before devoting myself to architecture fully, I had to finish my book that had been at the core of my imagination for a long time. Once the book was finished and out of my way, I started my architectural studio. That was in 1999.

Shuijingfang Museum displays an application of the rebirth brick in urban projects | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Shuijingfang Museum displays an application of the rebirth brick in urban projectsImage Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: What was the book about?

LJ: For me the book was about utopia and anti-utopia. On the face of it, it contemplated on how to build a new idealistic town, a utopian city. I was inspired by real new cities, similar to new socialist and industrial towns in the USSR. The book was not about laying out architectural strategies, but an exploration into politics, socialism, and revolution. I would call the book a political manifesto. You know, every Chinese architect has a small Mao within him; we see architecture as a tool to change the world, to make it better, but usually things are counterproductive (laughs).

Interior of the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu, designed by Liu Jiakun | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Interior of the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum near Chengdu, designed by Liu Jiakun Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: Your architecture is about making, building, and revealing the everyday, and what is authentic about living in China. What else is your work about? What is your main goal as an architect?

LJ: There are many issues that I am very concerned about, particularly with the juxtaposition of the utopian and the everyday, modernity and traditions, collective memories and personal memory as well as sustainability. In every one of my projects I try to focus on all of these issues. Although each project will face comprehensive problems, the focus of each project will be different. Again, going back to one of my first projects, the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum, my key focus was on lyricism, on the poetry of space itself. But if you look at my West Village project here in Chengdu, you will find that the focus is much more on the social engagement of people. And not only those living there, but even those who live all around it. In fact, many of my projects pay particular attention to how they fit into their surroundings. If Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum is the ‘poetry’, then West Village is ‘sociology’.

Bird view of the West Village Courtyard | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Bird view of the West Village Courtyard Image Credit: Courtesy of ArchiExist

VB: Could you talk about your design process? In one of your lectures you said that in most cases you work with unskilled labourers and before initiating your design you meet with them to discuss what they are capable of. I heard that you do that even before starting your design. You said in one of your lectures, “Once I understand what the workers can do, then I can design my building.” Is that right?

LJ: This is true, but not at the very beginning. At the beginning, I will still have a basic conception of the overall design. Of course, I want to know what builders are capable of, so I don’t design something they can’t build. But in the very beginning I spend time to discover various issues. First, I need to investigate the site and fully understand the context. During this stage I would decide on what the problems are and how to tackle them, and in what way.

Crossed tracks at the West Village Courtyard | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Crossed tracks at the West Village Courtyard Image Credit: Courtesy of ArchiExist, JKADS

VB: Since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, you have initiated the use of brick or cement block reconstructed from the rubble of the demolished buildings to facilitate ‘rebirth’ of culture and place. Due to the use of this technique you are referred to as the ‘architect of memory’. Could you talk about this technique and do you rely on it in your other projects since then?

LJ: The origin of that rebirth brick idea was, of course, the fact that the earthquake left so much destruction and rubble. The immediate problem was rebuilding. So, it was important to come up with a creative and fast way to rebuild. And this technique proved to be very sustainable. I am very proud for being able to create so-called building block for producing my own kind of architecture. And I kept using it for a while in a number of subsequent projects, even years after the earthquake. To this day I sometimes use this technique, but the source, the rubble from the earthquake has become very limited over the years and there is not much left of it.

Slopes and stairs at the Museum of Modern Art in Chengdu, China | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Slopes and stairs at the Museum of Modern Art in Chengdu, China Image Credit: Courtesy of ArchiExist

VB: So, your idea of the rebirth brick did not merge into your iconic and unique way of building? Isn’t there enough rubble from widespread demolition in China to keep this idea going?

LJ: First, I don’t consider this technique as my unique architectural gesture because I don’t want to be tied to a single architectural element and be recognised for just one kind of attitude. The idea is to use this technique strategically where it is appropriate. The other reason is very mundane, which is the cost of such process. Initially, right after the earthquake, there was a lot of readily available rubble and, therefore, the cost was very low. Whereas now, if I want to continue using the same technique, I have to spend a lot of money and efforts to find the rubble from a particular demolition. So now it has become more challenging and from the standpoint of sustainability, it no longer makes as much sense as before.

Hui Huishan Memorial | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Hui Huishan Memorial Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: You just mentioned your focus on blending personal memory with collective memories. Could you elaborate on this idea?

LJ: Traditions in general is a grand overarching theme here in China, which we can’t escape. It is the foundation on which many things stand. However, traditions may not be as vivid as personal memories. As far as this juxtaposition, collective memories are never as emotional and penetrating as memory of a particular individual. That’s why my project for the Hu Huishan Memorial was entirely based on creating a very personal perspective, not just to all victims, but specifically to one of those who perished, a 15-year-old High School student. The shape of the memorial was inspired by a typical relief tent from the earthquake-stricken zone. The exterior walls of the memorial are plastered in the most natural way to the local area, while the interior is painted pink, the girl’s favourite colour, and decorated with her personal toys and objects. Of course, the memorial is not only for Hu Huishan, but also for almost 100,000 other victims of that earthquake. After the earthquake, the relief tents were everywhere in my hometown. So, the memorial reflects both collective memories and my own, personal memory.

Hui Huishan Memorial, built for earthquake victims, reflects collective memory | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Hui Huishan Memorial, built for earthquake victims, reflects collective memory Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: Going back to your ‘rebirth’ brick idea, what do you think about the notion of authorship in architecture? Are you at all concerned with how to leave a particular trace, your own mark as an author? For example, would you say that your reliance on using the ‘rebirth’ brick, even if strategic and not universal, is what makes your architecture unique and identifiable with you personally?

LJ: I do care about authorship and personal character, and unique identity, but I don’t think it should to be conscious or contrived. It should come subconsciously and spontaneously, not deliberately. Of course, there are architects who are known for inventing their own formally recognisable language. But I don’t belong to that camp. What I want to follow is not a fixed symbol or style, but a consolidated methodology and common spiritual temperament. Having a style is like a double-edged sword, it is beneficial for being recognised, but it puts a lot of limitations on what is possible.

Rebirth Brick | Shuijingfang museum | Jiakun Architects | STIRworld
Rebirth Brick Image Credit: Courtesy of Jiakun Architects

VB: What is a good building for you?

LJ: I often question this myself – what is a good building? What can we expect from good architecture? Well, it is like defining oneself, which is a very difficult task. I like different buildings for different reasons. But what I particularly like about any building is when I stand in front of it and experience an emotional sensation. At the same time, I like certain unsettledness. Speaking of my own buildings, I like when I feel that I might have done something wrong. In other words, I like buildings that welcome alternative readings. I don’t like architecture that pretends to be perfect. In other words, imperfect buildings could be viewed as good architecture. I can accept imperfections because it is a strive for perfection that leads to rigidity.

What do you think?

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