Chinese architect Wang Hui of URBANUS picks community building over form making

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Wang Hui about his dream of becoming an architect in order to change everyday life around him.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Sep 26, 2020

I spoke to Wang Hui over WeChat video call from New York, as we discussed his dream of becoming an architect, the architect’s focus on building communities, and his conviction that buildings must be tolerant as they absorb changes and transform into something new.

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): What was it that triggered your initial interest in architecture?

Wang Hui (WH): You know, I consider my generation quite lucky because we have experienced China’s dramatic transformation – from a poor agrarian country to economic powerhouse that can compete on the world stage with some of the most advanced countries. I remember the time when I was applying to Tsinghua University. Higher education was still very rare at that point. It was the beginning of political and economic reforms when we just started catching up with the progressive world. That was a very optimistic time and naturally, many young people wanted to contribute positively to the success of our country, to build a better tomorrow, so to speak.

North side of the Botanic garden of International Horticultural Expo in Beijing, China | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
North side of the Botanic garden of International Horticultural Expo in Beijing, China (2019) Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

The question was – How can I be useful for the society? Now the times are very different. For example, this year my son is going to college and he selected the discipline that he wanted, which is computer science that he will be studying in America. I didn’t push him into architecture; it was entirely his choice. But for me it was about what was needed for my country, not what I liked. And I was prepared for my studies as I took art classes since I was a little boy. So, my main idea was about becoming an architect to be able to change the physical environment around me, to transform the look of my country quite literally.

You know, I was born in the hutong area in central Beijing where my family lived along several other households in a traditional siheyuan or a courtyard house where we all had to share basic utilities such as running water for cooking. We didn’t even have a toilet or bathroom there. We had to rely on public toilet in the hutong. Imagine, going there every morning. So, living in the hutong you would know all your neighbours. You know, well preserved traditional Chinese architecture is very beautiful, but not when everything gets subdivided and added haphazardly. So, one can say that we lived in a slum. Ok, so now you know why I wanted to become an architect (laughs).    

Maritime Art Museum (2008) | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
Maritime Art Museum (2008) Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

VB: I am trying to imagine whether living conditions alone would be enough of an incentive to want to do something about it, let alone study architecture. Have you seen any examples of other types of buildings that you liked? If your lifestyle is the only way you know how to live, there is no reason to change anything. To want to change that you have to know that another lifestyle is possible. 

WH: You are right, I simply did not know any alternative. But we had these beautiful poster-size wall calendars. Every month there was a photo. These calendars were very popular because they would be just about the only decoration in the house. And some of these calendars had buildings. Otherwise, we had cement floor and painted walls, and maybe a small bookshelf. Imagine, living in that kind of poor environment. Of course, I would be inspired by an image of a beautiful modern building. But also, I remember watching TV programmes about foreign countries and I remember seeing modern buildings.

It was modernity that was attractive and inspiring. It was such a shocking contrast to what we were accustomed to here. I remember when I was a high school student, we went on a tour to Tsinghua University. And when we visited the School of Architecture, we were shown architectural drawings framed and hung in the corridors. That was something totally new and very impressive. I had no idea about the difference between architecture, civil engineering, structure, design, and so on. I just remember being very impressed because everything looked brand new. So, that’s what I wanted to study and change everything that was around us then.

Tangshan Urban Planning Museum and Park (2008) | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
Tangshan Urban Planning Museum and Park (2008) Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

VB: URBANUS is an unusual independent practice in China for at least three reasons. First, you are focused on working on large-scale urban projects. Then, you have two offices in Shenzhen and Beijing. And finally, you have three partners. Did you model your practice on a particular global corporate firm such as SOM, KPF, or Gensler?

WH: Yes, of course, we always wanted to build a very professional, you may even say, corporate firm. But the truth is that none of us is good at management. (Laughs) And seriously, we never treat our design practice as a business enterprise. Yes, we are unique in many ways here in China. But our model is a hybrid. We are all doing a little bit of everything – marketing, management, design, research, presentation, and so on. We are not only focused on design, and we don’t have clear divisions between our responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that we are not professional. But we are a little messy.

In a way, we operate as a small design practice. And that’s what limits our capacity to grow. Each of the partners leads a number of projects and we are not able to manage more than about 30 people each. So, the company maintains around 100 people – two thirds of which are in Shenzhen and one third is here in Beijing. Again, from the very beginning, we have decided to be not a corporate, but design-oriented firm. Or, even beyond that, we are determined to be a design firm based on research in making architecture more socially engaging. We have developed our own research department for that.

The premise of the Environmental Upgrade of the Five Dragons Temple (2008) is centred around creating layers of overlapping spaces around the main building to tell the story of the temple history and ancient Chinese architecture | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
The premise of the Environmental Upgrade of the Five Dragons Temple (2008) is centered around creating layers of overlapping spaces around the main building to tell the story of the temple history and ancient Chinese architecture Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

VB: You position your firm in the following way, “URBANUS is more than a design practice, it is a think-tank, an urban curator, and mediator. It aims to formulate architectural strategy from the complexities and uncertainties in contemporary Chinese urbanism.” This was stated in one of your lectures. Could you talk about the key intentions of your work? How would you define your focus?

WH: This is exactly it; these are our intentions. (Laughs) Well, China has many great designers, but there is a lack of diversity. What sets us apart is that URBANUS is really focused on addressing social issues. We are not at all about making the next architectural statement or achieving the most beautiful space. We do believe that architecture’s main intention is to address social issues. Also, if you look at many architects around the world, such as in the US or Europe, of course, there are many social issues too. But here in China, they are more acute, and we have to address them more attentively. So many fundamental issues are in flux. The situation is not stable. So, in China the role of architects has a bigger meaning.

The latent theme of the Environmental Upgrade of the Five Dragons Temple 2016 is to restore the temple into an area of public gathering in the village | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
The latent theme of the Environmental Upgrade of the Five Dragons Temple 2016 is to restore the temple into an area of public gathering in the village Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

We can help to distribute good quality of life to those who otherwise don’t have access to it. We can deliver social justice. For example, public space is very important. Our architecture tries to provide opportunities for creating public spaces as much as possible. For example, when my partners curated the Urbanism\Architecture Bi-City Biennale, they changed the previous trend of always picking a popular or even fashionable space to do an exhibition that would showcase sleek international projects. Instead, they brought their biennale right into an urban village to be directly engaged with real issues of a real neighbourhood where ordinary people live. More than that, it is the neighbourhood where URBANUS is situated, the place we know from inside out. That was a very strong social action, not just a statement.

The building of the Maritime Museum of Art blends itself into the sea side scenery thus giving the name to the building | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
The building of the Maritime Museum of Art blends itself into the sea side scenery, thus giving the name to the building Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

So, every time we get a project, I always ask – What is it that I really want to say? We don’t have any pressure to accept projects just to occupy our people for the sake of business. We only work on projects that we think are valuable and would allow us to address social issues. We already made many statements and interesting projects. Now we are focused on community making, not merely form making.

We love to work on projects that improve daily lives of ordinary people. For example, in our Botanic Garden Pavilion for the 2019 Horticultural Expo, I cared more about how to create public amenity by using the greenhouse space as an active agent of shaping a community than simply to design an attractive form. Such community centers are very useful in making people to become familiar and friendly with one another. Developers are preoccupied with how to make their developments profitable, but they never invest in how to build communities. That’s what we try to offer with our projects. Architecture is not virtual, it is real. It can offer a real link between people. 

South façade of the Botanic Garden of International Horticultural Exhibition 2019, Beijing | Wang Hui | Urbanus | STIRworld
South façade of the Botanic Garden of International Horticultural Exhibition 2019, Beijing Image: Courtesy of URBANUS

VB: How would you describe a good city or building?

WH: You have to have tolerance. You know, cities and buildings are not designed, they are used. They are developed by the usage. Design is only the birth of the building. A building is not just about a sleek image. The media often cares about a single photogenic, instagrammable image on the screen, something that’s perfectly balanced and close to perfection. But I think a good building is something that can absorb changes and transform into something new in the future. It is important for others to add their own scenarios as well. That’s what I think good architecture is.

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