Li Xinggang on tabula rasa as the most relevant and challenging situation in China

Architect Li Xinggang of Atelier Li Xinggang talks to Vladimir Belogolovsky on his Gymnasium at New Campus of Tianjin University, inspired by the movement of the human body.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Dec 16, 2020

Beijing-based architect Li Xinggang leads his Atelier Li Xinggang since 2003. The 30-architect studio is one of five autonomous architectural studios within China Architecture Design & Research Group (CADG). Among the architect’s many realised projects – museums, sports venues, housing complexes, metro stations, and community centers – one stands out. Gymnasium at New Campus of Tianjin University (2015) is unusually sculptural and, at times, lyrical complex. It is the main topic of the following conversation with the architect. A photo of its swimming pool, by Zhang Qianxi, won 2017 Architecture Photography Award by World Architecture Festival (WAF). The building evokes many references of the most celebrated concrete buildings and reminds us of this material’s poetic potential, while increasingly it is being replaced by steel for economic reasons.   

Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University-Natatorium | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University-Natatorium Image: Zhang Qianxi

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let’s talk about your design process and inspirations in relation to your Gymnasium project in Tianjin.

Li Xinggang (LX): The most important question and the genesis of the Gymnasium is, of course, a kind of tabula rasa. It was planned like a new settlement. The question was – how do you settle students, professors, and staff in this place? There was literally nothing there before. To give the place a sense of belonging became the most important issue. When I first visited the site, it was just a flat land with a river and highways. There was almost nothing to relate to. But in just three years it was going to turn into a development of over one million square meters to house 30 thousand students. It is a daunting thought. In places like Europe, architecture is about responding to the existing context. It is all about expansion, regeneration, and recreation. But here it is tabula rasa that’s a lot more relevant and typical. This is what the Chinese architects have to deal with all the time – how do you start something from scratch? This is surely the main aspect that many independent architects are resisting. But that’s the situation we are in. Very often architects have to invent reasons for their designs because they work in the absence of any tangible context. That’s what leads to very quick and random designs. Another problem is the speed of construction. It makes quality suffer, which is very regrettable. I am fighting and resisting this reality with my own projects.

Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University Image: Sun Haiting

VB: I understand that you related your design idea to physical tension that occurs in the human body to poeticize its movements when engaged in different sports. Could you elaborate on that idea?

LX: Yes, the initial concept for the design was to come up with structural components to create a kind of settlement, even a series of settlements. How do you initiate a settlement to give a certain significance to such an empty site? The idea was to create a variety of concrete shell structures of different scales to accommodate different kinds of activities and movements of the human body. So, it is a response to creating a settlement out of nothing, and a response to the body movements characteristic of different sports. It creates a kind of poetic atmosphere in the space.

Wooden framework used to build concrete structures at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Wooden framework used to build concrete structures at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University - Hall 1 Image: Zhang Qianxi

VB: You used wooden formwork to build concrete structures, which is rarely used now in the West and is long replaced by steel construction, which is more economical. Could you go over your reasons for using concrete?

LX: First, unlike similar sports arenas, this complex was built primarily for recreational use and training, not competitions. So, there was no need for creating long span spaces. Therefore, the complex is rather a series of mid-size spaces, which can be achieved more economically by using concrete rather than fabricated large steel members produced in factories. And unlike in the West we have a lot of manpower in China, so it is much more affordable to use labour intensive technologies such as building wooden formwork. In general, it is more economical to construct a building out of smaller elements that can be produced on site rather than fabricating large elements that would have to be brought to the site to assemble. Still, the Gymnasium is a combination of structures. For example, there is a running track suspended in the space that required a large open space. For that we used steel frame construction. And when I use concrete structure, I tend to expose all surfaces to demonstrate how spaces were constructed to achieve a direct communication – it is always informative to show how the whole structure was put together. The complex has a sense of plasticity. That’s what I wanted to communicate to the users and different spaces are done with different elements to achieve a variety of forms.

Steel frame construction used at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Steel frame construction used at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University Image: Sun Haiting

VB: What I like about this project is that it is not imposing a singular image, form, or perception. In a way, it is almost like a small town of interconnected neighbourhoods with different characters, spaces, and elements. The result is a community of buildings, each distinguished by its own unique roof, expressed with the same material but different geometries. It is an exhibition of varieties of elements, not something repeated again and again. A variety of forms and ways of assembling them. Didn’t your client question this strategy as uneconomical? I wonder what arguments you used to defend it?

LX: First, the different structures and geometries reflect different spatial needs of different sports. There are different spans, depths, and heights. Second, from the beginning, the idea was to create a variety of forms because there was nothing there before. The complex was planned as several neighbourhoods, as you observed, a family of characters. Every family consists of related members, but they are not the same. To achieve a certain diversity and richness was intentional. This one complex initiated a large development on campus and right away it had to look quite complex. There are different uses, different positionings on the site, different ways for the sunlight to enter, and, therefore, there are different forms. Natural light is a very important component of the design. Another important point is that the building was designed in such a way that it could be naturally ventilated. And for that you also need to create a variety of airflows. So, from each side the building looks very different.

The Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University caters to different spatial needs of various sports | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
The Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University caters to different spatial needs of various sports Image: Zhang Qianxi

VB: How did you arrive at the half-cone units? If barrel vault roof is more or less expected, half-cone unit geometry is quite rare, especially utilised both for roof and facades. Did you rely on any particular inspirations?

LX: My intention was to find a kind of unifying geometry that could be identified as a sort of DNA for the whole project. There is both repetition and variety in this project. Therefore, I relied on a shell system. There is a variety of forms but what all of them have in common is that they are based on the use of ruled surface. In other words, all these barrel vaults and hyperbolic paraboloids belong to one family of forms. Their curves can be achieved by building wooden forms in a very simple way – with a lattice of straight elements. I like this kind of straight forward, ordered geometry that can produce very rich forms and spaces.   

Unified geometry at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Unified geometry at the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University-Hall 1 Image: Zhang Qianxi

VB: There is also something that you call “poetic scenery and integrated geometry”. Could you talk about that?

LX: Yes, that is the concept that describes this project’s design strategy. Integrated geometry means that structure, form, space, materials, and construction techniques are all integrated. They work together as an integrated system, and this system is interacted with the movement of the human body to create an exciting space and atmosphere.

VB: There is another thing. If you look at this complex, it is not apparent at all that it is situated in China. The forms and materials are not referencing the culture of its place. You were not trying to tie this building to its cultural context, right? 

LX: That’s true and it is because the focus was on underlying universal qualities. The idea was to create a variety of spaces on different scales that would be attuned to many sports activities occurring within. As you said, we tried to express different body movements instead of assigning symbolic Chinese characteristics to these buildings.

Sketch of the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University | Gymnasium at the New Campus of Tianjin University | Li Xinggang | STIRworld
Sketch of the Gymnasium of New Campus of Tianjin University Image: Courtesy of Atelier Li Xinggang

VB: While designing this project did you rely on any particular historical precedents, as far as the use of concrete and brick? I am always interested in architects’ use of specific inspirations. For example, Gaudi’s undulating facades and roof for his Sagrada Familia Schools in Barcelona next to his famous basilica served as a model for such architects as Felix Candela, Santiago Calatrava, and some others.

LX: Of course, Gaudi is a great source of inspiration, particularly for his organic language, structural logic, and for innovative handling of the brick. Yet, when the Gymnasium was finished some people likened it to the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn because of similarly designed cycloid barrel vaults. But the main reason for using them was their economic structure and to work with the idea of how to admit and filter sunlight into the space in a variety of ways. While designing this roofscape I did not think of any specific precedents. The comparisons came already when it was built. So, they must have been present in my mind subconsciously. But I am not denying the influence of Gaudi and Kahn, as well as some others on my work. I admire their architecture very much. Yet, when I am designing, I try to push beyond what I know to discover something new.

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