MoMA celebrates recent architecture in China for being closer to nature

Vladimir Belogolovsky visits Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at New York’s MoMA and shares his conversation with the featured architects.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Oct 07, 2021

We no longer seem to be surprised by the sheer scale and complexity of the kinds of engineering and architectural projects that today are more likely to take place in China than anywhere else on the planet. The breakneck speed of development of dozens of major Chinese cities, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo – all stimulated the mushrooming of the most ambitious projects all over the country. Yet, unlike MoMA’s own show OMA in Beijing: China Central Television Headquarters held in 2006-07, that exemplified spectacle-driven iconic architecture produced in early 2000s by starchitects flocking to China from Europe and America for a chance to realise their wildest dreams, the current exhibition Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China brings our attention to the entirely different kind of architecture – it tends to be responsible and sustainable, adaptive and responsive, it is smaller in scale and more restrained in its geometry, and it relies on regional, recycled materials and traditional building techniques. These structures are more likely to be found away from major urban centres and they engage more directly with the place, culture, context, and, more importantly, with nature. All the creations celebrated by MoMA are designed by local architects, even if most of them were trained abroad.

Modestly scaled and presented at the Museum’s street-level single-room gallery, where free entry exhibitions are now held, the current show will remain on view until July 4, 2022. The exhibition, organised by MoMA’s curators, Martino Stierli and Evangelos Kotsioris, and advised by Li Xiangning, the new dean of Tongji University in Shanghai, comprises eight projects – regeneration of Wencun Village and Jinhua Ceramic Pavilion clad in thousands of unique ceramic tiles, both in Zhejiang Province and designed by China’s only Pritzker Prize–winning Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu); Chi She Gallery in Shanghai that Archi-Union Architects (Philip F. Yuan) enveloped in salvaged bricks put in place by a robotic arm; Long Museum in Shanghai designed by Atelier Deshaus (Liu Yichun and Chen Yifeng) around industrial remnants; open-air Bamboo Theater in Songyang County in Zhejiang that DnA_Design and Architecture (Xu Tiantian) formed out of living bamboo; Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum in Jiangxi Province designed with recycled bricks by Studio Zhu Pei (Zhu Pei); Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin that Vector Architects (Dong Gong) imagined as a poetic adaptive reuse complex; and Micro Hutong in Beijing with intriguing spatial arrangements, inserted by ZAO/standardarchitecture (Zhang Ke) into the fabric of endangered hutongs. These projects are traditionally represented by abstracted scale models, drawings, sketches, large photographs, and videos – all drawn from a recent acquisition of some 160 works of Chinese contemporary architecture, almost all were gifted to MoMA by the architects themselves or their clients.

  • Amateur Architecture Studio, Jinhua Ceramic Pavilion, Jinhua, Zhejiang, 2006, Facade mock-up Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, exhibition installation | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Amateur Architecture Studio, Jinhua Ceramic Pavilion, Jinhua, Zhejiang, 2006, Facade mock-up Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, exhibition installation Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Porcelain model, Detail | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Porcelain model, Detail Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky
  • Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Model detail | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Model detail Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

The selected choices clearly reflect the curators’ intentions to identify the most poetic, artistic, and undeniably beautiful, even stunning works of architecture, or one could even say works of art on architectural scale. They contrast greatly with the mainstream architecture being built in urban China, largely designed by huge bureaucratic Local Design Institutes (LDIs), which is why they are displayed here in the first place – not to represent architecture as a whole but to celebrate rare jewels. In fact, if you go to China, chances are, you will miss this kind of works entirely. To see them you more likely would need to fly to a provincial city’s airport, rent a car, and drive for hours before reaching these oddities, which, of course, will only make the experience so much more rewarding.

Nevertheless, even if subculture and the embodiment of an unequivocal protest against both the mainstream architecture and iconic, often out of place structures designed by foreign architects, these works illustrate a trend – they are clearly of the same family, defined by a single school and common characteristics. These architects – all tightly born from early 1960s to early and mid-1970s – are not the 21st century reincarnations of such radical formal inventors as Oscar Niemeyer, Jørn Utzon, or Eero Saarinen. They are rather a result of a collective approach, a following of sort. Each of the seven studios could put on display here at MoMA at least a dozen similar, if not more delightful works from their extensive portfolios and there are now no less than two dozen of profoundly talented architects in China who are working on similar level of architectural artistry. Ever since Beijing-based architect, Yung Ho Chang (b. 1956) and his wife Lijia LU (b. 1960), started their Atelier FCJZ in 1993 (not represented in the MoMA show), the first private architectural practice in China, it opened an alternative career path to numerous young architects who since then started their experimental and research-based independent practices. The eight projects on display at MoMA celebrate the success of this alternative, which in a space of just two decades, formed into a distinctive regional architecture that now can be identified as unambiguously Chinese, but has a potential to inspire the world. What follows are seven single Q&As selected from my earlier conversations with these architects over the last few years.

“Achieving good architecture is like flying a kite”   
In conversation with Wang Shu (b. 1963) of Amateur Architecture Studio, Hangzhou
WeChat video call between New York and Hangzhou, October 23, 2020.

  • Wang Shu & Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture Studio | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Wang Shu & Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture Studio Image: © Iwan Baan
  • Amateur Architecture Studio, Regeneration of Wencun Village, Zhejiang Province, 2012-16 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, exhibition installation | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Amateur Architecture Studio, Regeneration of Wencun Village, Zhejiang Province, 2012-16 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, exhibition installation Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your Ningbo Museum diffuses the notion of a single authorship. Could you talk about diversity, anonymity, and multiplicity of voices in your architecture?

Wang Shu: I pursued this concept of anonymity in my PhD at Tongji University. This is what you can see in traditional houses in Suzhou – they are delightful and beautiful, but not in a personal way. They are a product of a very organic language. That is what’s moving about these structures. And that’s what I was trying to express in a different way, in the Ningbo Museum. I call this building’s facades – architecture completed by one thousand hands. I refer to the diversity of techniques in the building’s construction. And we mixed new and salvaged materials side by side. I wanted to build a small town with its own life, which could wake up the latent memory of the city that was built over the demolished ancient villages on the site.

The success in Ningbo was in achieving the right balance between the architect’s intervening too much and letting the workers be free, to a point. Achieving good architecture is like flying a kite. There is always a string attached to the building process. I would like to call the result of the Ningbo History Museum an anthropological fact in existence. Every time I am building a building the intention is to create a world and a path that leads us back to nature. Getting lost in this world is a recurring theme in my work.

Regeneration of Wencun Village, Zhejiang Province, 2012-16 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
Regeneration of Wencun Village, Zhejiang Province, 2012-16 Image: © Iwan Baan

The essence of my architecture is in trying to maintain a cultural continuity. You can’t protect and preserve culture as is. That is not enough. You have to find a dialogue between tradition and continuously changing life. Each generation has its own understanding of traditions. It is important to be conscious that all of us are taking part in re-composing traditions as we know them – in how we carry on different stories or re-compose and interpret the language. We may not be aware of it, but we are continuously re-composing the reality we know.

“I am interested in seeing the future”
In conversation with Philip F. Yuan (b. 1971) of Archi-Union Architects, Shanghai
Archi-Union Architects’ studio in Shanghai, March 7, 2018.

  • Philip F. YUAN of Archi-Union Architects | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Philip F. YUAN of Archi-Union Architects Image: Courtesy of Archi-Union Architects
  • Archi-Union Architects, Chi She Gallery, West Bund, Shanghai Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Model detail | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Archi-Union Architects, Chi She Gallery, West Bund, Shanghai Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Model detail Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

VB: You are an educator, researcher, theoretician, practitioner, writer. Could you talk about these directions and interests, and how they intersect?

Philip F. Yuan: Architecture for me is beyond just professional design. Architecture is my way of life. I am in search of my own role within architecture. Architects may be preoccupied with design and building but I worry about a bigger idea such as – what will the future be? Why do we build buildings? How do we build buildings? How can we produce better environments and build a better world? I am particularly interested in improving the environment for regular people, for majority of the people, not just for the elite. That’s why I don’t want to be just a professional designer, even though we have a very active practice here with about 60 designers. I am interested in much more – writing, research, and teaching. Particularly, teaching is important to me, which I started over 20 years ago at Tongji University here in Shanghai because it allows me to see my work critically and to test new possibilities. A typical practice of architecture is based on efficiency, budget, communication, etc. But in the environment of the university architecture is all about experimentation and I am interested in seeing the future. Writing is very important because it forces you to think. In the last 10 years, I have produced at least one book every year. Every book is a record of what was done in one year in terms of teaching, research, and practice. I am interested in both pushing the experimentation and reading history because I want to learn from history. So, I try to combine historical research with critical thinking because new theories are never entirely new; new theories are coming from history. I view writing as part of research, it helps me to define my position in the profession because there is no practice without theory.  

“The idea is not to create an object but to construct a path”
In conversation with Liu Yichun (b. 1969) and Chen Yifeng (b. 1972) of Atelier Deshaus, Shanghai, Atelier Deshaus studio in Shanghai, January 12, 2018.

  • LIU Yichun & CHEN Yifeng of Atelier Deshaus | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    LIU Yichun & CHEN Yifeng of Atelier Deshaus Image: Courtesy of Atelier Deshaus
  • Atelier Deshaus, Long Museum, West Bund, Shanghai, 2014 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Atelier Deshaus, Long Museum, West Bund, Shanghai, 2014 Image: © Su Shengliang

VB: Speaking of perpetually evolving urbanisation in China, you said, “We are confronted with the process of drastic urbanisation; the surroundings are always unknown. Even if there is planning, it is always subject to unpredictable and constant change. Eventually, we have to resort to our own totality.” You compared your buildings to landscapes, but these landscapes seem to be quite autonomous; they float independently of the context around and they establish their own context, right?

Liu Yichun: We try not to tie our projects directly to the context since, as you said, it is typically in flux. But we always engage with the outside and try to create many opportunities for observing outside or engaging from inside and we are interested in these dialogues that often evolve beyond our control. We use our architecture to express and embrace this uncertainty, not to escape from it. The main idea for us is not to create an object but to construct a path. Our projects are not about proposing new forms but about how they are explored and experienced. They are about the space and movement around, inside, on top, and through without any particular sequence. And often it is not clear where the entrance is; you need to discover it. A building is a path. You encounter and experience it before you realise that you are already inside of it. A building turns into a landscape and landscape turns into a building. 

Chen Yifeng: Many of our projects are built in suburban areas with no context and we are often forced not to respond to the context but to create it. Sometimes we decide to isolate our buildings by creating a boundary to protect them from constantly changing environment.

“We treat projects like patients. every patient is different, so is every project.”
In conversation with Xu Tiantian (b. 1975) of DnA_Design and Architecture, Beijing DnA_Design and Architecture studio in Beijing, November 30, 2018.

  • XU Tiantian of DnA_Design and Architecture | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    XU Tiantian of DnA_Design and Architecture Image: Courtesy of DnA_Design and Architecture
  • DnA_Design and Architecture, Bamboo Theater, HengKeng Village, Songyang, Zhejiang, 2015 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    DnA_Design and Architecture, Bamboo Theater, HengKeng Village, Songyang, Zhejiang, 2015 Image: Wang Ziling

VB: How would you summarise what your architecture is about?

Xu Tiantian: For me architecture is not just about crafting an object. I don’t like when architects try to impose their own signature styles on a particular place. I think history itself is important – the place, traditions, construction methods. I want to work with these tangibles and react to real needs, which are different every time. Architecture is a tool to respect and preserve local history and to address specific issues. Architecture should be able to connect the past and the future. Most of our buildings in Songyang County are barely noticeable on the outside. You may discover them when you are already inside. Our forms come from the places where we work. There is nothing striking, foreign, or even personal. We try to be very careful. There are buildings that need to be seen and there are buildings that need to be discovered. There should be different degrees of expressions. As I said, we treat projects like patients. Every patient is different, so is every project.

“For me nature is attitude”
In conversation with Zhu Pei (b. 1962) of Studio Zhu-Pei, Beijing
Studio Zhu-Pei in Beijing, April 17, 2017.

  • ZHU Pei of Zhu-Pei Studio | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    ZHU Pei of Zhu-Pei Studio Image: Courtesy of Zhu-Pei Studio
  • Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 Image: © schranimage
  • Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Fragment model, Detail | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Zhu-Pei Studio, Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, 2020 Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, MoMA, Fragment model, Detail Image: Vladimir Belogolovsky

VB: You said that nature is the most important of all your inspirations. But when I look at many of your drawings, even landscapes, they are represented in black and white tones. Your nature is nonrepresentational, right?

Zhu Pei: Sure, people typically associate nature with green colour, with mountains and the forest. But today most people live in cities. In my work, I don’t emphasise physical nature, unlike so many other architects who try to mimic nature literally, with greenery that covers their architecture, which is a counter Chinese idea. That is not real nature. I never try to make my architecture look like nature. It is impossible anyway. No architecture can be like nature. The idea is to respond to nature, not to copy it. For example, many good ideas can be learned from traditional houses with tall courtyards, solid walls, and small windows as a response to a hot and humid climate. So, for me nature is attitude; it is all about our attitude towards how we respond to the climate. Architecture should be our direct response to nature and about how we want to build our relationship with it. Also, I don’t like buildings that express technology or cover themselves in expensive, shiny materials. That’s very pretentious.

“I believe in questions that are eternal”
In conversation with Dong Gong (b. 1972) of Vector Architects, Beijing
Vector Architects’ studio in Beijing, December 11, 2018.

DONG Gong of Vector Architects | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
DONG Gong of Vector Architects Image: Courtesy of Vector Architects

VB: You compare your design process to a chemical reaction. What are the key ingredients that you rely on from project to project?

Dong Gong: Every project is a painful process to me. Because when you just start there are so many unknowns – you don’t know enough about the site, program, and you don’t have enough imagination about the potential spatial qualities. So, it is bits and pieces of issues that are in front of you. For me the only way to find a solution is to spend time by sketching and modeling one option after another. It is easy to think about architecture as a creation of physical objects. But there is no end to it. You cannot finish architecture. Architecture will keep growing by itself; it will age, change use, and so on. Architecture never reveals itself. Something else is always reveled through it. The most powerful architecture is never about itself but what you can observe through it. What can space connect you to? The spirit, power, and meaning of architecture should be felt by people.

  • Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017 Image: © Su Shengliang
  • Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017  | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    Vector Architects, Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel on the Li River near Guilin, 2017 Image: © Su Shengliang

My work is about testing ideas. I don’t get distracted with inspirations. Now I am asking deeper questions and I try to stretch my abilities to create architecture. I don’t have confidence to say that my work is progressing, but my architecture has been transforming. I am consciously throwing away what I already know or what I am very good at. Being too comfortable and sure of what you do is dangerous. I think artists do their best work when they are searching when they struggle. A good building should provide a feeling of intimacy. It is important not to go too far and not to turn a building into a spectacle. I think the important question is this – what is the problem? I believe in questions that are eternal. I believe the issues we need to address are fundamental – it is about our body, scale, physical limitations, and senses.

“Is a new revolution possible today?”
In conversation with Zhang Ke (b. 1970) of ZAO/standardarchitecture, Beijing
ZAO/standardarchitecture studio in Beijing, December 20, 2018.

  • ZHANG Ke of ZAO/standardarchitecture | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    ZHANG Ke of ZAO/standardarchitecture Image: © ZAO/standardarchitecture
  • ZAO/standardarchitecture, Micro Hutong, Beijing, 2013 | Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China exhibition at MoMA | STIRworld
    ZAO/standardarchitecture, Micro Hutong, Beijing, 2013 Image: © ZAO/standardarchitecture

VB: A couple of years ago you had an exhibition at Aedes in Berlin called Contemplating with the Basics. What was the main idea for that show and why did you choose such a basic title?

Zhang Ke: We exhibited several of our projects, in which we combined living and working models. We contemplated what is possible. I think that every new generation of architects needs to revisit this very basic question about architecture – why we build? Of course, we need housing, offices, cultural buildings, infrastructure. But beyond that, how do we mark our time? By asking these fundamental questions we will achieve different results and enrich architecture. Bauhaus architecture was a great revolution against historical styles. Architects then needed to create a radical shift to reflect on the revolution in their own technological age of the machine. Is a new revolution possible today? The most important thing is to question everything and develop a position.

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