Seeing architecture as a continuous development of ideas: from father to son

Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Yung Ho Chang about his father Zhang Kaiji, a long-time Chief Architect at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and Research.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jan 13, 2023

Beijing architect Yung Ho Chang is often cited as the father of contemporary architecture in China. His studio, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu or FCJZ—stands for “no ordinary architecture”—which he started with his wife, Lijia Lu in 1993, which became the first independent architectural practice in modern-day China. It laid the foundation for contemporary practice in the country and served as a model for those Chinese architects who looked for an alternative way of practising outside of an extensive network of the still-dominating state-owned Local Design Institutes. I interviewed the architect before; this time we talked about the life and work of his father, Zhang Kaiji, no ordinary architect in his own right.

Zhang Kaiji (1912-2006), was the Chief Architect at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and Research (BIAD) for almost half a century. He designed his most prominent buildings before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Among them are two of the Ten Great Buildings built in Beijing in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—twin museums of the Chinese Revolution and Chinese History on Tiananmen Square and the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a diplomatic complex for foreign dignitaries. His other important buildings include the Sanlihe Government Complex (1955), Beijing Planetarium (1957), and Spectator Stands (1954) at the north end of Tiananmen Square to watch military and political parades. The architect graduated from the Department of Architectural Engineering of the National Central University in Nanjing, in 1935. It was the same school where Yung Ho Chang studied in the late 1970s, then the Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeast University).

  • Watercolor painting of the Auditorium of the National Central University (now Southeast University) in Nanjing, 1930’s | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
    Watercolor painting of the Auditorium of the National Central University (now Southeast University) in Nanjing, 1930’s Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang
  • High-rise in Shanghai, 2nd year student work at NCU, 1932-33 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
    High-rise in Shanghai, 2nd year student work at NCU, 1932-33 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang
  • Celebrity Memorial, 3rd year student work at NCU, 1933-34 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
    Celebrity Memorial, 3rd year student work at NCU, 1933-34 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

At the advice of his father, Chang continued his education in the United States, first going to the Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and then earning his Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley (1984). He started his career as an educator in America, teaching at leading universities, including Harvard’s GSD. In the early 2000s, he founded the Graduate Center of Architecture at Peking University in Beijing, and between 2005 and 2010 headed the Architecture Department at MIT. He was a member of the Pritzker Prize Jury from 2012—when Wang Shu was awarded the Prize—to 2017. In the following conversation, we discussed his dad’s parallel literary career, a villa he designed for Khrushchev, rivalry with Zhang Bo (the second Chief Architect at BIAD), humiliation during the Cultural Revolution, friendship with IM Pei, criticising the Beijing mayor, championing low-rise high-density urban planning, and how he introduced Yung Ho Chang to his now wife and partner Lijia Lu.

Spectator Stands for Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1954 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Spectator Stands for Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1954 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You were just three when your father’s twin museums on Tiananmen Square were built. How was it to grow up in the family of one of the leading architects in China?

Yung Ho Chang: My older brother and I did not know that our father was a well-known architect when we were little. Of course, we knew that he was an architect. My earliest memory of going to a construction site goes back to the times when the State Guest House was being built. It was the same year as the museums on Tiananmen Square were finished, in 1959. I still remember it very vividly. It was a very dark building with marble and granite everywhere. And the workers were installing a very thick carpet over a monumental stair. I recall how they were placing brass carpet runner rods. And later, starting from the age of ten, I went to my dad’s design institute and other construction sites many times. But he did not talk about his work much and our parents did not force us to study anything against our will. For example, we did not study music, unlike kids in so many Chinese families. (Laughs)

Art Museum of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, 1954| Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Art Museum of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, 1954 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: When did you first contemplate becoming an architect?

YHC: Right before applying to college. My early interest was in drawing and I dreamed of becoming an artist. I wanted to study oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. But my parents’ friends told me I should not apply. It was very competitive, and they did not think I had a chance. (Laughs) In any case, my dad spent time drawing with me and my brother and he showed us some of his art books. But we did not discuss architecture. It was only when I was discouraged from studying art that he said, “Maybe you should try to do what I do.” (Laughs) I followed his advice, not because I didn’t want to disobey him but because I really didn’t know what to do otherwise.

Architect Zhang Kaiji, biography by Cheng Lizhen, 2022 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Architect Zhang Kaiji, biography by Cheng Lizhen, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: There is a new book published about your father Architect Zhang Kaiji. Did it reveal anything you did not know about him?

YHC: Well, I must tell you a story. As a teenager, I was interested in literature and read such authors as Eileen Chang, a major writer. I was talking about her to my dad and he said, “Oh, I knew her.” He added, “Eileen Chang, Su Qing, and I, were the top writers in Shanghai.” And I thought he was just making fun of my interest. Then, at the time of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards came to our house. They turned the place upside down. It happened several times from 1966 to 1968. Every time they left, we had to clean up the place to make it livable again. There were many papers and magazines laying around. And because I liked to read anything, I picked up a small literary journal and started reading it. One article caught my attention. It was fascinating. The author had a critical view of the social conditions at the time, but also a sense of humour. The article revealed a personal story about a watercolour of an ancient building that the author painted in a park in Beijing. An English lady saw it and liked it so much that she bought it. I knew that story from my father. So, I realised that the author was my dad. You see, he never signed his literary works under his own name.

That journal was called Heaven and Earth. We had a few issues in the house. They typically had a piece by Eileen Chang in the front and by my dad in the back. And Su Qing was the journal’s editor. When the author, Cheng Lizhen, worked on the new book on my father, we asked her to research this journal. And she found all the issues of Heaven and Earth so that we were able to discover many other articles by him. In the later issues, his articles would appear in the front. Although he never revealed his real name, he always used the character ‘Ren', meaning man or person, in all his pen names. That’s how we traced his literary career that he led parallel to the architectural one. We didn’t know that he wrote to that extent.   

Tian Di (Heaven & Earth) literary magazine, 1940’s | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Tian Di (Heaven & Earth) literary magazine, 1940’s Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: I understand that the museums on Tiananmen Square were designed in less than one month. How challenging was that project for your dad?

YHC: The design and construction together took 10 months to complete. It was rushed to open for the tenth anniversary of the country’s founding. The biggest challenge was construction. The design part had to be done fast as well but because Beaux-Arts architecture, on which the building was modelled, has so many rules, the design scheme followed them. For example, it had to be symmetrical, there had to be a colonnade and other should-haves. The biggest challenge was to be in balance volumetrically with the Great Hall of the People right across the square, which was a much bigger building. So, my father decided to insert a large courtyard at the front of the building that brings the two museums together. The colonnade at the front is totally open. Spatially and visually, it is more interesting. When built, the two buildings seem about the same size. Also, he wanted his building to relate to the Great Hall but at the same time to be different. One of the efforts was to use square columns instead of round ones, employed by the other building. There is a famous story. When he presented his design to the Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, he asked my father, “How come your columns look so skinny?” My dad responded by saying that you would only see these columns as skinny from one side, the front, just for a fleeting moment. But in all other moments, you would see at least two sides, and they would appear much wider. Of course, that’s true. So, Zhou bought his idea and my father did not have to make any changes. (Laughs)  

  • Baiwanzhuang Residential Neighborhood, Beijing, 1953-54 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
    Baiwanzhuang Residential Neighborhood, Beijing, 1953-54 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang
  • Yanjing Hotel, Beijing, 1951 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
    Yanjing Hotel, Beijing, 1951 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: Is there an interesting story about how the State Guest House was designed?

YHC: It was designed in a traditional Chinese architecture style, in a garden setting with a number of individual villas around a formal common structure in the middle. At first, these villas were built with specific international dignitaries in mind. Eventually, they were occupied by others. The complex took years to complete by different architects. But the initial core and villas were all designed by my father. One of the first villas was designed for Khrushchev, since he was expected to visit Beijing soon. My father was told that he would appreciate a very big bathroom. (Laughs) So, the villa was designed to incorporate that. It was beyond a reasonable size. The building looked as if a villa with conventional size was blown up to much bigger dimensions. Every room was huge. It was quite odd. Then Khrushchev came and went, and after a while, Prime Minister Zhou told my father, “Your villa is fine, but the bathroom is too small.” (Laughs)

Anyway, architecturally speaking it was not my father’s most significant project. I prefer his Planetarium. He collaborated with a structural engineer from East Germany to design a steel dome and with local artists from the Central Academy of Fine Arts on a mural for the dome’s ceiling, as well as sculptures and reliefs that adorn the building’s main façade to tell the stories of Chinese mythology. It is an elegant building, a fusion of Classical Western and Chinese styles.

Beijing Planetarium, Beijing, 1957 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Beijing Planetarium, Beijing, 1957 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: What did your father do between his graduation and becoming the Chief Architect at the institute?

YHC: He worked at various offices, including at Palmer and Turner in Shanghai on the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, on the Bund as a draftsman. Twice he started his own practice. Once in Shanghai and the other time in Nanjing with two other partners. The first time a major commission didn’t work out and the firm was dissolved. The second time some projects were built but nothing significant.

In 1948-49, he wanted to study abroad. He had everything prepared—received admission from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, got the visa—and saved some money as well. But that’s when the People’s Republic of China was established. It was the time when a lot of design work and construction was happening. So, he thought he would be more useful at home instead of going to the US. He thought he could study later. So, he stayed and became one of the most important architects in the country. However, later he did regret it. And that’s why he encouraged both my brother and me to study in America.

VB: Could you touch on his rivalry with Zhang Bo, the second Chief Architect at the institute?

YHC: There were two chief architects and five deputies. So, seven architects led all projects at the Institute. There must have been over one thousand architects working under them in the late 1950s and 1960s. Today, there are about four thousand architects. The two chief architects had the same last name Zhang, but they were not related. Zhang Bo was just one year older, and they were classmates at the National Central University in Nanjing where they studied Beaux-Arts principles. They worked side by side for 45 years. Their competition was on full display when the government commissioned them to design two key buildings in Tiananmen Square–Zhang Bo did the Great Hall of the People on the west side and my father did his museums on the east side directly across. There was a lot of debate and they critiqued each other’s projects. They were good colleagues, not quite friends. I heard they could never agree with each other (laughs). My father joined the institute earlier, in 1950 and he recommended Zhang Bo who was working in Hong Kong before that. He was the son of the last governor of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, in the last days of the Qing dynasty, while my father was a school teacher’s son.

National Museums of Revolution and History, Beijing,1959 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
National Museums of Revolution and History, Beijing,1959 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: What was your father’s life like during the Cultural Revolution?

YHC: Many of the architects, especially those who were in charge of projects, were demoted. From 1966, he was not allowed to work on any designs. Of course, there was little work anyway since the whole economy was paralysed. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to clean toilets in his own institute. It was all about humiliation. For years he was going to meetings either as the subject of criticism or forced to criticise others. And his salary was cut from 299 RMB a month to 80 RMB. In any case, he considered himself lucky not to be sent to the rural area or even to prison or camp. Zhang Bo was treated similarly. The authorities persecuted those who were educated before the communist regime was established. They accused these people of being ‘bourgeois reactionary academic authorities,’ which makes no sense today.

VB: How long did this humiliation last?

YHC: He was fully reinstated in 1976, and he continued working as the Chief Architect until his retirement in the late 1990s. Since he went back to his office, he no longer designed his own projects but advised other designers. Then his career took another turn. He started writing a lot of professional criticism, especially for the Beijing Evening Newspaper. This time, he used his real name. He expressed his concerns about urban planning. He disagreed with building high-rise buildings in Beijing and opposed privately owned automobiles. Later, I remember often he would be working at home, not on specific projects but developing plans for, in his view, ideal apartment buildings—five-storey-high with an attic. It was his answer to a typical Chinese version of a modern high-rise city that planners favoured. He talked about accessibility and preservation. He wrote in a very colloquial language for everyone to understand. In my mind, the contribution he made to society as a critic is as important as the buildings he designed.

Zhang Bo (4th from right) presenting at the Great Hall of People to Zhou Enlai (3rd from right), Zhang Kaiji (2nd from right), and others | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Zhang Bo (4th from right) presenting at the Great Hall of People to Zhou Enlai (3rd from right), Zhang Kaiji (2nd from right), and others Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: Was Zhang Bo also reinstated in his position at the institute?

YHC: Yes, he was. And because he was willing to cooperate with the government more closely, he designed many more buildings than my father in his later years. He worked well with the Beijing mayor, Chen Xitong who amidst the building craze of the late 1980s and early 90s, issued an ordinance requiring all new structures to be capped with ‘Chinese hats’ that became known as ‘Xitong hats.’ Older buildings with traditional architecture, Chinese style, were quite sophisticated in terms of form, proportions, colour palette, and so on. But the later ones were blatantly simplified into dumb modern boxes to awkwardly support Chinese-looking pavilions on top.

There is a story about an office building that Chen Xitong didn’t like; he wanted Zhang Bo to redesign the top. And Zhang Bo designed a triple-tier roof just like the mayor wanted, with no problem. (Laughs) The mayor was notorious for getting involved in design decisions. He would look out of his limousine and every time he did not like a new building, he would immediately call the institute and demand an explanation. He would say, “I saw your new building. It does not have a hat. You better design one.” (Laughs) My father was upset about these stories and wrote several open letters to the mayor in protest.

VB: I listened to the lecture he gave in America, at Harvard, in the mid-1980s.

YHC: He came at the invitation of IM Pei, who established a scholarship for Chinese architects and the first one was given to my dad. They met in Beijing when Pei was designing the Fragrant Hill Hotel, which was built in 1982. They became very close. Every time IM Pei came to Beijing, we would all meet with both families for big get-together dinners, including all kids. Interestingly, my father was fantasising that if he left China early, his career would be like Pei’s, more or less. (Laughs)

When he came back from the US where he met Henry Cobb who was a partner at Pei’s office and the chair of the GSD’s Department of Architecture, we had a conversation. I don’t know what I was thinking but I said that I wanted to become a head of a school. Then he looked at me and said very earnestly, “Your ambition is so low. You should try to be a good architect.”

The National Museums of Revolution and History in Beijing, China,1959 | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
The National Museums of Revolution and History in Beijing, China,1959 Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: And soon you became both the head of the school and a good architect. He witnessed that.

YHC: Yes, he did. But in his mind, my practice was not as successful because it is not a corporate practice like Pei’s. And I remember trying to explain to him the difference between a corporate office and a design studio. So, I was telling him that I could never turn my studio into an office like Pei’s. And I could tell that he was very sad. He said, “I know, you would never be another Pei.” (Laughs) After that conversation, we did not discuss architecture for a long time. But in the end, I could tell he was happy with my achievements both as an educator and architect. He figured from reading other people’s articles that what I did was alright. (Laughs)

VB: How would you summarise your father’s influence on your life and work?

YHC: For a long time, I thought I was doing modern architecture and he was doing classical architecture. Today I believe I was very wrong because there is only one architecture. Stylistic labels or isms are not important. Not that there are no such things as isms, but that’s not what architecture is about. What I learned from him the most is that he was an intellectual. He was concerned with big issues regarding the city, housing, and so on. I agree with the issues he raised. And when I worked on my own urban project Jiading Mini-Block outside of Shanghai, I tried to implement some of his ideas by taking a 40-metre by 40-metre block as the basic planning unit. And about classical architecture, I may not rely on such ideas as harmony and symmetry and believe in abstract and tectonic thinking simultaneously, but to me, modernism comes from classicism. I want to see architecture as a continuous development of ideas. I prefer not to reduce architecture to styles. My interest is in the flexibility and adaptability of spaces irrespectively of their intended functions. I am searching for a dynamic, interactive relationship between space and use. To me, that’s the central issue in architecture. And I like to pursue an independent dimension of architecture, not merely work on commissions for clients.

Family photograph taken in San Francisco Bay Area in 1991. From left to right: SUN Jing (Mother), ZHANG Kaiji, Yung Ho CHANG, Lijia LU (Wife and partner) | Yung Ho Chang | Zhang Kaiji | STIRworld
Family photograph taken in San Francisco Bay Area in 1991. From left to right: SUN Jing (Mother), ZHANG Kaiji, Yung Ho CHANG, Lijia LU (Wife and partner) Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: It was your father who introduced you to Lijia, which influenced your life both professionally and personally, right?

YHC: That is true. Lijia interviewed my dad for a national architecture journal called Architect. And he advised her to interview me. (Laughs) That’s how we met.

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