by Jerry ElengicalJul 13, 2021
The founders of Beijing-based architectural duo Atelier Alter – Yingfan Zhang (b. 1981, Guangxi) and Xiaojun Bu (b. 1980, Henan) met while pursuing their master’s degrees at Harvard’s GSD. They started their practice in New York in 2009, while working for their employers – she at RMJM and he at SOM. They started entering competitions and soon won a limited competition for Qujing Culture Center in Yunnan province. In 2010, the couple moved to Beijing to work on the realisation of their winning design, acquiring many other projects along the way all over China. Apart from Qujing Culture Center, completed in 2015, their built portfolio includes Yingliang Stone Natural History Museum (2020, Xiamen), BIT Sports Center (Beijing, 2019), Wuliepoch Culture Center (Beijing, 2019), and Yingliang Stone Archive (Beijing), 2016). The 10-person studio now plans to expand with their ambition to reopen a satellite office in New York next year with leads for potential projects in the US and Canada. We spoke over Skype about how the architects won their first commission, their resistance to widespread tabula rasa developments in China, what they think of older Chinese architects, the current creative moment in the country, and how they originally fought over their preferences only to learn eventually that they are a perfect match to succeed professionally and for each other.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your backgrounds are quite different. Ying, you left China for the US at 18 and studied architecture in America, while Xiaojun, you grew up in China and studied architecture there first. Then you two met at the GSD. Could you talk about these two perspectives and if they make a difference in how you see and approach architecture?
Yingfan Zhang (YZ): You are right, we are quite different. I am keen on theory and Xiaojun is much more about practice. He was all about construction even as a student and his education was focused on experience and technical knowledge. When we just started, I was surprised that he knew so much about construction. But then he was surprised too because we just graduated and I already knew so much about how to frame our work theoretically, how to define a concept or develop a brief. We had a lot of fights in the beginning because we were so different. (Laughs) But I figured out how to understand his approach and he understands my point of view. Initially, we even divided projects between two of us. But then we learned how to work together for the benefit of our work. We realised that what we had was not a conflict between theory and practice, it was a conflict between two different views. Most importantly, we realised that both theory and practice will make projects stronger; in fact, one can't exist without the other. That's what we learned from each other. So, what was in the beginning a kind of confrontational way of working, grew into an intuitive and a collaborative relationship, which proves that we had a good match to begin with.
Xiaojun Bu (XB): You know, during my years at Tsinghua, I worked for several years at the office of Zhang Ke who told me that I was ready to start my own practice. Yet, he suggested me to go to GSD. Already then, I had a very strong opinion about what architecture should be. And during my studies at GSD I was told repeatedly that I should work for myself, and that’s what I felt early on. I had my personal favourite architects such as Tadao Ando, Herzog & de Meuron, and Peter Zumthor. But when we started our practice, as Ying said, we were fighting a lot. We couldn’t decide on our common direction. We would show our clients a couple of options from her and a couple of options from me. If the client was inclined to be artistic, Ying’s option would be chosen. If the client was more conservative, one of my options would win. (Laughs) We were looking for our clients to make a choice. But now we no longer work on different options. We merged our skills, ideas, and expertise into a single common approach that we discuss with our clients. Sometimes, we still provide different options, but they are based on combined efforts.
VB: Could you touch on how you go after opportunities to build?
YZ: Realising ideas is very important, not just theorising. And you can build on that – one building after another. We build projects to assert our ideas. In a way, we started with practice before theory. We develop our theory as we build our projects. Many architects in China are forced to build before they know how and why. Many are struggling with that and we were struggling with that in the beginning. We have many constrains but we try to go forward. We don’t wait for a perfect opportunity as far as a perfect program, site, budget. No, we go ahead, and we use every situation as an opportunity to raise the level of our work. And even though we have these opportunities we need to be very critical. We try to develop a good project every time. For some architects it takes many years to complete their perfect project. We don’t have that luxury. Here time is the essence. Some very large and complex projects are developed from scratch to every detail in just months.
XB: In the West architects may not have many opportunities to build, but once they do, they are the right opportunities. You will have an educated client, detailed brief, experienced construction team, and so on. Here we have many opportunities but there is so little time and little understanding of what we are working on. So, it is very challenging to arrive at a good building. The right project is half of the success.
VB: Your Sports Center in Beijing does not tell me about your cultural identity. I see it as a free, modern, universal project with focus on merging programs, parametric design, fabrication techniques. There is no particular cultural specificity or is there a subtext that I missed?
XB: Well, we want to be Chinese on an intellectual level, not necessarily instantly recognisable.
YZ: We want our language to have the imprinted Chinese identity, in a subtle way, very abstractly. We want to be universal and Chinese at the same time.
VB: How do you identify your own architecture?
YZ: Compare to the previous generation we work on a much more interdisciplinary level. We collaborate with artists, writers, sociologists, we are experimenting with industry, AI, and so on. We are pushing architecture into all kinds of directions to establish our own territory. We look around and we carefully study how others work but we have to push beyond what they have done. For example, if we use concrete, we will always be compared to others who used it before us. So, the ways we use it will need to be different.
XB: We need to find our expressions of materials, our means, and our ways. We are on our path to be unique, but in very careful and subtle ways. We don’t want to be better than older architects here, we want to claim our own territory, to open up new possibilities. It is like in the scientific circles. What is the point in repeating the experiments that were done by others before you? Even if your experiments are smaller and less significant you still need to perform your own experiments, test your own ideas.
VB: Let’s talk more about your Sports Center. What was your intention there?
YZ: First, we had to deal there with tabula rasa. The building’s site is a completely new campus for Beijing Institute of Technology. The only context is the history of the school and the mountain range in the distance. One of the limitations was not to exceed 24-meter height restriction. Also, the client did not have a program for us. That was a part of our scope – to design the program. The original idea was to express horizontality and work with the idea of mathematical trajectories. That’s what inspired us because the complex was to be used by engineering students. Another idea was to create a sensation of suspension and floating over the campus, to create a landmark.
One of our inspirations was Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine with wings. That’s how we came up with the roof design over a very straightforward building under it to meet a very strict budget. So, we couldn’t design a completely radical structure. We had to choose our battles and focus on what was essential to us – the roof and the idea of so-called transparent section – all the sports areas are not compartmentalised, not closed off. In other words, a swimming pool, basketball courts, tennis courts, and so on, all overlap visually and the whole building is permeable and accessible. Originally, we were pushing for making the roof accessible as well, but we lost that battle. Once the building was finished everyone wanted to open the roof to the public, but it was too late; it was not reinforced for that.
XB: We consider this project a surprising gift to us in our career. We were restrained in a number of ways, such as the strict budget did not allow us to use very high quality construction team. We could only rely on mid-level team. Still, we went through a unique experience of working on very large project and we were able to achieve most of our goals and a certain level of purity of our original idea. In order to make the project successful we had to get involved in every phase and detail. It is our most complete and integral project. Now that it is built, we can say that we are ready for a project on any scale and of any complexity.
VB: How do you see the situation in China now and opportunities for young independent professionals?
XB: I think China still has a very fertile situation. When the previous generation of architects came back to start their practice, they were pursuing similar ideas, working in one direction. There was a certain expectancy of them. In a way, they had to establish their architecture in opposition to what the design institutes did, or what the foreigners have done. But now we are not limited by any expectations. We can go into any direction and look for opportunities wherever we can find them. And we no longer see a huge gap between the situation in the West and in China. We live in one world. And the kind of architecture being built here and elsewhere is not that different. The gap is getting smaller and smaller. The field has become flat. The opportunities are now very similar for everyone. It is much harder to get work but there is a wider range of opportunities. We are very optimistic, even though we have to work much harder, much faster, and more intensely.