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Yung Ho Chang: “The Commune became our starting point”

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Yung Ho Chang who together with Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, the co-founders of SOHO China, brought modern architecture into the country.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 16, 2023

How do you produce a kind of architecture that hasn’t been done before? First-generation European modernistsLe Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and others—showed the way one hundred years ago. Their abstract, sculptural, and see-through buildings, machines for living and working in, succeeded in populating the world’s most remote places. However, they missed China.

Throughout the 20th century, virtually no buildings built there, no matter how distinctive and compelling, can be identified as truly modern. They were either modelled on historical styles—from Renaissance and Baroque Revival to Beaux Arts and Art Deco—or produced as compromising hybrids, combining “modern” and “Chinese” elements of architecture. Even following Deng Xiaoping’s initiative to open up the country to foreign investment and the global market in 1978, when I.M. Pei was invited to design a modern building, he did not think his birth country was ready. The Chinese-American architect’s Fragrant Hill Hotel, which was completed on the outskirts of Beijing in 1982, tried perilously to marry Chinese vernacular with modern architecture. The result—a simplified hybrid of a box-like structure with a thin layer of folkloric décor topped by a coy version of a traditional Chinese roof—reassured Chinese architects that their disregard for pursuing modern principles, free from historical references, was the right path.   

Site View of the Commune by the Great Wall|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
Site View of the Commune by the Great Wall Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

The Commune by the Great Wall—11 villas and a clubhouse by a dozen Asian architects from Japan, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, all completed in 2002—became the very first collection of uncompromisingly modern buildings in China. The same year the development was awarded a “Special Prize” at the eighth Venice Architecture Biennale. In the following interview, I spoke to Yung Ho Chang of Beijing-based Atelier FCJZ, China’s first independent architect, about his role in creating the Commune and his collaboration with Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, China’s best-known entrepreneurs and the masterminds behind this unique project.

  • The Villa and mountain in dialogue |SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    The Villa and mountain in dialogue Image: © Fu Xing; Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang
  • A dialogue between the villa and mountains|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    A dialogue between the villa and mountains Image: Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let me start with a quote: “Our grand vision is to build a contemporary architectural museum for private houses in a valley of 8 square kilometres next to the Great Wall, to influence a whole generation of architects, developers, and consumers in China, and, hopefully, it will contribute to the history of architecture in our re-born ‘young’ country.” It comes from the statement of Zhang Xin who envisioned the Commune by the Great Wall together with her husband, Pan Shiyi, both the co-founder of SOHO China, the country’s largest property developer. How did the idea of the Commune originate and how did you get involved in this project?

Yung Ho Chang (YHC):I have known Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi since 1995, the year SOHO China was founded. A mutual friend introduced me to them. First, we did some interiors for their showrooms in Beijing. And then Zhang Xin asked us to design a house for them. Completed in 1998, that project became the first modern private house built in the hills outside of Beijing. It is called Mountain Dialogue Space. It was Zhang Xin who gave the house this poetic name. It is a steel-framed structure with three guest rooms, popping up through the singular sloped roof with their cubic forms, glazed on all four sides to enjoy the views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. 

Initially, the house was entirely open without any fence around it. Because the area was quite popular for weekend trips, people would wander around the house freely. One weekend during lunchtime, while I was present, 20 or so visitors were looking around the house. Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi had no idea who those people were. [Laughs.] But they noticed the curiosity and enthusiasm of those uninvited guests. The house was even published and covered on mainstream TV programs. The design was considered unusual and people were intrigued. Although I was criticised by some for knowing nothing about what a luxury villa should be like, I still don’t. [Laughs.]

Shortly after the house was completed and occupied, Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi talked to me about an opportunity to develop a community of modern houses in the hills and sell them. Then we started going to the mountains every weekend to look for a good location. There were many similar valleys. Outside of Beijing, these hills all look alike. [Laughs.] Finally, a secluded land was found near the Water Gate of the Great Wall. It was big enough for at least 30 or more houses but first, we decided to build 12 structures—11 villas and a clubhouse. 

VB: You can’t buy land in China; it can only be leased from the government, right?

YHC: In general, you can’t. The lease of the land for the Commune was purchased from another developer, unlike the lot for the Mountain Dialogue Space, which was initially leased by the couple from the local villagers, following the footsteps of a scholar friend of theirs who built a house there first, as I remember. Usually, the city folks would simply rent farmhouses from the peasants. The cost is quite low and no one would live there full-time, only visiting occasionally. But building a permanent house was rare then.  

Yung Ho Chang, Split House, 2002, Backyard |SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
Yung Ho Chang, Split House, 2002, Backyard Image: © Asakawa Satoshi; Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

VB: Zhang Xin is nicknamed the Steve Jobs of the architecture world. What was her original idea and what was your role?

YHC: I didn’t hear this comparison, but it is true in a way. Inspired by the Mountain Dialogue Space, after seeing the reactions, such as an on-site discussion held there by architects, the couple became very interested in building more unconventional houses. From the beginning, Zhang Xin started entertaining the idea of inviting international architects. We used to see each other a lot. I suggested inviting architects from our region, Southeast Asia. At the time none of the invited architects were very well known. Even Kengo Kuma was then just coming out of the period when he was doing those outrageous Postmodern buildings and only recently started producing good work such as Water/Glass House, a beautiful glass pavilion floating over a pool of water. And Shigeru Ban was beginning to get known; his Curtainwall House was already built in 1995. My strategy was to invite only those architects whom I knew personally.

In 1996 Arata Isozaki and Tokyo-based engineer Mamoru Kawaguchi organised an important conference called Innovative Architecture of Asia. That’s where I met most of the architects whom I invited to take part in the Commune project. Then there was Antonio Achoa Piccardo, originally from Venezuela, but based in China; he worked as the chief architect of SOHO China since 1999. So, it was natural for him to be involved. The only other Chinese architect invited was Cui Kai, the chief architect of the China Architecture Design & Research Institute. We thought it was important to include someone who is very established and a part of the official, government-run institution. The idea was to sort of infiltrate the system. Unfortunately, even many years later, there is still a clear divide between independent and official architects in China. 

  • Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House, 2002 Image: Courtesy of Kengo Kuma & Associates
  • Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House at the Commune by the Great Wall, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House at the Commune by the Great Wall, 2002 Image: Courtesy of Kengo Kuma & Associates

VB: How did you assign particular lots to the architects?

YHC: We didn’t have a well-surveyed site plan. Together with Zhang Xin and a few others we walked up and down the hills to locate the buildable locations for the villas. We would just look around and make all the decisions right there. We wanted to minimise the construction of infrastructure. So, the houses were placed within easy reach of the road we put in the valley first. Once we selected the most appropriate sites, we counted them and there were eleven lots. Additionally, there was a flat parcel for what we decided would become a clubhouse. That was it. [Laughs.]

VB: When I talked to Rocco Yim, he said he designed the master plan.

YHC: Not initially. I believe his office might have been involved in surveying the site and preparing the master plan but after all the lots were chosen. I recall when Zhang Xin phoned me one day, saying quite firmly, “Stop drawing the master plan! You are too slow!” [Laughs.] She said, “We have all the lots identified. Let’s invite the architects and go ahead with the designs.” So, my effort to produce the master plan was aborted. [Laughs.] I think the master plan that Rocco did was possibly produced while the architects were already designing their villas. And Ai Weiwei did the landscape design but not from the beginning.

  • Rocco Yim, Distorted Courtyard House, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Rocco Yim, Distorted Courtyard House, 2002 Image: Courtesy of ROCCO Design Architects
  • Distorted Courtyard House, Rocco Yim, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Distorted Courtyard House, Rocco Yim, 2002 Image: Courtesy of ROCCO Design Architects

VB: Where did the name “Commune” come from?

YHC: One day we were having dinner in Beijing with the architects from abroad. One of us suggested jokingly that we should name the project the “commune” because we were all enjoying each other’s company so much. Once the word was mentioned, Zhang Xin immediately reacted, “That’s it! We are naming it the Commune by the Great Wall!”

VB: What kind of brief did the architects receive?

YHC: It was very open. Each house was to be roughly 400 square metres with two or three bedrooms. The budget was not tight. Of course, many architects used unconventional materials. But we managed just fine, especially since at the time the labour cost was quite low. We did not specify what materials had to be used. I advised architects to rely on materials that were traditionally used in China and possibly natural, but it was only a suggestion. Our meetings were often very informal, sometimes held at restaurants and bars, under dim light, with no proper place to really look at the drawings. [Laughs.]

Gary Chang, Suitcase House, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
Gary Chang, Suitcase House, 2002 Image: Courtesy of Edge Design Institute

VB: Was Zhang Xin the decision maker as far as approving designs?

YHC: Yes, but she treated me as her teacher of architecture and trusted my judgement. Although, in the early design stage, I had trouble approving even my own design, which I named the Split House. That’s when I proposed to use rammed earth walls. She was not at all sure about that idea. So, I prepared several mock-ups outside of our office for her to see. Meanwhile, I had in mind using concrete blocks, as the backup material, just in case. I recall that she came in pointed high-heel shoes. When she approached the walls, she didn’t realise how hard they were and kicked one of them with her foot. That’s how she found out that it was a really solid wall, even if it looked soft and porous. [Laughs.] So, we had a very intuitive approach all along. Then, Gary Chang's Suitcase House was probably the most radical one and I remember Xin was quite excited about it. It was his first house and a manifesto for his subsequent work.   

VB: What were your expectations for this project?

YHC: I can’t claim I had a specific goal but I sensed it would make quite an impact because, in Chinese people’s minds, modern architecture was all about concrete and glass towers. They may also have seen modern airports or shopping malls. But a whole group of such originally designed houses or villas together was unprecedented. So, I thought it would be very important for common folks to see what modern architecture could be on a domestic scale. And the impact was quite extraordinary. There were so many visitors, mostly lay people, not professionals, all very curious. Of course, many local architects went to visit the project as well. There were also voices of doubt and those who were suspicious about whether these houses would be really livable. Nevertheless, there was a lot of enthusiasm. The project also marked one of the most liberating and hopeful decades in the recent history of China—the 1990s—when the country experienced a real renaissance in such cultural spheres as literature, art, theatre, film, and architecture, despite being such a slow art form, followed soon after. There was a lot of eagerness in discovering and learning new knowledge and interests.     

Suitcase House at the Commune by the Great Wall near Beijing (2002) |SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
Suitcase House at the Commune by the Great Wall near Beijing (2002) Image: Courtesy of Edge Design Institute

VB: Reflecting on this project today, what would you say is its place in Chinese contemporary architecture?

YHC: The key significance was in the fact that it was realised. Chinese architects were quite isolated. They knew some of the names of leading international architects and some could travel and visit their projects, but until that point, nothing much was actually built in China. Modern architecture was just an ideal for most younger local architects. Once the Commune was built it made many of them think and realise that it was possible to build such work in China. Modern architecture became tangible. This is important because, from the beginning, when the architectural education system was established in China, which was based on the Beaux-Arts model, the focus had always been on stylistic and compositional organisations, but not on materiality. Yet, it is working with materials that should give the special joy of being an architect. The Commune opened opportunities to experiment with different materials in new and creative ways.

In that respect, I really appreciate Kuma’s villa, which is a very massive steel-frame structure that he concealed so masterfully with bamboo sticks. The result was quite beautiful. I think especially our rammed earth house and Kuma’s bamboo house hit architects in the head. The message was very clear—hey, we are the architects and we should work with all kinds of materials and experiment with them a lot more. And then Antonio Achoa Piccardo did his building in concrete with red pigment that was radical too, to some extent. None of the buildings were built particularly well. But that was a good start. The Commune became our starting point in reexamining what architecture is about. Before that moment, a good architect would be someone who could draw well. That was a long tradition. But by building the Commune we provided an example, “You really have to work with how buildings are made.” 

  • Yung Ho Chang, Split House, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Yung Ho Chang, Split House, 2002, On the front roof terrace Image: © Fu Xing; Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang
  • Vestibule of Split House, 2002|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
    Vestibule of Split House, 2002 Image: © Asakawa Satoshi; Courtesy of Yung Ho Chang

The Commune was very likely the first project that started modern Chinese architecture as an ongoing experiment. The project is very close to Zhang Xin’s heart. That’s what triggered her interest in architecture and it was the rehearsal for her much bigger projects that followed, such as the commercial developments designed by such renowned architects as Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma, and gmp in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Commune also sparked other similar developments in China. About one year after its initial phase was completed, Arata Isozaki and Liu Jiakun invited two dozen international and local architects to design one building each—an art museum, conference centre, hotel, and 17 houses for what became Nanjing Sifang Art Collective. Invited architects included Steven Holl, David Adjaye, SANAA, Mathias Klotz, Ai Weiwei, and Wang Shu. I was also invited. Although, my house is still under construction and there are a few others that remain unbuilt. However, most buildings are finished and it is probably the closest project to the Commune in its intention to celebrate contemporary architecture.

Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House at the Commune|SOHO China|Yung Ho Chang| STIRworld
Kengo Kuma, Bamboo House at the Commune Image: Courtesy of Kengo Kuma & Associates

VB: Eventually the Commune has grown into a much bigger property; it now has 50 houses. How do you see its future?

YHC: Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi envisioned that houses would continue to be built. And they made the decision to duplicate the original houses in all their details. After a while, they realised that maintaining the Commune became quite burdensome. So, for a number of years, at least for a decade, they hired Kempinski to manage it. Now the property is operated by Hyatt. I think the original houses should be restored and taken very special care of. I may sound conservative, but it is a milestone for Chinese architecture. I hope, one day, there will be a museum of architecture. This is our Weissenhof Estate of sorts that Mies van der Rohe was in charge of designing in Stuttgart, which by now is an architectural wonder and so should be the Commune.

What do you think?

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