As China's architectural profession matures, many of its firms continue to redefine the design landscape with bold, imaginative and culturally sensitive creations that seek to improve the lives of end users. Perspective looks at seven leading Chinese designers in the field and discovers what lessons can be learned for the rest of Asia and the wider world
Meng Yan, Liu Xiaodu, Wang Hui
Urbanus Architecture and Design
Since its inception 18 years ago, Urbanus Architecture and Design has been redefining China's architectural scene and raising the profile of the nation's designers abroad. Its founders, Meng Yan, Liu Xiaodu and Wang Hui (above, left
to right) — who met while studying at Miami University — have been lauded for their architectural ingenuity and consideration of the social impact of their designs. Their critically acclaimed works are many, including the Oct-Loft urban
regeneration project that has transformed a cluster of industrial warehouses in Shenzhen into a bustling arts centre. Another is the Tulou Collective Housing project in Nanhai, Guangdong, where the firm reinterpreted communal Hakka-style houses as a refreshing new take on low-income residential projects. Currently, the company is working on initiatives such as the Nanshan Yuehai Neighborhood Sport and Cultural Center in Shenzhen, a structure akin to a
block of irregularly stacked boxes. There's also the ambitious Shum Yip UpperHills Loft project, where the firm is tasked with constructing a 100,000 sq-m loft of apartments and offices.
Chu Chih-Kang Space Design
There's a generally held belief that all architects have a precise method when embarking on a project. "I have no particular process in design…I see the potential of the space and figure out what the client wants," says Taiwanese designer Chu Chih-Kang of Chu Chih-Kang Space Design, a firm with offices in Taiwan and Mainland China. Chu says he delivers clients' dreams, fashioned into the spaces. Career-changing works include the cavelike Fangsuo bookstore in Chengdu that opened in 2015. The 5,508 sq-m venue of concrete, terrazzo, copper and black steel resembles China's sutra scripture libraries housed in Buddhist temples. The idea for the space came to him from the surroundings. "I saw the Daci Temple near the site; I saw the condition and potential of the site — which is in the basement — and the sutra depository inspiration came naturally [to me]," he recalls. Utilising the structure symbolising knowledge was part of his goal to establish a hub of wisdom and exploration.
Since the bookshop opened, numerous accolades and honours have rolled in for Chu, chief among them an invitation to exhibit at the 2016 Venice Biennale; he participated at the event again this year.
Amid China's rapid urban evolution, this architect has certainly found a niche, but the flip-side of this is heightened competition in the field. In fast-evolving China, big and bold new ideas quickly get stale. "We have to update ourselves all the time, we have to come out with new ideas in a much shorter time than before; that's why we are in a tough position," says Chu.
When Tea House in Hutong opened in Beijing in 2015, it became something of a poster boy for seamlessly uniting the old and new, thanks to Arch Studio's careful renovation of this historic 450 sq-m complex in Beijing's hutong neighbourhood. Such sensibilities from the firm stood out at a time when many age-old buildings in China were being subjected to extreme make-overs.
Han Wenqiang, one of this year's Perspective 40 Under 40 winners, recalls the processes involved in this project: the design took four months, but bringing it to reality took two-and-a-half years, not least due to the careful restoration work required. The result: a bright and modern space that retains the site's architectural DNA. "Whether a design is good or bad doesn't only depend on how many awards it has received or how beautiful the surroundings; what's more important is the value of use the site generates steadily, meaning whether it attracts more people," says Han. Given these criteria, the site is a success: today, it's more than a teahouse, it's an active venue for dining, culture, fashion events and more.
Han's balancing act of meeting cultural, historical and environmental requirements is a recurring theme in his projects, one of which is the Tangshan Organic Farm. The architect, who studied architecture at China Central Academy of Fine Arts, believes different elements can generate a strong sense of atmosphere to stimulate one's experience and perception, and that designs based on such qualities make for a comfortable space for inhabitants.
He Zhe, James Shen, Zang Feng
People's Architecture Office
The imaginative egalitarian designs of Beijing-based People's Architecture Office (PAO) have had a profound impact on their users, its speciality being creative solutions to urban problems in China and, potentially, elsewhere. Of note is the Tricycle House, essentially a low-cost home on a bike designed for migrant labourers, a shape-shifting design that can turn a dining table into a bed at the whim of its owner.
Another example garnering many accolades is PAO's prefabricated home systems, designed to upgrade an old building through the addition of modern amenities. Its 'Courtyard House Plugins' can be slotted into the existing foundations of a hutong in Beijing and can be easily connected to services such as plumbing and electricity. These urban renewals are quick to assemble and have won many plaudits, including a World Architecture Festival Award and a Red Dot Award.
X + Living
In 2013, two years after establishing her practice X + Living, Li Xiang won Perspective's A&D Trophy Awards in the Commercial category. She's known for producing arguably the most whimsical and mind-bending havens for Chinese
bibliophiles: the bookshops in the Zhongshuge chain. Li says: "We believe readers are willing to read and buy at a physical store if the bookstore is good; along with the owner's determination to [revive] China's physical bookstores, it prompted us to co-operate and build China's most beautiful bookstores."
Li's project is part futuristic literary hub, part surrealistic art and part culture destination. When her project for this book retailer's Hangzhou branch opened in 2016, the 1,000 sq-m space drew more than 20,000 people, a new record for
the market. Another standout project is the Yangzhou branch, opened in 2016, its centrepiece being a tunnel-like kaleidoscopic space with mirrored floors.
The site's surroundings also influence each project, says Li. For her sixth Zhongshuge bookstore, in Chengdu, she took inspiration from the poet Du Fu, who wrote about rural life amid the bamboo forests of Sichuan — motifs
eimagined at this outpost, including bamboo-style bookshelves and depictions of pandas in the children's area. "We don't design for [the sake of] design," she says. "We design to create good work to bring positive energy to society."
RSAA/Büro Ziyu Zhuang
Ziyu Zhuang, principal architect of Beijing-based Büro Ziyu Zhuang (and a partner of Colognebased RSAA) wears many hats. He's currently working on the home make-over show Beautiful Homes, featuring Hong Kong actor and architecture buff Daniel Wu. Zhuang, along with Wu, were tasked with breathing new life into the bare bones of a 140 sq-m village house atop a mountain in Anhui Province. The show will air in China in October and will feature the revamped residence that will retain core elements of the original house. "It's delivering the new typology while embracing the local context and culture," says Zhuang of the makeover.
His mentors at Columbia University in New York have greatly influenced his work; they include Kenneth Frampton who taught him about "techtonic" architecture, where the craftsmanship of a building and its context are ingrained in the
construction. This idea was central to the project in Anhui, where the materials and arrangement of the bricks of the walls varies from village to village, reflecting different neighbourhood styles. Wu and Zhuang retained the distinctive local bricks used for the walls, but rearranged them in different ways to bring fresh perspective to the space.
The architect and his team are currently working on the Beijing Liubaiben Mall. The old commercialspace will be transformed into a thoroughly modern shopping venue. Zhuang believes the struggling mall industry must evolve from department stores into spaces that reflect today's retail experience, one that is no longer solely about purchasing.
"All the old shopping typology needs to be renovated towards an experience-based typology and that's all about merging the spaces together with the urban architecture," he explains. The space will span some 500m, featuring clusters of eye-catching box-style units that will be interconnected.
Zhuang has noted seismic shifts on China's architectural scene. Local design institutes are relaxing rules to allow more independent architectural response to projects, he says. On the micro level, he thinks a greater exchange of ideas
from different educational and cultural backgrounds is having a huge impact in the field, as demonstrated by what's going on at his firm's offices in China and Germany. "I think the whole world will also be like our office, where ideas will merge gradually; the architectural society is gradually merging, and eventually China and the world will be working much more closely together," he says.
Elevation Workshop was established by Yale graduate Wei Na and American academic Christopher Mahoney, and has offices in New York and Beijing. The firm has developed a knack for fusing Eastern and Western aesthetics, fashioning various award-winning environment- and community-orientated projects. Notable ventures include the design-centric hot-springs lodge in Beijing, WHY Hotel, a boutique property that opened in 2015 featuring accommodation units set among bamboo groves, with slanted roofs that do not align with each other, resulting in an unusual but visually fascinating skyline.
The firm is now working on the Heritage Villages Rehabilitation for Hanglai village in Western Hunan, a community-orientated renovation project for the minority villages in the region, all in collaboration with Serve for China, an initiative launched by Chinese alumni of Yale. Many of the inhabitants in these villages are struggling with poverty, their livelihoods affected by unchecked development. To preserve these heritage sites and improve conditions for village occupants, the firm has drafted a financially sustainable plan and design for renovation that focuses on using local resources and construction methods. "We promoted our programme to the government, developers and organisations for funding and support; our aim is to really help this place and these people," says the firm, adding that it hopes the project will become a model solution for helping other villages in the region grappling with similar issues.
This is an excerpt from the “On the cutting edge" article from the Jul/Aug 2017 double issue of Perspective magazine.
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