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Editorial view Criticism, culture and campaigning for 21st-century architecture

The recent relaunch of the AR marks a new chapter in its long and distinguished history. It is not a cosmetic redesign, but a considered and comprehensive editorial and graphic relaunch, intended to offer critical thinking for critical times. Paradoxically, despite the immense advances of technology, humankind still finds itself confronting a series of potentially insurmountable crises. The prospect of ecological doomsday is well rehearsed, but heaped upon this are global economic meltdown, an alarming shortage of resources, the apparently unstoppable growth of cities and a wildly burgeoning population. By the end of this year there will be seven billion people on the planet. How can architects even begin to frame coherent responses to such issues? Therein lies the problem. Now more than ever, the profession is in danger of becoming a supine and marginalised freemasonry, with architects reduced to the status of obliging set dressers to politicians, potentates and carpetbaggers. The dolce vita excess of the Noughties was a smirking triumph of style over content, a false featherbedding that has been abruptly stripped away. So what now? In a media climate increasingly in thrall to the shallow and superficial, there is a clear need for a renewed and serious engagement with architecture and all the issues that affect and sustain it. From the napkin sketch to revisiting key historical moments, the AR provides intellectual sustenance and stimulus across the full scope of architectural production. The aim is to make

architects think more deeply and creatively about architecture, and so reconnect them with their core purpose of transforming human life for the better. Beautifully illustrated critiques of major new buildings are still at the heart of each issue, but new sections enhance and expand the AR’s agenda. Theory intelligibly reconnects the disparate currents of architectural discourse with professional concerns. Revisit looks well beyond the catwalk moment of building completion to examine how notable projects have fared over the years. Pedagogy is a unique new focus on how leading schools teach architecture, an issue of crucial importance to the profession’s future. Broader View invites leading thinkers from other disciplines to share relevant insights. Viewpoints is a forum for the liveliest opinions delivered by leading critics, academics and architects. An expanded Reviews section engages with the depth and diversity of architectural culture. Over its 117-year history, the AR has been part of the remarkable trajectory of modern architecture, campaigning and crusading across the decades. We hope that you will delight in and draw inspiration from the latest phase of its exciting evolution, intended not only to stimulate the intellect, but also the senses, through a crisp, contemporary design that celebrates the object quality of magazines. Subscribe today and take advantage of a specially reduced rate for 12 covetable and compelling issues.

Catherine Slessor, Editor




This photograph from Getty Images is actually a montage of elements, demonstrating the thirst of the global media to depict a country riddled with conflict between the old and the new. It also chimes with the theme of authenticity that runs throughout this special issue

Introducing this special issue, Austin Williams surveys the progress of an emerging superpower undergoing the largest urbanisation project in human history AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 5


construction − and set them in context. Whereas Times journalist Rosemary Righter has condemned the growth of China’s ‘Ozymandian public buildings’, here Alastair Donald writes about the positive role of grands projets and masterplanning (page 32). He argues the West has rejected ‘predict and provide’ as an act of hubris for so long that it has forgotten what planning for the future means. In the UK, we certainly prefer ‘patch and repair’ euphemistically known as retrofit, or sustainability. So while the West scoffs at so-called Ghost Towns dotted around China, many of them turn out to be large urban projects that will eventually be populated. Rather than reactive planning which merely responds to changes as a city grows, Chinese planners aim to have the infrastructure in place from the word go. OK, so some cities don’t/won’t work, some urban masterplans are badly executed, but at least they are setting objectives and getting on with them. As Shu Cao argues on page 36, China is ‘hungry for the future’: ‘we do not wait till everything has been clearly thought out’. In the UK, the discussion on where, what, when, how and whether we should build, is usually in inverse proportion to the amount of buildings that we actually do build. Remember, Daniel Burnham in Chicago famously stated, ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ Indeed, his Plan of Chicago makes the point that ‘urbanisation is a defining condition of modernity’. Modernity is the status of being modern, of looking forward with ambition rather than trepidation; of embracing change and development. The West has forgotten this: while China revels in the possibilities. Peter Buchanan, author of The Big Rethink in these pages, often rails against the ‘pernicious … shortcomings’ of the ‘Modern masters’ and prefers a pick-and-mix parody of Modernism shorn of any socio-historical political context. Criticising Modernism’s unfulfilled ambition to provide ‘freedom for self-realisation unconstrained by culture, community, place and history’, he misses the point. Modernism was all about the social ambition of overcoming parochialism, localism and the subservience to nature. Its appeal was that it was the zeitgeist of a progressivist tendency at the turn of the 20th century; reflecting the era of social transformation and human emancipation. Modernism, at that time, captured an approach to design in which architects had the self-assurance to try and to fail.

‘China is the biggest social transformation project in history − that 400m people have been lifted out of poverty should be celebrated’


China is riddled with contradictions. It is a place of dynamism and restraint, of exciting urbanism but terrible urban design; of space stations and rickshaws; a future that is caught in its past. It is a centralised economy that has become a global powerhouse: a modern society where 120 million people still live on less than $1 a day. In many instances, the Chinese system can explain some of these contradictions as either merely Marxist dialectics or Confucian dualities. However, many of the irresolvable contradictions are the very challenges that the establishment knows that it has to mediate, confront … or control. As a result, the Party Congress in 2012 will result in major changes, while remaining, to all intents and purposes, fundamentally the same. One of the key differences between China and the West is that, in China, the contradictions are visible and contested, whereas we are growing studiously oblivious to corrosive social factors in the West. Ironically, democracy is something that is treated glibly in the West; while the Chinese citizenry are desperate to attain it. All too often, we point the finger at Chinese abuses of free speech merely to detract from its increasing erosion in the West. While the issue of poor living conditions is an everyday reality for a country still emerging from an agrarian economy, the fact that it has elevated 400 million people out of poverty in 20 years is something to be celebrated. This is the biggest social transformation in human history, and so the fact that social inequalities exist is − counterintuitively maybe − a successful sign of social transition. (Forbes notes that only 14 of the world’s 1,226 billionaires are women, but seven of those are Chinese.) Over the last 10 years, China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world; it’s the world’s largest importer and largest exporter, and is the largest holder of foreign reserves. News of its imminent demise is overstated, as this year its GDP growth ‘slumped’ to a healthy 7 per cent. However, it is important not to get too carried away and see China’s rise as the flip-side of Western collapse. For when left-liberals lose confidence in capitalism and democracy, they have a tendency − like the 1930s Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb − to see salvation in authoritarian state ‘miracles’. The articles in this edition renounce such gullible Manicheaism and are intended to challenge perceptions − of China and of ourselves − because the contemporary debate about China often says more about ‘us’ than it does about ‘them’. This edition of The Architectural Review sets out to examine some of the key issues − from China’s public building programme to its education system; from its speed of development to its environmental impacts; from its modern ambitions to its traditional

Conversely, in such precautionary times in which we live, and given our current lack of a similarly heretical culture, Modernist avant-gardism is worth endorsing tactically. Much in this edition of the AR dares to suggest that China is on the cusp of a similar transitional dynamic. In an era where risk aversion is the norm, the palpable sense of experimentation that permeated Modernism, and abounds in modern China, is refreshing. That is why, for all its problems, it is one of the most exciting places to be at the moment. China’s current epoch captures the contradictory rise of modernity at a time when it is still in an agricultural age. It has, as Wang Yun, director of Atelier Fronti (page 56), says: ‘erased Modernism’ from its collective memory, partly because of the brutality of China’s recent history and partly because universalism poses philosophical problems for Chinese nationalism. The renunciation of Modernism qua modernity is symbolic of a broader problem too. For as long as China continues to wallow in tradition, superstition and technocratic

pragmatism, it will continue to flounder. In short, intellectual autonomy is more important than Feng Shui quackery. The powers-that-be know this but find it hard to accommodate the logical consequences of it. In this regard, a key political ingredient of modernity is missing − the Enlightenment. Not in some pseudo-Taoist sense, but in what Kant described as ‘the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters’. Clearly, this jars somewhat with the strictures of the Chinese social system. Once released, critical thoughts cannot easily be directed or reined in. So the issue of pedagogy is important and a country that wants to develop a ‘world-class’ academic culture while blocking university access to outside search engines has a problem. Chinese students are diligent and eager to learn and within architectural discourse, critical engagement − or what has become known as creative thinking − is essential. Unfortunately, Chinese learn by rote. Seemingly inspired by the 1,000 year-old Imperial examination system designed to find administrators for the state bureaucracy,

The two faces of China: images of construction and demolition highlight the debates between progress and tradition. Top: locals wander underneath the cranes of a megablock complex on the edge of Beijing Above: a house marked for destruction in Tangjialing

architecture schools get students to memorise. While there is something to be said for remembering plans and sections or copying the masters, it provides precious little interpretative understanding or free-thinking. Ironically, the Confucian scholar, Meng Zi (Mencius) stated that ‘One who believes all of a book would be better off without books’. Rote learning is not the same thing as engagement, but it is also not the active disengagement encountered in many Western higher education institutions. ‘Teaching to the test’ is a cynical educational technique deployed in Western schools. Chinese students do the same kind of thing, but at least they are culturally programmed to learn something along the way. This month’s Pedagogy section (page 100) explores how one school − the one in which I teach − tries to shake things up a little. One refreshing aspect of Chinese architectural practice is that the word ‘sustainability’ is commonly used but actually doesn’t mean what Western environmental missionaries want it to mean. China tends to privilege ‘social sustainability’, which is variously interpreted as development, growth, harmony or stability. Growth and development (without prefixes) are not frowned upon and it is interesting to see architects from the West quickly losing their eco-pretensions and getting stuck into vying for mega-projects in greenfield sites. The article by Pascal Hartmann (page 37) is a timely reminder of the fallacies of green architecture in the Chinese context (even though the argument has a broader application). Shanghai’s Ecobuild fair had hundreds of manufacturers providing technical solutions to environmental (and sometimes non-existent) problems, but it is telling that there were no stands selling insulation − the lack of which is the central cause of energy wastage in China. The fact that good detailing is the simple solution to many of China’s construction ills is wilfully ignored by environmental lobbyists in favour of the latest solar-this and PV-that. It suggests that green architecture is an industry that is more concerned with self-preservation rather than solving anything meaningful. Hartmann points out that ‘good design’ should be at the heart of the architect’s professional ethos, something forgotten in the mis-translation of ‘good’ for ‘sustainable’. As an aside, The Economist recently noted that 38 per cent of global reserves of germanium, a rare earth used in the making of circuitry for solar cells and wind turbines, comes from Inner Mongolia. It says: ‘Ripping up the grasslands and sucking up scarce water for thirsty mines has been part of the price of these “green energy” products’. In terms of sustainability it is time to ask what, and who, is the problem. Hopefully, this edition poses some of those questions. AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 7

CHINESE CHEQUERS The ‘sliced porosity’ of Steven Holl’s latest Chinese mega-project is a graphic presence implanted in the pulsating heart of Chengdu


Mixed-use development, Chengdu, China, Steven Holl Architects




AUSTIN WILLIAMS Renmin Road − People’s Road − is a six-mile long, dual carriageway that runs through the centre of Chengdu. It is 10 lanes wide (or 12 if you allow for the tendency of Chinese drivers to ignore road markings) and south of Mao’s statue in Tianfu Square, it’s as straight as an arrow. Even though this main arterial route − like most roads in Chengdu − is a thick sea of honking congestion, the local street scene is actually as pleasant and urbane as | New York and as lively and crowded as Delhi. On either side of the 50-metre-wide highway, the tree-lined pavements are a bustle of activity. While the road traffic chugs through the middle, a flotilla of e-bikes invades the pavement with no intention of slowing down. The pavement is a casual mix of traffic and children. Its urban frontage of residential and commercial, of offices and eateries, means that there are always crowds: chatting, strolling, spitting, playing mahjong or dodging motorcyclists. One of the busiest intersections of Renmin Road, at the South Section Ring Road, is the 10 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

location of Steven Holl’s latest creation in China. The 120-metre-high concrete angular blocks are a recognisable Holl presence, looming over the main thoroughfare. But by setting the buildings back even further than the neighbouring blocks, the pedestrian flow at street level is allowed to thin out and as such, the design incorporates a pedestrian level engagement that belies the height of the main structures and blends well with the human scale and the urban context. On a balmy January afternoon, construction workers and office staff alike laze on the seating surrounding new sunken gardens, fountains and pools. Chengdu’s selfpromotion as the ‘laid-back’ city of China seems to be reflected and celebrated by this urban scene − a place of gardens, open space and public congregation. Holl’s building, a series of linked towers, encloses a procession of tiered public piazzas. Again, the link with the street level frontage is a subtle enticement to enter. What might have been a rather foreboding structure actually presents an accessible ramped (or travelator) entrance into the heart of the complex. Holl’s ‘trademark’ corner entry

location plan


Mixed-use development, Chengdu, China, Steven Holl Architects

1. (Previous page) Holl’s towers are a distinctive and graphic addition to the dense urban fabric of Chengdu 2. Set back from the street, the blocks widen the pavement and invite passers-by into the square 3. Pools reflect the (so far) gleaming polished concrete of the facades AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 11

Mixed-use development, Chengdu, China, Steven Holl Architects





level 3 plan office hotel apartments retail public semi-public circulation services

20m level 2 plan 12 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE


level 11 plan


level 8 plan AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 13



office hotel apartments retail public semi-public circulation services

section AA points play with the parallax views of the towers, especially so on the moving walkway. And the front elevation balustrading at first-floor level provides an opportunity to look out over the frantic street life from the relative calm of the interior, or to glimpse the Tai Chi pensioners in the gymnasium opposite, but it also acts as a lure.

Social construction On Google Maps, this site still shows up as the location of the Sichuan Provincial Museum, home to artefacts ranging from the Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty (and including famous revolutionary heritage relics of the Red Army’s Long March to Yan’an). However, the museum was demolished and its contents placed in storage five years ago, because the area was earmarked for redevelopment into what the tourist information maps call, the city’s ‘Amusement Zone’. Promoted under the ethereal but architecturally literal title ‘Sliced Porosity’ − more of this later − this building is, in fact, the Raffles Shopping Centre and gaudy logos adorn many of the elevations. As part of the deal to replace a public museum, the developer (CapitaLand, 16 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

one of Asia’s largest real estate companies based in Singapore) was required to ensure that public access was prioritised, hence the centrality of the piazza concept. Steven Holl’s 300,000-square-metre shopping mall, with commercial and residential above, is the first major building on the site. In essence, it is a mixed-use development comprising apartments over a podium block. The shopping mall design and fit out − which has obviously had no expense spared in marble flooring and sandstone cladding − was done ‘by others’. Construction started in 2007 and the apartments are still being fitted out. That’s quite slow for China, but this was a complicated build even by Chinese standards. Huge excavations; 9am to 5pm working hours to minimise noise impact on neighbouring housing; and a tight site that meant that the compound had to be within the boundary of the site itself and lifted as the building came out of the ground. Added to this, strict building codes that were implemented in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake − the devastating tremor registering 8.0 on the Richter scale, that killed approximately

Mixed-use development, Chengdu, China, Steven Holl Architects

4. (Previous page) the graphic clarity of the facades is extended to the diagrammatic simplicity of the landscaping and pools, recalling the aesthetic of Minimalist sculpture

section BB 70,000 people in 2008 (as Steven Holl released the first press release about the works commencing) − which had its epicentre just 50 miles from this site. If this building is merely viewed as the embodiment of the spirit of genuine regional reconstruction in China then it is a remarkable achievement. Such economic and social resilience puts Western risk aversion into stark relief. Build quality was a high priority in this project. The internal construction standards are a little shoddy, with badly fixed insulation (but at least there is insulation) and no vapour barrier or meaningful cavity closers. However, Holl’s insistence on the quality of the external finish deserves mention as, remarkably, the exterior of the building is fair-faced concrete which has no surface treatment. The intense whiteness of the building, the sharp arrises,

‘In its simplest form, Holl’s building is an engineering model writ large: a straightforward reflection of the structural forces at work’

the smooth appearance, the vertical lines are simply testament to the quality of the workmanship and the relentlessness of the quality management. It is no mean feat attaining either in China. Three hundred wall sample panels were made, inspected, rejected and perfected to engender the required standard of finish. With 1,400 people working on the project − at one time − in the last few months, the project manager deserves special credit. In fact, here in China, where so many projects are handed over at detailed design stage with no concern, or control, over the finished performance, the pristine appearance of this building is not far short of miraculous. Inevitably, the pollution, the ever-present threat of rain and this building’s pseudo-Modernist lack of external drip cills will undoubtedly cause streaking in the not-too-distant future, but for now, the building looks very sharp indeed. Two recesses in the building contain the ‘pavilions’. The one designed by Lebbeus Woods and artist Christoph a. Kumpusch, is a spatial array of fluorescent tubes. Rising over three floors, there is a simple metal staircase in the centre that allows people to walk

through it and out to cantilevered viewing galleries. The sculpture lights up at 6pm to create what Woods suggested would be ‘one that gives us the opportunity to experience a type of space we haven’t experienced before’. Having experienced the sculpture several times, there is something arrogantly fatuous and, at the same time, incontrovertible in that statement. Actually, the botched manufacture of the light boxes jars with the fine work of the overall building, but it was ‘interesting’ to see how a relatively ungainly sculpture − when viewed from outside − looked quite jaunty, from within, when the lights were on. The second pavilion is a Gehry-esque Corten enclosure (that is actually open to the elements) containing a small auditorium of tiered seating in locally harvested bamboo. Originally promoted as a history museum (as a guilty memory of the demolished Provincial Museum), it is now more likely, say the developers, to be a corporate events gallery. It is situated on a flat roof cut out of the main block and is one of the more interesting, although publicly inaccessible places. Overlooking the 1950s Mao-era concrete residential blocks on the north side AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 17

Mixed-use development, Chengdu, China, Steven Holl Architects

5. The logic of the building's structural system creates a series of irregular geometries that serve to humanise the relentless grid 6. Illuminated after dusk, a sculpture designed by the late Lebbeus Woods erupts out of the facade Architect Steven Holl Photographs Shu He except 4 by Iwan Baan 18 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE



and into the pavilion piazzas to the south, it has a commanding presence and is a slightly superior sculptural and architectural rival to the Lebbeus Woods pavilion opposite.

Form follows daylight In its simplest form, Holl’s building is essentially an engineering model writ large: a straightforward reflection of the structural forces at work. Uncompromising diagonals are positioned at the most structurally efficient locations regardless of their slightly disjointed aesthetic. Rather than extending from corner to corner of the square window grid, many are off centre, which results, in places, in tiny triangles of glazing arising from the structural logic. These little quirks tend to humanise the grid somewhat. Ironically, this humane element is thus derived from not intervening, consciously. Or maybe, by not consciously intervening. Holl has said that he tries to ‘come up with a concept that has a deeper meaning than just a form’. In an interview with Joseph Masheck in 2002 he noted that: ‘The very first thought, the meaningful first diagram, the “concept” for the building, is a combination of eye and

‘There is something relentlessly logical about the building. As the culmination of evidence-based design, the effect has been to create something more clinical than spiritual’ mind and hand, and, one hopes, the spirit.’ A decade later, Holl’s initial watercolour sketches for ‘Sliced Porosity’ are proof that he is still engaged at a human level with his architectural concepts. But one man’s ‘distinctive oeuvre’, is another man’s creeping laziness in the generative use of form follows function. So, for example, while the structural frame represents the output of an engineer’s software package, the overall layout of the building is the culmination of a sunpath analysis. The local building regulations demand at least two-hours of sun per day for the piazza area and surrounding apartments. This shouldn’t be difficult as the building is on a north-south axis with the western edge exposed to the wide street and low-level

buildings beyond. However, the architect claims that rigorous analysis of sun-path diagrams resulted in the final form. (Funnily enough, Chengdu has one of the lowest number of hours of sunshine in China and locals told me that ‘in Chengdu, you never see the sun’.) No matter: the towers were apparently sliced away in heliodon model tests as the maths took over − the cutaways represented by glazing in the actual building; uncut walls represented by the concrete grid. One online wag noted that ‘Steven Holl totally knows how to put a foam-cutter to good use’. Even though this sun-path explanation isn’t totally convincing (because it refers to the sun angles on just one day of the year), there is something relentlessly logical about this building. And there’s the rub. As the culmination of evidence-based design, maybe, the effect has been to create something more clinical than spiritual. Admittedly, the spaces are agreeable, the shapes are fine, the landscaping is reasonable, the overall effect is pleasing. Lebbeus Woods’ sculpture is ‘interesting’. Undoubtedly, the public, if and when they decide to populate this space,  will enjoy it. What can I say? It’s ‘nice’. AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 19


Xixi Wetland Centre, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Atelier Fronti


MODERN MAN Wang Yun’s thoroughly Modernist buildings, set in China’s only national wetland park, have been left unoccupied − symptomatic of China’s unfulfilled journey from here to modernity, reports Austin Williams


‘The Chinese people who worked with Modernism have been erased from history’, says Wang Yun casually as we chat over a coffee. The rhetoric is carefully chosen, for he speaks as a Modernist, and he is referring to the purging of Modernism from the Chinese architectural canon. Our conversation begins on a wet day in a faux-traditional hotel foyer in Hangzhou. There follows 10 hours of intense and heated architectural discussion interspersed with several huge meals, beers and more coffee. Even as we eat or walk around his Xixi Wetland Centre project, there’s no let up. ‘When we look back in 50 years time, we will realise that it was important that someone like me carried on doing it,’ he says. This is not cockiness, for Wang Yun is relentlessly self-effacing, but it is his mission. He fervently believes in the transformative potential of architectural radicalism. In this way, he carries the torch of avant-gardism handed down by those erased exponents from the 1920s. For him, Modernism is a liberating project. It is a socio-political critique as well as a material design project, and one that is sadly lacking today.

site plan 22 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

As far as he is concerned, the last century has seen a particular vacuum open up in Chinese architectural development, which reflects the political repudiation of progress. And so he finds himself compelled to plough a lonely furrow to demonstrate the social and intellectual value of architecture and the potential to change. However, the marginalisation of Modernism within China has resulted in him building just 10 projects in the 10 years since he founded his practice. Fortunately, he is finally getting recognition and is one of five architects designing for the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Wang Yun is associate professor at Peking University in Beijing, where he gives ‘inspirational’ talks on the subject of Modernism. (Our translator for the day is one of his students, Zhang Han, and that is her description of his lectures.) Rather than a wizened academic, Wang Yun is a youngerthan-his-40-something-years chief architect of Atelier Fronti. (‘Fronti’ means nothing, he admits, but sounds a little like frontière). He was born in Harbin in the far northern reaches of Heilongjiang Province, a ‘frontier’ state, mid-way between North Korea and the

1. (Previous page) Wang Yun in the frame 2. (Previous page) the Xixi Wetland Centre, a sad, abandoned and ramshackle dereliction 3. (Opposite) the site contains a range of buildings including homes, artist studios, communal meeting spaces and even an open-air auditorium. Nature is gradually growing over this development 4. (Overleaf) the communal residential and office development faces the river: the once pristine white concrete is fading

Xixi Wetland Centre, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Atelier Fronti





USSR. There architecture is infused with a Russian design-style, earning it the nickname ‘Oriental Moscow’. At the Beijing Institute, he became attracted to the idea of Postmodernism, prompted by lecturers who condemned Modernism for its lack of humanity. When he got an opportunity to go abroad in the ’90s to see Postmodern buildings for himself, he discovered that they ‘expressed their totality in photographs alone’ − the physical experience of ‘being in and around them added nothing’. By contrast, he found that Modernist buildings impressed him for their emotional impact. And it is this human ‘connection’ that he is constantly striving to capture in his own work. ‘The value of architecture has to be found by someone who understands and appreciates it. Most of the public are interested in how it functions or how comfortable it is, but there is more to it than that.’ There is obviously a need, he says, to ‘meet people’s needs, but it also has to have the power to touch you; to excite the heart’. He wants buildings that are ‘not just about what you see, but the experience of being in them’. Chinese friends have advised him against using Modernist white − which is the colour of mourning. Maybe he is not helping himself, but he is unfazed at such superstition − even though he knows that he sometimes has to play the game. His renunciation of traditional mores is not pig-headedness, but stems from a belief that pristine white buildings enable the

‘Wang Yun finds himself compelled to plough a lonely furrow to demonstrate the social and intellectual value of architecture and the potential to change’ 26 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

5, 6. The buildings and interventions are set-pieces in the landscape, their formality increasingly undermined as the grass gradually reclaims the land from the cobblestones

spaces to speak for themselves more clearly. For him, understanding architecture, like art or classical music, is inherently difficult and it is not for everyone: but the simpler the form, the more undistracted thought can go into understanding it.

The shock of the new We arrive at the Xixi Wetland Park as the miserable drizzle continues to fall. Xixi is an 11 square kilometre natural reserve and the only national wetland park in China. We park the car and head along the entrance road, where workmen are busying themselves in the mud, planting the end of year budget’s supply of trees. As we walk through a rusty security gate, the concrete of his Wetland project comes into view, blending into the misty grey sky. I had only seen the immediate postcompletion photographs before I arrived. These were dramatic architectural images of pristine boxes in the verdant hills ... in glorious sunshine. What confronted me was something else. Instead of sharp, crisp Modernist blocks, I was greeted by sad, grey ramshackle dereliction. It seemed that I was in the right location, but in the wrong time. I was reminded of a student trip to Villa Savoye in the ’70s − prior to its restoration − when it seemed that I was walking into a living relic. Here in Xixi, it once again seemed like I had entered the 1930s. The fact that we bumped into two students from Tsinghua University, who were on a pilgrimage to this derelict site, only added to the surreal quality of the day. The buildings looked forlorn, overgrown, dirty and rain damaged. Rubble was strewn along the paths and weeds grew over the roofs. Many windows and doors hadn’t been fitted since completion in 2010, leading to erosion of internal finishes and corrosion of some surfaces. However, even so, I was still struck by how powerful it looked. It had an

Architect Atelier Fronti Photographs All photographs are courtesy of the architect apart from 1 by Gilles Sabrie and 7, 8 by Yao Li

Xixi Wetland Centre, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Atelier Fronti


‘Wang Yun’s belief in reason and universality and hope for “another age where East and West will communicate with a common imagination” shines through all the grime covering this project’ air of tragedy that seemed to sum up Wang Yun’s earlier story of China’s renunciation of the truly modern. We walked over a short bridge whose faux-Chinese arch and inappropriate balustrading caused Wang Yun to sigh audibly. ‘That shouldn’t be there’, he said, ‘but then again, all these trees blocking the elevations shouldn’t either.’ As we walked, he pointed out, apologetically, that he had no control over the externals even though he had designed and specified everything. At one point, the external works contractor had wilfully cut back the concrete that connected the inside to the outside as a literal act of demarcating contractual responsibilities. Wang Yun explained the story: ‘The local government wants to promote this area through a series of projects within a much larger masterplan. Twelve practices were given a different area, with certain rules across the full site. My site was designated as a place for artistic creation and academic exchanges and I was allocated a local client group called ‘Xileng Yinshe’ (which is a famous arts group by West Lake in Hangzhou). They decided to create a project for a new arts group called ‘Xixi Xueshe’. The problem is that even though these clients have great ideas, they are not the users, and the local government only looks for users after completion. In other words, the Xixi Xueshe arts group still doesn’t exist.’ So, the overall scheme, with a total construction area of 3,835 square metres, costing £620,000, comprises a range of buildings for a fictitious arts community. But what awaits them should Xixi Xueshe come into being, is a wonderful series of spaces of light and shadow, of human scale and social engagement. Within the 10 or so buildings, there is a huge range of permutations (and modifications) on Corbusier’s five points of architecture. There’s a staircase taking up an entire elevation leading to a roof garden; a small concrete auditorium for performances; and a rationalist white box set in a lake (that was designed to be only accessible by boat until the Chinese officials realised that it was a breach of site rules and insisted on running a roadway around the back). There is a series of workshop spaces flooded with light; there are dramatic internal spiral stairs, and immense external ramps (awash with moss and lichen); 28 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

and there are breathtaking interior planes that are principally artistic in their conjunction with each other and in their interplay of daylight and shade. Each concrete surface is crazed with shrinkage cracks and eroded by water damage, but Wang Yun still has pride in his work. He points to a drip moulding that the builders have introduced to the string of an internal spiral stair and shakes his head wearily. ‘It should have been flush’, he insists, oblivious to the chaos around him. Hoping to dispel a few myths about the dour nature of Modernism, Wang Yun allowed himself a few playful gestures. He has introduced a curious silo-shaped lavatory in one of the studio spaces which has been hand-crafted in situ (a sacrilege to many didactic Modernists) in order to take the vent pipe to external air. At the end of another block, the upper corridor opens out into a wavy enclosure (‘a space for people to meet and play in’ explains Wang Yun). He notes that, upon seeing this space, colleagues were amazed at his Gehry-esque conversion to CAD abstraction, but he says he designed this ‘shape’ simply to give lie to the belief that curved spaces can only be designed by software packages. ‘I scribbled this shape on a piece of paper until I liked it’, he says, ‘then used Photoshop to make it presentable. The contractor didn’t have any problem building it.’ It is a dramatic volume. Unfortunately, it is also a waterlogged, stained, desolate space, with each of us slipping on the algae that mats the floor. But it is still easy to envisage the potential for this unique public/private enclosure. Commenting on the scheme’s demise, Wang Yun is circumspect: ‘It is really fortunate for a designer like myself, to have a client and a proprietor accept the original Modernist design. But while it all began so happily, it has ended up with great sadness.’ Since spending 10 years on a masters and PhD at the University of Tokyo, Wang Yun has travelled widely and sought to document the optimal − or rather, the ‘preferred’ − spatial arrangement of urban and rural settlements across the world. This mapping is part of his growing experience, knowledge and appreciation of how people really live. It is an exploration of social, spatial and material conditions in order to better understand people’s lived experience in real conditions. In other words, Wang Yun is a humanist and his fellow-feeling, his belief in reason and universality and hope for ‘another age where East and West will communicate with a common imagination’ shines through any amount of grime covering this project. As we say our farewells, Wang Yun informs me that the local government has commissioned him to design and build another phase. As they say: only in China.


7. The hand-drawn curved walls with dirt and moss streaking the white concrete. The staircase leads down into a two-storey walled enclosure 8. (Opposite) this interior’s spatial composition is a dynamic construct employing many Modernist devices

Xixi Wetland Centre, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Atelier Fronti






Water heated by solar water heater


Biogas for cooking

Water storage for year round Water for washing and cooking


Biogas pool


Grey water flows to reed bed Biogas system Dug out and used as fertiliser

Reed bed system for water filtration



1. (Previous pages) the prototypical house is a compact compound of courtyards and internal spaces, wrapped in a protective brick wall, perforated to admit light, air and views 2. Exploded projection showing principles of self-sufficiency and environmental control 32 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

China’s decree that 350 million of its remaining rural population will be urbanised by 2030 seems to sum up the forceful socioeconomic dynamics of the modern Chinese state. With 50 per cent of the total population already living in cities, the authorities have promised to build a further 20 cities a year until around 2025. Admittedly, as author James Palmer points out, Chinese statistics are questionable (or, in some instances, downright wrong) but even so, it is reasonably understandable that China’s long march to an urban future is carrying on apace. The flow of people and the concomitant growth of urban conurbations are reminiscent − although on a much bigger scale − of

Victorian Britain. Equally redolent of 19th-century London, are the living conditions for some of the less well off in 21st-century Beijing and Shanghai. Meagre floor areas, mean workhouses and airborne miasma. As the country urbanises, there are definitely winners and losers. The question: ‘where will the people go?’ still exercises the mind as much today as it did for Ebenezer Howard. In Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, the lone liberal voice arguing for better planning symbolised a society in transition. Admittedly, Howard’s Victorian/Edwardian millenarianism (tinged with a dose of Social Darwinism) is thankfully absent from the contemporary Chinese condition, but there is a growing recognition that the success story of development should be tempered with expressions of concern for those less

Roof used to collect rainwater

Summer sun is shaded by roof


Water filter

Winter sun directly shines on greenhouse glass Kitchen

Summer breeze passes through brick screen

Glazing material

Heat from Trombe wall Smoke passes underneath the bed to provide heating

Trombe wall heated through greenhouse

Filtered water for irrigation

fortunate. Philanthropy (ironically by the wealthy rather than the Chinese state) is central to the latest Five-Year Plan, for example. It is also undeniable that, like Howard, a fear of rural instability underlies much of the official debate in China. Step forward John Lin, one person who has turned his attention to this dilemma. Lin is the winner of this year’s AR House Award for his contemporary take on a vernacular village house. Educated in New York, he is now assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong where he and his students are involved in an ‘experiential learning workshop’ that focuses on Chinese ‘lifestyles in transition’. By examining, measuring and documenting traditional village courtyard house typologies − specifically in Shijia Village near Xi’an in Shaanxi Province − Lin and his team have

sought to give a new twist to an old and successful vernacular format. This, he says, is an evolution of an existing form, rather than an architectural imposition. It is a particular design intervention that recognises the absence of a skilled construction workforce, the lack of a defined client and the fact that historically, such buildings have been created without an architect. Currently, says Lin, there are only two types of building: traditional mud brick or ‘generic concrete and brick with ceramic tiles ... there is nothing in between’. Attempting to provide a notional organic development of this typology, Lin now proposes a conscious design transformation that attempts to be as hands-off as possible. It is a prototype only: a generic solution that can be adapted by real users. This way,

he says, it is an ‘efficient framework for the simulacrum of self-expression’. All the houses in Shijia are 10m x 30m and constructed of mud and brick with the courtyard as the dominant feature. Lin’s new variant has four courtyards which are ‘inserted throughout the house’ and connect the main internal spaces with the external livestock areas. The project was funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust and the costs were kept down with the help of the Shaanxi Women’s Federation who helped coordinate much of the work and managed to navigate what Lin calls ‘the political complexities’ of the project. The roof profile is designed to collect water. The stepped cross-section provides access from the ground floor to a large area used to dry crops (corn, seeds, etc). The steps can also act as high-level seating area set AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 33

3. Models illustrating different permutations of house and courtyard

1 front entrance 2 front courtyard 3 greenhouse 4 washing courtyard 5 kitchen 6 bedroom 7 living 8 storage 9 planting courtyard 10 latrine 11 rear courtyard 12 pig pen 13 rear entrance



11 10

6 9





3 6



10m ground floor plan 3

location plan 34 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE







4. Excavating the pits for the house’s biogas system, which runs on pig manure 5, 6. Mud bricks being mixed, moulded and drying in the sun. The house uses a simple, vernacular building technology, but where such houses would usually be built by locals, rural depopulation has altered a culture of traditional self-reliance with the introduction of hired labour and materials 7. The unclad concrete frame shows the angular roof profile. The roof acts as a terrace and also collects rainwater for use in washing, cooking and garden irrigation 8. Walls of mud brick are gradually added 9. The completed house 10. Models showing construction sequence






‘By examining, measuring and documenting traditional village courtyard house typologies, Lin seeks to give a new twist to an old and successful vernacular format’


against a spectacular backdrop of mountains. Lin describes the roof as an alternative to the pitched roofs of the traditional mud housing and the completely flat roofs of new concrete buildings. The structure is a combination of concrete columns (earthquake resistant) and mud brick (thermal insulation). ‘We hope,’ he says, ‘to modernise the mud brick building rather than completely abandoning it.’ As well as water collection (during the small number of rainy days in the region), the finished building contains a pig-effluent biogas pit that feeds the methane cooker; a Trombe wall; a bed warmed by flue gases; and a bog-standard solar thermal collector. Self-sufficiency is key to the design and, by implication, is a fundamental aspect of the rural lifestyle that Lin wants to maintain. For him self-sufficiency is merely a pragmatic way

of resisting the decline that would confront these villages if left to their own devices. ‘The reliance on a migrant economy,’ he tells me, ‘is not creating a livable environment. Ironically, as villagers leave to work in cities they continue to send money back home, and floor areas will dramatically increase. What they are building begins to look like a ghetto. Most of these villages have become garbage dumps and there is a slow breakdown of the economy, social and community relationships, politics and the environment.’ Rather than self-sufficiency accentuating isolation, Lin suggests that it works the other way around. He describes self-sufficiency as ‘villages reducing their dependency on outside goods and services’. By ‘evolving’ rather than ‘preserving’, he says, ‘we’re actually working to prevent a rural ghetto.’

11, 12. Examples of existing village houses, which are evolving from the basic courtyard model into more complex constructions, reflecting wider social change 13. Sectional perspective through a traditional courtyard house, which acted as a template for the new dwelling

14. Light filters through the perforated brick screen that wraps around the exterior. The staircase leads to the roof, which is used as a terrace 15. The rear courtyard, a sheltered inside/outside enclave, with veiled views 16. The family who will occupy the house, seen in their original dwelling

Architect John Lin / The University of Hong Kong Project team Huang Zhiyun Kwan Kwok Ying Maggie Ma Qian Kun Katja Lam Li Bin Photographs Courtesy of the architect








MAD is one of the few Chinese practices gaining international recognition, but as Dang Qun explains to Austin Williams, they also want to fill the voids in China left by a changing society

1. The China Wood Sculpture Museum is in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province in the remote north-east of China. The 200m-long building attempts to make a connection with the local surroundings before they actually exist 2. Dang Qun, joint design partner with Ma Yansong at MAD architects AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 39

MAD architects are trying to establish themselves as one of the few Chinese architectural practices with an international portfolio. They will hit the headlines in October when they are presented with an award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in Chicago for their Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada. Twelve months before completion, ho hum, the judges have applauded its ‘respect for the environment, connection with place, and the urban surroundings’. Prior to this, MAD’s only other non-Chinese commission has been a 35m2 temporary pavilion in Italy (for luxury phone maker, Vertu), while their proposal for a Kunsthal in Copenhagen has yet to materialise. But it seems that, from now on, the only way is up. MAD was founded by architect Ma Yansong, a graduate from the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and Yale University. Since 2004, the practice has developed a reputation for style and quirkiness that finds him, and his office, often likened to Bjarke Ingels and BIG. Ma was the first person born in China to receive an RIBA Fellowship and it is he who has received all the attention. I visited Beijing to see the other force behind the company. Dang Qun, it says on the website, is responsible for ‘coordination, day to day office management and future strategic development of all present and future projects’. This makes her sound like any number of formidable office managers, but she is much more than that. As an equal design partner, she is responsible for a considerable amount of the office’s architectural output. She graduated from Yellow River University in Zhengzhou, China in 2001 and received her masters degree in architecture at Iowa State University where she still lectures. Fluent in English, she is highly opinionated, controversial and a thought-provoking idealist. We meet in late June to talk about the office, her beliefs and the Museum of Wood Sculpture in Harbin, due to open in 2013. MAD’s practice is situated off a hutong − a Beijing alleyway. The word derives from the Mongolian word for a ‘water well’, a clear indication of the kind of outdated, basic infrastructure that continues to pervade many of these residential zones. Praised for their sustainability by Prince Charles on one of his forays into the area in 2008, the quaint poverty of Beijing’s hutongs is a tourist must-see. Less so for those who have to live there. The many thousands of decrepit courtyard houses, known as siheyuan (see Anu Leinonen’s article, p80), are accessed from this maze of back alleyways. So, just off the busy main street, into Banqiao Nanxiang, past the cycle repair shop and the food stalls, into the old industrial

‘The spiritual nature of Chineseness comes up time and again, and Dang Qun says it reflects an appreciation of nature as a symbolic abstraction of reality’



unit ... is a gleaming new Porsche (belonging to one of the many trendy creatives now occupying this space). MAD’s office is on the top two storeys of an old print works. Here, the roof has been stripped back to the trusses to form utilitarian spaces packed with working models; where many young Chinese and Western faces stare intently at computer screens. Gigantic presentation models, with various cladding samples, are everywhere … and there is a studious hush. Dang Qun tells me that MAD architects relocated here to connect with the creativity and ‘Chineseness’ of the hutongs (reflecting the humble beginnings of Ma Yansong’s childhood). This ‘spiritual nature of Chineseness’ is something that comes up time and again, and she says it reflects an appreciation of nature − not as a romantic, environmental or anthropomorphic device − but as a symbolic ‘abstraction of reality’. ‘Beijing is all artificial’, she says. ‘It has followed the Western modernisation that you see in nearly all cities, representing money and power. But can we go beyond Modernisation? Can our designs deliver or reflect simple values that have been understood throughout the whole of human history?’ These eternal values, she says, are the ‘instinctive properties’ of place and nature ‘which make you more calm’. Even though this kind of rhetoric may sound familiar to Western ears, it is completely different when you scratch the surface: Dang Qun is not regurgitating the social policy agenda of Western architectural discourse; she is not suggesting that there is a deterministic linkage between design and ‘well-being’ nor buying into de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. She has not swallowed the instrumentalism of the ex-Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, nor the evidencebased policy justifications of many Western architects; 4

3 & 4. Harbin is famed for its International Festival of Ice and Snow Sculpture; hence the museum building is meant to represent an icicle

second floor plan

first floor plan

ground floor plan



Harbin wood museum location plan AR | SAMPLE ISSUE 41


Harbin wood museum long section 42 AR | SAMPLE ISSUE

5. The stainless-steel cladding curves over a steel framework, creating ocular skylights within the folds





she simply seeks to understand an unquantifiable truism. ‘Emotion in architecture is fundamentally important.’ It is increasingly rare that architects are comfortable enough to explain their work. Instead, it is common that architects justify their designs with allusions to scientistic rationale. Contrary to this trend, MAD are designing for themselves on the understanding that if they like it, others will too. This is premised on the notion that they are like − rather than separate from − ‘other’ people. They are developing an Orientalist thesis that ‘the greatest architects, mentally, are artists ... and the best of them can express their personal feelings through abstraction’. As long as they can resist the temptation to think of buildings as principally art forms, and avoid the tendency towards facade-ism, MAD’s stimulating intellectual capital has the potential to influence and refresh the way that architecture is discussed. For example, as advocates of sustainability, MAD have a particularly Chinese take on it. Their buildings’ connection to people is so central to their work that as China’s cities grow, develop and change, Dang Qun recognises that the sustainable thing to do would be to

‘The buildings are forwardlooking environments developing futuristic architecture based on a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern spirit of nature’ knock them down and build afresh. As society changes, so social sustainability changes. She says that she is happy to countenance the demolition of MAD’s projects in 10 years’ time if they are to be replaced by better architecture more attuned to the contemporary situation. ‘Zero energy is one thing’, she says, ‘but if it is a bad building, so what? The most important thing is: how do you make the user enjoy the space? Making sure that a building functions correctly is essential. Rationalisation is how you explain it to others. But the big question is: how do you touch people’s minds?’ Dang Qun is full of crucial questions like this. For her, architecture is about exploring the relationship of three things: an emotional connection of people to buildings, the relationship with nature, and the way that architecture reflects the contemporary and local condition. None of these is easy to explain in words but they are premised on experience and self-reflection. In the West, we had the Enlightenment − the Age of Reason − which advocated self-reflection as the essence of humanism. Comparatively, Chinese architects like MAD seem to be at the historical stage of Romanticism. In the Western model, Dang Qun says, the ‘logical garden’ of the Renaissance created an artificial order. By contrast, Dang Qun suggests that MAD is more in tune with the Chinese tradition reflected in Huang Tingjian’s Poem on the Pavilion of Rustling Pine Trees, written in the Northern Song dynasty. Here, she says, ‘the architecture is not important, the pine trees are not important, but the emotional serenity engendered by both is what’s important’.

Putting theory into practice Our transcendental conversation over, I was brought back to reality with a jolt by talking about a number of their projects. MAD has two major cultural projects in Harbin, in the most northerly province of China: the China Wood Sculpture Museum and Harbin Cultural Island comprising an opera house and cultural centre. Neither seemed to convey the nuance of peace, place and serenity that Dang Qun had been talking about, but these were certainly 7


6. The Hutong Bubble, a stainless-steel object that encloses a staircase and a lavatory in deprived areas of Beijing 7. The bubbles in context


8. Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada: MAD says that ‘its design expresses the universal language of audacity, sensuality and romance’



dramatic and substantial projects. They are ‘forwardlooking environments developing futuristic architecture based on a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern spirit of nature’. The China Wood Sculpture Museum is in a growing old city that wants to project itself ‘as a regional hub for the arts’. The design inspiration is ‘frozen fluid’, apt for a city that hosts the International Snow Festival and where temperatures slump to -25 degrees Celsius in winter, but a little clichéd maybe. Only half of the gallery space will be given over to sculpture with the other half dedicated to a gallery for ‘snow and ice painting’. The steel-framed building is over 200 metres long, and twisted in the middle to create two distinct internal voids. These spaces are for circulation and temporary displays, whereas the main exhibition − ironically − is housed underground in a fairly traditional, rectangular-shaped series of rooms. The interior is effectively an open space surrounded by offices, lavatories and some display areas, with freestanding sculptural staircases. The geometry of the curving walls creates natural recesses for light wells and skylights and the contained bursts of daylight create what the architect

9, 10 & 11. Art and City Museum at Ordos in Inner Mongolia, completed in 2011. When originally commissioned, the building had a similar lack of context to the Harbin Wood Museum, and so became a dislocated object in the landscape

describes as ‘scenic moments in and around the building’. At the moment, like many buildings in China, the urban context in which it sits hasn’t been fully decided and so MAD has created what Dang Qun calls (with reference to their Ordos Museum which had a similar lack of context at the time of commission) ‘an arrogant expression of the centrality of our views … without that, nothing gets started’. Coming back to the principles rather than the built form, Dang Qun says that ‘all is artificial. We destroy nature by the very act of building and by being able to influence − to create − the feelings of people who use it, we overcome the constraints of the natural environment.’ Dang Qun is an example of a revolutionary living at a time when the conditions aren’t yet ripe for revolution. Instead, it is all about potential. She believes that she and Ma Yansong have a heavy responsibility. ‘I am worried that we aren’t up to the task. China is moving very fast and we’re in danger of losing our sensitivities. If we fail, I’m afraid the next generation will miss the opportunity to create new cities that are really alive.’ A classic quandary, but one that you don’t hear expressed in such forthright terms in the West any more. 10


Architect MAD Photographs All photographs are courtesy of the architect apart from 2 by Alessandro Digaetano and 8 by Tom Arban



The Architectural Review - China Sample Issues  

A free digital sample issue of The Architectural Review featuring essays and building studies examining the state of architecture in China

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