“Architecture most important form of art in China”

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Last may, we interviewed architect and Chengdu Biennale curator Liu Yuyang for Dutch magazine De Architect. In the interview, Liu gives an insight in the chaotic and challenging conditions of the Pearl River Delta in the nineties, and the current architectural debate. And we touched upon a thing his work and ours have in common: a journalistic approach. With help of Wim van de Poll, the article is now also available in English:

‘The Chinese real estate market is overheated, and the workload is extreme’, says Liu Yuyang. ‘Most architects hardly have the time to do their day-to-day work, let alone theoretical reflection on their profession.’ The architect is sitting on a terrace in Shanghai and takes a sip from his cappucino.  There are not many architecture critics, says Liu. ‘If a make a list, I get to a number of thirty or forty. But the eagerness to debate is growing.’
Taiwan-born Liu was among the first who studied modern Chinese architecture and urbanism systematically. In 1996 he analyzed the Pearl River Delta in Southern China, by then the fastest growing urban area on earth, as part of a group of Harvard students headed by Rem Koolhaas. Five years later, the study resulted in Great Leap Forward, a 730-page book, published by Taschen Verlag.
Having his own architectural practice in Shanghai since 2004, and being a part-time professor at Hong Kong University, he is still involved in theoretical reflection. In 2007 he was curator of Shenzhen/Hong Kong Architecture Biennale, and this year he is in the curatorial team of the Chengdu Biennale, which intends to profile this sprouting metropolis as a creative hub in inland China.
Liu remembers his first visit to the Pearl River Delta as ‘a condition of complete chaos and confusion. From a western view of urban planning it was a mystery, somehow like badly deformed copies of international metropolises. But a closer look revealed an underlying typical Chinese model: pragmatic, aiming for doing business and economic progress. Architecture was the direct representation of it.’

How can one do research in such a chaotic and brutal context?
The traditional survey methods were not appropriate. Soon as you sketched a map, it was already outdated. We had a more journalistic approach. Collecting texts and governmental publications. We interviewed developers, academics, and people in the street. By direct observations, we tried to see what happens, and who does what in a city. Back in Boston we realised that we needed a new vocabulary to describe the conditions of urban planning. ‘Photoshop’, for example, turned out to be a method of urban planning. With this notion we returned to China for further research.

You chose a difficult topic: politics. Why?
Politics was one of the six sub-studies. I focussed on it because I was one of the two students in the group who spoke Mandarin Chinese. Besides that my father was a politician in Taiwan, so I felt affinity with the subject. Politics seemed to be not a matter of traditional urban planning analysis, but the evolution of Chinese architecture of the last 20 years is almost completely related to its political condition.

Were Chinese politicians aware of the type of urban model they wanted to build?
Shenzhen seemed eager tot look like Singapore or Hong Kong, like Asian metropolises, and most importantly not like New York or London. As a Special Economic Zone, the urban development was directed by the administration of Beijing, as well as its most important governmental positions. Shenzhen University was kind of a dependence of Tsinghua University in Beijing. The Cultural Revolution was still a strong memory and therefore for a Chinese politician it was very tricky to refer to European or American examples. Singapore was used as a visual utopia, although people were aware that Shenzhen would never be the same. They were just using the Singapore skyline to Photoshop it onto Shenzhen, but with a typical Chinese planning and political system underneath.

How would you describe the architectural conditions of that time?
There was a big demand on architecture at that moment. All of the nowadays well-known Chinese architects worked in Shenzhen by then. They won’t tell you much about that now; thinking their work there is hardly worthwhile. For the evolution of Chinese architecture this period of working there was however crucial. Every architect learned to work with Hong Kong developers and to deal with extreme building speed and projects of gigantic scale. These phenomena would later spread all over China.

You stated that Chinese architects worked 2500 times more efficient than their western counterparts. What did that look like in practice?
Visiting the big design institutes in Shenzhen we saw a total embrace to new technologies. No matter how creaky the office might be, they always used the latest (illegal) design software like AutoCAD and Photoshop. No hand sketching and drawing existed – people directly worked on the computer. Handbooks where everywhere providing standard designs that only needed partial adjustments for specific locations. Shenzhen University taught fast design: a sketch within 6 hours, total plan in 8 hours.

How is that nowadays?
These phenomena still exist and spread over the whole of China. Imagine that in the nineties even Shanghai was a backward area. The Pearl River Delta was far ahead. But town planning has made progress. Architecture gets more attention. There are more specific development processes and models. There is awareness that the large scale is not always necessary, nor should everything come top-down from Beijing. Regional competition grows to attract (foreign) investors. Architecture and urban Planning are part of that game of seduction.

Do you see a new sorts of architects rising up?
Absolutely. In the Pearl River Delta of the nineties there was not one independent architect, there were only big design institutes. Yung Ho Chang claims to be the first independent Chinese architect, at the end of the nineties in Beijing, mostly being a teacher at that time. His first projects followed some years later. Nowadays an awareness of regionalism rises. Besides that, the strong adaptation to new technologies remains. I think it is an over-adaptation. In the rest of the world “parametric” design is a trend. In China sometimes there seems to be nothing else.

What is the profile of young critical architects in China?
I estimate half of them having an international background. They studied at Tsinghua University Beijing or Tongji in Shanghai and then went abroad for further study – mostly to the United States but recently also to Europe. The other half has had a total Chinese curriculum. Together it’s an interesting mix.

What’s the main topic for Chinese architects?
Environmental issues are the main issues at the moment. The last decades we were primarily focussed on urbanization. Now the debate goes to the impact of that. China has more to offer on this field than other countries; it is using half of the cement and steel in the world. This is the place where things are being built; the changes for improvement lie here. Architectural solutions can make a huge sustainable difference here. China can set a standard for similar cases in other countries. It’s a very relevant debate now. Look for example at the nuclear disaster in Japan, and how to deal with it. It’s a political dead end road to build a new nuclear plant now. But what alternatives do we have? Clean energy does not match the demand yet. So look at the consumer side, life and develop energy efficient. The challenge is to make cities energy suppliers instead of demander.

You’re a curator for the Chengdu Architectural Biennale in September 2011, with the theme ‘Holistic Realm’, what does that mean?
The Chinese title is wu wo he yi. It is a Taoist term to describe that object and individual become one. This is different from the western bipolar model of subject and object. In the Taoist philosophy an artist reaches the top of aesthetics when he’s one with his work of art.

What’s the link of that with Chinese modern architecture?
Maybe it sounds lame, but we hope that all participants interpret it in their own way. At the birth of Taoism architecture did not exist as an artistic discipline. Now it is maybe the most important form of art in China. Chinese architecture is in a phase of defining itself. I compare it with Europe around 1910. That was a dynamic time on the eve of World War I. The old empires and kingdoms disappeared. New technologies, philosophical movements and artistic forms were rising. All old theories were questioned without replacement by new comprehensive guidelines. China is at a similar point now. The big story is not clear yet, so there is a huge need and challenge for debate.

What other aim do you have with de Chengdu Biennale?
We have downscaled the Biennale. That is opposite the trend, because in China everything always has to be bigger. Hopefully we get more focus and direction by that. Our second goal is to introduce young and critical Chinese architects to a larger audience. In that sense, the Chengdu Biennale differs from other art-events in China that mostly focus on bringing in the big names, the stars.
We also invite some big names but the emphasis is on a new generation.

Magazine de Architect, May 2010
Interview: Michiel Hulshof, Daan Roggeveen
translation: Wim van de Poll, Daan Roggeveen

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