(Extra)ordinary Yung Ho Chang

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According to Philip Tinari, a leading curator of art and architecture in China, Yung Ho Chang can be referred to as “a pioneer of contemporary Chinese architecture“. This epithet refers to the historical significance of his activity as well as to the conceptual principles of his practice. Strategically, his work has escaped the burden of culturally merging East and West but has instead found autonomy by returning to basic concerns of architecture. Chang has often asked: “Where does a building end? Where does a city begin? How are their structures and organisation similar?” His capacity to infuse design with analytical thought not only imported the ideal of the international theorising and practising architect, but also enabled him to reinterpret and renew the building technologies of a country in state of transformation – an educational and ethical call.

Yung Ho Chang was born in 1956 in Beijing, amidst the visions and values of the old People’s Republic of China (PRC). After passing the strict system of entry examination in 1978, he was educated as an architect in the Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeast University). In 1981 he travelled to the United States where he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Ball State University, and in 1984 he completed the master’s programme at the University of California at Berkeley. After 15 years of teaching abroad and experimental design, Chang and his wife, Lijia Lu, returned to Beijing to establish the first private practice in China – Atelier Feichang Jianzhu. This name, conceived in 1994, is an unstable expression that can be read contradictorily as “abnormal architecture” or “very architectural”.

It was chosen because of the intricacy that it posed: on one hand it refers to basic architectural themes, such as space, material, or context; and on the other, it poses the possibility of creating the “sensible extraordinary” out of the “boisterous ordinary”. Here Chang and Tinari discuss with Glass the future of the Chinese city and design in all its possible manifestations.

Glass: Yung Ho Chang is regarded as the “father of contemporary Chinese architecture”. Who do you think are his ancestors and offspring? 
Philip Tinari: His immediate ancestor – his own father, Zhang Kaiji – is probably the most important; growing up in the household of one of China“s most prominent early-PRC (People“s Republic of China) architects was a huge, if conflicted, influence on his later development. The practical training he acquired during the Cultural Revolution – when even the word “architecture” was suspect and replaced by the less loaded “building design” – also played a major role in his intellectual formation. For younger generations, he is seen as an architect but also as a design and style icon, someone who has made the now unbearably popular word “crossover” a part of his life and work.

What was your main motivation to return and practise in China in 1993?
Yung Ho Chang: I wanted to build. There were no opportunities in the United States for me to practise independently at that time. China“s embracing of market economy provided the opportunity I was searching for, so I went back home. In early 1993, my wife and I were at my parents“ place for the Chinese New Year when a friend of her family came to visit and he introduced us to someone who wanted a design for a casino in Shantou. Although it did not get built, that was our first project and how our practice, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu (FCJZ), started.

How do you think he incorporates the Chinese and the American influences?
PT: Throughout Yung Ho Chang’s work, there is a commitment to Chinese architectural ideas like the covered walkway, the pavilion and the courtyard. The fusion happens as he attempts to reinsert these spatial conditions into buildings that are made for contemporary purposes. He also maintains a resolutely Chinese way of looking at and thinking about problems.

An important aspect of your architecture is materiality. How are the poetics of materials incorporated in your buildings?
YHC: Architecture is a tangible art. Material is not a technical matter but a cultural one. Nevertheless, I don’t have a fixed aesthetic taste in material and I prefer to explore and experiment with unfamiliar possibilities – pushing the capacities of traditional materials, such as clay bricks and tiles, to perform in new ways, and also trying new materials, such as fibreglass, to create new structural systems. We are building a house in Nanjing with a clear design message: “A building can be very lightweight and beautiful!”

China is in a process of transformation. How do you envisage the new everyday life? And, by extension, do you think that the new cities being planned in China will have a long-lasting life and relevant influence? 
YHC: As everyone is aware, in China there is an emerging middle class and part of the urban population is better off economically; however, it does not necessarily mean a better city life. The biggest issue in contemporary Chinese cities is liveability, not how they look. Because these new centres are mainly designed for the automobile, with extremely large blocks, traffic is terrible, air is polluted, people cannot walk, and everyday shopping is difficult – to mention only a few of the challenges for urban life today. One of Atelier FCJZ’s design objectives is to reintroduce liveability as well as urbanity into Chinese cities through measures such as reducing spatial scale, defining the street as an urban and social space, making walking easy, and mixing different programmes – residential, commercial, work and cultural. One of the projects that we designed based on these ideas is currently under construction in Jiading, Shanghai. The block size was designed not to surpass 40 × 40 metres, in contrast to the typical 400 × 400 metres or more.

Is there a relation between a Chinese national identity and its current architectural practices? How is the new generation of architects responding to the new China?
PT: What we see much more than any resuscitation of Chinese practices is young Chinese architects aspiring to international “starchitect“ status, and resorting mainly to complex forms to get there. The drive to build icons seems to be part of our global condition. Of course young Chinese architects are at no shortage for work, but truly considered responses to this exaggerated condition seem to be lacking.

What would you like to address in your research in the future?
YHC: In summary, city and material cover the two ends, macro and micro, of my research spectrum and will continue to do so. Atelier FCJZ is a rather unique design practice in China since we are also involved in designing products, furniture, clothes, jewellery and many other types of object. It is very much a multi-disciplinary practice. That speaks of the real ambition of our office which is to try to make a contribution to contemporary Chinese culture through our work.

by Christian Parreño

All images courtesy of Atelier FCJZ

From the Glass archive  –  Issue 13 – Peace