June 2012, with Hannah Xu 

In a second-floor office in the architecture department of the mainland’s most prestigious university, Professor Xu Weiguo sits contemplating the changes that have occurred since he enrolled here, in the first year that classes were resumed following the Cultural Revolution.

“Architecture and design stopped from 1966 to 1978,” explains the head of Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture. “The first professors back were educated in the UK, the USA and Russia. They brought knowledge of postmodernism, deconstructionism and other new styles.”

“As the quantity of architecture work increased from the end of the 1980s, many problems occurred in terms of designers not striving for higher quality,” says Xu. “As long as it could be built, it was. But the situation is changing. Chinese architects are developing and maturing and good young architects are coming through.”The school has expanded significantly – 1,100 students study here today – yet the mainland’s reputation as an incubator of young, talented architects has barely grown over the past few decades; the country is still seen as being strong on engineers but weak on creative designers.

Not everyone is as optimistic.

“There is a reason why there are just a few domestically trained Chinese architects in the top ranks in China,” says Liu Xiaodu, principal architect at Shenzhen-headquartered architectural firm Urbanus. “Tsinghua is great for solid technical training, but the best students must then go out to be exposed to Western styles and training.”

Liu and his two co-founders earned master’s degrees at Tsinghua in the 1990s and taught at the school, before heading to the United States, to finish their education.

“If young students are aiming high, they need to go abroad. Three years practising in China and then go.”

Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to win a Pritzker Prize in the “Nobel Prize of architecture’s” 33-year history, has been equally critical of home-grown architects. While still at school, he wrote an essay titled The Crisis of Contemporary Chinese Architecture and during his thesis defence announced, “China has an architect and a half. I’m one, and my teacher, Ji Kang, is the half.”

On May 24, the day before Wang’s Pritzker award ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, a panel discussion was held at Beijing’s National Convention Centre. Wang was among the speakers, who were asked to contemplate “globalisation, localisation, challenge and innovation”.

“Architects now work in the context of globalisation,” he told his audience. “This means global commercialisation and industrialisation. The world is being flooded by standardised buildings. Globalisation must be detrimental to cultural diversity.

“China is now almost a new country or a completely new country. We are unsure of our future and our tradition. We are just moving forward in confusion.”

Asked why he named his office Amateur Architecture Studio, Wang, who said he has wept for the grandeur the capital has lost – “The old Beijing was so beautiful; even more beautiful than Paris” – replied: “Many people say China’s new cities look horrible. Professional architects churn out rubbish works. Unknown, non-professional masters … produce the most beautiful works. I choose to go with them.”

The audience at the National Convention Centre heard from Pritzker laureates Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Glenn Murcutt, as well as Zhu Xiaodi, director of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design – the biggest such institute in the world, with 1,500 architects under its wing.

“Many works by Chinese architects lack depth and character,” said Zhu, warning “we may become victims” of globalisation.

Murcutt offered some words of advice: “Globalisation flattens out culture. A timeless component in architecture is something that belongs to its culture. China needs to be careful in looking for its model.”

“There is a difference in levels between top Chinese and top foreign architects,” says Xu. “Foreign architects have done a lot more global projects and have a lot more experience. Only in the last few years have Chinese architects looked overseas. I think Chinese architects will win more international competitions [for building commissions] in the next 10 years.”

A floor above where Xu is sitting, groups of young architecture students are scattered among cramped computer workstations sketching building plans on digital design programs and on notebooks.

“Many thought Wang Shu didn’t have what it takes to win the Pritzker Prize, but I think it proposes a new thinking, which is to pursue Chinese national culture,” says Xi Chongxiao, a petite, quiet-spoken 21-year-old tucked in a small cubicle with two other students. “It’s hard for Chinese architects to win commissions for foreign projects, but there are now Chinese architects working in foreign firms and foreign firms doing interesting projects in China, so we can learn from them.”

Nearby, 20-year-old Huang Haiyang is arguing over elaborate designs for a glass art gallery with a fellow student.

“Modern Chinese style is still growing, so it is an interesting time to be an architect in China,” he says. “I may do an internship in a foreign firm but eventually I will come back to China. Foreign firms are a place to study and train, but not somewhere to work long term.”

Xu is quietly optimistic that some of his students will succeed, that a small handful will be recognised on the world stage along-side the likes of Wang, Ma Yansong and Shao Weiping (see following pages) and make a telling contribution to the nation’s architec-tural future. He is, however, realistic.

“We need some architecture stars in China but not everyone can become one. It is important to lay the technical background because if we train all to become stars, most will fail.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the sheer amount of work being undertaken in China is seen as a barrier to the development of a distinct, inspiring modern Chinese style.

“The whole country is a construction site and that leaves building quality a big question. Also, foreigners are more interested in our markets than our architects,” says Liu. “Chinese firms don’t need to go in for international competitions so they don’t try, but sooner or later they will have to start, and it will be a hard wake-up call for most.”

“Speed is a killer for architecture,” says MAD Architects’ Ma. “Design periods are very short in China. The Harbin Opera House we are currently working on; we haven’t released the final designs because we haven’t finalised the facade and the interior but the construction company has already laid the foundations.”

In the afternoon of May 24, the panel discussion moved from the National Convention Centre to the auditorium of Tsinghua University. There, Wang told the assembled students: “The current educational system can hardly produce outstanding architects. You have to engage in self-salvation through self-study.

“The most important thing is to have your own thinking.”

 


A KIND OF MADNESS


At 36, Ma Yansong has already made his mark on the international scene.

Effortlessly stylish in a simple black shirt and jeans, Ma Yansong sits cradling a cup of tea with a pack of flu medicine nearby. He has just returned to his office, in the heart of a complex of thin ancient alleyways in Beijing, from a work trip to France, and looks tired; like someone who simply doesn’t have enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things he would like to.

The 36-year-old, Yale University-educated architect is increasingly being seen as a rising star. Potentially, he is on his way to becoming China’s first “starchitect”. He was the first mainland architect to win an international commission: the Absolute Towers in Canada, which came just three years after he graduated from architecture school and two years after he launched his own, Beijing-based firm, MAD Architects.

“I always wanted to work for myself, so I registered my office straight after graduation,” Ma says. “I was in London [working for Zaha Hadid Architects] for a short time – a couple of competitions [for building commissions], less than one year – and by 2004 I had returned to China to begin entering competitions myself.

“When I decided to come back it wasn’t already clear there was a construction boom here,” he explains. “I just wanted to come back because I was born here and this is my home.”

Ma didn’t take it too seriously in the beginning. “Entering architecture competitions was very easy, it was just like being in architecture school,” he says. MAD entered more than 100 such contests in its first year or so, gaining valuable experience but no major commissions.

Then, in 2005, MAD won one: a commission to build skyscrapers in Toronto. This was big news in the mainland, at a time when the country had no big-name architects and was allowing foreign firms to head the design of all the major arenas being built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The first building soon earned the nickname “the Marilyn Monroe” for its aesthetically pleasing curves. The Absolute Towers – scheduled to be completed this year – catapulted MAD Architects and Ma onto the international scene.

Residential sales had been so impressive for the 56-storey first tower that the developers asked Ma to come up with a second. He refused to create an identical tower – “there is only one Marilyn Monroe” – but offered to design a slightly shorter, complementary building. The two spiralling towers, taken together, are more art-work than architecture, their appearance changing when seen from different angles.

“When a single building becomes an icon it is because it is like a sculpture,” says Ma, scratching his head while trying to explain his architectural approach, a four-metre-high plexi-glass model of the towers visible in the stairwell behind him.

The towers have already become a much-photographed landmark and Ma received the Architectural League Young Architects Award in 2006, in large part because of his design for the Absolute Towers, which hadn’t even been awarded to him at that point.

The studio rapidly expanded. It was initially staffed by just Ma and one intern but by the beginning of this year, more than 50 architects had taken up residence in Beijing to work in its large, open-plan office, complete with ping-pong table.

“We have young architects from all over Europe, some Americans and quite a few ambitious Chinese architects. Half our team are from overseas,” says Bas Lagendijk, strategy executive at MAD Architects and one of those recent, young foreign imports.

Many of these architects, most in their late 20s or early 30s, are too young to be heading large projects in more established firms and would probably have struggled to find work in their home countries.

“I see young architects in the US, ones older than me, and they are experienced and ready enough for their own practices but there is no opportunity for them,” says Ma. “The opportunities mostly go to older, more well-known architects.”

Ma is familiar with that particular frustration. “When we began, many clients saw us as too young – they didn’t want to talk with us or even bother to meet with us. That is why we could only really enter competitions; where people had no image of you, just your designs.”

Ma was born in the winding, cluttered alleyways of Beijing in 1975, as the mainland was beginning to emerge from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

“I wanted to be a professional painter. I initially applied to study art but they didn’t let me in – they said my abilities for fine art were too low but they might be OK for a career in architecture,” says Ma, with a smile.

At Yale, one of his teachers was Hadid herself.

“In school, we didn’t talk about architecture much – we mostly talked about contemporary art. She would bring in art books for me to look at.”

The designs Ma and his colleagues have come out with are the type of iconic megastructures that would appeal to Hadid: buildings that immediately convey a striking, easy-to-market style and elegance, favouring flowing lines, eye-catching structural patterns and ambitious facades.

They’ve created futuristic add-ons for Beijing’s hutongs – a silvery egg-shaped structure called the Hutong Bubble, which increases living space and adds a bathroom and stairwell leading up to the flat roof of cramped courtyard dwellings; an otherworldly museum that looks like a deflated football, being built as part of an architectural experiment – the Ordos 100 project – in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert; and are in the construction phase of a set-piece museum in the northern city of Harbin that some critics are comparing to a piece of driftwood. Others see a shimmering spaceship. MAD has also designed a residential and commercial compound in Sanya, on Hainan Island, that resembles a rolling wave, and several other projects around the world that imitate nature. According to Ma, his company is now working on about 15 international projects at any one time.

In what some might regard as a show of arrogance for a fledgling architect, in 2008 Ma proposed planting trees throughout Tiananmen Square, to turn the concrete expanse into an attractive outdoor space. He met with officials to discuss the idea but, despite a suggested completion date of 2050, is realistic about his slim chances of success.

“In North America, buildings still feel like they are from the time of the industrial revolution: they are all trying to be symbols of power – higher, taller, more imposing. The same thing is happening here in China. I am more interested in looking at what the future city can be; where people aren’t building individual towers but entire cities.

“Beijing’s old city is like a garden, with planned hills, lakes, rocks. With modern cities and their huge towers this idea has disappeared.”

In another display of arrogance, or impressive self-assurance, depending on your viewpoint, Ma entered a competition for a project in Beijing’s central business district and instead of designing just one building, as per the instructions, proposed both an elaborate slinky-like tower and an entirely new blueprint for the whole 12-tower devel-opment. His plan was based on a return to nature, with the buildings surrounding a central lake and hills.

While the master plan was not taken up, his building was chosen as one of 12 to occupy the site, a block south of the China Central Television (CCTV) Tower.

Not surprisingly, Ma does not see his approach as arrogant: “I want our new projects and thoughts to become more experimental. Maybe clients will say, ‘No’, but that’s OK. It is important to make time to think and try independent projects and ideas.”

This approach should be a positive development for modern Chinese architecture, which has been criticised for lacking originality and style. For Ma, though, there is still a careful balance to keep.

“I still have a hand in everything – the concepts, sketches, development. Two years ago, we had a moment when we could have expanded a lot but I would have lost control. For big architects such as Norman Foster, it is OK for them to have a huge team because he already has a style that can be followed. I am young and, put simply, I haven’t found my style yet.”

With that, the stylish, self-assured young architect finishes his tea, picks up his flu medicine and heads upstairs to see what his young international team is thinking up next.

 


NATURAL SELECTION

Shao Weiping stays ahead of the curve by rejecting traditional mores.

Beijing’s central business district is a showcase of landmark buildings. The most noticeable among them include the futuristic CCTV headquarters and the 81-storey China World Trade Centre Tower Three. Soon, there will be an addition to the skyline.

Covering nearly 19,000 square metres, the Phoenix International Media Centre will house Phoenix TV’s Beijing operations, and contain six broadcasting studios and high-rise office blocks, as well as restaurants and other recreational facilities. It is scheduled to be completed in October.

Unlike the radically shaped US$1.1 billion CCTV headquarters, which overlooks the eastern Third Ring Road, the oval-shaped Phoenix TV building is subdued, sitting by a leafy street near Chaoyang Park, one of the largest water parks in the city.

“It’s a non-linear structure in harmony with the surroundings,” says chief architect Shao Weiping.

Sitting in his spacious quarters at the Un-Forbidden Office (UFO), an architectural design studio he has been leading since 2002, 50-year-old Shao recalls how, when he was invited to bid for the project, in 2008, along with a dozen other top Chinese architects, controversy was raging over the design of the CCTV building. First came the accusation that the building’s contorted form, created by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was modelled on a pornographic image; then came the nickname: “a pair of big boxer shorts”.

Not having the financial muscle of CCTV, the Hong Kong broadcaster wanted a less costly design.

“From the start, Phoenix TV did not want a project to show off wealth or techniques,” Shao says. “They wanted something that suits their mission.”

The judges were won over by the creativity and symbolic meaning that suffused Shao’s design. He used as his inspiration a Mobius strip – a surface with only one side and one boundary component. The curving outer shell of the building connects the broadcasting studios and offices. The overall look recalls the two graceful phoenixes in the broadcaster’s logo and symbolises a continuous ribbon that connects Chinese viewers around the globe. The flowing design avoids visual conflict with the surroundings, which could have been the case if an angular structure had been built.

“The curved, non-linear design shows that we are in step with the latest international trends in architectural design,” Shao says, keen to distance himself from the rectangular constructions – such as the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square – that mainland architects have become known for.

The design has eco-friendly aspects, too. The steel ribs, which support an expansive glass curtain, will channel rainwater directly into a collection tank at the ground level, from where it can be pro-cessed for reuse. The unconventional design presented unprecedented challenges, Shao says. Inclined supporting pillars on the inside and curved steel stripes on the exterior were both problematic and, between the steel grids, there are 3,180 glass windows, each of which has different dimensions.

The total construction cost of the project has been kept down to a little above 600 million yuan (HK$734 million), Shao says.

Shao’s studio, which employs 30 local architects and one from the United States, is part of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (Biad). State-owned Biad was established soon after the founding of the People’s Republic, in 1949. Since then, Biad has played a key role in shaping the image of the new nation through the design of many buildings in the capital, including the Great Hall of the People.

Shao joined Biad in 1984, after graduating from the prestigious Department of Architecture at Shanghai’s Tongji University. In 2001, he became executive chief architect at Biad. In 2002, Shao was appointed to lead the first Western-style design studio at Biad, as part of its efforts to instil creative energy in the institution.

“Traditional design institutes are comprehensive in their functions but tend to be less flexible and creative,” he says. “With my dual role, I can take advantage of both systems.”

From 2004 to 2008, Shao and his Biad team worked closely with British architect Norman Foster on Terminal Three of the Beijing Capital International Airport.

“The influx of Western architects is good for China’s urbanisation and helps to raise the bar in design,” Shao says. “Chinese architects are strong at generating designs that suit the local culture and landscape.

“We are also good at controlling the cost.”