Hou Hanru on Mon, 23 Aug 1999 13:23:42 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Micro-Urbanism, interview with Chang Yung Ho

[Dialogue between the Paris based art curator Hou Hanru and the Chinese
architect Chang Yung Ho, Huaqiao Hotel, Beijing, February 20, 1999]

Yung Ho Chang is a leading architect from China. After studying and
teaching in the US for 15 years, he went back to his native Beijing to
establish its first private architecture firm, Atelier FCJZ ("Fei Chang
Jian Zhu" or unusual architecture), in the early 1990s. In the
unprecedentedly rapid and radical modernization and urbanization process
in China, the questions of international influence and Chinese tradition,
as well as globalization and local specificity, have become the main
issues in architectural and artistic debates and practice. Having
experience in both the West and China, Yung Ho Chang critically observes
and analyzes the current situation of urban explosion in China and
proposes highly inventive solutions. Inspired by both the transformational
capacity of traditional Chinese architecture and urban planning as well as
contemporary developments in architecture, economics and technology, Yung
Ho Chang and his firm have developed new concepts and approaches, such as
"Micro-Urbanism," to negotiate the urban condition of high density and

>From April 22 to May 22, 1999 an exhibition entitled " Street Theater"
will take place in Apext Art in New York (curated by Hou Hanru and Evelyne
Jouanno). This will be their first solo exhibition in the US.  For this
show, Chang has created a site-specific installation to provide the
audience with a direct and corporeal experience of his architectural
vision and projects. One part of the installation will function as a
"Street Theater" (the other a "Peepshow Theater") in which a dialogue
between Beijing's urban reality and Chang's innovative projects in the
city takes place. Visible from outside and inside, it is also an
intelligent and efficient "translation" of a made-in-China text into the
New York context while adding strong visual impact to the New York street.

This is Yung Ho Chang's new adventure to bring architectural investigation
in the context of the visual arts after his exhibition design for two
versions of "Cities on the Move" exhibition in the Vienna Secession and
the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.

CYH: Right now, a good number of people would look at contemporary Chinese
architecture in terms of the opposition between East and West. I think the
issue really involves the question of How one perceives Western influence
in contemporary Chinese architecture? or Does import always equals
invasion? In the history, Chinese culture assimilated more than a few
ideas from the outside.  In fact, many culture are able to take something
from others and make it into its own. During the process of assimilation,
the idea loses its foreign-ness and becomes just an idea. Therefore, to
understand Chinese architecture today through an East vs. West argument
could be too simplistic .

HHR: Are you saying that the pursuit of a Chinese identity is motivated by
the presence of Western culture in China?

CYH:  Yes, to certain extent. Foreign culture is like a mirror, which
makes you realize that you are or should be different from the aliens.
Then starts the complex process of rejecting, learning, and absorbing,
etc.  And you ask:  What is Chinese? What is not? What are the cultural
definitions? Is this contemporary Chinese or ancient Chinese? Though never
get clear answers.

Chinese believe in the middle-of-the-road approach, meaning everyone is a
conformist. Can an individual still be effective in such a society? And
how?  This is an interesting challenge. In architectural practice, the
size of the project does not mean much to me. It is always a part of a
larger context.  However, can an architect as an individual create a
positive influence upon this larger urban context of China through the
design of a part, perhaps a rather small part? That is how I like to
define my practice.

With more contact with the outside, we have certain pressure that other
Chinese architects don't have. Most Chinese architects are free of any
moral burden in taking in an idea which has been done before. That is
impossible for us. We are constantly working under some kind of
Foucault-esque gaze. The gaze is also looking for Chinese identity. I
think Chinese or Asian identity is more than a formal issue; it is far
more complex. In our work, something is uniquely Asian, that is density.
Beijing may not be the best example of high density city. Southern cities
such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, are much denser. Density
can be seen as the outcome of an engaging urban life style.

HHR: Speaking of density, there is an interesting phenomenon. Rem Koolhaas
discovers Asian density and now influence the way the Dutch look at
themselves. All of sudden, they realize Holland is the densest country in
the world. Density has become a fashionable topic among architects.

CYH: However, Americans' attitude towards density has been always
negative.  Density means for them lower living standards. A quintessential
Modernist idea. Le Corbusier's Radiant City is based on fresh air and sun
light. And air and light is the antithesis to density.

Another concern of our work is quite traditional. On one hand, it regards
found objects and is traditional in the modern sense: I had a conversation
with the artist Chen Zhen. He said something which was very enlightening
to me. He talked about the importance of transformation of found objects
or ready-mades employed in the work. In the SMOCA (Small Museum of
Contemporary Art) project we are designing for the artist Cai Guoqiang, we
are using used building material. It will be critical how we transform
these particular found objects or building parts. On the other hand, we
are dealing with traditional construction method. We are trying to design
a roof by putting together four found traditional wooden trusses of
various sizes. Due to the difference in size, the resulted roof will
certainly not traditional if not quite strange.  A very rational design
method is used and it leads to an irrational product. I'm madly interested
in this.

I hope to realize another proposal this year. In traditional courtyard
houses in Beijing, a lot of small sheds have been built in the yard by the
residents themselves as kitchens or additional sleeping areas, etc. The
quality of these sheds is very limited. I often wonder what can be
achieved if architects are involved. As long as the residents would agree,
I would like to take some architecture students and help them to redesign
and rebuild the sheds.

HHR: This is a positive take on otherwise destructive modifications of an
old architecture.

CYH: Yes. The spontaneous additions could be quite negative. Yet, if you
analyze such phenomenon, its inevitability and rationality are there.  
Architect should not turn their heads away from it, right?

HHR: This reminds me of the "light urbanism" which is being discussed in
the architectural circle of the West and attempts to take the chaos of
everyday life into the consideration of architectural design and city

CYH: It might be forced if such effort is made systematic. I refer a
"micro-urbanism": If every single building, regardless the size, achieves
a positive relationship with the city, the city will for sure becomes a
positive place to live. Having a bunch of people and buildings together
may not make a city although you have a settlement. Singular building
could have a macro side - A building grows into or is a city - as well as
a micro side where a kitchen, a toilet, or a storage could be urbanistic.
This notion is significant in Beijing today. And it should not be remained
on the paper.  Unlike US, it is possible to put such idea into action.
Therefore, we are looking for one courtyard house. We may do a shed for
one family or all the sheds in a yard. It is also about the role of
architect in the society. Architect does not direct the building process
but participate in it, literally build the shed ourselves. It is

HHR: How is the possibility to realize it now?

CYH: We have got support from people in architecture like Wang Mingxian
and Liu Kaiji. They are helping us in searching for a house.  I would
really like to do an entire courtyard.

HHR: Is there similar notion in your recent design projects?

CYH: As a way of thinking, such concern will certainly influence how we
design new buildings.

HHR: When we proposed you to hold your solo exhibition in Apex Art, did
you consider it mainly as a retrospective?

CYH: We have decided that the show deals with both past and present and
has two parts. One part takes on Beijing as a complex cultural phenomenon.
We isolated three areas: 1. the highly Westernized business district on
the east side, 2. The college/culture district on the Northwest, and 3.
the rural outskirts where "shan shui" (mountain water or Chinese
landscape) can be experienced.

HHR: How about the Muslim enclave on the Southwest?

CYH: We picked the areas where we have been doing work. This is an
architectural exhibition. How can we differentiate it from an art show? A
typical architectural exhibition is about representation; it represents an
architectural idea through drawings and models. But we want to offer
people direct architectural experience. An architectural experience of two
theater spaces. One can actually be inside of them. Of course, they are
the architectural spaces of Apex, not of Beijing.  It is the
transformation of the Apex spaces.

HHR: As curators, we hope to bring something which is not so commonly
considered today as a visual art discipline into a visual art exhibition

CYH: I think that interesting changes have happened to the relationship
between art and architecture. In some ways, art and architecture are
getting closer; in some other ways, they are coming apart. It would be
important to know where these changes are. Today, interdisciplinary
exchange is in. Under the circumstance, to understand the differences
between disciplines is critical. When such understanding is achieved,
interdisciplinary activities begin to make sense. If only the overlapped
areas of different disciplines are stressed, what is left would be an
ambiguous blob.

HHR: Another issue. Beside density, you are also concerned with notions
from traditional Chinese architecture and city, such as square plan,
courtyard, etc.

CYH: Yes, but with contradictions. If you look at Chinese and Asian
cities, you will find the lack of clear traditional urban structures.
Various urban models existed in Europe since the Middle Age; China has had
only one: An introverted city, exemplified by the "Li Fang" system in
ancient Chang An (now Xi'an). The entire city is divided by enclosed walls
along streets. And the city only opens up behind these walls and in the
courtyards. However, this introverted quality is at odds with the modern
life style and openness demanded by the highly developed commercial
society. Courtyard house migrates to the less-dense new suburbs. It is
ironic in certain way. There is the tendency for a Chinese city to spread
and to create suburbs in order to ease its density. The urban turns into
suburban. Specifically, the development of so called villa district. For
the moment, the courtyard houses that are being built in these suburbs are
the fake antiques.  We are interested in conceptual courtyards and have
already done the design for more than one.

HHR: In specific tems, how does a conceptual courtyard work?

CYH: For example, in the restaurant "Glass Onion" in Beijing we designed,
there is a compressed courtyard. The original function of the courtyard is
transformed. The courtyard space becomes air walls or cruciform voids.  
Courtyard is brought back to the city as a linear element, no longer

HHR: In other words, this courtyard is visual...

CYH: And inhabitable. A different kind of inhabitability. One may walk,
sit, or read in such a courtyard.

HHR: It seems that in your approach toward Chinese city, you are giving up
big proposals and going into private spaces which are made into something
public in the process.

CYH: You could be right about the big proposals since we haven't done any.
In fact, what we do is a kind of urban infill. However, it's not a
strategy. Strategies change according to circumstances. City is complex.
We are trying to analyze specific urban conditions to come up with
specific tactics, which can be myopic. Thus, we feel like all we do is not
building design but micro urban design.

HHR: Are you suggesting that privacy has become a public subject?

CYH: Privacy is a delicate issue. When the occupancy of courtyard house
changes from single family to multi ones, privacy is lost. Courtyard house
always encourages people to interact, either within the family or among
neighbours. "Chuan men", or piercing/linking doors, is how informal
neighbourly visits were called. Now, in the apartment blocks of good
privacy, "chuan men" has stopped. This is a part of the evolution of
living conditions as well as building use. The significance of absolute
introverted spaces is no wonder in doubt.

HHR: For past years, your work has focused on China, analyzing its
problems and trying to find solutions. What would you do, if you are given
the opportunity to design in the United States?

CYH: I really don't know. If I'm working in the US, I may still pursue
something Chinese.

HHR: Is it to say that your view of a particular environment will be
tinted by your current work?

CYH: It is about superimposition. I'm not going to analyze myself now.  
Because my background, I constantly bring Western influence into my work
with no conscious rejection. Based on the work I'm doing now, if one day
high density architecture is transplanted into a low density locale or the
reality of Chinese or Asian city is overlapped onto the one of American
suburbia, it could produce interesting results. It is also a question of
homogeneity and heterogeneity. The sudden change of density is
particularly curious.

HHR: It's little like how Asian density is interpreted in Rem Koolhaas'
approach in his recent Schiphol proposal. It also comes close to his
notion of "generic city"...

CYH: Generic city is not so generic after all, thanks to 1. differences in
life styles and 2. differences between individuals who involved in the
making of city as architects or non-architects.

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