Design for a better life

Updated: 2012-11-09 07:39

By Sun Yuanqing (China Daily)

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 Design for a better life

The ultimate mission for architecture, Yung Ho Chang says, is simply comfort and convenience. Zou Hong / China Daily

Architect aims for practicality and beauty in his work

Yung Ho Chang speaks with a heavy Beijing accent, the kind you only hear in hutong (traditional narrow streets) these days.

The first Chinese architect to be recognized internationally, Chang is capitalizing on his success and education in both the East and the West as he marches into new areas of design, in the hope of improving people's lives.

"Design should be instrumental in the first place, which sets it apart from art. It solves problems and brings pleasure to our lives. The primary goal of design is to make life better," Chang says. He was speaking in September during two talks on design and his new exhibition Materialism at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

His exhibition,which runs until Dec 2, showcases Chang's past design work in architecture, urban design, products and fashion, as well as a three-minute kung fu movie called Enjoying, which came from his passion for cinematography.

In an audio guide for the exhibition, Chang tells his audience to forget about art when looking at his work.

"Think about everyday life and see how many of my designs can actually apply to your own life," he says.

For Chang, architecture is not as overwhelming as some consider it, but merely a way of improving our living environment.

"Architecture is to improve the world we live in. It would be nice if it can create some pleasant visual experiences in a grey city like Beijing, but this is not the essential function of architecture. The ultimate mission for architecture is simply comfort and convenience," he says.

The same idea applies to Chang's design work in other areas. Rather than aiming to provoke a momentary visual spark, design should be about the betterment of life, he says.

"Maybe it's because of my personal interests and education that I tend to believe in solving problems," he says.

Nature, with all its creations and beauty, is a major inspiration for Chang. He turns calabashes into containers for vinegar and oil, and the withered lotus leaves he finds at the Summer Palace, close to his office, into the shape of plates.

"We can turn nature's creations into design by looking at them in a different way," he says.

"There is a saying in Chinese traditional painting: Learn from nature. Design is about observation and how you look at things. It doesn't exist within your brain, it comes from the outside."

While some say Chang crosses the borders of design away from architecture, he explains that his education and experience as an architect have been a stepping stone for his attempts to enter other genres of design.

"The gap would be wide if I was not trained as an architect. Architecture is the most complex among all genres of design, in terms of technicality and cooperation. It starts from architecture, stage design, installation, fashion, and finally reaches graphic design. It's difficult; you can't cross over whenever you want to. The habit of working in a team is also an advantage for architects moving into other areas of design," he says.

Born and raised in Beijing, Chang studied at Nanjing Institute of Technology, now known as Southeast University. He later acquired a master's degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and taught in the US for 15 years. Chang served as the head of the department of architecture at MIT from 2005 to 2010.

He returned to Beijing and founded China's first private architecture firm, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, in 1993.

Chang has received numerous prizes, including a Progressive Architecture Citation Award in 1996, the 2000 UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts, and the Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. He was also the first Chinese person to sit on the jury of the Pritzker Prize.

The younger son of Zhang Kaiji, one of China's most prominent architects of the 20th century, Chang has deep sympathy and respect for older generations of architects and their work, much of which has been torn down during a period of massive urban construction across China in recent decades.

"When we talk about traditions, we look back to before the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but the modern era is also part of our history and worth reflecting on," he says.

"It is part of our history and we have to learn about it and figure out how to look at it."

Chang was exposed to Western culture at an early age. He is a fan of Western literature and 1960s French movies.

"My education has been kind of Westernized because of my father. I was quite familiar with Western fine art at a young age and got very into contemporary art after I went to the US. I've learned to accept myself as a mix of different cultures," he says.

Like most Beijing natives raised in a siheyuan, one of the city's traditional courtyards, Chang finds it hard to feel affection for the new city with its ring roads and skyscrapers.

"I grew up in a siheyuan. All the houses were the same and that never seemed like a problem. So later I began to wonder why all these buildings have to look different. Of course I know that now there is this urge to demonstrate individual existence and character. But the question is whether it has to be demonstrated at the expense of architecture. The new city of Beijing is hideous and as a Beijinger I find it unbearable."

A common problem faced by Chinese architects is a lack of confidence despite a strong understanding about their own culture, according to Chang.

"I have met lots of Chinese architects who know more than I do, but they don't have enough confidence to make use of it. Because of their lack of confidence, they cannot be daring and develop new ideas," he says.

"Modern Japanese culture is quite interesting in the sense that it combines the ultra modern with the ultra traditional. I know a Japanese structural engineer who works on extremely modern projects but is at the same time into singing Japanese opera. It would be good if this kind of combination was more prevalent among Chinese architects."

"If Beijing had a Peking Opera group for architects, I would definitely be the first one to audition. A deeper understanding of our own culture helps."

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page20)