Architecture is 'about solving living problems'

Updated: 2012-11-09 08:52

By Yang Yang and Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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Architecture is 'about solving living problems'

Wang Yun believes it's good that Chinese architecture firms compete with their American and European counterparts. Yang Yang / China Daily

Planners need to take account of the fact that urbanization is also a mental process, says renowned architect

It might be possible to move millions of rural residents into China's expanding cities but they may still want to keep pigs in the basement of their modern 21st century high-rise apartments, says Wang Yun.

The 50-year-old associate professor of architecture at Peking University says this is one of the many challenges facing China's planners and architects coping with the sheer scale of the country's urbanization.

"Farmers, who were raising pigs until yesterday now suddenly find themselves living in cities unsurprisingly start to ask themselves what they are going to live on," he says.

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"And even though they might be living in a high-rise they may want space for raising pigs on the ground floor."

Wang, who also runs his own award-winning Beijing-based architecture practice Atelier Fronti, says this is not always in the mind of those designing cities.

"The cities are often designed based on an architects' ideal understanding of what a modern or a sustainable city should be like, but it is the people living in it that eventually make it modern or sustainable," he says.

"How these former farmers adapt to living in a modern city environment is what we still need to wait and find out."

Wang, resplendent with a mane of gray hair and who is regarded as one of China's leading modernist architects, was speaking after giving a presentation to the recent Masterplanning the Future conference at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou.

He says planners need to take account of the fact that urbanization is also a mental process for people and not just about physical relocation.

"People talk as though China can achieve in terms of urbanization in just a few decades what it took European countries more than 100 years to do," he says.

"Well, you might be able to build a shell of a city and its buildings within 10 years or even a shorter time but the people who live in them may take 50 to 100 years to mentally adjust to living in a modern city."

Wang, who grew up in Beijing, was one of the first to study architecture in China after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), taking up a place at the Beijing University of Engineering and Architecture.

He then went on to study at Tokyo University, where he achieved his master's and doctorate degrees.

The designs produced by his own practice reflect his own interest in the modernist architecture of the 1930s such as the German Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and from France Le Corbusier.

He says he believes it is difficult to argue that Chinese architects and planners are now coming up with something radical and new as vast cities spring up as a result of rapid urbanization.

"I really don't think you can characterize architecture as either Eastern or Western since architecture is about solving people's living problems whichever part of the world you happen to be from," he says.

Wang does think Chinese architects faced significantly more challenges than their European counterparts when they experienced a similar scale of urbanization in the 19th century.

Chinese city planners have been criticized for tearing down hutong areas but Wang believes they have had little choice to adapt to the modern world.

"European streets that used to accommodate horse and carriages happened to be wide enough for the cars of the 20th century," he says.

"The narrow alleys on which hutong communities were formed when China was still very much an agricultural society were only wide enough for people and sedans.

"So to widen roads and allow for modernization you have to tear down courtyards, and once they are gone the whole texture of the community will be destroyed. Planners face this conflict between preserving some courtyards and having to work with an inadequate infrastructure built for a previous age."

Wang's style of architecture can be seen in a recent design for an affordable housing development in Beijing West Railway Station. Its 100,000 square meters of space will provide homes for hundreds of families.

"This is an example perhaps of the simplicity of my work. It doesn't always go down well in China where there is a demand for major statements. There are people who say my work is not magnificent enough to convey certain cultural elements," he says.

"I think the goal of architecture is to solve people's living problems. What I have discovered from traveling around the world is that despite different nationalities of people and cultural background, the purpose of any human settlements is to provide a solution for this."

Wang likes the fact that China is now a melting pot of architectural ideas as a result of its scale of urbanization.

He thinks it is good European and American architecture firms are in competition with domestic ones.

"I don't think there is any division between Chinese and foreign architects, just between good and bad ones. Good design is always universally welcome, just like that of Apple Inc," he says.

"If the architecture is done well, the architect will doubtless incorporate the local elements into the design like the Bird's Nest (National Olympic stadium) in Beijing, which although designed by a foreign architect, has a shape resembling a traditional Chinese jar, and a giant steel structure similar to window carvings in traditional Chinese parks," he says.

Wang says he is often had difficulty in getting his designs taken up by city planners since they are often after something that makes a more ambitious statement than his more simplistic schemes.

He says he gets satisfaction if only one person takes pleasure in something he has designed.

This was the case when he redesigned his own 60-square-meter apartment just to suit himself and it attracted the attention of someone who saw it featured in a design magazine.

"The young man asked me whether I would design a similar space in his house. If only one person likes my design, I think my work is then meaningful," he says.

Wang believes young Chinese architects have far greater opportunities today than when he came out of architectural school.

"Our generation grew up in a society cut off from outside modern world. Our view was relatively narrow compared with our peers in other countries and when we did do designs, we felt a heavy weight on our shoulder," he says.

"Today's younger generation have grown up in an open internationalized society, so they don't have this burden and can work with more freedom. I am sure that as a result they will begin to make their mark on the international architecture stage."

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(China Daily 11/09/2012 page6)