What About a Conversation with Zhang Ke?

Niyang River Visitor Center
standardarchitecture/ Zhao Yang Studio
Photo by: Chen Su

Challenging the Standard

More than ten years at the center of the Chinese architectural avant-garde, the role of standardarchitecture as an architectural paradigm solidifies more and more on international ground. Not interested in defining the new Chinese, nor to perpetuate the role of the status quo of the architecture of the spectacle, its focus consistently remains to present a challenge to the establishment. Everything from a growing extensive oeuvre that goes from building contemporary masterpieces in  Tibet, to the design of exquisite trays made in Milan, to the way that the office operates seem to be following no other direction than its own.
WAI sat down with standardarchitecture’s founding partner Zhang Ke to converse about the origins of standardarchitecture, its critical role in contemporary China, and how to challenge the standard.

WAI: We would like to ask you to draw us a picture of the conditions in which you had your education.

Zhang Ke: Now looking retrospectively it’s a super interesting moment in contemporary Chinese history which started with, let’s say, 1984 when China really started to open up. I went to school in the early nineties and I think it’s a very intriguing historical moment that we—my generation— suddenly got the opportunity to have an education when it was reviving.

Eventually all the information was coming in from the outside, but of course it was not enough at the time. Before I went to the US in 1996 I didn’t know what was going on in the international architectural scene at all, even after having finished a master’s degree in architectural education.

Just think that until that time (architectural education) was still very lacking in terms of information.

What was the architectural education about?

As I said a few times before, it was really a mixture of a sort of second-hand beaux arts, which was the UPenn graduate’s model of education, with some watercolor renderings, and the Moscow University, which was kind of visual craftsmanship training, mixed with a blind admiration for people like Frank Lloyd Wright. That was like the only thing that we got, which was really nothing about critical thinking.
The professors that taught these courses, did they go to the United States to study?

Yes, some of them. The professor who came back (from the US) to set up Tsinghua University Architecture School missed the education of Walter Gropius because Gropius went to the US a few years after he graduated.
I still think that Tsinghua as an architecture school still has something missing about the system of modernism of that period.

What was the difference between that generation of professors and your generation?

To start with, by having a clear picture of a certain degree of architectural ignorance while simultaneously being full of curiosity,  people like me, from my time were lucky enough to be the first group of people to go abroad to study architecture sponsored by themselves.

We were the first generation after the Cultural Revolution that was able to support ourselves, because the people that were before us—they probably went out in the late eighties—were either supported by the government or they emmigrated first and then started to study. So in a way, it was a very lucky time, coinciding with the booming economy, in which we were able to start as an architecture student to make a lot of money. I saved money for the tuition.
So that’s something that was really generated by the time.

Was the opportunity to figure out what to do in the future, to try to have an aim, a new one?
Before that, nobody was even daring to think that you can use your own money to go to school.

Do you think that it was critical for your generation—that new generation—to go out, in order to get a broader picture of the architectural education?

I went out merely because of curiosity. But with my generation it was a bit negative. They went out because they wanted to go out, but for some reason, I don’t know why, I never planned to stay out. I went out in order to gain knowledge and come back. I always planned to come back.
Qingcheng Mountain

Since the beginning you always thought about returning to China?

 I was the only one who never applied for a green card.

Did you develop your critical approach to architecture from when you were a student in China? Or did your experience abroad help to shape the model of your professional practice?

Before I went out (of China), while a graduate student I was involved in some real projects and there was an immense degree of fatigue because of what was happening with the big institutions, and what was being practiced, although without knowing exactly what was  a  good or healthy direction.

It was very easy to sense that it was not very exciting, and I was really feeling the fatigue of it, although I hadn’t even started the practice. So it was the “pre-born” fatigue of the practice.And what’s interesting is that later, this fatigue became a sort of desire to challenge the existing condition (of the architectural practice).
Namchabawa Visitor Center
Photo by: Chen Su

At that point was every architectural practice in China an institute?

Most of them, yes. At that time there were a few (individual practices). Yung Ho Chang started his practice, because he was much older. I think probably the same year that I went to USA, he started his practice.

But was it common to have an individual practice?
No. You had to have some specific connections to be able to start your practice.       

Talking about your practice, not only are you making an aesthetic stance against the situation of architecture through your constructed works, but you have created a philosophy and logistical model that is more like a mixture of academic institution, workshop, and architectural laboratory, where people don’t go there just to follow instructions.

You just don’t go to work to get bored; you go there to do something interesting.
Yarluntzangpu Boat
Photo by: Chen Su

But it’s not just that, the very unique conditions of the office organization, and the prospects it creates for the development of young architects; did you formulate that model with time, or did you have it since the beginning of your career?

It’s of course formulated with time.  That’s something interesting about architecture.

The question really makes me want to continue the story of how, having gone to the US I was to study at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design) and this more critical thinking started there. At that time it (critical thinking) was really strong, with the Bauhaus tradition, and the discourse of contemporary thinking as Rem (Koolhaas), Rafael Moneo, Herzog & De Meuron, and Peter Zumthor were all there. This (experience) really opened my landscape to the whole world of architecture and most important to reasoning and methods of thinking.

But immediately after graduation we got overjoyed by idealistic academic thinking, and then suddenly when I started working in New York, I started to see another reality, which was again, of disappointment about the real world of corporate designers, and practices. This was again creating fatigue, or creating this hopelessness for young architects. And there (in New York), all of the young architects got together, like we’re sitting here, and everyone was complaining. All of us, like the elder generations; I can imagine Adolf Loos, Moneo, Peter Eisenman, Koolhaas, when they were in New York they were probably also complaining, but there were also probably millions more complaining.

But then, you see, the world of architectural practice is never very optimistic at all. It’s always something about struggle. Most people complain. And maybe just a few start to say “come on, stop complaining, if there is a battlefront let’s just go there, let’s just do it.” And that’s how I decided (to make a change). All of the practices are quite, I would say, sad  to see. There is so much talent, but really there is not much creative work being realized in New York.

Also, there occurred a big change in terms of beliefs. Before I went to New York—I think a lot of architects have a similar transition period—we believed that design and architecture was the driving force, but after having lived there for three years you start to realize that we are not the driving force, we only facilitate the financial power. Then it makes you either really desperate or it makes you think critically about the alternatives of life for a young architect.
I think it’s (a) common (situation). It’s not just for young Chinese architects, young European architects, or young American architects. In New York I found our fate—if you don’t struggle then its more or less the same— for  a large proportion of talents we were experiencing the fact that you were dead in your 30’s and you were only buried in your 80’s.

So it was this feeling that made me think that maybe we can (make a change).  The fact that the whole world, the whole profession is also changing, in terms of speed, in terms of interrelating with each other, in terms of geographical freedom which is increasing, which means there is more mobility, and the possibilities of more collaboration. So that’s how, I think, maybe we can start something that is not in the same track as “you start some projects, you get paid, and then you become anti-revolutionary”. You get established and you want to push every younger guy back to keep your status, and then so what?

So then, when we came back in 2001 after winning the city wall landscape competition, the former or local fatigue, and the new or global fatigue became this anger or desire to challenge, as I mentioned.  I think for young architects it’s probably good to have this, because you see something that’s not what you want. Then, I was thinking how we can practice in a slightly different way, which means that we work in a collaborative way and at the same time the management of the office does not function like a sweatshop like a lot of other practices that make a lot of people come in to work without getting paid. 

We want to be alternative, while simultaneously maintaining a very international standard so that everything is reasonable. At the same time, from the beginning I wanted to have something that allowed me to avoid that, when you become recognized, and you become bigger, you become less interesting, and people are not happy. Then, how can you have interesting work?

Then the idea came to me, can we have something... A different kind of  office. Because (usually) before you get established you want to struggle up, and you are probably positive, but as soon as you get recognized you want to stay there. So I’m always thinking why can’t we create offices like positive viruses?

(This new model) is different to most of the other big international names. In it, the most creative offices (within the office),  the ones that become sustainable by creating good work, realizing alternative work, make the culture more interesting and diversified. So, the idea was that if possible to have younger people grow out of the office as much as possible. This is something that as far as I know, doesn’t happen… (And we try it) even when we’re not so strong at all!

It’s a very unusual model.

We did start it with Zhao Yang, and in three years he got very successful. Yang Fang is doing one. And this year, we will probably have you.
In the end the idea is not to keep talented architects forever, but the more you can create great and sustainable offices the culture of architecture both in China and in the world, can be more dynamic and exciting.

The biggest intention is if we’re young we should keep on challenging the establishment.
As soon as you regard yourself as the establishment of course you should retire, or you keep yourself there but in fact you are retired.

If we talk about the Chinese situation, we have to talk about Mao. He won the revolution but he still wanted more revolution. In that way, let’s not judge so quickly if the Cultural Revolution is positive or negative. Of course it was frustrating for the generation, but it’s the fact that we have to challenge the situation.

Wuyi Primary School
standardarchitecture’s first built project is an auditorium which seats 520 persons.

In China the singular architect doesn’t have an infrastructure, but you are providing a space where it can germinate. Are you expecting the model to work?

I believe it definitively can work.

Then your practice should work as a kind of factory of singular architects, because you are facilitating  the gestation of them?
The only difference between a factory and this kind of mechanism is, in a factory you know the result of what you are manufacturing, and here you don’t know. It’s the unknown result that’s more fascinating.
 I think at the end there will probably still be a similar number of the known architects, but I just want to kick out all the unqualified known architects, because there are too many known architects that are not qualified. We need to have enough competitive good ones.
If you think of the renaissance, it was not created by three guys, it was created by three thousand great artists, and at the end there are three that are masters.

What are you trying to avoid?

I don’t want  to see the current situation in China where we have five hundred so called masters. In the end … Even in the world! The other thing is we are repeatedly declaring that we don’t want to see this boundary between contemporary Chinese architecture and contemporary international architecture. Why? Because this framework has already been broken. We are more interested in discussing and creating contemporary architecture. It may be based in China, but even in China it means a lot of different cultural backgrounds. It may be based in India; it may be based in Puerto Rico, Africa, in South America, Europe.

Do you think the challenge is an international one? 

The fatigue it’s not just a fatigue in China, it’s the fatigue of the whole architecture scene in the world.
There is something really superficial about the current young architectural scene in the world. Of course, it’s also very dynamic, but I think the challenge we want to create is not for China, it’s really for the whole architectural scene in the world. That’s why for all the international young talents here it’s very relevant.

In the future, if your model works, how do you see the profession?

What’s really interesting for our whole generation is the uncertainty. Without knowing what’s happening, we all know it’s a critical moment in architecture in the whole world. Our profession is changing very fast, both in terms of how architecture was drawn and models were made, to how buildings were fabricated. And even the role of architects is changing. The fact that we called ourselves standardarchitecture it’s a tricky name, it’s neutral and at the same time it means that we don’t like the existing standard. We want to regenerate a different standard, or continuously regenerate a standard; a new different standard

 This means that the whole profession is changing.  It’s more interesting that this profession is unknown. It’s like our life. It’s more interesting to not know your future rather that to know that you are sitting in that little glass room and dying without achieving anything.

Zhang Ke graduated with a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1996, and a Master of Architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1998.

standardarchitecture is a leading new generation design firm engaged in practices of planning, architecture, landscape, and product design. Based on a wide range of realized buildings and landscapes in the past five years, it has emerged as the most critical and realistic practice among the youngest generation of Chinese architects and designers.

Consciously distance themselves from many of the other “typical” young generation architects who are swallowed by a trend of noise making, the office remain detached in a time of media frenzy and their focus is consistently positioned on the realization of urban visions and ideas. Although standardarchitecture’s built works often take exceptionally provocative visual results, their buildings and landscapes are always rooted in the historic and cultural settings with a degree of intellectual debate.

The office has now three partners: Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, and Claudia Taborda.


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