In my column published last week, I discussed some of the construction disappointments resulting from current building practices in China, where breakneck development and a reliance on unskilled labor abound, and flaws are often disguised—either in manipulated press photography or through physical cover-ups. But that is only one side of the story. Recent Chinese architecture also offers exemplary models of material realization, notable not only for their high construction quality but also for their innovative, often low-tech material strategies. The fundamental difference is how architects approach materials.
My observations draw heavily from a three-week tour in June of southern and central China with students from the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, where I teach. China Lab 2015 focused on the study of material applications in both traditional and contemporary buildings in the country—as well as relationships between the two.
During my graduate studies at Rice University in the late 1990s, I worked as a research assistant for Yung Ho Chang, AIA, and remember him lamenting the poor quality of construction in his buildings in China. His response was to tailor his designs to the capabilities of the existing labor pool there, rather than produce schemes that could not easily be realized. Chengdu, China–based architect Liu Jiakun takes a similar approach, which he calls “the low-tech strategy.” He told Mark magazine in 2014: “As for architecture, it doesn’t necessarily have to be meticulous to be good … I’m dealing with less-skilled people. But my low-tech strategy doesn’t mean that I’m not making high-quality architecture.”
While this might appear to be a fallback—a humble method of compensating for significant limitations—the strategy has not only enabled better-quality construction but also allowed for the realization of memorable forms of material expression. The result is a distinctly Chinese contemporary architecture in which past materials and practices infuse the present condition without technological regression or cultural sentimentality.
A fundamental theme in contemporary design concerns the rediscovery and reinterpretation of traditional Chinese building practices. The best-known architect who practices in this way is Wang Shu, a co-founder of Amateur Architecture Studio, in Hangzhou, China, and the 2012 Pritzker Prize laureate. “The question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future,” said Pritzker Prize jury chairman Lord Peter Palumbo on the occasion of Wang’s award. “As with any great architecture, Wang Shu's work is able to transcend that debate, producing an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.” The jury astutely recognized the architect’s economic use of materials in ways that pay homage to the past while contributing new ideas to contemporary architecture. Wang developed his material expertise while working under craftsmen for nearly a decade prior to founding his practice. “For myself, being an artisan or a craftsman is an amateur or almost the same thing,” he said in the Pritzker announcement, using the word "amateur" to mean not only a novice but also one who derives pleasure from the work—a process of naive discovery that leads to new possibilities.
One of Wang’s signature strategies is the reuse of existing building materials to create highly variegated surfaces. This approach is based on the traditional Chinese method of wapan tiling used to construct new walls rapidly from found building materials. A majority of the Ningbo Historic Museum’s (2008) façade is clad in this fashion. Its visually animated patchwork of hand-laid bricks, pavers, and roof tiles were salvaged from local residences demolished to make way for new development. Despite the materials’ controversial origins, the technique’s success is due to two factors: the availability of laborers familiar with this kind of construction, and the masons’ freedom to make decisions in the field. (Wang informs the crew about the general façade concept and lets them determine the specific patterns based on stockpiled materials.) Wang has employed this method in the floors and walls of several projects—including buildings on the Xiangshan campus at the China Academy of Art (2004 and 2007); the Five Scattered Houses’ (2005) Gallery: One Wave and Three Twists, in Ningbo; and the Ningbo Tengtou Pavilion for the Expo 2010 Shanghai—with the material palette in each instance reflecting available resources.
Wang and other architects are also reinterpreting traditional building methods in creative ways. One approach is to modify historic building patterns. The façade of Building 15 at the Xiangshan campus, for example, employs a cruciform brick arrangement similar to that seen in traditional Chinese residences and tea houses. In this case, however, the wall is a porous screen that assumes a visual lightness despite its use of the same material.
Another approach involves translating traditional motifs into different materials and scales. Teahouse 1: Broken Shadow (shown above), one of Wang’s Five Scattered Houses, employs a traditional window lattice pattern that mimics the appearance of cracked ice. Rather than replicate this pattern in a wood window, however, he scaled the motif in precast concrete to fit the entire façade. Perkins+Will used a similar technique for the curtain wall (shown below) of its Shanghai Natural History Museum (2015), in this case referencing biological cell patterns—and implicitly traditional Chinese latticework—within a multi-layered glass envelope. The gently curving profile of traditional Chinese temples is another subject of formal reinterpretation, as seen in Wang’s Sanhe House in Nanjing or Building 14 on the Xiangshan campus, whose roofs outline the abstracted contours of this profile in concrete.
Another approach is to rethink how traditional materials are used. For example, Wang specified bamboo mats as the formwork for large surfaces of cast concrete in the Ningbo Historic Museum, retaining the imprint of the handmade panels as a decorative texture. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA, re-imagined clay roof tile in his Museum at the China Academy of Art (2014), suspending tiles at random intervals within a façade of steel-cable mesh. The uncannily levitating roof modules create dappled shadows reminiscent of tree canopies on the museum’s interior surfaces.
Other versions of intentional material misuse focus on modern building products. The undulating façade of Shanghai-based Archi-Union’s office (2010) is composed of parametrically arrayed concrete masonry units oriented to expose their interior cores. Another example, Wang’s Gallery in the Five Scattered Houses complex, uses exposed steel rebar as an entrance screen wall.
These projects are examples of quality design and construction in China for two reasons. First, the intended material applications are compatible with the available means for construction, and the construction techniques almost always offer dimensional tolerances that are forgiving of contractor variation—in cases like wapan tiling, variation is welcomed as an important aspect of the design. Second, the creative reinterpretations of traditional materials and techniques make up an innovative palette that looks forward while remaining connected to the past, and as such suggests the development of a new Chinese architectural identity.
These works are far from perfect, however. The wood paneling in Wang’s Building 15 shows signs of premature deterioration, and the exposed steel framing of his Teahouse 2 is already rusting. Such problems reinforce the importance of good material specification and detailing, regardless of construction quality, and point to the main drawback of design that may generate unconventional ideas but doesn’t anticipate construction problems. Nevertheless, the many positive technical and cultural contributions made by the works discussed here outweigh the few challenges they present, and their design methods provide inspiration for the next generation of Chinese architecture.