— Building and Planning

Re-Experiment: 10 Years at CAA

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  • Chair-Mountain, in the large hall of the “Re-Experiment” exhibition.

Last Sunday the China Academy of Art School of Architecture opened its ten-year exhibition, ‘Re-Experiment.’ The opening ceremony was followed by the start of ‘A Return to Reality,’ CAA Architecture’s two-day international forum on the future of architecture education. In this way the work in the  exhibition served as both the evidence and framework for discussing how to educate architects in the 21st century.

Wang Shu, dean of CAA School of Architecture, spoke of the project to discover experimental thinking within a critical historical tradition. I think that when walking through the exhibition, viewers are able to sense the tension between these two ideas. The student projects often make use of traditional craft techniques or rural spatial strategies, while at the same time exhibiting a sense of grandiosity and monumentality in the overall structure. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that a lot of the work appears quite unfamiliar to us: mountains of chairs, maps of traditional gardens, and interactive displays of Chinese calligraphy. The exhibition succeeds the most when these traditional techniques and practices are put into tension with contemporary issues such as rural development, new building programs, and industrial production.

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  • Presentation and discussion area of the international forum, “A Return to Reality.”

How do we rediscover historical tradition within, or through, experimental thought? This issue has been received very differently in the US or Europe than in China, whose architectural concerns range from the financial to the technical to the ethical. Compared to China, for example, American craft is an expensive and time-consuming process; new technologies provide viable, less-expensive alternatives despite their non-traditional forms.  At the CAA, and in the context of China’s inexpensive labor market, experimental craft revolves around re-signifying the historical language of China’s building lineage.

This is one way to locate a school of architecture, with a specific identity for itself, here in China.

The exhibition is visually stunning, although the sheer volume of work on display can make it difficult to focus on individual works. The quality of the work, however, is consistently measured and precise. Certainly in the context of China – a country largely concerned with rapid urban and economic development  – the CAA school of architecture has embraced more basic and local problems of building: environment, climate, material, and technique. These are not new concepts by any means, yet the work in the show is rich, unfamiliar, and layered.  Several successful projects, for instance, focused on how to renew the the traditional courtyard house typology by experimenting on its construction and material systems, as well as its ability to adapt to new programs other than strictly housing.

Even though it was a ten-year exhibition, ‘Re-Experiment’ only included works produced during the 2016-17 academic year. I was asked to deliver some introductory remarks at the exhibition’s opening ceremony, which focused on what this work tells us about the school and its development. From its concerns about traditional language and vernacular systems, the identity of the school hinges on the relationship between the architect and the systems they require, produce, and utilize. The decision to include only one year’s work is part of this visual ethics; the work in the show is not intended to be the best work the school has ever produced. Rather, the exhibition shows the trajectory of the school as it continues to hone in on details, places, and methods.

CAA Opening Ceremony Speech

  • Introductory remarks at the opening ceremony. My installation ‘Chair House’ is pictured behind, a 5.5 meter tall structure to be climbed inside of.

The Italian philosopher Umberto Eco proposed a theory of ‘opera operta,’ or open work. Eco’s theory proposes an equation between the degree of openness, the degree of information, the degree of ambiguity, and the degree of adherence to conventions in a work, but is fundamentally disinterested in describing things as good or bad, art or non-art. There are many similarities between these ideas and the school’s leadership in Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu. As teachers, they guide the pedagogy and research objectives of the school with an open point of view. As architects with their own practice, they have developed an extremely specific vantage point from which to understand building in contemporary China.

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu have created a ‘school of thought’ in the classical sense. The school’s students and professors are dedicated to the task of establishing a new form of vernacular architecture in China, even though there is a huge degree of variety and difference in this work. The juxtaposition of ‘Re-Experiment’ and ‘A Return to Reality’ – a local exhibition and an international forum – is evidence of a pedagogical system gaining resolution between the methods of experimentation (the student)  and the conditions of what is possible (the place). This is a further reflection of the practice Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu have established here in Hangzhou.