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Chair-House (2017). 5.5 x 2.5 x 2 meters. Wood and glue. Installed in the main gallery of the China Academy of Art during the architecture department’s ‘RE-EXPERIMENT’ exhibition.

 

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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.

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These survey documents are my study of a farmhouse in Zhejiang’s Wencun Village, which is also the site of Wang Shu’s most recent village renovation. In this case the roof was deemed structurally beyond repair, but the sequence of courtyards that it served within the small block became integral to the design phase. Even though the roof was removed, its construction techniques and spatial characteristics were retained in the renovation design.

 

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Women at work in Evora, Portugal. In the background, Alvaro Siza’s social housing project was under construction in 1978.

Siza’s building project for low-income housing residents who could no longer afford the city center has clear social and practical considerations. This image of the building under construction, with local women at work in the foreground, is a part of that social project. Rather than see them (building or resident) as complete subjects, we see only the details of their relationship. In 1979, Siza wrote,

Most of my works were never published; some of the things I did were only carried out in part, others were profoundly changed or destroyed. That’s only to be expected. An architectonic proposition whose aim is to go deep . . . a proposition that in- tends to be more than a passive materialization, refuses to reduce that same reality, analyzing each of its aspects, one by one; that proposition can’t find support in a fixed image, can’t follow a linear evolution. . . . Each design must catch, with the utmost rigor, a precise moment of the flittering image, in all its shades, and the better you can recognize that flittering quality of reality, the clearer your design will be. . . .That may be the reason why only marginal works (a quiet dwell- ing, a holiday house miles away) have been kept as they were originally designed. But something re- mains. Pieces are kept here and there, inside ourselves, perhaps fathered by someone, leaving marks on space and people, melting into a process of total transformation.

This image and project have both been powerful for me for a long time. It seems fitting to share it now given the current political situation.

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Forming Narragansett Bay                                       Flooding Providence                                                


 

This fall I am teaching a fourth year architecture studio titled ‘Natural Construction’ (自然建造) at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Although each professor is responsible for their own syllabus, an integral part of the coursework is a week long trip to the rural villages, where students produce a book of extensive survey documents. In the past these survey documents have provided the studio’s building language for the remaining 15 weeks, thereby designating a clear relationship between vernacular structures and a studio-wide definition for what is ‘natural.’ This relationship is visible in the work of Wang Shu, who has served as dean of the CAA School of Architecture since its founding ten years ago.

As the fourth year studio is completed right before students enter their thesis year, Natural Construction Studio plays a transitional role in each student’s education. And yet after discussions with faculty and former students, as well as seeing previous studios’ work, it seems clear that no one knows what the class should be specifically teaching. The fourth year architecture students are already extremely competent in drawing and modelling and, being at the China Academy of Art, they are well-versed in the language of vernacular building systems. Before their thesis, most students are developing their own visual language, differentiating themselves from their classmates, and producing work that will help them get a job after graduation. This is the difficulty of studying vernacular building systems in the contemporary design education system: the work has a tendency to stray toward individual acts of spectacle (nostalgia included), despite the best intentions of a larger academic structure aimed a the cultural rehabilitation and preservation of historical structures.

These problems seem to arise, in part, from the treatment of survey drawings as operative tools. In recording the rural villages as they exist in great technical detail, the survey becomes a kind of mausoleum of visual facts-to-be-deployed rather than interpreted as maps of a larger building culture. Landscape architect James Corner distinguishes between these forms of drawing as such:

 

“Mapping precipitates its most productive effects through a finding that is also a founding; its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds. Thus, mapping unfolds potential; it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences. Not all maps accomplish this, however; some simply reproduce what is already known. These are more ‘tracings’ than maps, delineating patterns but revealing nothing new.”

James Corner. ‘The Agency of Mapping’

 

The idea here is that there is not, and cannot be, a neutral technique of surveying or representation; as soon as a survey document becomes a technical document or takes on a certain style, it works more as an operative ‘tracing’ rather than a process of understanding and synthesis. This is not to say that a technical survey is wrong, only that we ought to be aware of how those documents function in a school of architecture: what attitudes and forms of work it precipitates.

The two images shown above are my own survey-maps of Providence after reading Corner’s article. While these maps deal with much larger scales than the students in Natural Construction will (1:10,000 and 1:1,000), and of course very different locations (Zhejiang Province, CN and Providence, US), they represent a synthetic point of view which may prove critical to the rural project that the China Academy of Art is working on. At  these large scales, Providence’s most lasting and unique structures are its geological and natural formations. In ‘Forming Narragansett Bay,’ the northeast landscape is a rock surface eroded by thousands of years of glacial recess. In ‘Flooding Providence,’ the city’s urban development narrows the canal’s edges and widens the flood plain.

In Zhejiang Province today the vernacular housing structures already have this level of extended, far-reaching tectonic history. The mapping of this extensive history and opening up a discussion about it may serve students in a more synthetic understanding of ‘what’ rural space is and how it works, rather than the stylized effects of a technical survey. Ultimately, the politics of economic development programs make it very difficult for architects to work and affect change in the Chinese countryside. Without a doubt, these realities ought to be reflected in the survey and mapping of their vernacular systems such that they remain active spaces, culturally relevant, and not subject to continued social and material degradation.

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Construction escalated quickly after the 2016 Chinese New Year, when millions of residents returned to Hangzhou after the annual visit to their ancestral villages. It was March, six months before Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit and its attendant fleets of polished black cars. In the downtown West Lake area, mazes of street-level scaffolding, looming dust-clouds, and provisional traffic barriers were the first signs of a strategy for city-wide intervention.

Teams of workers crashed through the city’s streets, hammering into Buddhist temples and hair salons alike. Within days, a road was repaved into a slick black surface without blemish or measure. Within a week, housing blocks had shed their scaffolding and debris nets to reveal reframed wooden windows, restored stone cladding, and uniform boxes concealing air conditioning units.  Straddling a temple roof three stories up, workers let slip a replacement beam and shattered the stone sidewalk below. Pedestrians take note. Freshly hewn blocks (delivered daily) were hammered into place by teams of greyscale men and women emerging from clouds and mounds of stone dust.

The year-long preparations for the G20 rendered Hangzhou a construction site with 8 million residents. The muted surfaces of traditional grey-brick housing blocks were at once patterned everywhere onto local malls, and the temples had wifi and security checkpoints installed; where old and new buildings differed in activity and scale, fresh paint, cladding and stone pavers furnished the edge and closed the image gap. The irony is crucial: in September, when twenty world leaders and their finance ministers arrived, the year of construction had rendered the entire city and its population a political invisibly of architectural proportions.

The renovation of six hundred fifty-one infrastructure projects in less than a year is not the backdrop for a summit on the stabilization of global economic policy; it is an entry ticket, a form of authorization. The cloud of stone dust is not a visual metaphor for economic power floating into China, but is itself the material evidence of widespread political authority in action: the clumsy process of filling in, smoothing over, and taking away made manifest. Conversely, the image that is still seen by world leaders, TV cameras, and residents alike is that of the mythologized capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, where as much as been removed as has been preserved. In images as in global politics, not everyone is invited.

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