Just over a decade ago, in particular before Ma Yansong’s MAD Architects completed the Absolute Towers near Toronto and Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio was awarded the 2012 Pritzker Prize, few Westerners could name a single architect from China. Since then, a distinctive school of contemporary Chinese architecture has emerged. This class was presented to the world at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, when the Chinese Pavilion showcased 60 innovative works built all over the country’s vast territory. Among the architects highlighted in the exhibition was Dong Gong of Beijing-based Vector Architects, who is one of at least 10 Chinese practitioners that have achieved world-class status over the past 10 years.
Dong, who is now 50, studied at China’s top architecture school, Tsinghua University, alongside other very ambitious Chinese architects — including, Zhang Ke of standardarchitecture, Li Hu of Open Architecture, Wang Hui of Urbanus, and China’s leading female architect Xu Tiantian of DnA_Design and Architecture — who have since joined him on the global stage. Following Tsinghua, Dong acquired his second master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 2001, after which he apprenticed at MeierPartners and Steven Holl Architects in New York. He then returned to China, in 2008, to establish his atelier, Vector Architects, while continuing to teach in both Beijing and Illinois, as well at the Politecnico di Torino.
Gong has built his solid reputation in the course of completing at least a dozen of projects that resonate enormously with students and architects around the world. His Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel (2017), a resort on the Li River surrounded by karst mountain peaks, is an excellent case study in how to deal with the preexisting context in the most alluring and convincing way possible. The complex is more than a renovation and addition to the late-1960s sugar mill; it is a true fusion of old and new architecture with nature. Dong’s projects are not easily achieved — he readily admits that architecture is a struggle for him. And, yet, he has been productive: His most renowned built works also include Seashore Chapel (2015), Seashore Library (2015), and Seashore Restaurant (2018), a trilogy of small, strikingly beautiful structures within a short walk from one another in Qinhuangdao on China’s Bohai Sea coast.
He and architecture critic Vladimir Belogolovsky met up (virtually) to discuss the architect’s way of establishing an emotional connection with the site, treating buildings as if they were human beings, the momentary quality of his architecture and his new initiative to help schools in Sichuan province — building music classrooms and paying for them.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: In one of our previous conversations, you said, “Architecture needs to deal with the limitations of the technology of a particular time. It needs to come up with an intelligent solution that goes beyond these limitations. The materials, forces of gravity, atmosphere… When I go to such spaces it seems that I can talk to the architect in person. The message is there.” What are the spaces that you were referring to when you said this? And who are the architects you are engaging in these conversations with?
- Dong Gong
These are very different places from different times. For example, the first time I visited Crown Hall by Mies on the IIT campus in Chicago, I felt a great affinity. The way that the container of space is organized and elevated above the ground, the way girders are positioned on top and everything is suspended from them, and how all the parts and joints are orchestrated in the most precise manner are remarkable. The whole thing looks like a creature. It is a very wisely designed system where everything is interconnected perfectly. There is such a serious intent and passion. That’s what I immediately relate to my own everyday practice — the effort. Buildings that demonstrate this quality are extremely rare.
And the other example is the Pantheon in Rome. I must have visited it at least 10 times in different seasons and at different times of day. One time, it started pouring rain and I saw a column of rainwater entering the building through the oculus. It was very intriguing and powerful. When you experience such masterpieces, whether works of art, architecture, science or literature, you become overwhelmed.
These two buildings are very different from my own architecture, but I see them as different paths to the top. As architects, we all take different paths to reach the peak of a very high mountain. While climbing, we can’t pay attention to what the others are doing, but once at the top we can look down and see what has been achieved by all. That’s what good architects have in common – achieving something special in many different ways.
When I look at the work of some of the leading Chinese architects, it is possible to see their individual paths. For example, Wang Shu is focused on preserving historical layers; Yung Ho Chang is constructing a dialogue between the traditional Chinese house and the western modern house, felt even in his large-scale projects; and Ma Yansong is employing fluid geometry that he derives from nature, as well as traditional Chinese paintings. What about you? How do you see your focus?
It seems common for Chinese architects to express their Chinese character. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not my way. I intentionally avoid visually expressing any kind of cultural symbolism. Both my education and experience are very diverse and multifaceted. I love Chinese culture and traditions, but that doesn’t mean that architecture should be used as a tool to translate culture. I think that architecture itself is culture. When I design, I focus on real conditions, whatever they may be.
Culture and traditions affect me, of course. But I am an architect, not a translator. For me the problem is very tangible; I focus on the site, program, people, quality of light, air and so on. I am not bringing my preconceived solution or my art. I find my answers right there, when I am at the site. Perhaps when you examine one of my buildings, you will not suspect that it is in China. But if you see 10 of my buildings, you may realize that I am a Chinese architect after all. But these hints are very subtle, not explicit.
Would it be accurate to say that your buildings are instruments for playing with and filtering natural light? Is that a part of your focus?
Definitely. Still, my focus is all of it. Architecture is an integral and complex problem-solving process with many issues. But you are right, handling natural light is very important to me.
If we go over your current and completed projects, they are almost entirely devoid of colour. Is it because you associate colour with something artificial? Is this a conscious position?
I never thought of that, but it’s true. Not only I am not interested in using any artificially added colours but also all buildings already have a full spectrum of colour in what’s what’s around then, inside activity, how light is reflected, how the materials age and so on. They are already very vivid. And my work is about nuances. Nothing is obvious. It is like a soft Chinese landscape painting, which has no striking colours.
Now let’s go to your Seashore Chapel…
That project has an interior wall that has lots of colours cast by light!
Yes, it reflects light, colours and shadows. In a way, you turned that wall into a kinetic sculpture or a dynamic painting. Could you touch on your inspirations for that project and how you achieved them?
It is a very special project for me. I introduced a slot in the chapel’s roof to admit the light. Because of the way it is designed, the light can hit all the right elements and achieve the maximum vibrancy only during the high-sun summer months. And even in summer, there are only one to two hours each day when the full effect can be witnessed.
Yes, this painting- or sculpture-like effect is very dynamic, but it is also very momentary. It is not always there. That’s the point. It is a climax, which can be compared to the part of a symphony or a novel when something special is finally expressed or revealed. That effect was all about control and revealing it only at a certain time. It’s very important if you see architecture as a drama. That was very intentional.
That means that most visitors will never experience the full effect. For example, I was there in winter — my misfortune, right?
It is true. But I don’t have any problem with that. [Laughs.] Well, I would call this a wonder of architecture. I don’t have to say everything at once. The most splendid moment in a space may happen once in a while. It is like a flower that blooms only once a year. That’s what makes it special. That’s the precious part of architecture. This means you have something to wait for. I don’t want my buildings constantly displaying their full repertoire. It is not a laboratory of effects. Most of the time in that chapel, the light is calm, peaceful and immersive. All these effects are carefully thought out. The media always picks the most spectacular images of my spaces, but if you go there, the conditions may be very different. That’s the beauty of architecture. These cycles and changes make it closer to us humans; we can’t be emotional all the time. Why should buildings be? I want my buildings to change their moods.
You once mentioned that architecture needs to have a unique character, even magic.
Sure. I also want architecture to offer a sort of spiritual adventure. I want architecture to reveal something magical. And this magic should be discovered within what seems ordinary. I am against the idea of inventing new architecture. I like the idea of discovering something and transforming it into something else. I do no relish architects who bring their signature-style projects to such different cities as London, New York or Beijing like a branded product. That’s not architecture — I see that as business and marketing. I want my work to be rooted, which is only one part of architecture. The other part is to be able to transform a local condition into another state. I am looking for such tension between two ends, between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Lose either side and the tension will be gone.
Let’s talk about drawing as a tool for design and how you typically start your design process. I understand that through the process of drawing you are establishing an emotional connection with the site. What is it that you pay the most attention to?
The key issue when I go to a site is how to establish an emotional connection. How do you do that? The site is in front of you, but there is a separation between the two of you. You must make an effort to become a part of the site. I can spend a long time at the site, trying to feel it. But it is not until I start drawing that this process really starts, and it is drawing that clicks my engagement. It accelerates this process.
Let me give you an example. When I travel for my own pleasure, I often draw various sceneries. If I take a photo, I will not remember any details. But if I draw it, even a long time later, I will carry it in my memory — not only a certain look but also the atmosphere, lighting conditions, the weather and other details. Taking a photo is too easy. It doesn’t allow you to connect with the site fully. There is no effort on your part to pay enough attention to details. So, drawing, for me, is a method for becoming engaged with the place on a deeper level. I am sharing my personal experience. Sketching is a way for me to see things.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you imagine them on the site or by decoding your drawings later when you are back in your studio?
Both. Every time is different. Sometimes, ideas come right away. But later, when I start testing them in my studio, other thoughts develop. It is a back-and-forth process, but the general direction is felt on the site. Still, sometimes, the initial ideas need to be revised, adjusted and, other times, reconsidered.
For your Yangshuo Sugar House Hotel, you designed, fully engineered and made new brick for the main facade of the new hotel block. What prompted you to develop a material instead of relying on an existing one?
That facade had to do with the fact that the complex is a renovation project of a very prominent ruin of an old decommissioned sugar factory. There was a lot of struggle there. On the one hand, we wanted to find continuity and consistency between the old and the new, so it would be viewed as a family of buildings. So, initially, we thought of using a similar brick. But on the other hand, we wanted to introduce a contemporary quality to the place. After a series of tests, we decided to use a concrete block, not brick, because that allowed us to achieve a much thinner material and leave much more space within and between the blocks. We even introduced rebars to push the limits and make the blocks lighter and thinner.
So, even though these materials appear to be from the same family, they represent different generations, so to speak. And what is interesting about this solution is that after trying to find a factory to produce these blocks, the client decided to set up a small operation right on the site and make them right there. That gave us a lot of control over quality and some blocks had to be entirely custom. So, in the end, the material matched what was designed and the cost was cheaper than if we had had them produced at another factory.
About working with existing structures, you have said, “Renovation is always more about evolution than preservation. It is about bringing new life into the old building. When I deal with historical structures, I strive to reveal different layers of history. I want to bring old and new into a single solution.” In other words, it is a fusion of old and new, not a restoration and not an addition, but a true fusion that you are after. Could you elaborate on this point?
Yes, the key issue is whether the building you are working with is a legally classified heritage structure or not. If so, the architect must be very careful and there is very little space for any kind of possibility to create something new and different from what the building’s original intention was. That kind of project is entirely about preserving history. Such cases are rare in China.
For most historical buildings the situation is very different. It was both my client’s and my own decision to preserve the original sugar mill factory structure because we saw the potential for it to be transformed. For me, a building or even a whole city is like a living organism, it has a path of life that keeps growing and evolving. History is important, but the purpose is to evolve into a new state of life within. I believe that engaging and transforming existing structures, as opposed to demolishing them and starting from scratch, enables architects to be more inventive. It enriches architectural possibilities. In the past, there was not enough appreciation for old buildings. This attitude has changed. Again, I treat buildings as if they were human beings. I am who I am because of my history and experience. We grow, mature and get wiser. So should our buildings — they should move forward, evolve and transform to adapt to our own times. I see architecture as a reflection of human life.
You’ve been practicing for 15 years now, completing such projects as libraries, theaters, restaurants, art centres and boutique hotels all over China. How do you pursue new work?
All of these years were devoted to finding our own way in the profession, to explore various possibilities. Now, after having built our foundation and having earned a certain trust, both by winning competitions and completing successful commissions, we are confident in being able to attract new clients and projects. Now, we have more freedom to choose what kind of architecture we want to pursue. We continue work how we started out but also try to improve the quality of construction and push the limits of spatial possibilities in our work.
Additionally, we are starting what we call “an annual contribution” to build a music space for one elementary school every year. We are working on this initiative together with local authorities and the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. This social engagement will become a parallel direction for our practice.
Do you envision these classrooms to be interior projects?
Not at all. They will be architectural projects in the form of additions or even freestanding pavilions. I already visited some of the schools in that area. They have land but limited resources. These will not be very expensive projects. We are not going to build concert halls there. [Laughs.]
These spaces will be modest, but they will improve the quality of light, air and the learning process. They will provide everything needed to explore music, which could just be the starting point. Potentially, we may be involved in building libraries or other new spaces for these schools. These projects will serve as laboratories for our practice, working with local materials, labour and people. I imagine that 10 years from now we will accumulate very interesting layers of work and relationships there.
So, you are consciously looking for opportunities in the countryside that will enrich and expand your architectural repertoire.
Sure. And I am aware of the so-called countryside movement in China, where urban architects go into villages to focus on building small-scale projects there. So many of these projects are hotels and hostels, which means that the countryside is being consumed by the urban culture. These projects cater to local tourists. Of course, there is meaning in that, but that’s not exactly my interest. I am looking for opportunities for architecture to interact with local culture. Architecture can improve local conditions.
Building in the countryside has become a global phenomenon. Francis Kéré’s Pritzker Prize has confirmed that. So many architects are looking for opportunities to reinvent their work by finding projects in the countryside; that’s clearly a trend. Of course, there is a contradiction there, because the world is now ballooning with urban projects and so many cities are being built from scratch. Yet, our profession seems to be disinterested in these conditions. It is, instead, encouraged to focus on tiny handcrafted projects in the most remote villages. It seems kind of selfish on the part of the architects to pursue projects that are refined and artistic at a time when the world is being turned apart by huge questionable developments on an epic scale, no?
I see what you are saying, and I agree. And in China, so many architects have become known for this trend. They are even referred to as “countryside architects.”
In China, there are three professional leagues: a national league for government-run local design institutes, a foreign league for invited international starchitects, and, finally, a small league for independent architects. While the first two leagues work in cities, the third league of architects faces so much competition that it has no choice but to flee to the countryside in search of smaller-scale projects.
You’re right. But for us and some other independent architects, the situation is different. We do have a choice now that we have accumulated a certain experience and trust from our clients. In any case, I am not saying that working in the countryside is meaningless. It really depends on the purpose. Our annual commitment to building projects for local schools in Sichuan province is about improving social situations but also amplifying our own design trajectory. We want to continue our work in cities, but we also want to work on projects in the countryside to make our practice more vivid.
The idea is to work in different conditions to come up with different solutions. We are looking for a diversity of possibilities. We don’t believe in a divide between urban and countryside architecture. We don’t want to be framed by any category. That would be too limiting. Interestingly, since we designed our Seashore Library in Qinghuangdao in Hebei province, we are often being asked to design projects on the seashore all over China. Some people see us as specialists in designing iconic structures in front of the sea. [Laughs.] What’s important for us is to open a new area where we can engage as architects. We want to broaden our capability to do very different work.
You once said: “Architecture will never be revealed to the end. Something else always shines through it.” Could you elaborate on that?
I want to think of architecture as a place. A finished building is a beginning for something else to happen there. It is about people who will be occupying the space, about the weather and time that will leave their marks on the building and the plants will soften it and add colour. The building is just a starting point; it then turns into a kind of mechanism, an engine to generate life within.
Life, weather and nature can transform buildings. But if we go back to the very first example you mentioned, the Crown Hall, it is an object, a true and pristine masterpiece. People want to see that perfect mechanism of a building that will remain unaffected by time, nature and life within, or it will lose its attractiveness.
You’re probably right about the Crown Hall, but it is a building with less than 70 years of history; it has a long future life ahead. The Pantheon, my other example, has transformed by accumulating multiple material layers, histories and functions. What we experience there today is not merely one great architect’s solution. It is a product of a whole civilization. So, architecture has a life of its own, beyond the power of its author. And while I transformed buildings and environments created by my predecessors, I don’t mind if the future-generation architects transform my buildings. Of course, they need to do that sensitively. [Laughs.] And that’s the essence of architecture. It evolves.
The founder of Beijing’s Vector Architects on the long inner life of buildings — including the spectacular ones he has created in his still-young career.