In writing my recent book, China Dialogues, I gained great insight into the work of the country’s leading architects. When I asked the practitioners I interviewed, “Who is the most influential architect in China today?”, they each pointed to Yung Ho Chang (b. 1956, Beijing) who together with his wife, Lijia Lu (b. 1960, Wuhan) founded Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, or FCJZ, in Beijing in 1993. The studio’s name, which means “not ordinary architecture,” was fittingly symbolic for what became China’s first independent office. It laid the foundation for independent architectural practice in the country after the Cultural Revolution, and, despite his still-evolving career, Chang is still referred to as the father of contemporary Chinese architecture.
Before he established his firm, architecture in China was produced entirely by Local Design Institutes; private studios simply didn’t exist. In the early 2000s, China began embracing cutting-edge architecture, commissioning Western starchitects to build sports venues for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, pavilions and infrastructure for Expo 2010 Shanghai and skyscrapers in Shanghai’s Pudong district. While these Western firms took advantage of the opportunity to create bigger, more spectacular versions of their signature work, it was a group of local architects that developed a range of highly original voices during this era. Now, the most thoughtful and relevant architecture in China is being produced by Chinese architects, although many of them were educated in the West — which contributes to a unique fusion of ideas.
Yung Ho Chang’s work, in particular, is unusual. It constitutes resistance against the ordinary and pragmatic, and everything that tends to be purely image-driven. He pursues architecture as an autonomous project — driven by an artistic idea and not primarily defined by function. His buildings, especially his Vertical Glass House (Shanghai, 1991-2013) and Split House (2002), have beautiful stories to tell. They are contemplative, introspective and always meaningful beyond the first impressions they make. These designs are also among the earliest uncompromisingly modern and concept-driven buildings in China.
Chang is the son of the prominent architect Zhang Kaiji, the designer of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and Research, the twin museums of the Chinese Revolution and Chinese History on Tiananmen Square (1959) and many other prominent projects. (His fascinating career, including his relationship with Chairman Mao, was featured in Deyan Sudjic’s book The Edifice Complex.) When he decided to pursue the same path, Chang began by studying at Nanjing Institute of Technology, then Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and later received his Master’s of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. He launched his career as an educator in America (he has since taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and in the architecture department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other leading institutions), before founding, in the early 2000s, the Graduate Center of Architecture at Peking University in Beijing. He was a member of the Pritzker Prize jury from 2012 — when Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to be recognized with the honour — to 2017. And his work has won numerous awards and has been exhibited in six editions of the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
I met up with Chang when he recently visited New York. We discussed how he became one of the first of the modern wave of Chinese students in America, why he eventually went back to China, what he considers the most optimal size of an urban block, how to create a place for discovery in architecture and what is more important than good-construction quality.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your father, Zhang Kaiji, was a very influential architect in Beijing. Was it his professional success that shaped your decision to study architecture? Did you consider any alternatives?
- Yung Ho Chang
Neither of my parents were interested in influencing the career paths of either me or my older brother. I was interested in art from early on and my father was happy about that. When colleges reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1977, what I wanted to study was oil painting — which was one of the most popular subjects that young people could prepare for during that time. There were a lot of very talented young people. So, many of my parents’ friends told me that my paintings were not good enough. [Laughs.] I was quite lost.
But I was also interested in pursuing industrial design. At that moment my father did interfere; he said to me, “Would you consider architecture?” He referred to industrial design as a candy wrapper. [Laughs.] Anyway, at that time, it was more important to go to college — picking a major was secondary. I applied to architecture school in 1977 and started classes in the spring semester of 1978.
The Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeast University) is the same school where your father studied. Why didn’t you study in Beijing?
It was the first year after the Cultural Revolution and there were only two schools with architecture programs to which I could apply — one in Nanjing and the other one in Tianjin. Tongji University in Shanghai also opened that year, but it was not accepting applications from Beijing, and Tsinghua University in Beijing opened the following year.
When did you graduate and when and how did the opportunity to study in America arise?
Interestingly, I did not graduate. Here is the story: An American architecture professor named Marvin Rosenman, who taught at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, was very interested in China and wanted to visit. This was in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. and the two countries began diplomatic relationships and were establishing formal ties. Still, to visit China as an American, you needed a formal invitation to apply for a Chinese visa.
So, Marvin was looking for a way to get one and he came across an issue of House and Garden that featured an interview with a Chinese architect. Marvin wrote to the magazine’s editorial board for that architect’s contact and was referred to the Architectural Society of China, which is like the AIA in the U.S., and soon the Architectural Society of China invited Marvin and 19 of his students to visit China’s four architecture schools.
The architect featured in that magazine was my father. I met Marvin when he came to Nanjing, by which time I was in my second year. My father said that I should go to the U.S. to study as soon as possible. That’s why I never finished my degree in China. And meeting Marvin was the reason for going to Ball State University the following year, after three years in Nanjing.
This means you were among the very first students to go to America from modern China. Were you sent by the state?
At that time there were two types of students — either sponsored by the state or self-sponsored. One of my mother’s eight sisters lived in San Francisco and agreed to sponsor me. Her name was Cecilia Chiang; she was a legendary chef and restaurateur who passed away in 2020 at the age of 100. Then, I applied and was accepted to Ball State. I arrived in 1981 with just 40 dollars in my pocket and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Design. When I later studied at Berkeley for one year to acquire my master’s, I was the only Chinese student in architecture, but there were Chinese students in other departments.
What were your plans in the States? Did you intend to stay here?
Initially, I thought I would stay in America. I came with the notion that America was the land of opportunities. But in the early 1990s, with the opening of China and the introduction of a market economy, the situation changed. At that time my wife, Lijia, and I won a travelling fellowship to go to Europe. At the time, we hadn’t been back to China for a long time. So, when we were in Europe, we decided to visit our parents for Chinese New Year. That’s when we became aware of the opportunities for architects in China. While in America, I was teaching and working on competitions, but, in China, there was a potential to build.
Many leading Chinese architects told me that you served as a model for them to set up their independent practices. What was the model for you and how difficult was it to get your very first projects in China?
Well, if I had known better, I probably would not have had the courage to even try to start my own practice at that time. Besides teaching in the U.S., I worked at the San Francisco office of an architect and developer, Clement Chen & Associates, on a hotel project in Beijing for about a year. So, I knew very little about practice in general, let alone practice in China. At that time, there were only state-owned design institutes; independent practices were still not allowed. During our visit to China, we met with a friend of one of Lijia’s relatives who was looking for an architect to design a casino in Southern China. It wasn’t ever built, but that’s how we got our start. So, we never returned to Europe to continue our trip. We didn’t have a model. There was no one we could’ve followed.
When I interviewed you in Beijing, in 2018, you said, “If I had the opportunity, I would make a whole city a better place.” Since then, you have designed an entire neighbourhood. Could you tell me about your Jiading Mini-Block project, which was built in Shanghai in 2020?
When Lijia and I were in Europe, our purpose was to visit some of the most well-known masterpieces by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and other famous modernists. However, what impressed me most was the character of the urban fabric, not the individual buildings. I understood that it is more meaningful to build a well-designed city than just one or even many individual buildings. It doesn’t help most people for there to be a good building that they can only look at. If the fabric of the city is not thought through, it does not make for a livable place.
If you look at traditional Chinese cities, they used to be designed at the human scale. They were walkable. But not anymore. My hometown of Beijing is a tough city to live in. A typical urban block is huge — roughly 500 by 500 metres. The roads are too wide; they are difficult and dangerous to cross. There are too many cars, shopping is not easy. So, it matters more for the city designed to be designed correctly than for individual buildings to be. But it is very complex and no single person can do it themselves. That’s why urban policies are more important than design.
And that’s why, when I was commissioned for not just a building but an industrial park, right away we focused on how to organize the spaces between buildings. Mies famously said, “When you carefully put two bricks together that’s when architecture begins.” I think that when you carefully put two buildings together that’s when the city begins. I really believe in that. Cities in China need a lot of improvement and suburban industrial business parks are even worse. They are built in open fields with buildings stamped over them. Our response was based on a study of different cities that we visited. In Europe, a typical (and very comfortable) block is about 100 by 100 metres. A smaller block can be about 50 metres square.
Interestingly, in the 1930s, there was a plan for imperial Berlin to incorporate superblocks of up to 200 metres square. In comparison, that’s tiny for Beijing. [Laughs.] It was visiting many American cities that gave us interesting options to consider. We particularly liked the size of the blocks in Portland, Oregon — 40 metres square. And it didn’t feel small; Portland is a real city. I liked it a lot and that’s the block size that I decided to adopt in my project in Shanghai.
What makes that grid size right and how did it affect your project’s planning?
It’s a good size for having a single building per block. And each building could be occupied either by a single company or by many small companies. Most buildings are offices. No residential buildings were allowed by zoning. Still, there is a hotel, gym, conference centre, and there are shops on the ground floors. All buildings are the same in height — four stories. It is a contrast to most cities in China where people prefer the skyline to go up and down, and buildings often display distinctive silhouettes. I think that’s irrational and chaotic, and it sacrifices the overall urban quality. I am looking at the chaos here in Midtown Manhattan with the new “pencil towers” and I am not sure I like it. Anyway, I am maybe getting very conservative.
I want you to elaborate on another quote from our interview. You said, “There is a chance for architecture to rise to the level of art. But more than art, architecture is a discovery.” A discovery of what?
Yes, for me, discovery is very important. There is a thing called pure architecture. Of course, architecture is about being practical. But pure architecture is not a contradiction to that. It is above pragmatics. When we architects design a building we are confronted by such conditions as site, budget, climate, program and so on. But the truth is that all those conditions will not produce a piece of architecture automatically. Yes, we can solve all problems. We can do something usable and occupiable, and it will be fine, but that’s not called architecture. So, you need to bring the core knowledge and imagination of architecture into the making of buildings. When we spoke last time, I had a vague idea of this but today I think I know better.
The idea is that you must have a structure of space even before you know the program. If you look at all buildings studied by Liang Sicheng [1901-1972], they are primarily structural and spatial organizations. Only then are they occupied by people for a particular purpose. There is no building that’s tailored perfectly to its program. There is always a gap. This means that before you address the program you need to design space and structure. And once you have the structure you have the material. Once you find a unique way for all three to fit — space, structure and program — you have architecture. That’s my discovery. So, if you look at a typical suburban big-box structure, that may be an alright building. But that’s not architecture, because it is only a diagrammatic layout of the programmatic needs, maybe a structural system, but almost never spatial organization. That’s why a well-organized space and structure can adapt to new programs.
You were on the Pritzker Jury. How was your experience and what do you think about this year’s choice?
It was a very special experience. There were architects and non-architects among the jury members. Every year we traveled for nine days around the world, visiting not only buildings by living architects but also by architects from the past. Well, I can’t say that I agreed with the results every year, but I understood why the winners were picked. And in recent years, I am not sure I comprehend some of the choices.
But it was this experience that helped me to recognize what constitutes the core values of architecture. It was those travels and jury debates that made my position about architecture much more firm. And I have to say that there were years when the winner was chosen not only because of the design but more so because of other factors. In those cases, I was not very sure about those choices. However, this year’s winner, Francis Kéré, and the last year’s winners, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, are fantastic architects. When I was on the jury, we visited Kéré’s early work in West Africa. It is very strong. Although we saw many other good works that were not awarded. Not yet.
What do you think is the most important building built in China since 2000, either by a local or a foreign architect?
It is such a tough question. I think Long Museum by Atelier Deshaus is a good candidate. They are very good architects. I think the structural and spatial qualities are outstanding. I like both a sense of clarity and purity there. Of course, I would rather name a dozen best buildings, not just one. [Laughs.]
And finally, I want you to elaborate on what you told me in our last interview: “I am a risk-taker. Good work is not enough.” There is a message there for all architects, right?
You see, Mies, who is my hero — I actually have many — said, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.” And for a long time, “good” work in China was understood as good construction quality. I agree with that. Yet, I have seen buildings, including the ones by Wang Shu, which, even if built roughly, still possess great power. His work is strong because his ideas are very strong. And in fact, that roughness is a part of the strength of his architecture. Some of our buildings also have this quality.
To be honest, the smooth, perfectly executed concrete surface achieved by certain architects may not be as effective as a wall that has traces of imperfections, whether they are intentional or not. To achieve good work is important, but we should take a step back and think — maybe there are bigger ideas than merely construction quality. As you know, there are plenty of well-put-together buildings in China now, but they may be pointless if there is no good idea.
The father of contemporary Chinese architecture, Yung Ho Chang discusses his father, his start in America, how he opened the first independent practice in China, and why perfect buildings are pointless.