"I Failed to be an Artist but I Became an Artistic Architect": Interview with Yung Ho Chang of Atelier FCJZ

© TIAN Fangfang © TIAN Fangfang

Beijing architect Yung Ho Chang together with his wife Lijia Lu started his practice in 1993 under the name Feichang Jianzhu, atelier FCJZ. It literary means “not ordinary architecture,” a symbolic name for the practice that became China’s first independent architectural office, laying the foundation of contemporary practice in the country. Chang is referred to as the father of contemporary Chinese architecture. He grew up in the prominent architect’s family. Chang’s father, Zhang Kaiji [Yung Ho Chang’s Chinese name is Zhang Yonghe] was a classicist. He was one of the chief architects of the Beijing Architectural Design Institute and the design architect in charge for what is today the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Chang studied architecture in Nanjing, then received his Bachelor degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and Master of Architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught in both China and America, including at Harvard’s GSD and headed MIT’s architecture department from 2005 to 2010. In 2012, the year he joined the Pritzker Prize Jury, his fellow countryman Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect who won the Prize. The following is an excerpt from my conversation with Yung Ho Chang at his Beijing office.

© TIAN Fangfang © TIAN Fangfang

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let me start with your quote, “I believe architecture is something more down to earth, and ultimately relates to how people live.” Tell me you were kidding when you said that because it seems to me that your architecture is anything but down to earth. Down to earth is something that we tend not to notice, right?

Yung Ho Chang: Well, maybe something was lost in translation from Chinese. [Laughs.] What I meant is that architecture is tangible. It's about our physical world. Architecture for me is about enjoying life. It is very much about the way we live. And for us architecture is so much more than just buildings. You know, we design furniture, industrial products, clothing, jewelry, and so on. For example, a couple of years ago, since architects like to solve all kinds of problems, I was asked to design a cake. There was a problem – traditional Mille-Feuille tends to get softened by the moisture of the cream between puff pastry layers. We solved it by separating the pastry and the cream, which was placed in a chocolate box in the center, so you can dip the pastry into the cream as you like. This is what I mean by tangible design. I don’t enjoy reading philosophical books on architecture. It is too abstract for me. And I am not trying to expand on designing everything. I enjoy life and from time to time it gives me a lot of pleasure to design not just buildings. Still, it is buildings that I focus on primarily.  

© TIAN Fangfang © TIAN Fangfang

 VB: You also said, “I don’t think architects can just fly around and build structures anywhere, but rather they need to anchor themselves in one place. Architects should sit in their studios and work with materials and their teams.” Is that what you do yourself?

YHC: Well, I used to fly around, you are right; but not nearly as much. I continue to fly to visit construction sites and for client meetings. What I meant was that if you have the ambition to discover something in architecture and push the discipline you really need to spend time at your practice on daily basis. You need to learn how to put buildings together. Good buildings are the ones that are put together well. Maybe I am getting more conservative. [Laughs.] Of course, you need to be curious and open, but at some point you need to anchor yourself and focus on work. You must develop what I would call an autonomous architecture. Of course, as an architect, you need a client, you need to be engaged with society, you need to follow certain conventions about structure, climate, materials, etc. But you should also try to develop your own sensibilities as an author.

© SHU He © SHU He

VB: Speaking of what you called autonomous architecture, can you expand on that by perhaps referring to your Vertical Glass House that you built in Shanghai in 2013? This project has established a strong autonomy from its place. It is a fascinating play on seeing and being seen, as well as your refusal to reduce architecture to its function. Isn’t it a good example that your architecture is anything but down to earth? It is quite an invention, it may even be called a novel that can be read spatially. You stayed there with your own family for a short while, right? Did you enjoy living in the house as much as designing it?

YHC: You are right, it is an invention, in a certain way. Yes, I enjoyed living there very much. [Laughs.] Now that I think about it, among other references, I must have been influenced by John Hejduk’s project, The House of the Inhabitant who Refused to Participate. I do have a desire to stay in that theoretical house by Hejduk. And one of my intentions in the Vertical Glass House was the desire to experience space alone. It came from an architectural proposition, the glass house, which, of course, preoccupied many architects in the past, such as Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. So I took their glass house, whether Mies’s Farnsworth House or Johnson’s Glass House and literally turned it 90 degrees. I flipped the material – solid roof and floor were replaced by glass, while entirely transparent walls were replaced by almost windowless concrete walls.

© TIAN Fangfang © TIAN Fangfang

 VB: This house was originally designed as a paper project back in 1991, as an award-winning entry for the annual Shinkenchiku Residential Design Competition organized by the Japan Architecture magazine. This project is such an idealistic and theoretical vision. Why do you maintain that your work is down to earth?

 YHC: Because this house has a down to earth moment. [Laughs.] Let me tell you. I really wanted to experience being in this house. But I also wondered – who else?

 VB: Who else?

 YHC: [Laughs.] May I suggest, today the notion of glass house doesn’t belong to Germany, the US, Mies, or Johnson. It belongs to everyone. Liu Ling was a Chinese poet and scholar in the 3rd century. He was one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, the Taoists who enjoyed and celebrated personal freedom, spontaneity, and nature. He was said to be walking around his home naked. He explained to surprised visitors, “The sky and earth are my architecture, my house is my clothing.” When I worked on this project I thought he would be my ideal client. The top of the house has a room that is meant to be completely empty. It is a pure space. You sit in the room. You look up and you see the sky. You look down and you see through the floors all the way to the earth. 

Vertical Glass House watercolor by Yung Ho Chang Vertical Glass House watercolor by Yung Ho Chang
Vertical Glass House watercolor by Yung Ho Chang Vertical Glass House watercolor by Yung Ho Chang

VB: Now that you describe it, it feels like a very Chinese house, right? The whole house is an autonomous courtyard with this very intimate connection to the sky and the earth. It also represents a kind of resistance against ordinary and pragmatic. 

YHC: Maybe. But I want to think of it as a universal house. You know, I don’t think the world of architecture should be divided into east and west. I want to think of it as divided into north and south, climactically, not culturally. I would say that all projects we have done are really intended to be used by anyone.

© TIAN Fangfang © TIAN Fangfang

VB: Could you talk about the current state of architecture in China? On the one hand, there is so much energy and so many young practitioners doing beautiful work, which can immediately be identified as Chinese with a good balance of looking back and bringing into their work local culture, history, and traditional materials. And on the other hand, they are looking forward and incorporate advanced technology. This was so clearly demonstrated at the Venice Biennale this year at the Chinese Pavilion, as it put on display so many of these, mainly small-scale projects in the countryside. And yet, I wonder if there is a lack of variety in this approach? So many projects seem somewhat formulaic, almost like the production of a single practice. What do you think?

 YHC: I would agree with your observation. Yes, there is a kind of renaissance of creativity here in a big way. There are a lot of very good buildings all over. However, if I could refer to my own approach, I am a risk taker. More so than a lot of my colleagues here. You are right, we started to do a good work collectively. But, in a way, good work is not enough. These days, architects know how to do a good building. But it is also important to work in areas that are less explored in our discipline. It is important to work outside of one’s own comfort zone. Maybe you fail. Maybe you are not going to produce something pretty. But it is necessary to challenge ourselves. I can see issues with offices when it is just about production. We need to be critical. There are forces that contribute to these similarities. One is market and the speed with which buildings are being designed and built. The other one is the media. There is a lot of congratulatory press both in China and around the world. That distracts architects from being critical.

Maison de la Chine Model Maison de la Chine Model

VB: You once said, “I’m not very good at making exaggerated forms. that’s not me, but I can do different architecture and still have a sense of discovery.”

YHC: When I was a student at Berkeley I had a Swedish professor, Lars Lerup. I always admired his work on habitation and narrative. One day, I was looking at his designs and realized that he was not a good form-giver. I was young and silly, so I said to him, “The reason you work with these conceptual ideas is because you don’t know how to create forms.” And he replied, “Of course!” He was very generous with me and this is also true in my case. So I am not a good form-giver. However, my ideas are rather formal ideas. I am very much influenced by artists, especially by such conceptualists as Marcel Duchamp and such Modernists as Kazimir Malevich. I have been interested in painting and now I am working on ideas of bringing abstract painting into architecture. Meaning, I want to explore such qualities as a brush stroke and paint texture. I am using these ideas to exaggerate or compress spaces. I like to think that I failed to be an artist but I became an artistic architect.

© CAO Yang © CAO Yang

VB: You have so many ideas, but it contradicts another one of your quotes, “After almost 20 years, I may just settle rather than find some more acute ideas about architecture.”

YHC: Well, this is about bringing myself back into my practice and gathering my old ideas.

© CAO Yang © CAO Yang

VB: Would you say architecture is art?

YHC: My personal, subjective answer is yes. But objectively speaking, of course, not. We live in buildings. So how can they be just art? Spaces have to be livable. So there are two contradictory answers… For me, it is. I try. Sometimes, there is a chance for architecture to rise to that level. But more than art, architecture is a discovery. 

© SHU He © SHU He

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written nine books, including New York: Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019), Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: world tours of the work of Harry Seidler (since 2012), Emilio Ambasz (2017-18), Sergei Tchoban (since 2016), Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15), and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has lectured at universities and museums in more than 30 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest conversations with the most innovative international architects. Since 2002, he interviewed over 300 architects. These intimate conversations are featured in the curator’s ongoing site-specific installations made up of voice recordings and thought-provoking quotes.