Philip Yuan of Archi-Union Architects: "The Process of Construction can be Elevated to Art"

Chi-She, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Shengliang Su Chi-She, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Shengliang Su

Though the understated Swiss and British Pavilions were the big (but distinctly minimal) winners at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, it was the Chinese that put their relentless architectural progress on display. Nestled in the back of the Arsenale, the Chinese Pavilion presented dozens of built works all around Chinese countryside, each project demonstrating a meaningful social impact through the involvement of villagers in the production process. Among the most visible Chinese architects presenting at the pavilion was Shanghai-based educator and practitioner Philip Yuan, whose office Archi-Union Architects has become a major voice in the already-distinctive contemporary Chinese architecture scene.

On 19 July, 2018 curator Vladimir Belogolovsky will join gallerist and curator Ulrich Müller to discuss Philip Yuan’s work at the opening of Archi-Union Architects Collaborative Laboratory exhibition at Architektur Galerie Berlin. Belogolovsky’s interview with Philip Yuan follows after the break:

Vladimir Belogolovsky: First, let’s establish your roles because you have seem to have so many – an educator, researcher, theoretician, practitioner, writer. Could you talk about these directions and interests, and how they intersect?

Philip Yuan: I am in search of my own role within architecture. Architects may be preoccupied with design and building but I worry about bigger ideas such as: Why and how do we build buildings? How can we produce better environments and build a better world?

I am particularly interested in improving the environment for regular people, for majority of the people, not just for the elite. That’s why I don’t want to be just a professional designer, even though we have a very active practice [at ArchiUnion] with about 60 designers. I am interested in much more – writing, research, and teaching. Teaching is especially important to me; I started over twenty years ago at Tongji University here in Shanghai because it allows me to see my work critically and to test new possibilities. Writing is very important because it forces you to think. There is no practice without theory.

Courtesy of Archi-Union Architects Courtesy of Archi-Union Architects

VB: Would you say that architecture is art for you?  

PY: I would like to say that, although I am very much focused on technology. If we want to create structures that last for a long time, they need to be thought of as art. Everything I do here is all about using very sophisticated technology, but the goal is to produce something relevant, meaningful, and inspiring. Architecture as art is a major concern of mine. And to me, the goal is not only to produce a beautiful result but also a beautiful process. The process of construction can be elevated to the level of art performance.  

VB: Your work is all about pushing architecture forward and you speak often about the future. You mentioned your goal to improve the environment and how buildings are built... Does this mean that you are not satisfied with the architecture in the present? What makes you so anxious to want to change the way we build buildings today?

PY: I work in a particular context. When I opened my practice 15 years ago, I saw the entire country [China] booming with construction popping up everywhere. But I did not like the process for two reasons. First, everything was done very fast. Second, the whole construction process was based on human labor. What I want to change is not just aesthetics of architecture. I want to change the construction process. I want people and machines to collaborate in this; indeed, I believe this relationship is what defines our time. Computers and robots can enhance quality of construction and production and enable us to make new possibilities.

The form-making process, which is what architecture is about, will be coming from the building industry, meaning from the collaboration between man and machine. We will always have signature architects but in the future their work will be altered or even defined by machines. Sure, conditions such as social aspects will continue to be very important reasons for shaping architecture. But I believe that it is new digital tools that will give us critical feedback and ultimately define the architecture of the future.  

Fab-Union Space, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Hao Chen Fab-Union Space, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Hao Chen

VB: Where does the importance of logic come from? Didn’t you say before that you are inspired by art? Logical in this case would be a box. We have a curved space here. What is so logical about something so poetic and complex?

PY: The form was developed as a piece of sculpture, you are right. But the final form was defined by logic. Once we knew the direction we calculated the absolutely most efficient way of constructing the curve and how many people and how much time it would take to build it. This was not possible before - Le Corbusier, for example, could not have calculated such complexity. We have now totally mastered the form-finding process.

VB: Let’s talk about your intentions in architecture. What is it that you are trying to achieve - because you clearly have an agenda and every commission helps you to achieve it, right?

PY: For me it is important to show materiality in every project. I only designed one project early on that was all white and concealed. But typically, I use the materials in such a way that the building’s structure is exposed. There is a dialogue between what the building is and how it is put together.

What I am looking for in architecture is not my personal identity but the identity of each project. And I search for these identities in the material and building process. Unlike other architects I spend most of my time in factories and labs to examine the building and manufacturing process. These identities are rooted in each project’s site, which leads to the choice of material. It is identity of the site and identity of the material that makes up each particular project.

Chi-She, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Yucheng Hu Chi-She, Shanghai / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Yucheng Hu

VB: Before we sat down here, you showed me all the amazing tools and robots that can achieve all these fascinating forms and shapes in just about any material. The conclusion that I want to make is this – technologically, anything is possible. As a designer I can be totally free, which takes us back to how architects always worked – they dreamed about not what was possible, but what was impossible. Sure, such approach is not efficient but that’s what ultimately pushes the technology forward – an original idea that challenges reality. Why are you so concerned with responding to machines? If you let your imagination be totally free the machines will eventually catch up. Why is it a concern of an architect?  

PY: I work with machines to know their limits. That helps me to push my imagination. The imagination will always be ahead of what is possible but I am interested in working in tandem with technology.

A few years ago, I worked with a robot that could put together the same shape brick in a variety of patterns. Now I am working with a more advanced robot that can deal with bricks that are all different. I am interested in this collaborative process. I use tools to direct my imagination. I want to imagine new possibilities in partnership with machine. We are imagining new architecture as partners.

In-Bamboo, Daoming / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Bian Lin In-Bamboo, Daoming / Archi-Union Architects. Image © Bian Lin

VB: Is there one particular breakthrough project in your portfolio that you can call your manifesto?  

PY: I like to think that it is my latest project “In Bamboo” Cultural Exchange Center in Daoming, Sichuan Province here in China. It is familiar and it is different. There is a good dialogue between the place, tradition, culture, innovation, and use of technology. The onsite work was all done in just 52 days. That is because everything was prefabricated in the robotic factory that we set up nearby. All elements of the project were put on six trucks and delivered to the site and then assembled.

Many Chinese architects go to villages and build interesting buildings with local material and labor. But I am trying to do more, I am also teaching local people new techniques. And now that the local government agreed to build a number of other small projects in the same village we are going to use our new factory for these other new projects, which will include water infrastructure pavilions, education center, internet center, package-delivery station, hotel, children’s summer camp, and public restrooms.

All of these projects will be done in collaboration with local villagers. This will completely change the quality of life for so many people in that village. Also, the factory that we set up will grow and be used for other projects in China. It will become our studio’s second base. In Bamboo, as well as all other our projects that are going to be built in Daoming demonstrate how industry, technology, craftsmanship, and aesthetics can merge to produce meaningful and new kinds of architecture.   

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 five books, including 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: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.