Architect Yung Ho Chang in focus

Mainland architect Yung Ho Chang has spent much of his career creating modern designs with Chinese characteristics. Now his work is the subject of a retrospective, writesHannah Xu

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 10:34am

China has always had an intricate relationship with materialism, says one of the nation's foremost modern architects, Yung Ho Chang.

"At school, we were taught about Marxism's dialectical materialism, which was absurd and incomprehensible at a time of scarcity," he says. "Today, a preoccupation with consumption and material comfort saturates our society."

Chang, 56, has spent almost three decades incorporating modern architecture into the Chinese context. On Sunday, a retrospective of his career will open at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, featuring more than 40 models, 270 drawings and six installation works dating from the early 1980s to today.

Running until December 2, the exhibition represents the creative reinterpretation of historical continuity by Chang and his practice, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu (FCJZ), during an era of unprecedented change on the mainland.

For the exhibition, UCCA's 1,200 square metre Great Hall will be transformed into a hutong neighbourhood, containing six courtyards. Each courtyard will feature a different aspect of Chang's practice, from architectural designs to his new endeavours in fashion and film.

The exhibition, titled Yung Ho Chang + FCJZ: Material-ism, is a pun on dialectical materialism, the current cult of material comfort and the central role of materials in an architect's work. "Architects deal with materials every day," he says. "To us, materials are not a belief but our culture."

A native of Beijing, Chang followed the footsteps of his father Zhang Kaiji, a renowned architect, in attending his alma mater, Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeast University), in Jiangsu province in 1977, when universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. In 1981, Chang was accepted by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, on a scholarship to pursue a bachelor's degree in architecture, and went on to the University of California at Berkeley for his master's. He went on to teach at various universities in the US, including the University of Michigan, Berkeley and served as head of architecture at the Massachussets Institute of Technology.

Frustrated with the lack of opportunities to build, he returned to Beijing in 1992 and one year later set up Atelier Feichang Jianzhu ("unusual architecture"), the first private architectural firm in the capital. Chang started with interiors at the now defunct Xi Shu Bookstore and, in 1998, completed his first building at Morningside Centre of Mathematics for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

His business took off and he has since taken on a steady stream of commissioned works. Over the years, Chang's projects have won widespread praise for his combination of ecological sensibility and creative rendering of Chinese tradition and history.

"The rapid change in China presents a group of conditions; some are problems and others are conditions that can be made good use of," he says. "I always study these conditions and see whether I can come up with something that really belongs to this land."

An example that best sums up Chang's approach can be found in Atelier FCJZ's recently completed project, the 1966-1976 Major Events Pavilion in Anren township, Sichuan province. Built by a team of unskilled local workers, the museum has some brutalist characteristics in its rough-textured appearance, and elements of the Soviet socialist realism style, popular in China since 1949.

Built on a pedestrian bridge in the centre of town, the museum, which houses artefacts from the Cultural Revolution, will hopefully become a place where passers-by can reflect on the country's past. The bridge museum, as local residents call it, is featured at the Ullens' exhibition.

Central to Chang's practice is his approach of "micro-urbanism" - the creation of buildings not as freestanding objects but as inhabited areas integrated into the city.

"The project also embodies our vision of an ideal cityscape where it is easy to move around on foot and city dwellers can enjoy incidental shopping or visit a museum. That's the real beauty of a city," Chang says. "But right now, most cities in China are going in the opposite direction."

He cites Hong Kong as his favourite city and blames those in power for making a mess in the design of many mainland cities. "In Hong Kong, the amenities are within reach and convenient. That's what a city is about," he says. "I believe in the convenience of well-planned cities and, whenever I am given a say, I'll persuade the officials who have the power and resources to see the benefits of my design."

In a vast industrial zone at Jiading in the suburbs of Shanghai, Chang says he and his team are seeing their vision of a well-planned, convenient city taking shape, with the support of local officials who share the same vision. Unlike many mainland cities, which are carved into huge 600-metre by 600-metre blocks with wide streets in between, Chang and his team are building much smaller blocks of 20 metres by 20 metres separated by narrow roads.

Chang also has a vision for Beijing, which is notoriously difficult to get around. "I still have hope that Beijing can change and become a better place to live one day," he says.

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