Atelier Deshaus: Slow Down [2010]

Atelier Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28
Atelier Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28

It is the first of July and 37°C amid the highrises of Shanghai 上海 – a good day to escape the heat and search for a breeze in the suburbs. But escaping the heat is not our sole objective. After I interview Chen Yifeng 陈屹峰 and Liu Yichun 柳亦春 of Atelier Deshaus 柳亦春 at their office, Yifeng proposes a visit to their recently completed Jiading Kindergarten in Jiading New City 嘉定区. While driving, Yifeng says that during the past year he’s gone to Jiading almost daily to monitor the construction site and that the school is scheduled to open on 1 September.

Deshaus has another couple of Jiading projects in the pipeline, including a high-rise. I ask why the city is giving a relatively small, independent architecture firm the opportunity to erect such buildings. ‘It’s about leadership,’ Yifeng tells me. ‘The new mayor has good taste in architecture. He knows which offices are good and which are bad, and he gives good architects a lot of freedom.

Shanghai - Jiading New Village | July 1, 2010
Shanghai - Jiading New Village | July 1, 2010

In the span of half a century, Jiading has moved from being a small town on Shanghai’s rural periphery (1950s) to a satellite town (1980s) to a full-grown city of about 1.2 million inhabitants (2010s). Along with many Chinese cities, it is poised for change and territorial transformation in the coming years. But future development may be more architecturally inventive and aesthetically pleasing with Sun Jiwei as the mayor of Jiading New City. Known as the ‘architecture mayor’, Jiwei successfully supervised the construction of Xintiandi, a pedestrian shopping area in Shanghai. This led to his appointment as the vice director of Shanghai Qingpu District, where he commissioned a selection of China’s most promising young architects – including Deshaus, MADA s.p.a.m., Scenic Architecture and Liu Jiakun Architects – to design a number of public buildings. In 2005 Deshaus realized both an office building for the Qingpu Private Enterprise Association and the Xiayu Kindergarten. I ask how the new Jiading Kindergarten differs from its predecessor in Qingpu. ‘The Xiayu Kindergarten features the concept of stacking,’ Yifeng explains from behind the wheel, ‘with areas downstairs for communal activities and classrooms upstairs. In Jiading we started from the idea of separation. We designed two kinds of spaces: one strip for communal activities and another for classrooms.

Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28
Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28

Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus
Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus

In what still looks like a deserted suburban landscape, the kindergarten is a powerful and colourful structure built for 450 children from the ages of three to six. The building has a total floor area of 6500 m² and comprises two main spaces that are parallel to each other. To enter the kindergarten, we cross a bridge that leads to the centre of what the architects call the ‘artificial mountain’, a gently sweeping set of ramps that connects the entrance with the school’s 30 classrooms. The ‘artificial mountain’ has been painted bright yellow. ‘It is a vivid colour for children and adults,’ says Yifeng, ‘and a colour that everybody likes, even if they’re from a Western country. At either end of the slope we’ve put a tree in a courtyard setting for people to walk around and view from all sides. In spring the children can see it blossom and in autumn watch as it turns red.

Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus
Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus

The dynamic layout of the kindergarten is characterized by sets of contrasting spatial experiences: the emptiness and spaciousness of the entrance versus the density and verticality of the classrooms. In the former light comes flooding from above and in the latter from the side. From the outside one understands the different classrooms – each with an outdoor balcony – as a series of vertically organized courtyards. The varying levels at which they have been placed, and the use of different colours, create an instant dynamic in this large volume.

Inside, each classroom has an abundance of windows. ‘We take into utmost consideration the experience of the children,’ says Yifeng, ‘because they are the final clients and users of the building.’ All classrooms face south, but by placing a thin metal screen on the outside, the architects have managed to strike a double-design deal. Yifeng explains: ‘The main function of the screen is protection from the sun. But at the same time, if you view it from the outside, where the playground is located, it gives the building a gentler, softer look.’ While visiting the building, we notice construction workers, and the architect says the client has asked for unexpected last-minute changes with regard to railings and the fence in front of the kindergarten. He also mentions a manufacturer who’s been unable to supply the flooring that Dehaus ordered, forcing the architects to opt for a different material instead.

Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus
Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus

A couple of hours earlier, in their office, I had asked Yifeng and Yichun about their company’s German-sounding name. According to Liu Yichun, they based their choice on phonetics, pragmatism and preference: ‘Deshaus is German, and we feel its connotation as something that belongs to the house. It also bears a relationship to Bauhaus. But in Chinese the word, pronounced the same way, is ta-she, which has two definitions: “large house” and “to let go”. She is the ancient word for “architecture”. You have to let go in China, but at the same time you have to control everything. This is our reality, our design philosophy.

Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus
Kindergarten at Jiading New Village | by DesHaus

Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28
Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28

Deshaus has recently completed another building in Jiading, the Fuel Gas Management Station (FGMS). ‘When we were chosen to design it, we didn’t know who would be the user, only the function of the building.’ As with the kindergarten, the building is set in what appears to be a no-man’s-land still waiting to be developed. I ask if it’s possible to be contextual in this type of setting. ‘Indeed, there’s still not one other building in the area,’ says Liu Yichun, ‘so you can’t start from the idea of continuation. We think it’s important for a building to be complete on its own and to relate to its natural environment. So we pick up something useful to incorporate into the design. The orientation of FGMS is determined by the river on the north. The form, which relates to buildings and gardens in the surrounding area, is both traditional and hybrid, which makes it recognizable to the people living here. Typologically, it is a closed space. The attitude towards one’s immediate environment in China is different from that of the West. We need a space to be safe and enclosed. Here a fence between the building and its surroundings protects the space inside.

The courtyard concept plays a prominent role in the FGMS design. I tell the architects that over the past few years I’ve become suspicious of architects who describe their projects as courtyard-based. Such courtyards have turned out to be anything from a gigantic hotel lobby to a hole in the façade. I ask what ‘courtyard’ means to them. ‘We care about the experience and the memories it evokes,’ says Yifeng. ‘When we were young we lived in a courtyard. Something of that time stays in our hearts and minds – something that’s been lost in the contemporary city. We want to provide a new courtyard experience, however, rather than to replicate the courtyard itself. Our aim is not to design big courtyards – that’s a northern style, which you see in Beijing – but to create a group of smaller interconnected courtyards in the southern style. The experience is about moving from one courtyard to another. The understanding of time and experience differs from the north to the south of this huge country.

The skin of the building consists of two materials: the exterior wall facing north mainly wears metal panelling, while concrete walls that dominate the other sides have a brick-like texture. Because materials and their application form another important facet of Deshaus’s architectural identity, I ask whether the skills of local construction workers pose a challenge. ‘There are always problems, if not in skill then in budget or in the availability of materials. It’s impossible to finish the building as it was originally designed,’ says Yifeng. Can’t they find companies that specialize in this segment of the market? ‘There are plenty of good companies, but they aren’t interested in small projects, and our buildings are not big,’ explains Yichun. ‘When we run into misunderstandings or have conflicts with the workers, we deal with these problems ourselves. Most of the time they can’t understand why we want to make such complex structures. I tell them to just follow the drawings. When we realized that smooth façades for the FGMS project were too difficult for the workers, we came up with a brick-like texture which is based on a method that allows for errors.

Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28
Deshaus | MARK Magazine#28

The commission involving Jiansu Software Park was a result of the firm’s contact with Nanjing-based architect Zhang Lei, who knew the client and invited Deshaus and Qi Xin to contribute to the project. ‘This time it was not difficult to persuade the client; he wanted a new Chinese style, and we know what that stands for,’ says Liu Yichun. I ask him to elaborate. ‘All our buildings express our efforts to re-imagine the culture of this area around Shanghai, the Jiangnan culture. Memory is very important to us. Our attitude is a fusion of the conventional and the contemporary.’ In the Jiansu project, these objectives led to 38 independent office units, located on the first and second floors of the buildings and organized along a series of interior courtyards. ‘These units sit on a large white base,’ continues Liu Yichun, ‘so the ground floor is almost closed and a bit isolated from the outside world. On the upper levels you have views in different directions; here you are aware that the building is not isolated from its surroundings. We believe architecture should be about progressive spatial experiences.

Even though it has operated independently since 2001, Deshaus has built up a relatively small portfolio. ‘It’s true that we design very little, but we like to work in a careful way. In China one has to give up control. The country is developing so rapidly; the pace is too fast. Faced with this situation, we would like to create a slower, more cautious rhythm. Ours is an important attitude towards the contemporary condition. The pace at which China advances is the responsibility not only of architects but also of society. People are losing themselves in contemporary society, often neglecting the importance of memory. We recognize how important it is to observe, to think, to reflect – and then to design.

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Pictures by movingcities.org

Chen Yifeng 陈屹峰 & Liu Yichun 柳亦春 Atelier Deshaus 柳亦春
interviewed by Bert de Muynck.
Jiading, Shanghai, China | July 1, 2010
“Deshaus: Slow Down” published by Mark Magazine #28 | October-November 2010

Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Illegal Copying | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man | #26 (June-July 10)

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