The Brick Whisperer | Ningbo 宁波 | MARK Magazine#42

It’s a week before the National Day of the People’s Republic, and workers are planting halfgrown trees on the construction site of the almost completed Yinzhou Cultural Activity Center in Ningbo 宁波. I am here to meet Liangfu Ni 倪良富, the chain-smoking craftsman responsible for the 60 construction workers scurrying to get the job done. Recently, Ni has made quite a name for himself as the builder of brick walls for Wang Shu 王澍, the 2012 Pritzker Prize winner. Ni’s skilful use of recycled bricks in the Ningbo History Museum, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and the Ningbo Tengtou Pavilion in Shanghai has elevated him to the ranks of celebrity, particularly in this part of the world.

But critical acclaim apparently leaves him cold. He cares only about bricks, the quality of construction and the sound of chiselling that hangs in the air at the building site. Ni loves bricks. It’s a love that goes beyond mere construction. He is a respected collector and connoisseur as well. He says his ambition is to keep traditional Ningbo architecture alive. This tradition, which Wang Shu has made the main element in his designs, is influenced by yearly typhoons that rage through the region, forcing people to reconstruct the walls of their homes with broken and recycled bricks. The resulting collage of masonry contrasts sharply with, for example, the plastered façades found in the nearby Hangzhou region.

Ni, who was born in 1963, started his career in the construction industry under less-than-ideal circumstances. For years he mixed cement and poured concrete on construction sites, a logical consequence of his upbringing. ‘My parents were rather poor,’ Ni says in Chinese. His daughter, who’s joined us here, translates his words. ‘At the age of 16 or 17, I moved from the countryside to the city of Ningbo. I worked at construction sites and learned local and traditional methods. Later on, I started managing sites and hiring employees. My work started to boom when I met Wang Shu and constructed five small buildings for Yinzhou Park [2003-2006], here in Ningbo. I taught him many things about the traditional Ningbo way of building, and we’ve continued to collaborate. Wang Shu is a good designer, but he had little knowledge of brick façades. During our first meeting we drank tea, smoked cigarettes and talked about what he needed to learn.

Yinzhou Cultural Activity Center by Haoru Chen & Peter Tagiuri | MARK Magazine#42

The Yinzhou Cultural Activity Centre, Ni’s latest job, was designed by architects Haoru Chen 陈浩如 and Peter Tagiuri. The 30,000-m2 public facility occupies the site of a former village. After the buildings had been torn down, the bricks were gathered and reused for the façade of the Ningbo History Museum, located about a kilometre to the west. Recycling and remembering are key components in the design of both the museum and the Yinzhou Cultural Activity Centre. ‘We fell in love with the village and tried to save it,’ says Chen, who is on an inspection tour around the building. ‘Obviously, that wasn’t possible. So we came up with the idea of committing the old structures to memory by putting marks in the new building and leaving the former foundations exposed.’ Today, a series of landscaped sunken roofs commemorates the old village. It is a kind of archaeological architecture. ‘When kids play here,’ Chen says, ‘they will not forget the existence of the old village, even though everything is different now.

While we talk about traditional construction techniques and the field of tension between machine and man-made buildings, I ask Ni if he finds it easier to work with bricks than with people. ‘I love both,’ he says, ‘but I’m driven by the challenge of finding new ways to deal with brickwork. My job is to solve problems related to the construction of large façades, based on 30 years of experience. But I’m constantly trying different ways to do this. Finishing a job successfully gives me the most satisfaction.

On the building site, construction workers are chiselling away part of the façade, creating a distinctive rippled effect across the exterior. Doesn’t all this handwork drastically raise building costs? ‘On the contrary,’ Chen says. ‘In China, manual labour is still cheaper than prefabrication. I don’t think it will remain like this for much longer, though, so we should use the present situation to our advantage while it lasts. It’s just beautiful seeing and feeling the labour that went into making these bricks, as they are laid and chiselled.’ Ni agrees. ‘Unlike handwork, mechanized construction processes do not allow for changes on site. Handwork contributes to the lively character of my façades.

After a walk to the nearby Ningbo History Museum, Ni reflects on his current impression of the building. Since its completion some four years ago, the walls have clearly matured. ‘It is hard to judge my own work,’ he says. ‘I put a lot of effort into this project. However, I think it looks so much better today than when it was just finished. These walls have to age.’ Were they particularly difficult to build? ‘The walls are both tall and thin,’ he says, ‘so I had to make them very strong. Traditional Ningbo walls are not as high as this one. As the brick came in different and random sizes, we needed to make a lot of adaptations during construction.’ How did he make sure the wall wouldn’t collapse? He thinks, takes a drag on his cigarette and hesitates, as if about to share a secret. His eyes x-ray the façade. After a while he whispers: ‘There are hidden concrete beams in the façade. Only I can see them. Without them, the structure would not be safe.

Ni is eager to try different kinds of work. When asked to show a couple of other projects, he grabs his smartphone. Photos of interiors pop up. ‘Some are apartments, some are houses,’ his daughter explains. ‘When there is no designer for the interior, he just designs it himself. The clients are friends of my father’s, who give him the key and let him go to work. He doesn’t make sketches or drawings. The clients are allowed back into their homes only when the project is finished.’ She talks about a client who put a couple of million renminbi upfront, with no knowledge of the design. The interiors I get to see on the little screen are executed completely in copper; they seem more like examples of postmodern retro than traditional craftsmanship. Ni doesn’t make style too much of an issue. ‘The objective of these projects,’ he says, ‘is to explore how old and modern materials can be brought together.

A tremendously thick pink wall separates the Ningbo History Museum from its adjacent car park. ‘My personal collection of precious stones,’ Ni says with a smile. In contrast to the museum façade, a surface of standard and recycled bricks, this wall illustrates the history of the region’s rich, heavy, detailed stone design. Ni intended it as a shrine to the stonecutters and masons who have preceded him. While he talks, he never lifts his hands from the stones, touching and caressing their textures the entire time.

Do master masons do good business in China these days? The problem, Ni tells me, is a lack of competition. Few contractors are willing to do this kind of work, or they underestimate the amount of work involved. Case in point is the Ningbo Tengtou Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. ‘The Shanghai constructor – a big company – thought they’d have no problem erecting the façade themselves,’ Ni says. ‘But they soon found out how hard it is to make walls stable and to interpret Wang Shu’s intentions correctly. Many constructors do only what the architect asks them to do and nothing more – they have no idea of how to improve a design. The reality is often different from the design.’ With no competition, I suggest, it must be easy to make the work profitable. ‘You can’t make a profit from building a brick wall,’ he says, ‘but for me it’s not about money. I just want to tell the world about traditional Ningbo architecture.

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Pictures by Mónica Carriço /movingcities.org

The brick whisperer by Bert de Muynck,
published in Mark magazine #42 | Feb-March 2013

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