Xu Tiantian: Songzhuang Artists’ Residence [2010]

It’s a 45-minute drive from the heart of Beijing 北京 to the Tongzhou district on the city’s eastern outskirts. Architect Xu Tiantian 徐甜甜 [DnA_Design and architecture] picked me up by taxi to show me her recently completed Songzhuang artists’ residence and the adjacent art centre. As we are driving over Chang’An Avenue, the large east-west axis that runs in front of the Forbidden City, we pass along the Central Business District, a 1-km building with unclear function, a university town, stretches of farmland and industrial zones, suburbs and high-rise residential areas. Our destination is almost rural and holds the middle between an artist and agricultural community. A part of it is called Songzhuang, which houses China’s most famous and largest artist community. While we are strolling through the 20 living and working units, organized in an intriguing play of stacked boxes, I ask Tiantian to explain the identity of the area. People familiar with Beijing’s art scene all know the 798 Art District or Ai Weiwei’s Caochangdi neighbourhood. (The latter is slated to be demolished in the near future by the government in order to build new housing.) The public at large is less familiar with Songzhuang, despite the fact that it has a thriving art scene and is home to over 4000 artists.

‘This area wasn’t known until a few years ago,’ Tiantian says with her typical soft voice. ‘When the Chinese art and auction market boomed, Songzhuang suddenly became very famous in the popular media. It doesn’t have a pretty history though. The area has a much more complex identity than 798 and is less commercial. Fifteen years ago, Beijing’s most influential artist community lived close to the Summer Palace. When they were expelled from there, they came and lived here, between the factory workers and villagers. There is this famous work by artist (b. 1965 張洹) Zhang Huan called To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, which explains this situation quite well. In the picture, taken in 1994, naked bodies are stacked upon each other. When I was studying at Tsinghua University I visited the community regularly. It was really a commune, very socialist and communist.’ The Songzhuang artists’ units have just recently been completed. Tiantian received the commission in 2007. ‘In the beginning it was intense,’ she says, ‘as we had to finish the design in a couple of months and start construction right away. But during the 2008 Olympics the construction was stopped for six months and later again because of the financial crisis. The building work only resumed in spring 2009.’

The client was the contractor of DnA’s first project, the 5,000-m2 Songzhuan Art Center, completed in 2006, which was the first public art facility in the village. After having completed a couple of other structures in the village, the client saw an opportunity to develop art spaces on his own. ‘Of course he wanted as many studios as possible,’ says Tiantian. ‘Initially we designed 16 units, suggesting that 18 would be the maximum. But we had to settle for 20 units.’ Did the client know what she was up to? Tiantian: ‘I do not think he understood in the beginning. But as we have collaborated on a few projects before, there was a basic trust. He was convinced we would give him something good.’ Opting for a strategy to stack boxes, the Songzhuang Artist Residence-project feels both fragmented and coherent. On this blue sky day, it is the interaction of the sharp light and labyrinth-like spaces that heighten the spatial experience. It’s an interplay of volume and void, light and shadows.

Two colours are dominant: the exterior is clad in dark grey concrete, while the horizontal surfaces are coated in orange. It is the Beijing grey I recognize from the inner city’s hutongs. Naively I ask her if that was her reference. ‘No,’ she answers, ‘the grey is a specific colour regulation you have to follow in this district. You know that in Chinese cities, districts have zoning colours, right?’ I wonder out loud if that rule is meant to make it easier for the architects. ‘Well, you still have to choose the kind of grey,’ Tiantian answers. ‘We didn’t want to have the typical grey brick you have seen on the way here, as it creates no identity separate from other art districts. But our budget didn’t leave many other options. We had about 2,000 RMB [~200 euros] per square metre, which is very tight, so the grey was easy picked. But we also wanted something more aggressive, heavy even. The orange refers to the red brick which is used in the village, so it extends village life into here.’ While the colours were dictated by the budget and zoning regulations, the functions of the units defined their heights: 6 m for working and 3 m for living. The way the boxes are stacked is impressive. This work of art might be called To Add One Box to the Architectural Mountain. The way the artists start appropriating and inhabiting the space is equally impressive, especially near the architectural anomalies.

At the back of the project, for instance, one box turned out round. ‘We have these rectangular living spaces,’ Tiantian explains, ‘but the neighbours did not like it. They said it was bad for the feng shui in their own house. They also wanted the balconies and windows facing their way closed. It’s all political. It’s about money. We argued for a long time but it didn’t work out. In the end, the client paid them.’ Money and politics also dictated the seemingly awkward choice of doors, window frames and handrails. ‘The client has a relative that runs a factory in these materials,’ says Tiantian. ‘Adaptations always happen during the last month, when we’re close to finishing the project. Then the client suddenly becomes engaged and involved, turning the project into something he likes. Only when it is real does the client understand what it is actually going to look like.’

In 2008, I visited the Ordos Art Museum, some 750 km west of Beijing. It was part of a site visit that was organized for the architects participating in the Ordos 100 project [see ‘Babel for Billionaires’, Mark #15]. At the time, one edge of the pristine desert site was bordered by a complex with artist studios by Ai Weiwei’s Fake Design [the studios being a copy of the studio he built in Caochangdi] and DnA’s first project ever: the 2700-m2 Ordos Art Museum. Although Tiantian poetically describes the museum as ‘a desert viper winding over the dunes’, I tell her I wasn’t too impressed by the architecture. The loop [the museum is designed as one uninterrupted sequence of spaces] seemed not to flow and I was put off by the bad finishing. It looks great on pictures though. Tiantian replies that ‘finishing is a problem everywhere in China’. I ask her how she deals with this situation. Surely, it is no coincidence that she designed the more recent Songzhuang artist residences in a much more basic, simple and brutal way? ‘It’s also cheaper,’ she says, ‘and that is not always a disadvantage. As an architect you might learn more if you actually go for a cheap project.’

But at the end of the day, Tiantian also has to keep her small-staffed office of five architects running. Asked if she makes money out of these type of projects she replies that her office can keep a balance. ‘We have been around for five years now,’ she says. ‘In the beginning it was a real struggle. The Ordos Art Museum was really low-budget. I did not realize architecture was such a cheap profession.’ These are challenging times for independent young Chinese architects. Clients have a habit of interfering with the architect’s intentions at their own will, and local construction workers have no problem with adjustments of architectural details on site. In reviews, the result is often either obscured or waxed over as collateral construction damage. They are painfully visible in reality though. What does Tiantian think of foreigners’ views on current Chinese architecture? What is being misunderstood? ‘I think there is too much attention being paid to Chinese architecture,’ she replies decisively. ‘Most of the buildings that receive international attention are not perfect at all. This attention, the notion of instant fame, is spoiling young architects. Some believe they are superstars by the time they complete their first project. Architecture is in danger of becoming like entertainment. One day you’re in, the next day you’re out. This is very unhealthy.’

While we are sitting on one of the balconies, enjoying the afternoon sun, the rural views and the quietness, I ask Xu Tiantian what she learned from the project. ‘That everything can go wrong,’ she replies instantly. Isn’t she being too pessimistic? ‘When I say everything can go wrong, it is an attitude of optimism,’ she answers. ‘You learn from your mistakes, by doing things. In photography, we should pay more attention to the faults that were made. Everyone can learn from that.’

‘It gives me energy to create something refreshing out of chaos. In a project like this, I am passionately involved. It is like looking after a child. I am just as worried. After you hand over the building to the client, you loose control. It is his stuff, basically. That is fine. You can only wait and see how the building evolves. As an architect, you can’t expect your clients to adopt your taste. It’s about their lives. To me, architecture starts being interesting when the Chinese new year tags are added, when people start to decorate. Then, the building stops being an enlarged computer image. It gets meaning. That’s when architecture starts being alive.’

Pictures by movingcities.org & Iwan Baan

Xu Tiantian interviewed by Bert de Muynck. Pictures by Mónica Carriço
Songzhuang, Tongzhou district, Beijing | September 12, 2009
Published in Mark Magazine #25 | April-May 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)

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