Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man 
Spring has just arrived in Nanjing 南京 when I meet Zhang Lei [张雷]. The architect is wearing his trademark sunglasses. During the interview, he takes them off only once, in order to inspect a construction detail. For the rest, he seems to enjoy viewing the world through a filter.
Born in 1964, he established his office, Atelier ZhangLei, in 2000. In the past decade, Lei has made a name for himself with projects in and around Nanjing, such as Split House, Brick House and the Taoyuan 02 Graduate Student Dormitory. These days he is venturing into other parts of China. He just returned from a week of presentations for clients in Dalian, Ordos and Hangzhou, where he has set up a second office. Together with Lei, I visit two of his recent projects: Split House, in the centre of the Nanjing, and his contribution to CIPEA [China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture], on the outskirts of the city. The house he’s building there is situated next to projects by Steven Holl, Odile Decq, Wang Shu, David Adjaye and other well-known architects.
Could you give us the background of Split House?
Zhang Lei: The design started with a lot of discussion, as the house is located in a unique historical area in Nanjing’s city centre. It’s surrounded by listed low-rise houses. This area was planned for high-ranking officials, diplomats and rich people at the beginning of the last century, when Nanjing was China’s capital. After 1949 the Communist Party took over, and their officials lived there. All the building typologies were imported from abroad and are now part of our history. That’s interesting. As this is a sensitive place, the urban-planning agency imposed a lot of restrictions. They wanted the same language in façade and volume. My task was to think about how to respect history while creating a new style of living.
Although brick houses dominate the neighbourhood, Split House features exposed concrete and thus has another language. What led to that decision?
Zhang Lei: In Nanjing, more than 2000 towers were built over the last two decades. These are all made out of concrete. In China, we use half of the world’s concrete production, and it is usually concealed under some sort of cladding. People think of concrete as a dirty material, just for construction, not something to see. I thought we should show it this time. To give the concrete texture, we used wooden strips in the formwork that have approximately the same dimensions as ordinary bricks. In terms of volume, a split separates the two parts of the house. In the traditional Chinese house you always have a centre – in the form of a courtyard, for example. Here, the split volume does not allow for a traditional centre, but the light from above does create another kind of centre.
The house is rather empty inside. Where is the owner?
Zhang Lei: This land belongs to the government, which built the house to give to the common people, but because it attracts a lot of visitors, nobody lives here. The current plan is to hand it over to retired officials to be used as a clubhouse.
Can you see yourself living in Split House?
Zhang Lei: No. A lot of people ask me to describe the kind of house I might design for myself. I am a simple man. I do not want to make my life complicated. So I would ask my wife and my daughter if they like my design or not. If not, that’s fine. Even if I had to design a style I didn’t like, I’d follow their lead. I prefer making things easy.
Why were you asked to work on this project?
Zhang Lei: The client is a friend of mine. I imagine other architects are not very interested in such a small project; it’s only 270 m2. In China, it’s easy to get a large-scale project but hard to get a small one. It is too complicated and difficult to get approval from the government, especially in such a historical area.
Is this a scale you feel comfortable with?
Zhang Lei: I do not care about scale. Big or small buildings, I design all types: museums, houses and offices. The clients are the most important. If we understand each other and can communicate well, I’m satisfied.
Are you happy with the way the house looks and feels?
Zhang Lei: Yes, I am quite happy – we worked a lot on it, and the quality is good thanks to the construction workers. The same goes for Brick House, which is in a suburb of Nanjing. It’s interesting that local laymen, instead of professional workers, built the Brick House. They had built projects for their neighbours for many years and were proud to show their craftsmanship. Compare that with one of our recent projects, the Community Centre in Yangzhou. That brickwork was done by construction workers, and they spent at least double the amount on construction costs and realized perhaps half the quality of Brick House. But local craftsman don’t have that many opportunities to build projects like these.
How many people work in your office?
Zhang Lei: Around 20 architects – it’s a good size. I can do a maximum of 15 projects, at different stages of development, a year.
When did you decide to become an architect?
Zhang Lei: During my high school years I liked painting but knew nothing about architecture. My dream was to be a designer of aircraft or warships. But I didn’t have the background to study for an engineering degree. My father said, ‘We hear architecture students have to do painting. Maybe that’s interesting.’ So I began studying architecture at the beginning of the 1980s, together with Wang Shu, who, although a bit older, was my classmate for seven years.
How was Chinese architecture education in the early ’80s?
Zhang Lei: A lot of hand rendering – with water colours and Chinese ink – of traditional buildings, pagodas and temples, but also Western-style buildings, including Greek and Roman architecture.
No modern Western architecture?
Zhang Lei: At the time, we had no access to foreign magazines, because they published advertisements showing nude or scantily clad women. Young students were not allowed to see these ads. I remember this middle-aged woman who worked in the architecture library. She spent a lot of time drawing clothes on naked people.
When did you start working on the CIPEA project?
Zhang Lei: Almost six years ago. This is not our first proposal for the site. When the client wanted to begin construction, we changed our minds. The site is in a valley, and in the original plan the house was on the slope. But once the construction lines were on the site, I understood the project would destroy the view. At that point we decided to cover only a limited area and to make a vertical house.
It looks like a mini-skyscraper.
Zhang Lei: If you visit it in another season, the project is hidden among the trees. The building is the same height as the trees, and there’s a public area on the roof. Sitting there is like sitting on top of a tree – you could take off your clothes and sunbathe.
How often do you visit the construction site?
Zhang Lei: Quite often. I supervise the whole process, especially construction. I have two interests: one is to respect the way local craftsmen treat everyday materials, and the other is to use these materials to explore future living spaces. For CIPEA , we used concrete while exploring its sculptural, geometric qualities. The loss of craftsmanship in China is a common topic of discussion. Many architects are trying to counter this loss in their designs.
How do you deal with it?
Zhang Lei: For me, it is about representation. I’m not out to show how craftsmen used their materials originally, but to find a new rationale for the changing situation. I don’t use expensive, so-called ‘high-quality’ materials, but everyday ones, which I try to interpret in a new way. If you touch rough concrete, it can sometimes feel like silk. That interests me.
Do you see yourself as a modern architect?
Zhang Lei: I do only things I can understand. In other words, I don’t work out things that I don’t understand. That is my criterion. I would never create a fancy image without comprehending the construction behind the image. To make an interesting image is not a challenge; our students can do that. The question is: why do you make it? What is the logic? I would not draw a ship, give it to manufacturer and say: just make it.
You have a lot of projects going on. Is this what you wanted a decade ago, when you founded your company? Is it what you want for the future?
Zhang Lei: Basically, I want to continue the trajectory I’m on now. There is one challenge, though. I’d like to extend my practice to include different kinds of projects. In the beginning, I avoided projects from developers, but now I’m beginning to like them. The two houses we just discussed are very special. I would like to do more run-of-the-mill projects, do a business building in a commercial city like Shanghai – that is a big challenge for us. Designing a building that gets published is a lesser challenge.
So my next step is to become more middle of the road, while still doing projects with an architectural edge. Currently, I’m designing an urban-planning museum in Chengdu. It’s been very difficult, because government officials like flaunting their power and their ambitions. But it’s also interesting to be involved in a struggle like that. I accumulated my knowledge about architecture by working on small projects. In Western countries, that is a common way to start a professional career. First you deal with people and real problems; then you can carry out the big projects. In China it’s different. You start on a big scale. As a result, most architects in China are drawing buildings they do not understand. I understand what I’ve done. At least for the moment.
Do you work every day of the week?
Zhang Lei: This week has been quite busy, but normally I go home at seven o’clock and arrive at nine in the morning. I do not eat dinner with clients.
Zhang Lei: In China, business dinners are used to resolve a lot of problems. I like to enjoy my meals. And I don’t like drinking. I don’t know how to talk to clients under such circumstances; for me, one hour is more than enough.
You keep it under control?
Zhang Lei: Yes. I think it is under control.
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Pictures by movingcities.org & Iwan Baan
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Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
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Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
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The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
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Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
“Illegal Copying” | #24 (Feb-March 10)
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