Born in 1969, Wang Hui possesses everything needed to make him the helmsman of a new generation of Chinese architects: his work is precise, distinctive and admired. At the same time, his attitude towards China’s current building culture straddles the line between an older, established generation of architects who are developing large-scale urban environments and an autonomous younger group whose members are pursuing international exposure. Having finally reached him, I’m looking forward to getting together with Wang Hui in the café of the Today Art Museum, a bustling creative venue in the vicinity of Beijing’s Central Business District and the same place I’d met him several years ago, when his former office, NENO, was located here. Nowadays he represents Limited Design.
Although his office is only a stone’s throw away, in the basement of a large housing complex, he prefers to meet at the museum café. ‘I don’t like being at the studio. I haven’t been there in over two months,‘ the characteristically goggled architect tells me. ‘Although it’s close by, I don’t like the feeling I have when I’m there. Most of the time I sit here, drink coffee and phone with my assistants. They bring their computers and study models here. I need to feel relaxed. I get nervous at the studio, and that makes me angry.‘
Limited Design recently completed two studios for artists in residence in Changping, an area near the Ming Tombs, an hour and a half away from Beijing by car. In 2007, after building a house for himself in the same area, Wang Hui was commissioned by the Today Art Museum to design the studios. In explaining the details of the commission, he says he had carte blanche, with one exception: century old trees standing at intervals of 12 m. ‘So I designed the studios based on a 12-m grid,’ he says. ‘The idea behind the residence is that one part serves as an artist’s studio and the other as an apartment. I divided the two volumes into three levels: a living room, a kitchen and a dining room-bedroom area. As the occupant moves from one level to another, the view of the outdoor environment changes. The space between the two volumes is like a courtyard.‘
The exterior walls of the sober volumes are made from reinforced concrete and glass, providing generous views of surrounding scenery. Grey is his favourite colour, but Wang offers an additional explanation for the choice of unpainted concrete: ‘When sunlight shines through glass walls, the colour grey absorbs some of the glare. In these studios, even the intense midday light doesn’t hurt my eyes.‘ In the early years of Wang Hui’s career, between 1998 and 2003, he collaborated on projects with Yung Ho Chang, founder of Atelier FCJZ (the first private architecture firm in China) and chairman of the MIT School of Architecture. Their introduction is an interesting story in itself. ‘His father, an old architect renowned in China [Zhang Kaiji, a chief architect for the Chinese Communist Party, designed the National Museum of Revolutionary History in Tiananmen Square], visited me at my apartment. He saw my drawings and asked me to work with his son. “I think he needs you,” he said. After that, his son and I talked and decided to collaborate.’
After leaving Atelier FCJZ, Wang Hui established MIMA Design, followed by NENO Design (see Mark #2) and Limited Design. He says the changes were due to personal reasons. Past projects include the Apple Elementary School in A’li (Tibet), Mima Cafe (Beijing) and the Today Art Museum. When asked if his choice of company names reflects an attitude to architecture that I perceive in Chinese offices like FAKE Design (Ai Weiwei) and Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu), he replies: ‘At this moment, attitude is very important. Many architects are doing the same things – crazy, unlimited stuff, including city planning and huge buildings – but I’m trying to distance myself from that sort of work, to look back and analyse certain phenomena, and to think for myself. I’m almost 40, but that’s quite young for an architect. My question is how to use architecture to think about society, about human life, about people’s lifestyles. But I think my thinking is very limited, so my work is limited.‘
Wang Hui’s work in recent years has not been restricted to architecture, as he has been actively involved in the design of objects and art installations, such as a temporary pavilion for the 2006 China Contemporary exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, a work made from steel, plastic and bamboo. ‘For me, design is all about studying materials. It’s something I do on my own, to find out things I can use later in architecture. Architecture, on the other hand, is a very complex experience. You need to talk to somebody, think with them and tackle technical limitations. Design is an extension of my thinking.‘ During our meeting, Wang talks passionately about his projects and his desire to understand the difference between what is Chinese and what is foreign in today’s world. I get the impression, however, that he’s detached from the pace of development that currently dominates China’s building sector. As he watches an assistant working on a model in the background, I ask why he seems to be avoiding the speed of progress and why his career has been marked by the rather constant need to start over again.
As he tells me about a summer he spent in the Czech Republic – in a small but beautiful town where he savoured the feeling of loneliness – the philosophy of the Einzelgänger gradually becomes clear. ‘Occasionally I like to stop and think before starting on something new. Slowness is important to me. The Chinese problem is speed. In my opinion, building should proceed at its own pace. Another major issue in China is the relationship between architect and client. A lot of architects implement too many of their clients’ ideas. That’s not for me. You have to have your own ideas about the project, create relationships and connect your ideas with those of the client.‘ Without question, Wang Hui and Limited Design have not only their own ideas about architecture but also the potential to build their designs. But I wonder when China will catch up with their slowness.
Pictures by Limited Design
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Published in Mark Magazine #19 (Apr-May 2009)
Other MARK publications:
A Letter from Beijing | MARK Magazine #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | MARK Magazine #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | MARK Magazine #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | MARK Magazine #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | Mark Magazine #17 (Dec 08- Jan 09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | Mark Magazine #19 (Apr-May 09)