Hua Li Trace Architecture Office (TAO) interview | MARK magazine#47
It is a typical grey summer day in Beijing 北京, and I am walking around Chaochangdi Village in the northeast part of town. Known locally as ‘Ai Weiwei Village’, for the notorious Chinese artist who lives nearby, this area looks like a cross between a rural habitat and a haven for artists.
Ai Weiwei’s grand and monolithic red and grey structures – housing artists’ studios and offices – contrast with buildings quickly erected by the local population. In recent years, artists, galleries and architects have moved into the area and set up somewhat of a creative community of their own. One of these architects is Hua Li 华黎, who founded TAO (Trace Architecture Office 迹·建筑事务所) in 2009. His ambition was to explore ‘a sense of place; a response to climate, material and construction methods; and an efficient use of resources.’
TAO is one of those smaller-scale Chinese outfits that possess an intriguing ability to operate on the fringes of urban, rural and regional architecture, thus creating an approach and a language that in each case bears a unique signature. TAO’s projects and their locations ‘still have diversity and are not yet globalized’, according to Hua, but they do reveal ‘traces of local materials and construction techniques.’
One example is the Xiaoquan Elementary School 四川德阳孝泉镇民族小学灾后重建 in Sichuan Province – a response to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 that severely damaged many structures in the area. With donations from the Red Cross and others, TAO built a new school in the centre of Xiaoquan Old Town, conceived as a cluster of small buildings that form a micro city-like campus. The architects relied not only on the know-how of local craftsmen, but also on local bricks, wood, bamboo and concrete.
Currently, TAO has two projects in the construction phase: one in Guangzhou, an 8,000-m2 children’s hospital, and one in Sichuan, a kindergarten and art school. In spite of the great demand for architects in China, Hua wants to keep his studio small. ‘Right now there are eight people working here, and we do not have interns,’ he says. ‘We have two projects in the design process and two others under construction. I do not like to do too many things at the same time. If you have too many things to do, you do not have enough time to concentrate.’
Other projects, such as the Bamboo Raft Factory 武夷山竹筏育制场 in the Wuyishan Mountains (Fujian Province) and the Museum of Handcraft Paper 云南腾冲高黎贡手工造纸博物馆 at the foot of Gaoligong Mountain (Yunnan Province), exemplify Hua’s wish ‘to work on small-scale projects, allowing me more time for design and a better control of the building process.’ For architects operating from China’s capital, it can be hard to keep control over projects they have designed for locations in the countryside. Hua confesses, however, that his desire for control and a straightforward approach can also lead to conflicts: ‘The Bamboo Raft Factory in Fujian is nearing the start of construction and faces a lot of challenges from an organizational perspective. The way it works is that they first need to burn the bamboo so they can bend it, and once this is done they need to assemble it quickly with wires. While this is going on, there’s continuous fire and smoke at the building site, which not everybody involved finds a good idea.’
Striking a balance between form and construction technique is an important part of TAO’s projects in remote places, but the firm has also been developing a series of urban buildings with a more modern style. The Riverside Clubhouse 水边会所——折叠的范斯沃斯 in Yancheng is a sort of folded Farnsworth House, for which TAO created a new form by stretching, looping and folding Mies’s famed design. The viewing pavilion on a hill in Tashan Park in Weihai is conceived as a half-buried, half-cantilevered volume with three viewing platforms spread out like the branches of a tree. In his design, Hua focused on incorporating existing trees on the site into the project, but, as always, ‘during construction some careless workers destroyed a couple of trees’.
As it happens, Hua has just come back from visiting the Xiaoquan Elementary School 四川德阳孝泉镇民族小学灾后重建 over the weekend. He pulls out his mobile phone and shows me some images. ‘I like to see how the children are using the space and playing in it,’ he says. ‘These children have their own way of using the space, which is different from the way I thought about it during the design phase. Users are always very creative.’
What surprised you when you saw the children at the Xiaoquan Elementary School? Can you give an example?
HUA LI: We designed a small corner space for the children, with benches in concrete, but they are using them as tables to do their homework. I even saw a kid using a bench to do sit-ups. Another element of our design – which we call ‘window furniture’, meant for children to sit or lie down in – has been turned into a small outdoor library. When you return to projects and observe their use, it helps you to understand how the place adapts to daily activities. I rarely do commercial projects initiated by developers, projects where you do not know who the user is. When a client asks me to design something first – for users to be determined later – I simply say no. Look at all these museum projects in China. They ask you to design one without even know what they’re going to put in it. This is very common and quite ridiculous, if you think about it.
Does it demand another way of looking at architecture?
HUA LI: I am interested in projects that have a clear typology, where you can define how the place will be used. This is important, as a lot of projects are very ambiguous in their programme, especially in China. When you face the uncertainty of the market, architecture is very difficult to conceive. I do not believe in this so-called ‘flexibility’, as it often means nothing. I prefer specificity.
Your recent projects have been constructed in remote places in China. On the subject of specificity, it is also important to understand the construction process behind such projects. How do you make sure people deliver what you want? Can you talk about that process?
HUA LI: I believe a design starts with an understanding of the resources you have at your disposal, as this becomes part of your ideas regarding the construction and use of material. A good example is the Museum of Handcraft Paper, located in a village that is an enclosed system. It is not like a big city, where you can use whatever you want if you have the money. Our first aim was to realize a contemporary building rooted in the local condition, and to do this we needed to learn about and understand traditional Chinese timber structures. It was important to have a local building team involved and to use the resources at hand.
But how do villagers react to your architecture? It must be difficult to introduce a new architectural language into a village. Is there resistance among local people, or do they think it’s fantastic?
HUA LI: Some people think my buildings are a bit strange, of course, as they differ from local examples. What we do is something of a marriage; I use that word when talking with villagers. It connects them with outsiders, people drawn to the area to find out more about the paper-making tradition. A new museum has the potential to transform the economy of a village and the lifestyle of those living there. But this project was also about the development of traditional timber techniques. The local construction team we worked with explained that the system they use is highly adaptable, for making not only traditional, symmetrical designs but also those based on other languages of form. It is important for builders to know they can go beyond the norm and can apply the same methods to different projects.
You were born in Gansu, one of the smallest and most underdeveloped provinces in China. Did growing up there influence your way of looking at and thinking about architecture?
HUA LI: If it’s true that your childhood environment has a certain impact on you, then mine may have had an impact on me. Professor Raimund Abraham of the Cooper Union was a good friend of mine. He once said, ‘Hua Li, you are a peasant, and so am I.’ It’s part of my personality. I do not like things to be theoretical, but more down to earth. Gansu is a very traditional region and has, unlike what you find in cities, a provincial culture. People are simple; food is authentic. I grew up in that environment and it must have influenced me. Maybe that’s why I prefer to do projects in remote places with bare circumstances, which force us to go back to the fundamentals of our profession and forget about formalistic or fancy design.
Is it important for you to define your style? The elements I see in your work run the gamut from local and regional to critical and modernist.
HUA LI: I do not have a style, and I do not want to be defined by any style.
Is this a good moment to be an architect in China?
HUA LI: A good moment? It is hard to say when it’s a good moment to be an architect. What I can say is that it’s always torture.
Pictures by Mónica Carriço /movingcities.org
About Hua Li | Trace Architecture Office (TAO)
The founder and principal of TAO, Mr. Li Hua 华黎 received his M. Arch. Degree from Yale University in 1999 and his B. Arch. Degree from Tsinghua University in 1994. He worked as an architect in New York until 2002. In 2003, He returned to China and established Universal Architecture Studio (UAS) in Beijing. Since 2004, he has taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and been a visiting critic at Tsinghua University. In 2009, he established TAO (Trace Architecture Office 迹·建筑事务所).
Hua Li TAO | Interview  by Bert de Muynck
published in Mark magazine #47 | Dec13-Jan14
(back to movingcities interviews page)