Interview with Chen Xudong of DAtrans, Shanghai

M50DAtrans is an international architecture office located in M50 of Shanghai. Recently, its director Chen XuDong gave a lecture entitled “context, surface and symbiosis”. We travelled to his office to explore some of his ideas further.

Interviewers: Hugh Gibbs & Sun Xueyi

MPTF: What is your main design focus at DAtrans?

Chen: We try to find new strategies in China’s complicated and quickly changing society. The main challenge is to try to find a “new way” – a new way in relation to what we have done before but also in relation to the western way of doing things. We are looking for a mix of traditional Chinese and western international style. In this way, we are constantly trying to find our own way: developing our own mythology to create our projects.


Datrans speech

MPTF: Would you say that your work is widely influenced by having studied in Berlin and seen other cities? Because presumably it is strongly influenced by being in an international city like Shanghai?

Chen: Yes of course. We live in a society of communication networks. All of the information that we receive is from the internet, a shared open source. It is difficult to say ‘I am not very influenced by the global situation’ but ironically t

hat also means it can be quite difficult to find your own identity. The notion of “identity” is currently not a topic for a lot of people in China, but for me it is very important. How can you find your identity in our rapidly changing cultural and historical context… and interpret this into a project. Of course, we communicate with people from all over the world all the time, so we are always inter-related. As an architect, one’s job must be to be independent but also connected to your environment, friends and the one’s surroundings.


MPTF: In Berlin you also studied philosophy and art. Does that expertise play any role in your designs?

Chen: I always say that architecture is architecture… and that philosophy and art are separate disciplines. For example, we all like different things (maybe you like music and I like literature) meaning that it would be really difficult for you to try to write some literature, while I try to compose a song. What I mean is that if you are thinking of art you will not really be thinking about architecture. For me it is always separate.


Firstly, philosophy itself is a learning process: of understanding the world, which really helps to inform architecture. I really liked philosophy in university, exploring the works of philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. And our generation – at the time of ‘opening up’ to the world – needed new and fresh ideas. Ideas from western philosophy were, and are, an important part of that learning process. At university you have the desire to learn and hopefully that learning never really stops.


Secondly, architecture is always related to art. We learnt painting from a very young age and this becomes the base of architecture. But contemporary art is completely different; there are performances, installations, and digital art and more. Contemporary art is always developing and this inspired me to keep thinking and learning. Art helps creativity, it helps you to be independent. In fact, these two approaches help you to develop a way of thinking, which is not only useful for architecture but in everything. Most importantly it teaches you to dare to do things.


DAtrans modelMPTF: The way you deal with old buildings is to change them rather than demolishing them. How does this suit the development of the city as more people need living space and old buildings occupy a large amount of space?

Chen: Old buildings are relatively cheap especially for young people and companies. If you have not got much money, then it is often cheaper and easier to rent a renovated or recycled building. So it is a very practical alternative. Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is very important for urban design in that it reminds us that cities should keep some old buildings for charm, for function, for memory and for efficiency.


MPTF:  How do you identify which should be p[reserved and which demolished?

Chen: Of course there are historical buildings and it is the role of the historian to identify which buildings are much more valuable over time.


DAtrans Art Deco furniture galleryMPTF: Do you suggest to keep the facade and rebuild the inside: to improve the living conditions of the older structures, to help contemporary living standards?

Chen: I think architects need to focus on reality. Sometimes architects don’t – sometimes they find that they can’t – make decisions. I think this question is often not on an architectural level. It is relates to investment, and also economics and politics.


MPTF: Do you not think architecture is mixed with the political and economic levels?

Chen: Of course.


DAtrans model2MPTF: Should an architect try to challenge such decisions then, or just accept the situation however much he or she might disagree?

Chen: It is important to find the proper client. If they are not interested in good quality or historic value maybe you shouldn’t work with them. You may get money but you will never be satisfied with what you create. In this circumstance, it is probably better to say ‘no’ from the beginning.


MPTF: Not many architects could say they can pick clients. Is that not a bit unrealistic?

Chen: Architects are very lucky if someone is willing to spend so much money on a project and to give you free rein in what you want to do. But actually, why should someone trust you? If a client gives you RMB100 million and you create something that only furthers your own dreams, then I think that you are too egotistical.

I really like the interpretation by Mies van der Rohe. He said that in the beginning you are young and you start with architecture as a student. “First you have to learn something; then you can go out and do it.” In other words, as you learn and become experienced you create buildings. But these are only building – an object – you should stull not consider yourself to be an artist. Buildings become architecture through the combination of thought and actions: between an idea and the cultural conditions. Only afterwards – when you are finally not student but a career architect – does artistic work have the potential to arise. Always (maybe) in the future you can become a master who always creates artistic works.


MPTF:  Do you always complete research for each project? And how do you go about it?

Chen:  I think there are three different ways to do research:

Firstly, if you are focused on one particular typology, then you should explore similar case studies, buildings and projects and find specific regulations and guidelines for these particular projects. Then you collect all these experiences and incorporate it in your new project.

Secondly, if you do a general building, it is undoubtedly more like urban project, so you should become really objective; you should keep your distance in your research.

Finally, for a one-off, client-specific project, it is quite open, and therefore this allows you to make an artistic intervention perhaps… something that you should develop from a story specific to the client; one where you can get inspiration from the client’s own personal lifestyle and hobbies. 


MPTF:  On that point, do you have a preference? o you think it’s good for architects to have a certain style or should they design to be specific for the people?

Chen:  As an architect, you always face to this issue: with style or without style. Sometime, the style can be visible and invisible: visible form and invisible method. I prefer a developmental process that is much more about method and strategy, rather than form. In the process of interpreting the results of the research and the analysis, maybe the form will keep the same identity as the initial idea, or maybe it will change. I never know. So for me, I always say that before I experiment with the design, I never know the stylistic result.


garden expo 2012_DAtrans

MPTF:  So maybe you shouldn’t go in with any pre-conceived ideas?

Chen: Yeah, you should be a detective. Allowing yourself to be part of the design development usually means that you will enjoy the process. If you know the end, how can you really enjoy it?  So my assistants always angry because I am always changing things until the last second (laughs).


MPTF: So do your designs start with your own ideas or do you use a collaborative approach between architects and engineers, for example? In other words, how do you generate ideas?

Chen: In our office, we often like to cooperate with different people, engineers, artists, designers, etc… and also with poets.


MPTF: Poet? How can they help?

Chen: Just by participating in the discussion is useful and interesting. They come, and talk with us and often help us by offering new, improved, different suggestions. Why not?



MPTF: So do you think the architect is no longer the leader?

Chen: I really like the metaphor by a professor of my school in Berlin. He always say that the architect should be a coordinator, not a leader. Personally, I think that everyone is equal. If everyone is professional about it, then you can coordinate the intelligent experience of everyone into the project, meaning that the project becomes most successful. Undoubtedly, the situation in China is a little different to Europe, because in Europe there are so many experienced design professionals, but in China, we are still in the stage where every discipline is learning and developing. So it’ is quite difficult to find people and to set up a stable relationship where genuine cooperation can take place. But we still try to do that. So China, at the moment, has more foreign companies and institutions than local ones but the situation in China is changing. Not too long ago, the client thought ‘why I should pay design fees’ and so they just paid the construction costs (and builders’ fees). Interior designers were worst hit early on in the development of a design sensitivity in China and there was never any interior design fee; their fee was always included in the construction budget. Slowly – but thankfully – more and more clients and developers have begun to realize that design is also important. It is now a good time to be an architect where intelligence and creativity are increasingly valued commodities.