Tong Ming: “We understand history in order to learn from it”

— Interviewed by: Henry Lyle‎ & LiuBowei  —

798580928440429458Tong Ming is an associate professor in the department of urban planning at Tongji University in Shanghai. He has also designed a number of buildings as TM Studio including Dong’s House Teahouse in Suzhou (featured in MPTF archive).

MPTF: Does your academic work feed into your practice?
TM: Yes, of course. They are very tightly linked with each other because without practicing as an architect I wouldn’t have a good understanding of my academic work.
Of course, that relationship is much easier than the other way round: linking practice to theory is actually very difficult. Practical realities are always challenging and things never develop in the way you hoped they would.

MPTF: So your theoretical work doesn’t quite match up with your practice?
TM: No, never. When you want to take an idea into reality, the real world is never so accepting of your ideas. So there is a gap between theory and reality that must be fixed by way of a process. You put forward an idea that might be very personal but if you test it out and it turns out to be wrong, then you have to go back and try to align your idea with reality a little more.

MPTF: What’s the relationship between architectural education and practice more generally in China? Is there a similar gap?
TM: Indeed, I think that there is a real problem. There is very little space for a process that integrates the two. People that invite you to make a design hope that you can make things right straight away, from the first moment. So in some ways, the problem is the reliance on the static image in architectural presentations. People make a judgment on that kind of image. First impressions based on an image can be misleading.

tong ming

Park Block Renovation, Luqiao District, Taizhou 2007

MPTF: How important is traditional architecture to the contemporary design process?
TM: Very important, of course. The thought that lies behind traditional architecture is what makes it so attractive and so interesting. In traditional Chinese gardens, for example, people had a very interesting perspective on design. They could always find interesting ways to solve problems. In a very limited space they could demonstrate a huge natural world and in that way their thinking was profound. I think that is the sort of thing we can learn from the past but we need to decode it, the key is to understand it fully in order to learn from it.

I do not think there are many fundamental differences between modern architecture and traditional architecture. For me, materials or technology are not so important. I think if we use contemporary technologies and materials we can create something very similar to those beautiful historical environments. So in order to learn from traditional architecture
we must understand it. For me, it is the process of design comes that is key. That comes from me. That process is very important, much more than those cosmetic elements related to materials.

MPTF: Can, or should, Chinese architecture represent China?
TM: I do not think we need to stick to tradition or hold onto some idea of a traditional China. Instead I think its more important that we demonstrate our own time. Cultural identity does not come from a static image of history but from the developing ‘process’ of history. The nature of architecture is the ability to start from the first impressions of a project; to react to it and develop ideas from there. So the nature of architecture is to turn an abstract idea into reality.


Dong’s Tea House, 33 Niujia Lane, Suzhou. 2004

MPTF: What do you think about Suzhou’s urban planning?
TM: Its very hard to say. It depends on your point of view. I think Suzhou’s urban planning helps to solve many problems that we face at the moment. For instance the traffic is a big problem. Without all the construction and infrastructure development Suzhou would be in a mess so I don’t think that there have been many mistakes. If you look carefully at London or New York, for example, they also experienced similar problems in this stage of their development. In the 1950s or 60s, quite a lot of western cities suffered terrible pollution, traffic and the kind of ugly developments we see in China today. There is a process of social development that leads, hopefully, to an acceptable result. The more important question is how you fix the problems to acheive success. That is crucial. In modern Suzhou there are many problems – true – but we cannot, should not simply complain. We have to act.

MPTF: How should we balance modern life and historical, or local cultures in developed cities?
TM: I don’t think you need a balance. If someone came from the Ming Dynasty 500 years ago and they moved into the 21st century I don’t think they would find it very difficult to adapt to modern life. I think the kind of technology is not so decisive, its largely due to your attitude. Be positive!

Tong Ming
TM Studio
Guokang Road 46 Lane
Room 1203, Unit 3
200092 Shanghai