Chen Haoru: “Chinese cities have no traditions to look up to”

– Interviewed by: Shankar Saanthakumar & Liu Bowei  –

SAMSUNG CSCChen Haoru is a Hangzhou born architect and artist. After 15 years of studying and working in America he has returned to Hangzhou where he is currently the principal of CITIARC Architecture and Atelier ChenHaoru. He also teaches at the China Academy of Art (CAA).

Chen’s architectural projects have been realised across the world and recently his Lin’An Village Bamboo Ecofarm project was featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale. We asked him a few questions:

MPTF: You received a western high school and architectural education (New York University), how does this affect your practice in China?
Chen Haoru: I think Architecture is different for everybody. I don’t think it can be taught, I pretty much learned Architecture by myself! At university I learned about structure, design, and liberal arts. However my work in China is influenced by a continuous learning process, both through practice and teaching at the China Academy of Art (CAA).

MPTF: In China what does the village mean to the city?
Chen Haoru: That’s a very good question. Look at all the famous city people, where are they from? The village. The village is the cultural core of the Chinese city. This is very different to the west where long established cities breed culture within themselves. Most Chinese cities are too young to be able to do this. This means that China now has a situation where cities have no traditions to look up to.

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Bamboo pigsty, Lin’An

MPTF: You have done some interesting work in Lin’An village with bamboo structures for pigs, chickens… and humans. Superficially they look quite similar, however is there a different thought process when designing for different animals?
Chen Haoru: Of course. For the pigs you have to study their relationship with the ground. They love to chew bamboo, and they can’t jump higher than 1.3m. So the bamboo structure has to be elevated. However we’re not only designing the pigsties for the pigs. We’re designing for their interactions with humans.

At the time of designing the bamboo shelters for humans I was reading Kafka and I was inspired by the idea of metamorphosis. Humans like to be secluded away from interference, away from the mind prisons of the real world. So I wanted to design cocoons where humans can be secluded and allowed to morph into their true selves. My original concept was metamorphosis of Zhulin Qixian 竹林七賢 (the seven scholars from the bamboo forest, who were a group of writers and musicians from the 3rd century AD) – the scholars were hibernating, escaping the real world, and morphing from within their cocoons. However this concept was considered too dark and abstracted from reality. Additionally we didn’t have the resources to realise seven separate cocoon structures.

MPTF: Is it easier to design for pigs or humans?
Chen Haoru: Buildings for human beings are regulated structures. Houses and cities are regulated… and those regulations are created by humans with specific objectives and ulterior motives.  But pigs don’t make artificial laws, they are simply bound by natural laws.

But that is not to say that I prefer animals to humans. Give me a commission for a human dwelling, remove the regulatory restraints and let me design freely and I would love to do it.

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Bamboo pigsty roof structure, Lin’An

MPTF: It could be said that China has become an experimental arena for western architects, what do you think about this?
Chen Haoru: I like much of this foreign-designed architecture a lot, although some of it is not so great. After all, these are, as you said in your question, “experiments”. But maybe we should have more experiments by Chinese architects…

MPTF: …Well, the China Academy of Art (CAA) seems like a bit of an experimental playground for Wang Shu!
Chen Haoru: That building is pretty good, right? Professor Wang Shu’s experiments are not just experiments, they are manifestos. They are declarations of a New Age in China, a new way of thinking!

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Brick buildings, CAA

MPTF: Wang Shu has created award-winning brick buildings. Is it fair that he, the architect, receives all the credit? Should the credit be given instead to the brick craftsmen?

Chen Haoru: Architecture is about teamwork. The Architectural profession standing aloof and on its own is a ridiculous idea. Architects used to be the head of all associated construction and deaign professions [craft, design, engineering, etc] but now it is just pretending to be in the lead. I think that the isolationist, elitist view of the architect (and architecture) is slowly being marginalised… and ridiculed.

If you’re an interior designer, what would you think of the Architect? Would you automatically acknowledge them as the leader? No, right? What if you’re a landscape architect, industrial designer, construction worker? They won’t respect an architect who doesn’t know his or her trade.

The system has become so complex that it is beyond one person’s control. By the time one person masters all the trades they’ll be 80 years old. And by that time they’ll be obsolete!

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Wang Shu brick detail, CAA

MPTF: I notice that you’re dressed in all black. This seems to be a common theme among architects, why is that so?
Chen Haoru: It hides the edges. It hides the material. It’s quite mysterious! However I’m not sure if it’s very fashionable anymore. In the summer I wear all white. Sometimes, even for an architect, black is just too hot and too heavy for the Chinese summers!