The Story of O

Qian Shiyu and Ding Xiao talk with He Jianxiang (founder of O-Office with Jiang Ying) about education, experience and multi-disciplinary working.

He Jianxiang finished his early architecture education in China and then went to Belgium for further study returning to become the principal architect and founder of ‘O-office’ in Shenzhen. He has worked for a few years in the Pearl River Delta, where he is interested in industrial heritage and the historical context of architecture within cities.

MPTF: What does the ‘O’ stands for?
He Jianxiang: Maybe ‘originality’, but in the beginning, ‘O’ is zero; it is empty, it is a source. I was trained and graduated in Guangzhou, China. After that, I worked for two years in cities in the Pearl River Delta and I was quite successful in a Design Institute. I won competitions, but I thought that maybe I wasn’t doing the right thing. So I went abroad to observe and test out some ideas. And after four years in Belgium, both studying and practicing, I came back with n ambition to do new and creative things but there was almost no possibility – no framework – for us to work on the kind of creative ’architecture’ that existed in Europe. It just didn’t exist in China. That’s why I realised that we had to start again from zero: the origin.

Renovation of immigrant dormitory in Shenzhen into youth hotel. 2014

MPTF: How has western architecture education influenced you? In terms of architecture education, what is the main difference between Chinese and Western ways?
He Jianxiang: Basically, education in Chinese context and in Western context is quite different. When we were young in China, in primary school, high school or university, the Chinese education system is a kind of framework you have to fit into. It’s a closed system. But in the West, students are encouraged to open themselves to ideas, which is a fundamental conceptual difference. Another thing is that I got a really serious cultural shock when I went from Guangzhou to Belgium in the first semester in the university. I found everything I have practiced and learnt or were told were wrong at that moment. So I had to make a choice whether I should stick to my previous knowledge and practice about architecture or I should throw it away and then try to restart again. In Belgium, maybe even all over Europe, architecture represents a multi-disciplinary approach including: history, urbanism, people’s life, spatial awareness, the environment, etc. This is not what we have been taught in China. Here we only talking about making nice drawings, while we are not really touching the “thickness” of architecture. That’s really a big drawback. In simple words, Chinese architectural education is merely about techniques, such as inspiring sketches or skillful renderings, but in my opinion, to be a good architects, we have to be a historian, an environmentalist, a scientist, a sociologist… at the same time, engineer, of course.

O-offices Z-Gallery

Z-Gallery, Shenzhen, 2014

MPTF: You’ve completed many successful renovation projects. Do you think that working with old buildings is more interesting than doing something totally new?
He Jianxiang: To a certain extent, maybe, because in China most of the projects architects are engaged in are tabula rasa. Most of projects take place in a new development zone where all the roads are new and you get empty land without context and environment. Under these circumstances, you simply have to design something. Anything. But how do you design something valuable to the city with no context? I mean, doing something within a meaningful urban or social context and within a specific historical framework is, I believe, much more interesting than doing something from nothing.

MPTF: Your office is engaged in work across design disciplines – art, furniture design, architecture, products, etc. What do you think are the benefits – and maybe drawbacks – of multi-disciplinary working?
He Jianxiang: There are mostly benefits. As I say, for me, architecture is multi-disciplinary and, within reason, we should learn from and give consideration to as much as possible. When you are working in different scales: city-scale, building-scale, product-scale you are indeed touching every aspect of life. Without thinking about the impact at every level on the human-scale, maybe you are just serving some capitalist interests or some political interests without really dealing with real life.

MPTF: Finally, your website says: “Architectural design is a critical instrument for research”. Could you explain what that means?
He Jianxiang: Several years ago, when I was in Belgium, I noticed that Holland in particular, but also across other coutries in Europe there was usually a set of related professionals working together to explore together something new, innovative and valuable. But in China, there is different cultural and working context, whereby professionals usually work in individually. It’s really difficult to find meaningful architectural support from an engineer, for example. Therefore, designers have to be self-sufficient and have a strong will to understand many things such as spatial requirements, technical requirements, regulatory frameworks, etc. Architects here have to be self-confident. You should also be very keen and self-reliant, otherwise you will always be swallowed up.


Cover photo: O-Office office atop ex-grain silos in Nanshan, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China