Philip Fung: “China mainland students have to open their minds”

This interview with Shanghai/ Shenzhen architect Philip Fung of ElseDesign – by Sui Yinda and Chloe Chan – looks at the need for critical self-reflection in architecture and education


Shanghai Minheng Folk Art Gallery

MPTF: This lecture series says that you are an “independent” architect. Does is mean anything to you in the Chinese context?
PF: I think that the general definition of “independent” means simply to do something on your own. So it means that you have to try to establish your own way of thinking, which is very important of course. If I develop my practice and my designs in a similar way to other offices, then what’s the point of having my own office: I might as well work for someone else? Independent means you want to voice something original. In the past ten years or so, I have thought about what I have wanted to do and how I could do it. It’s important to question yourself: to explore your various interests and examine the strengths and weaknesses of your designs. So I think it’s always very tough to work on your own, also partly because there might be unstable conditions in the real market, in terms of client, budget or so. We have to fight all these factors in order to get the best result.

MPTF: Many Chinese architects also teach in universities and so it is with our university. But less so in Europe where teachers teach and architects build. What do you think is the benefit of Chinese system?
PF: I always believe that practicing architects are good for teaching because they can bring new things, new ideas, back into the academy. If the teacher becomes too academic he will not know what is really happening in the real world, and this is clearly not good for the student. So I think it’s better to have a balance. An architect is really a practicing profession: practice is necessary in order to acquire useful knowledge. That’s why I think the Chinese system is better than the west. Of course if the tutor is too busy in practice it will be no good for the students either. So the tutors should also be selected and have clarified what they have to do and the amount of clear time that they have to spend in school, for example. They cannot spend all their time on the practice and forget the students.

MPTF: You lecture in Hong Kong and on the Chinese Mainland. Do you think there’s a difference in teaching and learning styles between these two places.
PF: Yes of course. In general, on the Chinese mainland, the students are more hard-working than Hong Kong students. But I think that the problem of China Mainland students may be that their language skills don’t develop sufficiently well. There are many study materials that you have to read in English, so this language barrier, so to speak, is limiting how much knowledge the mainland students can acquire. If the mainland students can improve their linguistic skills, I believe they can develop a much broader view. For Hong Kong students, I think that they are very good at English in general, because the language is very established in its society, but that is also why I believe that some of them are not that hard-working. Even so, they are more willing to learn with an open-mind.

fung1_dongshanhu Hotspring Hotel, Chaozhou, Guangdong

Chaozhou Dongshanhu Hotspring Hotel, Guangdong, China

So I think for China mainland students they have to open their minds to accept new things. Architecture is not like secondary school knowledge. It doesn’t have any answers that there’s only one way to do this or that. You cannot simply be directed and think you’ll be good. With many ways to do the same thing, it’s important that the student learns to manage themselves.

MPTF: Your design for the Shenzhen Dotwell Office – with its striking unpolished concrete beams – leads us to ask whether you believe in keeping the materials in their rawest and purest forms?
PF: Most office spaces are too articulated and I think that, in order to see the real reflection of spaces one must leave some form of hard materials in place so that people can really take the spaces apart and fully experience them. Nobody ever said that an office has got to be pristine and polished, they could also look “rough”. By leaving materials at their rawest and purest forms it will also be easier to appreciate the contrast between the smoothness of furniture and the raw hard structural materials which itself is another experience.

MPTF: Your Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning exhibition was mainly done with reflective steel and concrete. But it is clear that you also like using bamboo, for example. So what influences your choice of materials?
PF: Personal preference and understanding of materials has always played a huge part in the selection process, for me. Sometimes I need to choose a material that is suitable for my concept whereas I have also – unfortunately – had to pick certain materials due to budget limitations. However, using cheap materials does not necessarily means a cheap and knock-off design; it is my job to transform materials into architecture no matter how lavish or poor they are.

fung interview2MPTF: Do you think that architecture symbolises wealth and power?
PF: I think it is very dangerous to only connect architecture with wealth and power as architecture should really only belong to the people. For architecture to truly belong to the people, the spaces have to be comfortable, meaningful and interesting. Say I am responsible for a certain grand government building but it does not cater to the general public then what is the point of it? I believe that architecture should give back to the people, community and be in sync with nature at the same time. I try to interpret briefs independently so that I will not become a politician’s puppet. Maybe that, after all, is the definition of an independent architect.


Philip Fung, ElseDesign: