LI Xiangning “I think pop culture is beneficial to society”

– by Nikhil Seewoo and Zhu Runzi –

Dr Li Xiangning is Vice Dean and full professor in history, theory and criticism at Tongji University College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He is a regular guest editor of Time+Architecture, a leading architectural magazine and competitor to MPTF in China. From 2016 will be a Visiting professor at Harvard.


lix2MPTF: Is Chinese architectural education changing? Is it becoming more westernised… or is it changing in other ways?
Li: Yes it is changing. Many Chinese architecture schools followed the western educational model – like Tongji University in Shanghai – where we still follow the Bauhaus system. In a way are the descendants of that Bauhaus but now many Chinese architecture schools like ours are gaining enough attention on a global scale (and in QS rankings) to make their own way. Architecture schools like Tongji and Tsinghua University are renowned in the world. Tongji is ranked 16th, better than many American universities in architecture, higher than Yale for architecture, for example.

lix3We (Chinese architecture schools) have gain a confidence of late and now we have to think of our future. What’s next? We should develop our own strategies, distinguish ourselves due to our huge amount of recent experience in urbanism and architecture, and in this way we will accumulate experience that could be reflected in architectural education. This is a transition in China today. We were obviously learning from another system but now we have more equitable communication and exchanges between Chinese architecture schools and foreign ones. New developments in models of urbanism are now strong points Chinese architecture education that, I believe, has advantages over the West.

MPTF: What are the main differences between the Chinese approach to architecture and the Western approach to architecture?
Li: One of the major differences is the logical and emotional approaches to thinking in the West and in China. I believe the Chinese are practicing the same architecture. We are not using different timber structures or anything else, we are using the same concrete systems so I believe there is not so much difference when we consider material reality and structural sciences. However, there are many aspects in which Chinese architecture differs from the west. When we talk about construction quality, material, costs and method of construction, these cast a shadow on the common language that both China and the west are using and these create difference… although minor differences. Fast, quick (poor) quality construction and indeterminate briefs by clients that demand flexible design approaches could mark out a Chinese architectural experience in the future.

MPTF: What are your views on the so called ‘returning students’, do you think it affects architecture in China?
Li: The most active architects practicing in China are the returning students – those who have studied outside of China in United States or Europe, for instance, and have come back to practice in China. I believe studying abroad broadens their problem-solving aptitudes and their creative vision… but when they come back they have to deal with local conditions to solve problems here.

It is not very different from what their peers had to deal with – those who had previously studied abroad at the beginning of the 20th century – met but I do believe those studying abroad have some different ideas and conceptions. They have experienced different things. The educational system in which they have grown up is different and these students also harbour different ideas. However, they are able to navigate the tricky socio-political and cultural situation that most western educated architects cannot in contemporary Chinese architecture.

MPTF: China has been experimenting with Western Ideals (such as Shanghai’s 9 towns/1 city) or copying the Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou amongst other. Do you think this ‘copying culture’ as it has been termed by many Western journalist has been or is beneficial to the creativity of Chinese architecture?
Li: I think we have to view this from two different perspectives. I share mixed feelings vis-à-vis this phenomenon because it is a cheap copy of the West, as I have said it is a “fake reality”, it is a heterotopia and has no connection with any real cultural context. However, on the other side, these ideals reflect the needs of Chinese society for culture value and that’s the reason they built those European cities: it is because they believe that European culture is of higher value so creating such buildings can improve housing sales. This, at least, shows that people like culture and the value of architecture and design.

Moreover, the “themes” is of importance because if you are going to give to people a box, they will understand its value better if they are offered a theme, a building that follows the shape of a coin, for example, reflects their thoughts on luck, on superstition, etc: they feel they understand it. This is part of the satisfaction a building can give to people, so I think pop culture always satisfies the general populace because it offers them a feeling of understanding –  in a way, this is actually beneficial to the society. It provides meaning, in some ways. As an architect however, I would not recommend it but we cannot deny that it creates provocative emotions. Some will criticize it, some will like it and because we are living in a pluralist period of time with a plurality of styles, all are acceptable in China.

liXMPTF: How do you feel about tradition and history in Chinese architecture? Do they significantly contribute to the Chinese contemporary architecture?
Li: I think yes. It is very important that people, that every architect think of how to deal with tradition and history in Chinese architecture. It plays quite a critical role and as I have said, I always appreciate the approach that respects history and tradition but one that doesn’t simply follow it. It is like having a father but now wanting to be the same man as he was, you respect him and want to be a different boy but you have a very good relationship with him. I think it is the same way good architects would do architecture.

MPTF: What can you tell us about your teaching and visiting experiences throughout the world? Has being to different countries and continents contributed to your understanding and development of architecture?
Li: Of course, I think for young architecture students studying abroad is very important as you travel and see different things. At the very beginning you see different value systems and this gives you the opportunity to rethink about your own life. I thought my life was following a specific pathway but some people won’t follow the same pathway so we should firstly accept the difference.

Travelling brings about a very important contribution to our humanity as well as to our mentality. The thought that there exist various unique and different things in the world is of utmost importance to gain a better perception of things around us. Sometime you will think from your point of view that A will lead to B but after experiencing a myriad of situations you will probably see that there might be a C or D as another option. This, in a way will give you more ideas to deal with different unique situations in architecture.

I think my studies in MIT was the starting point. When I was a student, I first visited Europe but only doing a kind of architectural tourism. I saw many buildings and visited many cities but then – only afterwards – as I studied theory and history at MIT it gave me a different way of thinking. This gave me the mental tools to think of my own culture and value from various perspectives so that I can always challenge myself. I am always critical of my own culture and my own thinking concerning my previous attitudes or my current thinking. These have given me a new refreshing window of thought to look at myself, my own thinking and writings.