Lu Wenyu

     —  interviewed by Jiang Hao  —

Many complain that Wang Shu’s partner, Lu Wenyu is seldom acknowledged in the practice. This is the first article to redress the balance. Jiang Hao of MPTF interviewed her in Hangzhou (additional material by Wang Ziyu).

vertical courtyards

Vertical Courtyard Apartments, 2002-2007, Hangzhou, China
Photograph by Lu Wenyu

MPTF: I visited your (2002 – 07) project for the Vertical Courtyard outside Hangzhou, and was very impressed. However, while the concept of community engagement is a good one, I saw many people misusing the space: they block neighbors instead of sharing public space, for example. What do you think of this? The fact that real people use spaces differently – contradictorily – to your stated design intentions?

Lu Wenyu: Well, first of all it is important to say that the building you see now is not the one that was originally designed. During the design process, the property market fell into the doldrums and the real estate developer wanted to attract customers by adding other features to the building. Furthermore, there were regulatory changes, so that in the original, for example, we built a very high wall between the highway and living area to prevent traffic noise. I think that was a good design solution but it was rejected by Hangzhou Planning Bureau.

vertical courtyards2

But the essence of the idea – that of high-density housing. – was always part of our design ideals since the early 2000s. In those days, Wang Shu used to work on small-scale buildings such as private houses and small public buildings. Compared with these low scale, low density projects, collective social housing is clearly more challenging and more complex. Once in a meeting, Wang said that a real progress for an architect is achieving experimentation and progress in collective, high density social housing. Since then, Wang devoted himself to this social housing issue.

Chinese people are always obsessed by the idea of the courtyard. Wang’s initial concept was to try to provide the essence of the courtyard to residents living far above the ground. At that time, I was working in a large Design Institute in charge of a social housing project and so I helped Wang to try out his courtyard idea. The building also offers residents’ different room types.

We started by experimenting sharing a courtyard on every second floor. After we handed in the design proposal, the developer told us the courtyard would increase the cost by 10,000 RMB/m2 and unsurprisingly, only a few northern blocks with bad sunlight were completed as per the original proposal: the main blocks had been compromised even though the developer still complained about losing profits just by including a few of the original courtyards.

Wang used to visit the building in use to see how well the courtyards were working. The one on Level 2 was an empty, unused space. The one on Level 10 was filled with plants by some green-fingered residents. The one on Level 12 was arranged like an actual siheyuan in Beijing with benches in the middle, planting growing up railings… and a working washing machine on the side.

To come back to your question, we, as architects, can only provide a platform: a mechanism to show better, nicer ways of living. We provide the opportunity for options even though the idea that these can be turned into reality is not always possible.

In this project, the room types vary from 60 m2 to 200 m2 which means the users – the family size or the income groups – are varied. It’s a comfort to us that some of users start to use the courtyards properly. Moreover, we had actually done a few things to restrict the residents’ use of this space to prevent it from misuse. All in all, in this case, I’d say that it is a successful project compared to many other housing projects in China.

MPTF: I recently interviewed a planner who said that the past 30 years have been the Golden Age for planning in China. He cited the fact that so many cities have been expanding very quickly as, in his words, a “miracle”. However, he also told me that he thought that architectural design has not kept up. What do you think?

Lu Wenyu: Well, I am not a planner, so I am going to answer this question from my perspective. We have discussed this issue with many architects (and some planners) and have even asked the question: “Did we actually plan the creation of modern China?”

I think this question helps us address this issue more profoundly. Did we actually do planning? If so, did we actually carry out the plans to construct cities? The situation in China is quite instructive. For instance, when local government official change, the future of a previously agreed city plan might become uncertain overnight. Different officials tend to have different requirements (for city plans) – maybe this is simply for them to attain iconic status or maybe it is a more generous ambition to improve the regional GDP. Take Hangzhou for example, in the 1970s, there were not many tall buildings in the city for a long time, but since the first building to exceed the official height restrictions (near Xihu Lake) was created, more tall buildings have been built with less and less debate and discussion.

MPTF: President Xi has said that the process of urbanization in China should slow down. Meanwhile, Amateur Architects has been taking a keen interest in rural architecture. Is now a good time for rural architecture?

Lu Wenyu: We started research on rural architecture several years ago but it was not until two years ago that we started to make practical plans. Finally, in 2014 we carried out our first plans.

wang shu 4We have serious concerns about the interest in rural urbanization because first of all we need to find out what it means. Is it a contradiction in terms? If we think that rural urbanization is to build tall buildings in rural areas, then the situation will deteriora

This is quite urgent because a large number of local governments want to accelerate the pace of rural urbanization (New Rural Construction). Commonly, they build many blocks of similar buildings without any design input. From our research, we find out that many officials believe that to rebuild the whole area is much faster, better and more economically efficient than to refurbish old houses. In addition, farmers look enviously toward city life and might think they achieve such life, such status, only by moving to tall buildings. This kind of belief needs to be changed and, of course, it can be changed. This is why we put a lot of effort into selecting the location of our project.te in villages and they will undoubtedly disappear in no time. What we want to do is to try to show local government a different approach to developing rural areas in order to attract people from cities – an approach that doesn’t involve constructing tall buildings and skyscrapers.

The first 2 years were spent on convincing local government to approve our project. Then we began to talk with farmers who did not understand us in the beginning so we thought it necessary to help them actually feel the benefit and improvement of the living conditions contained within our reform plans. Then, we thought, they would be more cooperative. As far as we are concerned, ther first priority is to preserve old villages so Wang spent the last few years proposing this idea to Hangzhou government. Delightedly, the number of villages that Hangzhou government decides to preserve has grown from 1,000 to 10,000. This is a very good situation.

MPTF: Suzhou and Hang

zhou are always mentioned together as “Su-Hang” in Chinese. However, the two cities have different ways to preserve rural architecture. Which city do you think is better at this? What is the ideal way of doing so?

Lu Wenyu: We have actually been discussing this topic a lot. The two cities have their own distinguishing features. Suzhou is famous for its gardens and its old-fashioned urban life and seems to have a better record in the preservation of its historic architecture. Admittedly, digging a big underground roadway (Ganjiang Road) is a bad decision, I think because it basically cuts the city in half. But generally speaking, Suzhou is good at preserving the essence of the city. Hangzhou, on the other hand, is now described as “half city, half landscape”: while the landscape has been well protected, the city has been seriously damaged. We believe that the combination of landscape in Hangzhou and gardens in Suzhou would be ideal.

academy of arts

MPTF: What is so different about the study of architecture in China Academy of Art compared to other places?

Lu Wenyu: We only enroll art students and they tend to be more conceptual than engineering students and need to be educated differently. One teacher complained that art students seem to have difficulties understanding simple requests (compared, in his instance, with engineering students from Zhejiang University where he used to teach). So we adapted the teaching method and set up a new course looking at creative pedagogy for art students. This turns out to be working smoothly and in 2003, we applied for a new 5-year programme instead of the previous 4-year duration.

Maybe because most college students are the only child in family, they are not clever with their hands and, because they have been pampered, they are often unable to take care of themselves, to act independently. So, with us, we ask our students to only learn basic crafts such as woodwork, bricklaying or rammed earth during their first year. Then they would learn Chinese calligraphy for a whole year, and, of course, drawing and sketching as our teachers are all experts from Academy of Art. These outstanding teachers help students actually feel the texture of different materials and feel craftsmanship from practice. Only with a comprehensive knowledge of different materials, can students design and know what exactly they try to draw. I believe that architectural design is based on drawing, so it is essential to know that different lines respectively represent different materials like bamboo, wood, metal, concrete, bricks and earth. Our academy might be the only one in China which allows students spend a year working with different materials and literally feeling them. After one year, many students would feel very proud that they could fix furniture and even make some of their own.

In the second year, the course mainly focuses on Chinese gardens and was initially taught by Wang Shu himself, but in 2010, Xin Wang who specializes in gardens was appointed from Beijing. Now Xin is teaching the course with two other teachers. Each of the three have their own specialty and different teaching directions.

We also invite foreign teachers to teach 3rd year students and we begin to offer students specific architecture modules. During the first semester, the courses focus on urban issues and the next semester the focus is on rural issues. Year 4 students mainly study construction and in Year 5, we have an open brief to allow them to decide upon their own direction of study. Generally speaking, the 1st and 2nd years are slightly controlled; the 3rd year is more open, and in the 4th year, we teach students basic knowledge of architecture. Finally, in the 5th year, we provide openness and require students to use what they’ve learned during their previous years of education.

wangshu

MPTF: If I may digress slightly, it has been noted that Wang Shu – like many architects – often dresses in black. Chinese-style. Why is that?

Lu Wenyu: Well, actually he’s not obsessed by clothes, it’s just convenient because he devotes such a huge amount of his time to his work that he hardly has the energy to care about his appearance. On the other hand, black is neat and dignified so he can wear these clothes on almost every occasion. The one suit that he wears the most, we bought in Hangzhou. He wears it because it is well-designed without being too fussy.

MPTF: How do you and Mr. Wang manage your architecture studio?

Lu Wenyu: Because our studio is very small, we don’t really need to manage it too much. Actually we find that it is not that helpful to have a bunch of people around all the time and also Wang insists on doing all the designs by himself.

We cooperate with big companies when working on large projects, for instance there were nearly 200 people working on one project a while ago, but still, the Design Institute is taking on a large part of the input, which is a problem because some details end up very different to the initial design. In circumstances like this, we double-check the project blueprint to make sure that every detail is perfectly in accordance with our requirements in order to better realise our design intent. Although our team is small, we are the core of a project.

My job is to help the architect and the design institute work together successfully. I know exactly when I should get involved and control the situation and when it is not. You have to keep the balance between controlling and letting go.

wang shu 2MPTF: So how did you participate in the Ningbo Historical Museum with local workers?

Lu Wenyu: Well, it was a two-way process. We drew a colorized blueprint for each surface so that they could easily understand the intention and carry it out without too much architectural drawing knowledge. The difficult part was that it was impossible to complete the building exactly as we designed it but we still had a benchmark blueprint.

On the construction site, the falseworks encircles the whole building, so it was impossible to see the whole building as work progressed, which was very interesting because I had to supervise… but I couldn’t see much. I realized that I couldn’t supervise and control everything especially since the overall project was a cooperation between the architect and the craftsmen themselves. We value what the craftsmen do and there were good interactions between us, but it is important to note that we also had a difficult time with the client/employer because they couldn’t see what was going on either… and strongly argued against using recycled materials, for example,.

wag shu 1At the beginning, working with the craftsmen on a small portion of the gallery didn’t bode well. The workers seemed to understand our request but the finished product was completely disappointing. It looked like a bit of a gingham shirt and a bit of a flowery skirt combined together. Wang Shu then asked him to knock it down and do it again but that wasn’t possible because of the implications for the cost of construction so we both agreed to come up with a compromise. They pulled half of the building down and reconstructed as we had designed, while the other half remained there. Through this incident, the craftsmen got to know what we wanted and how to work with us. This was a very valuable experience and it is important to share it with you.

Please note, MPTF are currently writing a book about leading female architects in China. If you would like to know more, please contact austin.williams@xjtlu.edu.cn

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