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The Greatest Truths Are The Simplest

封璟Juliet Feng 2016-05-19 14:50

Wearing a black shirt, shoulder length hair, and a pair of dark sunglasses, Zhang Lei’s appearance is reminiscent of lm di- rector Kar Wai Wong. Give him a guitar and he would start to resemble Wang Feng, a longhaired rock'n'roll singer from the 1990s. 

Born in Nantong, Jiangshu province in 1964, Zhang studied at Southeast University where he shared tutors with famed architect Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner. Hangzhou-based Wang likes to wear traditional Chinese robes and vintage glasses and his architecture demonstrates the essence of China's traditional cultural landscape; grey tile and bamboo have almost become his trademark style. Zhang’s works presents the rationality and simplicity of Chinese and Western elements combined; clean lines and elevations that are as cool as his appearance. And while he is not limited to the use of construction materials, it is clear that he has a deeply held connection with the natural environment and

cultural customs.


The difference in the styles of classmates Wang and Zhang may be 
related to the different educations they were exposed to post-graduation. After earning a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree from Southeast University, Zhang travelled to Switzerland to study at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. While Zhang studied in Europe, Wang on the other hand, stayed in China. Since 2000, after returning to China from Switzerland, Zhang started to garner attention in the architectural industry both at home and internationally in part due to several successful projects such as Concrete Slit House, Poets Houses, Fang Lijun Gallery, Yangzhou Three Courtyard Community Centre, and Nanjing Wanjing Garden Chapel. Zhang’s company AZL Architects was selected by the world famous American magazine Architecture Record as a global top 10 Design Vanguard in 2008, an honor bestowed on very few architects. In 2009, British magazine ICON selected him as one of “the world's 20 most in uential young architects in the future.”


Zhang’s past work has the amazing power to leave people with a lasting impression. He tenaciously uses readily available local materials to express abstract modern architecture space and inherent spirit. From that, you can see his concept of “Basic Building”: adapted to local conditions, advocating the simplicity of form and coordination with the environment. He uses normal materials and common approach to respond to complicated operating requirements.

In his seminal work, “Poet’s Houses” in Gaochun, he used red bricks made in a kiln near the project site, which in turn saved a lot of money for the project. Using a Cubist style for abstract organization of the huge amount of red bricks, the “Poet’s Houses” strikes a powerful visual tension. As for Nanjing Wanjing Garden Chapel, he uses the most common combination of wood and steel structure instead of traditional stone material - the roof structure used the “cheapest“ materials of natural light to add expressiveness to the entire space.


When so many architects were trying to make their marks on the landscapes of cities, Zhang has been quietly walking away in another direction entirely. In recent years, he walked into a historic village in Tonglu, Zhejiang Province. This historic village, about half an hour's drive from Hangzhou, has a history of 1,900 years and is home to over 40 well-preserved historic buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Zhang renovated a historic building “Jingsong Tang,” taking it as the main building, combined with surrounding residence to remold and update the whole place. In the process, he seemed to forget himself and his style. He liked to hold the blueprint, standing next by the villagers shoulder to shoulder and listen to their opinions.

Last autumn, the renovation project “Ruralation Shenaoli”, hosted and designed by Zhang, was completed. It retained the basic pattern and exquisite woodcarvings of traditional architecture of Qing dynasty and yet harboured a comfortable modern interior space. The space following the reconstruction included a community library, coffee shop, restaurant, and hotel open to the villagers and travellers. There is now a cultural exhibition space for local cultural and creative products, and other kinds of commercial activities. A decaying historic house has since become the soul of the entire village and doesn’t really have any style tags of the famous contemporary architects.


“During the renovation of the house, I always suppressed my own design impulses. The new Jingsong Tang looks the same; ancient and old. But this is exactly what I wanted. The last thing I want to see is unnatural ‘sense of design’. As an architect, what I need to do here is to make the old houses better to use and keep the traditional feelings.”

In fact, the project “Ruralation Shenaoli” is the rst completed work of “E’shan Practice”, a vernacular building activity carried out by Zhang and Sustainable Vernacular Architecture Research Center of Nanjing University. Vernacular return and village reconstruction also show the sense of mission, feelings, and sense of value of Chinese architects. Although he has completed many projects, Zhang said this project brought him an unprecedented sense of accomplishment.


VANTAGE: What makes “Ruralation Shenaoli” special for you personally, both an emotional and technical point of view? 

Zhang: Emotionally, I was hoping I could activate the vernacular villages which are decaying in this rapid urbanization, and to keep the hometown’s sweet memories alive by actively participating in rural construction work. The most ef cient way of village renaissance is led by its culture. I would say that city cannot leave the country, and not that the country needs the city. There is a word deep in your heart called “hometown”. Technically, as a profes- sional and experienced architect, I am exploring the ef cient way of continuing the cultural context and solve the issue of the fact that it’s easy to make a historic house look good but it’s dif cult to make it good to use by the exemplary lead of the successful case.

VANTAGE: Compared to Western architectural design techniques, what do you think of the overall level of the current Chinese architects’ design? What problems do we still have?
Zhang: In all design elds, Chinese architects are arguably the ones with the most international standards. You can tell this by the international authoritative awards Chinese architects have received in recent years. Also, Chinese architects frequently appear in rst-class interna- tional architectural magazines. They are admitted to Architecture with high points and excellent IQ scores and growing up in the long-term competition with rst-class international of ces. The improvement of the standard of design doesn’t just depend simply on the architect’s efforts. What’s more important is the improvement of the whole society’s aesthetic standards and scienti c decision-making mechanism.


VANTAGE: In your opinion, what kind of design is good design? 

Zhang: Simple complexity and familiar strangeness.

VANTAGE: What type of projects do you like to take on?

 Zhang: The proprietor of the project is much more important than the type of project. Because how far you can push the aesthetics of the project is determined by the aesthetic tolerance of the pro- prietor. For now, I prefer to design hotel projects. Hotel is just like a “lover.” The connection between space and people is very high. A good design needs your life experience and keen perception.

VANTAGE: About hotel projects, which needs to meet the high requirements of local culture folk-custom, what are the advantages of Chinese designers? And what’s the limitation?

Zhang: The advantages of Chinese designers are growing up in and living in the environment. However, the limitation for us is also about being too familiar with the environment around us. Some of us lack international vision and of course we have too much work within a short time. The architects overseas usually have more time and a high fee of design. To be objective, we don’t have a fairly competitive environment.


◆About ZhangLei

Zhang Lei, a famous Chinese architect, is the professor in Architecture and Urban Planning School of Nanjing University, the director of Sustainable Contemporary Vernacular Architecture Research Centre. He is also the founder and chief architect of AZL Architects. Zhang was awarded the title of "Master Designer" by Jiangsu Provincial Government.

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