For a glimpse into the future of sustainable architecture, look into China

Near the village of HengKeng in China’s Fujian Province, there is a bamboo forest with an open-air theater, also made of bamboo. The twist, however, is that no bamboo was actually cut to build the theater. Instead, live bamboos were bent and roped together until they formed a dome with a circular opening at the top.

DnA_Design and Architecture, Bamboo Theater, HengKeng Village, Songyang, China, 2015 [Photo: Wang Ziling]

The so-called Bamboo Theater was designed in 2018 by Xu Tiantian of DnA Design and Architecture to provide a space for cultural activities for the local community. Along with seven other projects from across China, it is now highlighted in a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that seeks to change our perception of the country’s approach to contemporary architecture.

Title Reuse, renew, recycle: recent architecture from China, the exhibition presents a new generation of Chinese architects who are promoting social and environmental sustainability by transforming industrial buildings, recycling materials and reinterpreting ancient construction techniques. In an age where the meaning of sustainability is often defined by a multitude of standards and certifications rather than lived spatial experience, the exhibition presents a more nuanced definition that draws inspiration from the use of traditional materials and d ‘a closer link between architecture and nature.

“We want to reorient the global conversation towards ecological approaches to architecture,” explains Martino Stierli, who organized the exhibition with Evagenlos Kotsioris. In the city of Guilin, Vector Architects transformed an abandoned sugar factory into a hotel complex. In Beijing, ZAO / standardarchitecture’s Zhang Keof proposed a series of independent living units inserted into one of the city’s myriad Hutong courtyards, which have been the target of mass demolition for more than a decade. And in the West Bund district of Shanghai, Philip F. Yuan recovered and reused gray bricks from an old warehouse to build a new envelope for a museum.

Vector Architects, Alila Yangshuo Hotel, Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi, China, 2013-2017 [Photo: Shengliang Su]

The exhibition is a pallet cleaner for ostentatious big budget projects that China has been known for in recent years. “I think it would be a good surprise for a lot of people, because the idea of ​​what architecture could be like in China today is associated with big projects and polluting industries,” says Kotsioris. “The reality is that all of these architects are concerned with reuse, renewal and recycling, but not in Western understanding. “

According to Kotsioris, Western architects refer to sustainability in a “technocratic way” that is motivated by certifications and a “check mark mentality” that focuses on utility and performance. “You can have the headquarters of a Chinese company designed by a Western company with Carrara marble mined around the world, and still have a LEED Platinum certification because the points system does not take into account the complete production cycle” , he said.

For Chinese architects, the word sustainability does not come up often. Instead, Kotsioris explains that they follow basic principles that revolve around harmony with nature or the continuation of the past. In Jinhua City, for example, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu, from Amateur Architecture Studio, designed a humble tea room on a gently sloping ground. The tilt was inspired by the traditional Chinese ink stones used to mix dry ink and water in art and calligraphy (the exhibit features a striking mock-up of the facade, which has more than a hundred different enamels inspired by the function of an ink stone). The connection to sustainability as we know it may not be immediately apparent here (in fact, the word is rarely used across the exhibit). And yet, using a traditional object to inspire the shape of a building evokes a more nuanced meaning of sustainability in its poignant connection to history.

Zhang Ke, Micro-Hutong, Beijing, China, 2016 [Photo: Wu Qingshan]

With few exceptions, the projects presented here are on a small scale (the exhibition itself is anchored by magnificent architectural models in porcelain, concrete or brick to reflect each of the key materials of the project). This is a conservation decision that reflects many of the architects’ aspirations to revitalize the Chinese countryside through small insertions aligned with the needs of the community. A good example is the village of Wencun, where Amateur Architecture Studio was invited by the local municipality to create a cultural complex and instead designed a series of houses connected by a new bridge and small public pavilions. Through the use of local building materials and techniques, Stierli says the projects have fostered better engagement with the community. “And that, in turn, gives people a certain degree of dignity and a belief in their own way of life,” he says.

It should be noted that these projects are only a fraction of what is being built in China, some of which are indeed massive. But it’s also important to remember that what we see in the West can be influenced by the monumental scale of a project coupled with the fact that oversized projects are often designed by Western architects who are hired “for prestige”, explains Stierli. Dr Xiangning Li, who teaches architecture at Tongji University and has been a consultant for the exhibition, says Chinese architecture has come a long way in the past three decades. “As I look back and reflect on the changes that have taken place, I am happy to see contemporary Chinese architects constantly using the new products emerging in droves to express their interpretations of tradition,” he says. “A cultural consciousness rooted in the collective unconscious today takes various contemporary forms.

Compared to earlier architects who often avoided cultural associations with Chinese traditions – or reflected traditional Chinese architecture without translating it into the 21st century – Li claims that contemporary architects are now adopting traditional materials in innovative ways. “Contemporary construction techniques often lead to an unexpected dialogue between tradition and progress,” he says.

View of the installation of the exhibition “Reuse, renew, recycle: recent architecture from China”, from September 18, 2021 to July 4, 2022; The Museum of Modern Art, New York [Photo: Robert Gerhardt, Courtesy MOMA]

The country’s “cultural awareness” has grown since the mid-1980s, when China opened up to economic development – and to the West. Until then, Chinese architects were not allowed to set up independent firms. “Once it became possible for them to articulate their own agendas, many architects began to be more outward-looking,” he says, noting that they often study abroad, return to China and applied their experience locally. “It produced a very interesting combination of principles that guided their work,” he says.

Over the past decade, China has started to develop its own architectural identity, led by a growing group of architects, many of whom are portrayed in the show. For Stierli, the exhibition is an opportunity to highlight this development and the environmental benefits associated with it. “In the West today, we tend to see architecture as part of the problem,” he says, referring to the building sector’s high carbon footprint. “But these projects give us hope and the conviction that architecture can be part of the solution.”

The exhibition is free to access and visible until July 4, 2022, in the single-storey galleries of the Museum of Modern Art.

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