Atelier Deshaus: "The Idea Is Not to Create an Object But to Construct a Path"

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Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang

In China's newly emerging constellation of famed architects, few firms elicit the sense of surprise caused by the work of Atelier Deshaus. With projects ranging from awe-inspiring to humble, their work does not adhere to any stylistic rules, but all of their projects exude an enigmatic aura. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” series, principals Liu Yichun and Chen Yifeng discuss the role of identity in their work and how they try to connect their buildings to the landscape.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Is it true that you each design different projects in the studio? Why is that?

Liu Yichun: This has been true since 2010. Before that we always designed everything together. We used to have endless discussions and too many disagreements and arguments. That’s why we decided to pursue two parallel paths. This approach led to greater efficiency and it helped us to formulate clearer ideas of our independent views of architecture. It also helps us to diversify our work and to avoid forming one recognizable style.

Chen Yifeng: It is important for us to express our solutions differently, even though, fundamentally, we are working in one direction and pursuing one family of ideas.

Kindergarten of Jiading New Town, Shanghai, 2008. Image © Su Shengliang Kindergarten of Jiading New Town, Shanghai, 2008. Image © Su Shengliang

VB: How would you describe the intentions of your work?

LYC: We try to go beyond a particular program. We work on integrating the manmade with the landscape and focus on what we call “objecthood” and “situatedness.” In other words, we don’t just see architecture as a pure sculptural expression but as a direct response to a complex juxtaposition of many layers of specific conditions such as the site, program, culture, and other meanings.

CYF: We concentrate on doing public architecture rather than commercial architecture by focusing on two main categories: exhibition spaces such as museums, and educational projects, mainly schools and kindergartens. We avoid working for commercial developers on such projects as offices or residential, as they are mainly about the market and maximizing profits. We are not interested in that.

Huaxin Wisdom Hub, Shanghai, 2015. Image © Chen Hao Huaxin Wisdom Hub, Shanghai, 2015. Image © Chen Hao

VB: You seem to avoid composing your buildings into freestanding, clearly defined objects. Your architecture seems to refuse to be defined by clearly perceivable edges.

LYC: The idea is not to create an object but to construct a path. Our projects are not about proposing new forms but about how they are explored and experienced. They are about space and movement around, inside, on top, and through it, without any particular sequence. And often it is not clear where the entrance is; you need to discover it. A building is a path. You encounter and experience it before you realize that you are already inside of it. A building turns into a landscape and landscape turns into a building.  

Kindergarten of Jiading New Town, Shanghai, 2008. Image © Shu He Kindergarten of Jiading New Town, Shanghai, 2008. Image © Shu He

VB: Speaking of perpetually evolving urbanization in China you said, “We are confronted with the process of drastic urbanization; the surroundings are always unknown. Even if there is planning, it is always subject to unpredictable and constant change. Eventually, we have to resort to our own totality.” You just compared your buildings to landscapes, but these landscapes seem to be quite autonomous; they float independently of the context around them and they establish their own context, right?

LYC: We try not to tie our projects directly to the context since, as you said, it is typically in flux. But we always engage with the outside and try to create many opportunities for observing outside or engaging from inside and we are interested in these dialogs that often evolve beyond our control. We use our architecture to express and embrace this uncertainty, not to escape from it.

CYF: Many of our projects are built in suburban areas with no context and we are often forced not to respond to the context but to create it. Sometimes we decide to isolate our buildings by creating a boundary to protect them from the constantly changing environment.

Spiral Gallery II, Shanghai, 2011. Image © Shu He Spiral Gallery II, Shanghai, 2011. Image © Shu He

VB: In one of your texts you said, that you “believe that pragmatic solutions related to contemporary architecture in China require a rational approach that is linked to a personal touch.” Let’s talk about this “personal touch” in more detail. What do you think differentiates your work from other architects?

CYF: Our work has many uncertainties but they are our uncertainties.

LYC: We don’t focus on creating our own identity. We simply work on projects, hoping that our identity will come through. Architecture for me should manage three things: first, it is designed to be used. Then, it should be suitable for the site. Lastly, it must be emotionally touching. The solution might be varied for each project, but each one reflects its time, place, and use by people.

Spiral Gallery I & II, Shanghai. Image © Yao Li Spiral Gallery I & II, Shanghai. Image © Yao Li

VB: You said something quite interesting, “Constructing a new place and experience is a task that every good architect should complete.” Would it be accurate to say that in each of your works you intend to provide a unique experience? Could you talk about your process? What are some of the questions that you ask?

CYF: We focus on pragmatics and specifics. We work on creating experiences, particular views, and so on. Our focus is not on newness, but on being suitable and specific. For example, in the Spiral Gallery project, the question we tried to answer is how to see the outside. So, we came up with this up-down route for the users to have a closed-open-closed experience along the way, as a better way to visually connect with their surroundings.

The Huaxin Wisdom Hub is another story. The environment is not exactly pleasant at the moment, so we created a wall to separate our building from it. But the wall is not completely closed, rather it is somewhat “floating” above the ground, contributing to the resultant state of ambiguity and uncertainty.

LYC: There are two things we care about most. One is how a building assumes its relationship with its own site, whether it is cultural, contextual, or visual. The other one is more relevant to modernity, issues that are global and shared by all people.

Huaxin Wisdom Hub, Shanghai, 2015. Image © Chen Hao Huaxin Wisdom Hub, Shanghai, 2015. Image © Chen Hao

VB: Being one of the most original architecture offices in the country it is hard to believe that you are not focused on newness. You seem to downplay your role as creative authors. But let me assure you that your Long Museum and many other of your projects propose something I haven’t seen before and that is probably because you set that as your goal. You are pursuing architecture without relying on any established rules. You are setting rules up yourselves. Your buildings are like nothing I have ever seen before. How can that be achieved simply by trying to solve things pragmatically?

LYC: You are right, our architecture is about newness. But the new is the result, not the starting point. Primarily, we focus on context and program. The new is a subtext. But sure, it is there. It is the focus on the specifics that leads to something new, not the other way around.  

CYF: What leads to a unique solution is our recognition of something particular and unusual in the site or program. Unique conditions lead to unique solutions. We are aiming to create unique atmospheres in each project. These atmospheres have to have memories of the past and look into the future at the same time.

Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Xia Zhe Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Xia Zhe

VB: Your Long Museum is based on a pattern of repeated forms that you call “vault-umbrellas” or umbrella columns that mimic an existing ruin on the site. Since the Long Museum is an art institution its program is not very precise, as far as spatial requirements. Would you say that you designed this building as a ruin, somewhat independently of its function, imagining how the structure may look in the afterlife of the museum?

LYC: Absolutely. The goal there was to achieve a certain freedom, a sense of eternity. I think a ruin is a kind of space that offers freedom and is associated with eternity. The project was more about the space itself, not simply a response to the museum’s particular need.

VB: Do you think architecture is art?

LYC: Sure. Architecture should be thought of as art. Finally!

CYF: Of course, architecture as art is our goal. If it is not art then it cannot be called architecture.

Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang

VB: If you were to describe your architecture in single words what would they be?

LYC: Structuring with landscape, mindscape.

CYF: Poetic, contextual, usability.

VB: Is there one particular building in Shanghai built in recent years that you enjoy most?

LYC: Our Long Museum! [Laughs.] Well, for us it is very important and enjoyable. In a way, it has become our starting point, as it incorporates many of the ideas and interests that we experimented with in various projects but never so holistically.

Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, 2014. Image © Su Shengliang

VB: If you could meet any one person in history who would that be?

LYC: Alberti.

CYF: Kahn.

VB: And what would you ask them?

LYC: We always ask the same question—what is architecture? We think it is important to ask this question continuously.

CYF: And we don’t want to come up with the same answer every time. Every situation and every moment in time requires different solutions.

Qingpu Youth Center, Shanghai, 2009. Image © Yao Li Qingpu Youth Center, Shanghai, 2009. Image © Yao Li

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.