“Le Corbusier’s thoughts had a subtle influence on me”

Eduard Kögel
13. February 2024
Shou County Culture and Art Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)
Shou County Culture and Art Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)
Eduard Kögel: You are showing some recent projects in an exhibition at Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin. What criteria did you use to put the exhibition together?

Zhu Pei: Firstly, the criteria are based on my design theory ‘Architecture of Nature’. It is not only focused on a poetical architectural culture but also on a response rooted in traditional Eastern natural philosophy to the challenges facing humanity today, such as climate change and regional cultural disruption through technological development. Secondly, it continues the discourse on these and other ideas initiated by my solo exhibition at Aedes Architecture Forum 2017.

Yangliping Performing Arts Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)
Why did you develop your own theoretical framework to guide architectural design?

In my work as an architect, I am trying to respond to climate change and the disruption of regional culture. Climate change may seem like a technical problem, but in reality, it is a cultural problem. Our buildings and cities are no longer cleverly or truly planned, instead, they show a trend towards being planned as theme parks. With my ‘Architecture of Nature’ theory, I try to reflect on the relationship between tradition and modernity from a cultural perspective, so that architecture can draw energy from tradition and nature and be rooted in the earth that humanity depends on to survive.

Yangliping Performing Arts Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)
Can you explain the references you draw on in your approach?

I was moved by the late work of Le Corbusier, who regarded architecture as art and was inspired by regional culture. He once said, “Creativity doesn’t come from anywhere, it comes from the lessons of history”. Le Corbusier’s thoughts had a subtle influence on me.

Majiayao Ruins Museum and Observatory (Sketch © Studio Zhu Pei)
In the twentieth century, Chinese architectural historians mainly focused on timber construction and often neglected to address aspects of space. It seems that you focus on space first and that you see structure as determined by technology. Can you elaborate on your idea of space?

This point is about what constitutes the essence of architecture. Architecture is the art of reflecting on purpose, space, structure, material and time. I always begin my conception of architecture with sectional sketches. Firstly, it’s about understanding the building purpose and the programme. Secondly, I imagine what kind of spatial form is suitable for a certain purpose. Next, I think about what kind of structural concept is suitable for this spatial form, and then I imagine what materials are suitable for the construction. Of course, certain locations, orientations, wind directions, mountains, lakes, open fields, etc., also influence the design of the architecture from the outside. The two dimensions, from inside to outside and from outside to inside, are not simple binary thinking, but complex processes of thought, imagination and design.

Majiayao Ruins Museum and Observatory (Sketch © Studio Zhu Pei)
At the Zijing International Conference Camp in Jingdezhen, you use only a few materials and repeat a few formal elements throughout the different buildings. What role do building types and typologies play in this project and how do you interpret the historical context?

The inspiration comes from traditional rural settlements and the special location in the valley. The Zijing Conference Camp is located in the suburbs of Jingdezhen in a valley surrounded by mountains, and the site is very complex both horizontally and vertically. Therefore, building types and typologies play an important role in interpreting the complicated context. Settlements consisting of numerous simple, geometric buildings need a solution for a complex site. Models can be found in the topological responses found in local historical villages.

By using two simple concrete shear walls with an inverted concrete arch segment to support the walls a structural unit was created, the additive arrangement of which adapted to the vertical dimensional changes of the hills. 

Forming a structural unit as an additive arrangement of two simple concrete shear walls braced by an inverted concrete arch segment, makes it possible to adapt to the vertical dimensional changes of the hills. Simultaneously, the spacing between the structural units created opportunities for natural lighting and ventilation. The buildings of the conference camp are arranged in the form of a settlement rather than as a singular large form, emphasising the flexibility of this typological arrangement in the horizontal dimension to adapt to the complex topography of the valley.

Zijing International Conference Camp (Study model © Studio Zhu Pei)
What role does the landscape play and how do you deal with the landscape aspect in your designs?

I have always had a strong feeling that architecture is part of the landscape, whether in urban or rural areas. It is obvious to me that architecture should not imitate natural landscapes. On the contrary, it should be abstract and of simple geometries, otherwise it loses the character of architecture. Today we see many buildings that want to imitate nature, but such endeavours are actually more against nature. What interests me most is the dialogue or tension between artificial architecture and natural landscapes.

Zijing International Conference Camp (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © Su Shengliang)
The history of the location is repeatedly emphasised in your designs. But you don’t use any formal references aside from type and typology. What is important to you about the historical aspects of a project?

I am always interested in the contemporaneity inherent in the history and traditions of a region, and not in its superficial past. So, when I design architecture, I always try to find the wisdom and inspiration behind history and tradition and translate these inspirations into a contemporary architectural language.

OCT Art Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © Xia Zhi)
Using the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum as an example, can you explain how you apply your theory and how the building is accepted locally?

The creative process of the Imperial Kiln Museum strongly follows my design theory ‘Architecture of Nature’. To summarise, it is a contemporary translation of the roots of local culture and climate. Firstly, it succeeded in reshaping the relationship between porcelain, people and kilns, which in turn contributed to the success of local porcelain art and culture. Secondly, the Imperial Kiln Museum is strongly inspired by the traditional house typology of the region, namely its natural ventilation through narrow alleys and vertical courtyards. For the museum, we successfully designed a horizontal wind tunnel with the vaults, and achieved a chimney effect with sunken courtyards, thereby creating a three-dimensional natural ventilation system in both horizontal and vertical directions and achieving the goal of avoiding the use of air-conditioning in this extremely humid and hot environment. The Imperial Kiln Museum can be seen as an exemplary experimental application of my design theory ‘Architecture of Nature’.

Today, the Imperial Kiln Museum is the most popular museum in China, and people appreciate it because they can strongly feel the connection between tradition and innovation when taking a tour.

OCT Art Centre (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © Xia Zhi)
Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)
Imperial Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen (Photo: Studio Zhu Pei © schranimage)

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