“The network and the sphere” are two concepts used by sociologist Bruno Latour to describe the ambiguity of our contemporary condition, in which dwelling and connection, local and global, identity and otherness are blurred. The two concepts are clearly in contradistinction to one another: “while networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex ‘atmospheric conditions’. (…) Networks are good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes and wombs,” writes the French sociologist. Spheres can come into being when, like the threads of a spider’s web, the connections become thicker and more recurrent. Spheres are not fixed and clearly circumscribed entities, but new, fragile, nebulous and unstable locations. The concept of the sphere is useful in describing what is happening in the realm of architecture in China, where over the past two decades an ever-growing constellation of local designers is building a diverse but coherent body of architecture.
This emerging sphere is the subject of architect and curator Vladimir Belogolovsky’s analysis with his latest book China Dialogues: a collection of 21 conversations with some of the most relevant Chinese architects of our time.
In response to the rushed and devastating urbanisation that the country has undergone over the last 40 years in China, this group of architects responds with a new sensibility that juxtaposes “the utopian and the everyday, modernity and traditions, collective memories and personal memory, as well as sustainability”. The starting point of the publication is the contextualisation of this movement in a broader time span, which originated in the early 20th century, and which saw architects from various periods trying to construct a recognisable Chinese identity. But according to the author, “the solution to the problem of what constitutes Chinese modern architecture was eventually found by the local architects themselves who realised that the answer would have to be indirect and subtle, in other words, not form-driven.”
Belogolovsky recognises a common attitude in these new architects, although they do not renounce their identity, their poetics and a personal trajectory that leads to naturally different formal results. Nevertheless, there are so many points of convergence between the designers that it is easy to say, as the author of the book does, that “Chinese architecture is a collective project”.
According to the curator “there is a clear emergence of a unique architectural identity here that features very common regional characteristics. Interestingly, this new architecture is quite different from both traditional Chinese architecture and from contemporary architecture in the West where most of the leading independent Chinese architects were trained. The result here is a kind of fusion.”
To narrate this movement, the series of interviews is undoubtedly the most appropriate modus operandi: a multiplicity of (converging) points of view are highlighted, avoiding that the author’s thoughts, however pertinent and articulate, make the discourse one-dimensional.
The most relevant works – such as the Ningbo Museum by Amateur Architecture Studio – are not only discussed directly with the authors but also commented on by the other architects, demonstrating the influences, connections and cohesion between the various interviewees.
Talking at length with architects also allows Belogolovsky to analyse seemingly lateral aspects: why is it so rare for Chinese architects to call their studio by their own name? What relationship do the interviewees have with the authorship of the architectural artefacts? And with Chinese identity? How decisive were the informal connections between architects in top Chinese universities such as Tsinghua? What are China’s Local Design Institutes (LDIs) and how do they operate?
One clarification must be made – and Belogolovsky specifies this on several occasions: although there are more and more interesting architects to follow, they are still a minority compared to the general Chinese scenario, in which there is still a lot of construction going on massively and with little criteria. “While these architects focus on small-scale projects in the countryside, it is the powerful LDIs that influence major urban regeneration projects and continue shaping Chinese cities. The images gathered here illustrate just the tip of the iceberg and a mere hint of the creative potential of the Chinese architects and where China is headed next. To become more relevant is their biggest challenge,” he adds.
The evolution of this movement is not yet complete and Belogolovsky rightly invites us to follow its progress. In the meantime, what he offers us is a useful opportunity for general reflection in continuity with the exhibition Building a Future Countryside, curated by Li Xiangning, dean and professor at Tongji University and presented at the Chinese Pavilion of the 16thVenice Architecture Biennale.
“We need to recognise that history is continuous, and that recent history is also history. What do we consider heritage? Anything that’s avant-garde today may become heritage tomorrow. What’s important is to keep raising questions and be critical,” says ZHANG Ke, founder of ZAO/standardarchitecture. Like him, many of the architects in the book speak to us of a new, free and sensitive way of dealing with the built heritage and the surrounding environment. This is perhaps the main and most universal message that the “Chinese lesson” offers us.