Yung Ho Chang interview

Chinese 'starchitect' Yung Ho Chang wants to get back to nature

Photo by Chen Chao
Beijing-born Yung Ho Chang is one of China’s best-known modernist architects. But far from being proud of the shiny new skyscrapers that glitter over his home town, Yung Ho Chang would prefer to tear them all down – yes, really. ‘I think we should rebuild the whole thing,’ he confirms, from the offices of his company, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu (‘Amazing Architecture’), in the leafy grounds of the Summer Palace. ‘[The old design of the city] was totally unique and we have the maps of Old Beijing from the Qing Dynasty, with details down to the individual buildings.’

When Chang returned to China in 1993, after 15 years as a US academic, the city still resembled the Qing Dynasty layout of 1644 to 1912: narrow hutongs criss-crossed neighbourhoods of one-storey siheyuan (courtyard houses). Over the next two decades, he would see most of these remaining hutongs – 88 percent of them, according to Unesco – bulldozed to make way for multi-rises.

Being unable to prevent this destruction didn’t dampen Chang’s spirit: today he continues the fight against the march towards vertical modernity, one building at a time. When asked to design King’s Joy restaurant, at the eastern entrance of Wudaoying Hutong, he chose to keep the spirit of the alley, but to, as he says, ‘reorganise’ it. Traditional materials – wood, clay tiles and bricks – were used, but in fresh ways: wooden screens patterned with holes take the place of heavy brick walls, and light pours in from large windows above the main dining area, through which siheyuan roofs are visible.

Chang’s most famous reimagining of the hutong home is Split House, one villa in a collection designed by different Asian architects, which together form Commune by the Great Wall, a luxury resort in the Beijing foothills. Like a traditional siheyuan, it has three sides: two are buildings which sit almost at right angles to each other, linked by a glass corridor; the third side is ‘the slope of the hill’, says Chang, adding, ‘I realised I couldn’t just transplant the urban courtyard house from the city to the mountains.’

It’s not surprising that Chang seems so determined to show the world that the hutongs aren’t dead, given his happy childhood spent in them. ‘When I was growing up, the city could be described in three layers,’ he recalls. ‘If you were on Wangfujing Street, there were lots of neon lights and people, and once you got into the hutongs the whole thing started to calm down. Then once you got into the courtyard, you were in nature; the piece of sky above you, the ground, and the seasons.’

His attachment to nature is particularly evident in Split House. Large, darkened windows reflect the surrounding trees and sky, and a natural stream runs around the house. The walls are made from rammed earth, a building material that has recently become more popular in Germany, and in US states such as Arizona. But, as Chang points out, ‘very few architects are interested in it here’, where steel and concrete are now the norm.

‘Buildings have lifespans, and when they are in the mountains, I don’t think they should leave a load of rubbish and debris,’ says Chang. ‘We realised that using earth and wood could achieve that. [When the building is no longer used] the wood rots and the earth goes back to earth.’ Split House’s eco-credentials may be unique. But what it has in common with the King’s Joy restaurant and the rest of Chang’s designs is what the architect terms ‘porousness’. By this he means that buildings should work in conjunction with their surrounding environments, not against them. As an example of the kind of thing his loathes, Chang points to the ‘gated communities’ that preoccupy most developers in China. ‘[They] tend to be isolated, tear up the city and, more often than not, do not contribute to urban life,’ he grimaces.

And it’s not just buildings that he wants to open up. Chang has visions for whole cities. ‘New cities in China are built with these unbelievably big blocks, and they are surrounded by roads. They aren’t streets because they are for cars; they are not for people to walk along,’ he complains. Instead, Chang is trying to promote ‘micro-urbanism’: the idea that architects should design developments which combine residential, shopping and eating options into one small, walkable area. It’s a concept that plays off both hutong-style small communities and the modern need for more car-free eco cities.

To this end, Chang is currently drawing up plans for a set of buildings outside Shanghai, which will measure just 40 metres along each edge – ‘the smallest blocks in China,’ he claims – and will be infinitely more easy to walk around than the average blocks in Chinese cities, which are between 400 and 600 metres squared, according to Chang.

In Beijing, too, he has created a microcosm of how his city of the future might look with the offices he constructed for Yong You, a major Chinese software company (pictured above). ‘They work very long hours, so we thought we should design the office as something they could consider as their homes,’ says Chang. The whole complex, finished in 2007, weaves indoor and outdoor spaces together, with walkways and balconies connecting a series of semi-detached buildings with different-sized courtyards in between. ‘Now even if the weather is lousy, they go out for just a bit – so we made the connection between a healthier lifestyle and the courtyard,’ Chang says, adding, ‘I want to make Beijing more liveable than the spread-out city that we see here.’

Chang’s dream of a Beijing restored to its Qing Dynasty form might seem a little far-fetched. But, when you consider the dramatic transformation Beijing has gone through in the last two decades, perhaps the idea that it could all be torn down and rebuilt again isn’t so fantastical after all.