Monday, 30th October 2017

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Architect Yung Ho Chang's passion for the art of building

Chang’s work is often a throwback to traditional Chinese motifs and methods

By Abhijit Mitra
  • Published 29.06.19, 5:49 PM
  • Updated 29.06.19, 5:49 PM
  • 4 mins read
Yung Ho Chang Picture: Rashbehari Das

When Yung Ho Chang designs a building, the world and his fellow architects sit up and take notice. Chang grew up in China when it was going through its Cultural Revolution, studied architecture at the Nanjing Institute of Technology and went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley. He taught in the US for many years and became the head of the Department of Architecture at MIT before returning to China to set up Atelier Feichang Jianzhu (FCJZ). Chang’s work is often a throwback to traditional Chinese motifs and methods and is almost always striking to look at. In Calcutta to deliver the fourth Annual Charles Correa Memorial Lecture organised by the Ambuja Neotia Group, he chatted with The Telegraph about his ideas of making cities more people-friendly and why he thinks the older part of Calcutta is a vibrant city. Excerpts.

You design a wide array of things from buildings to townships to personal objects like chairs and clothes. What has been your overall design philosophy for architecture?

My understanding of architecture is simple and narrow. I just think it’s the art of building and I enjoy making buildings very much — building in this case as a verb. I don’t know if that’s a philosophy, but I do believe what I just mentioned and that’s what keeps me doing architecture every day and all my life.

Many of the designs that you have made go back to traditional Chinese motifs and styles…

That’s a question that relates to what I was just saying. Maybe for some people the culture of architecture would mean the style. But for me the tradition of Chinese architecture is the construction, how the building is put together. We used wood and timber a lot in the past. So how a timber building is put together is something I’d like to understand better and, perhaps, to carry the quality of that kind of a craft into contemporary architecture, where we don’t necessarily use wood — we do once in a while even when we use concrete. So, could we do it in such a way that it would convey the same kind of quality as a building in the past? Will the building look like a building from the past? It may or may not. I don’t think that’s so important.

You grew up at a time when the Cultural Revolution was happening in China and a lot of the past was actually wiped out. What sort of impression has that left on you?

There are two sides. First of all, I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. So, for me, well in China, I didn’t really have much of an opportunity to learn the things considered as traditional, ancient even. Then, later on, when I went to the US, in 1981, being in a totally foreign environment, I think I had the opportunity to reflect on what I missed, maybe even more so than the people who stayed on in China. Because I was in a foreign culture, I thought that the Chinese heritage — it’s not as if I felt responsible to them — was very interesting. So that’s one side.

The other side is that as crazy as that Cultural Revolution was, let me put it this way, it got me interested in something that was part of my heritage, but I wasn’t afraid of trying to maybe translate it into totally something else. For our generation, all our culture, our beliefs, were all gone, both good and bad. So we started from almost like a tabula rasa.

If there was an ideal way of building a city, what, according to your, would that be?

In this case, I have some bias, developed in the past decades. I think a city has to do with a certain density to start with. If you have density, then people are living together and enjoying some kind of urbanity. If there is no density, you may as well be living in a rural area all by yourself. That density has to be organised, has to be designed so that it would be able to facilitate urban life. Often, I think the contemporary city does not have that density. And then you have to drive everywhere. You cannot walk and you are far away from all the things. That’s not a convenient, or desirable, or livable city. There is a term for that in architecture, it’s called urban sprawl.

Yesterday, I was in the old town of Calcutta. I walked around in parts of it. Maybe it could be organised a little bit better, but, in general, it was a vibrant city. I can imagine people having social contact with others and enjoying friendships and so on, and enjoying the commerce and the cultural events all in a matter of minutes. You can just walk to do all that.

The way towns are planned with wide roads for cars and buildings are built to allow mechanical devices to move people more quickly and so on. Do you think the focus is shifting away from people and moving to mechanical objects?

We designed an industrial park (Jiading near Shanghai) where the roads are narrow and every building has a walkway with a canopy, which means it’s like an arcade but it’s not a colonnade, so that when you walk around the streets you’re in the shade. And the scale of it is much smaller than a typical Chinese block. It’s only 40m x 40m. The smallest block otherwise is 500m x 500m. It’s usually bigger, more in the range of 600m x 600m.

What should be the role of nature in an urban setting?

We all enjoy nature, but we have to understand that nature in the city is functional in a number of ways. So, if we have a lot of trees we would probably be able to clean the air and so that would make the environment better. We could also have concentrated greenery, we could have a park where we could exercise and be healthy. And then we could landscape and have some kind of artificial nature in the city. What I’m saying is that I don’t think nature should be just decoration in the city. Sometimes you see nice flowers on, say, a roundabout. It’s pretty to look at but it’s inaccessible, it can’t be used by people, you only look at it as if it’s a painting or something. I don’t think that’s the best way of relating to nature. And then outside the city if we could preserve nature as it is, then urban folks like myself can go out on weekends and enjoy ourselves.

You have strong opinions on fashion, too...

I think design plays a big part in people’s lives, especially in the cities. Because we don’t have much space, all the little things matter. So I am generally interested in the way we live and that includes the way we dress and the way we eat and so on. I have done some designing myself. As far as men’s fashion is concerned — ignore what I’m wearing — I’m quite conservative, meaning I like the old-fashioned way, pretty much everything before 1960. Also, clothing would help people’s posture and maybe they would behave a little better.