01 November 2009

Zhang Ke, architecture between the ephemeral and the eternal

Zhang Ke graduated with a Master of Architecture in Urban Design at Tsinghua University in 1996 and a Master of Architecture at Harvard Universityin 1998. In 1999 he established standardarchitecture in New York, a professional partnership formed with a group of international young designers. In 2001 standardarchitecture moved to Beijing, following the good results of several important projects in China. Today the office has four principals:
Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, Hou Zhenghua, and Claudia Taborda.
Standardarchitecture sets its own practice aside from mainstream design trends in China and around the world, preferring a more conscious approach to the cultural, natural and social environment in which every project is located.
Distant from thriving for media coverage and loud trendy solutions, Zhang Ke tries to get to the essence and meaning of the places he works in; each one of his works is "always rooted in the historic and cultural settings with a degree of intellectual debate", aiming for the realization of urban visions and ideas.

Genesis of the philosophy
Standardarchitecture's research involves an accurate study and understanding of the natural and cultural surrounding in which the design takes place and to which
the project has necessarily to relate. Deliberately standing far from those design theories that put the shape, the object image as the sole and only porpoise with no interaction with the surrounding whatsoever, theenvironment is carefully analy-zed, understood and discussed; the cultural stratifications are brought back to light, the social implications and history become main elements of design, the natural setting and environment set unavoidable references for the architecture to be.

Early projects such as the Beijing Dongbianmen Ming Dynasty Cily Wall Relics Park and the Yangshuo Storefronts in Guilin show a particular attention to the history and culture of the sites  and the interrelation of architecture, history and contemporary society.

The first, located in one of the few critical juncture points betwe-en the capital's past and present urban tissues, avoids any mystifi-cation of the old or interposition of the present, neither embellish an historical site with easy solutions of traditional landscape design. Instead, "We started by reading intensively into the place: memories, materials, lives, and possibilities.

Our challenge became one of finding a way to weave these dements back into the continuously changing urban fabric of the city, and activities into the piace through events". Applying exclusively works of  consolidation and preservation on the remnants of the walls, the surrounding areas, organized into five different zones each one characterized differently, provide spaces for activities and events, engaging with the communities of the people living around but still confirming the walls as the center focus of attention, the eternal scenography for tempo-ral activities.

In the Yangshuo Storefronts project, the attention is pri-marily given to the traditional disposition of buildings and streets facing the surrounding Karst Mountains, and the use of common, popular materials and construction techniques, such as the blue-greenish Yangshuo sto-ne, larch wood panels, grey tiles and bamboo stripes. The plot is subdivided into different, smaller buildings to provide a general village-like feeling, perfectly inserted inside the urban tissue of the small city. From the river, the architecture almost merges with the surrounding, while suddenly emerging on a closer look thanks to the unusual, perfectly fitting bamboo stripes facade that covers the central building.

Dialectic aesthetic
Contemporary design and analysis of tradition becomes the theme of a Teahouse in Chengdu, a project that portrays a very mo-dern image on the outside while reinterpreting Sichuan style tradi-tion in the inside. The courtyard is subdivided into five smaller plots, while a floating wooden roof becomes a pure work of art. Local materials and craftsmanship allow a sustainable, conscious construc-tion process.

The dialectic relationship belween architecture and environment finally matures in a series of small projects located in the Autonomous region of Tibet, and identified in a Boat Terminal along the Yaluntzangpu River, the Linzhi Namchabawa Visitor Center and the Namchabawa Contemplation. Still preserving the useful notions and recurrent simplicity of western practices, Zhang Ke's research moves be-yond their limitations and explores the infinite possibilities of a new contemporary discipline, rooted in traditional Chinese values and processes, constantly referring to the environment as the principal interlocutor, the real immanent ac-tor of an eternal play in which the works of men are merely transient addictions.

The first two projects are built to function as simple resourceful cen-ters for the touristic activities along the river, connected to the nearby village of Linzhi. Everything is perfectly simple and functional to the purpose; unnecessary ad-dictions are avoided to privilege materials taken from the areas nearby, local Tibetan masonry builders and techniques, local timber for the door and window frames, showing a unique respect for the indigenous environment. 

The design merges indissolubly with the imposing nature around it, dialogues with it, embodies its very own materials and finally becomes a natural addiction to the landscape. From afar, the buildings are merely distinguisha-ble, perfectly in tune with the grea-ter scenography of the Tibetan Mountains.

The third and most recent project, the Namchabawa Contemplation site, is nothing but a declaration of love for the majestic Namcha-bawa Mountain. Simplicily is an understatement for the rectangular viewpoint, simply characterized by a few stone outcrops while the mountain reigns over everything. Nature here is overwhelming and doesn't need futile decorations. The site is plan and monochro-me, perfect counterpart for the mountain.

Public as an open space
Zhang Ke's architecture identifies another main topic to which it constantly relates to: the interpre-tation of the public space. Unlike recent tendencies to define "public" a space usually caged into walls, perimeters or fences, mostly privately owned and managed and matter-of-factly only partially public and free, standardarchitecture seems to identify the real meaning of "public" in a practice of mutual experiencing, enjoying and sha-ring of the space. User-friendly, democratically open, interrelated amongst the city network and usually aiming to reconnect isolated parts of it, standardarchitecture definition of "public" again does not ask for any sort of diminishing compromise.

The Wuhan CRiand French-Chinese Art Center "was conceived as an urban container, within which art objects, events, acts, concepts and activities flourish. In this case the container is made out of intuitive images of ink-and-water". A surrounding wall of concrete, cut and shaped to represent traditional brush stro-kes on paper encloses the area of the Art Center, without limiting it. Shifted upwards enough to perceive the areas behind, it eventually creates expectation and invites the casual passer-by to investigate it farther. The center of the project is charac-terized by an empty area open to the surrounding, a free open space that helps the architecture to connect with the city. Inside, airy open spaces and evocative scenarios of concrete and water complete the picture.

Vanke "AN" Club House in Suzhou develops another intro-verted character of public space, in tune with the traditional treats of the local historical architecture.

A folding wall, 500m long, encloses 13 separate courtyards forming a constantly changeful micro-system to be experienced by the visitors. Here again the reinterpretation of the tradition and the free usufruct of public space are combined by simple solid walls of monochromatic material (white plaster) and nature (water canals, reminiscent of the ancient look of the city). On a more urban scale, the in-tentions towards public architecture as service to the community do not change. In Shanghai the Dancing Triangles Public Space, Zhang Ke confronts himself with a typical Chinese urban deve-lopment scenario: big highways cutting the land in different lots eliminating any possible inte-raction between them; functions and attractions completely isolated and difficult to reach and be identified; disorientation and misconnection between the elements of the neighborhood. The Dancing Triangles square experiments a geometric pattern to generate movement and con-stitute a central reference point for the area. Easily recogniza-ble, effectively connecting the urban public attractions around, the square works as a living urban tissue.

Hong Kong West Kowloon Terrace-Land Skyscraper project identifies an empty, highly valuable location in Hong Kong Kowloon peninsula, facing the famous skyline of Central District and Victoria's Peak. Here, ge-nerating a design that somehow transcends into pure theory and idealistic philosophies, Zhang Ke creates a natural landscape, hiding "inside" green hills the actual buildings. Outside, the artiticial landscape is destined to rice paddies to produce organic food for the city, farmland and experimental agriculture sites for universities. "It is both architecture and landscape at the same time". Uncountable public attractions can be placed on site: mountain climbing, exhibitions, and specta-cular views of Victoria Bay, alt still maintaining the usual performan-ces of typical office buildings, implemented with the latest eco-sustainable technologies.

Ephemeral and eternal
Zhang Ke continues his rese-arch following different paths, sometimes seemingly contrappo-sing but always focusing on the research of a method. Innovative structural systems applied to a design always conscious of its social responsibility and fun-ctions produces iconic, landmark architectures that become identifying elements of the city; besides, the discovery of local cultures and traditions develops in new projects establishing a perfect harmony between the contemporary and the past. Duality seems to be omnipresent in standardarchitecture projects, challenging the potentiality of extremely different approaches following the same method and philosophy. The public space can be openly evident or jealously concealed behind a perimeter, still never fails to be free and directed towards the people, for the people to enjoy and appropriate.

The research of weightless architecture almost suspended into space takes the shapes of the iconic Dancing Books Towers and at the same time characterizes the interiors of the simple, traditionally conscious Teahouse in Chengdu. Tradition itself is perfectly understood and represented into different con-temporary versions in the Tibetan projects, where temporary and eternal, ancient and modern finally merge in a wholesome design.

Duplicity is also evident in the new creative challenges that Zhang Ke is starting to take. Besides architecture, landscape and interior design, his research will soon cover the fields of product and fashion design as well, experimenting with different disciplines the potentiality of a creative vision and merging methods and approaches in a constantly changing intellectual experiment.
文:陶德祺(Stefano Tronci)

张轲,1996年获清华大学建筑与城市规划硕士学位,后赴美深造,于1998年获哈佛大学建筑学硕士学位。1999年他在纽约正式创建了标准营造 (standardarchitecture)事务所,并有着一组国际化的年轻合伙人。2OOl年标准营造迁至北京,随后在中国成功设计了一些重要项目。事务所现有四位合伙人:张轲,张弘,侯正华和Claudia Toborda。标准营造自觉不受中国和世界上的主流设计潮流过多的影响,更加努力保持清醒,尊重每一个项目当地的文化、自然和社会环境。张轲始终与过多的媒体报道和时尚喧闹的设计方法保持一定距离,而是努力探究项目地点的本质与涵义。他的每件作品“都植根于历史和文化环境,并包含了一定程度的思想辩论”,致力于他对城市的见解和想法的实现。




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