In this new Temper series, art aficionada Kate Kologrivaya sits down for a Deepdive and some Chitchat with people who are changing the face of China’s urban landscape. #2: Pittayapa (Pin) Suriyapee and some China Architecture small talk — with a few must-know bureaus to boot.
It is our expectation of how things should be,
it is our anticipation of the future,
which puts us in a state of misery.
Traditional Chinese architecture is not really diverse in the northern spheres of the Middle Kingdom, but its southern counterpart gives you Hui minority style in Anhui and Zhejiang provinces, Tujia architecture in Zhangjiajie, the Fujian tǔlóu (土楼) created by the Hakka people, wooden Miao buildings in Guizhou, and so the list builds up.
Modern Chinese architecture features some, shall we say, “insane” projects like the Lucky Coin building in Guangzhou or the Ping An Insurance building — in the personal top five of skyscrapers I loathe.
Some bureaus, though, are demonstrating a multiple-layered touch of world class.
One of these stylemakers is MAD, where Pin worked before. Founded by Ma Yansong in 2004, MAD Architects is led by Ma Yansong, Dang Qun, and Yosuke Hayano. Their artistic craft is committed to developing futuristic, organic, technologically advanced designs that embody a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern affinity for nature.
With a vision for the city of the future based in the spiritual and emotional needs of its residents, MAD endeavors to create a balance between humanity, the urban vibe, and the environment. FYI: Ma was the first Chinese architect to build skyscrapers overseas – in Canada.
Today, after some eight years in the biz, our urban dweller of the hour Pin has landed at Zaha Hadid in Beijing, famous for its SOHO Galaxy (a personal fave) plus Wangjing formations as well as the capital’s Daxing Airport (hosting the world’s largest terminal) conception. A little “did-you-know” party fact: The airport’s design is based on the traditional principle of Chinese architecture, interconnecting various spaces around a common courtyard. With that snippet of knowledge in your back pocket…
It’s high time to enter the Pin galaxy.
What was the most creative project you’ve worked on in your career so far?
Actually, the most creative part of my job is to come up with a concept which rarely becomes reality. The best project I’ve worked on, even if it was only for a short period of time, are “stones” in Shenzhen Bay. Because we didn’t only play with the outlook of the buildings, but also with the interior – which in turn interacts with landscape. My favorite one was the MAD-designed Cloud Center [2021/2022 in Aranya along the Beidaihe coastline], probably because I worked on it the longest, starting from its conceptual stage.
And how often are concepts a world removed from reality?
Cloud Center is a funny one here. We started from a concept and were moving from one stage to the next, constantly changing stuff based on feedback from our boss. However, the result was close to the original idea. Coincidence, perhaps! When I worked in my first bureau in Bangkok, it never happened before.
I liked this place a lot though because it was a small firm, so the scale of projects was also much smaller, and we were able to work on details such as door handles. Nowadays, with big projects, we tend to overlook things.
How often do you think someone walks into an architectural bureau after graduation, and they don’t have a clue of what’s going on?
All the time; and it’s hard. It happened to me when I first started out in Bangkok. It will happen to me now at Zaha Hadid because I don’t know how they approach things. Every firm has its own style of running things. But the more experienced you are, the easier it gets to face the unknown and adapt faster. It’s good that at my first job people were patient to explain everything to me.
How did your education prepare you for this architectural life?
When I entered Kasetsart University in Thailand, I thought I would be drawing a lot of beautiful pictures and that would be it. Once I got into a university, the first year was still good because the teachers were not all that “serious” and I constantly received nice feedback. But as soon as the second year started and we began to work with the more “mature” professors, my perception totally changed. My ego and confidence just went down; almost going below zero.
I realized architecture wasn’t just about drawings. Of course, you use drawings and physical models to communicate your ideas, but architecture and your own ideas are a bit different stories. I wasn’t as good as I thought at my first year, so the second year actually hit me hard but also really opened my eyes.
I realized that learning takes time.
Why didn’t professors explain how architecture works immediately? Was it because they were afraid to scare everyone away?
Well, I think some do tell you immediately, but if you don’t listen, you’ll miss it. Or you just don’t get it. And, yeah, others believe that you need to gradually learn about reality, so you’ll still have the passion to create and innovate. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way of doing it.
For my work, I have to check a lot of research papers. I can see how students follow guidelines and write beautifully, but at the very core the works are shallow. And I cannot judge anyone as I know that students must go through this basic experience and create their first papers, so gradually they will grow into writers and researchers. There’s no point for me as an educator to stop them from the beginning and tell them that what they’re doing is not meaningful. But I shouldn’t adjust their attitudes, so I just tell students what they did well and how it can be further developed.
Yeah, it’s exactly like that. As an architect, you also learn how to get people to acknowledge that you have done something that makes sense. It doesn’t mean that if you pitch successfully, your work will turn into a building, but rather that some of your ideas can be implemented somewhere else. After time, you’ll develop your own process and style.
But back when I was a student, I didn’t know that I would have to experiment a lot, take in the feedback and constantly improve. I was struggling.
But eventually it all started to make sense?
Yep. And those dots connected when I was writing my thesis. I didn’t have a particular building in mind or anything like that, but I was searching for a site.
So, if I may rephrase for a moment, you were searching for a real-life problem which you could then solve as an architect?
Correct! And this is why my positions at Zaha Hadid is designer. I find solutions to existing problems through architectural principals.
Sweet! So, what happened when you found a site for your thesis?
I found a place near Bangkok that needed an architectural solution. It was an archeological site of a temple which I thought could be transformed into a museum. And after I came up with the idea, things aligned, and I talked to one of the most famous archeological experts in this area. I shared my vision with her, combined with her advice and I made an interesting project.
As she mentioned, the audience rarely gets to see the process of technologists and scientists who work in the field. People only see the end product inside the museum, which quite often is presented in a boring way. So with the idea of building a museum around an archeological site, we would create an environment, an ecosystem, which would unite experts and “civilians,” making the latter understand where this “history” actually came from. I made a 3D model and drawings of this museum around the site with paths made of glass and presented my ideas to the jury.
I actually received an award for my innovative approach.
Did you go see the Terracotta Army?
No, not yet.
This is exactly what they did with the location. The museum has its imperfections and the amount of the remaining statues is suspiciously low, but the logic you followed with your thesis is in place and it works. The point remains: it’s so rare to have access to archaeological sites, right?
And most of the museums do their job in such an unattractive manner. Some good zoos, like in Tunisia or Kenya, where people are actually visitors of the environment and the animals remain in their natural habitat, set good examples of what museums can be, but that’s another story.
Ergo, my question becomes: do you feel like museums provide people with enough experience?
Yeah, a good question. You never see people at work. Historical things are piled up on display. And have their information displayed on plaques covering the walls. Art leaves many visitors clueless. The last project I worked on, namely Sanxingdui [an archaeological site and a major Bronze Age culture (3300 – 1200 B.C.) haven in modern Guanghan, Sichuan Province], is like that. Archeologists had already removed all artifacts from the ground, while the museum remained a windowless white box. And this is where the reality of architecture hits.
At the beginning stages of the project, we proposed our ideas, but then due to legal and, especially, budget constraints, we ended up with a building which you will see in a few years. It’s quite… general.
Or illogical… There are those examples in the world where things have been done in a more creative manner. I grew up in a city home to the gorgeous Ancient Greek ruins of Chersonesus, dating back to the 6th Century B.C. There, like other ruins around the world, you can walk down the streets and look at their structures, their foundations (similar to Beijing’s hutongs, by the way), temples, theaters, etc. The curators didn’t go on to show how people could interact with those structures, but at least they never disrupted what was already there.
I feel like the work of curators means a lot in such places, though I do sense they are rarely free to do what they want. And most Western museums certainly cannot show how they got their artifacts in the first place — many people tend to pretend colonialism never existed.
Exactly. Before writing my thesis, I remember the last thing I wanted to do, was to design a museum; I’m not even joking! I saw museums almost as cemeteries and didn’t think I’d change my opinion on them, let alone come up with new solutions. This changed the whole meaning of “what slash how things are and how they should be” for me.
Thank you for those words! I believe they can apply to anything everything in life. Good luck with your new job and have fun!
There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?
― Zaha Hadid
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — DUE TO A PERSISTENT TECHY HICCUP, #WESIGH:
KATE WRITES ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION (EE) CURRICULUMS USING EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING METHODOLOGIES (EXL) WHILE AT THE SAME TIME CONNECTING LEARNER’S KNOWLEDGE BUILDING AND EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE DEVELOPMENT.
THE NERDY STUFF ASIDE, SHE ALSO DEVELOPS HER OWN CLASSES ON ART AND FILM AND EXPLORES THE CONTEMPORARY ART SPHERE IN CHINA. SHE GRADUALLY WANTS TO BECOME A COLLECTOR AND PROMOTE PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN NAMES TO THE PUBLIC.
FEATURED IMAGE: Photo by Clu Soh on Unsplash
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