The Rolex Arts Initiative: What has been the most important project for you in 2014? When will it be completed?
Yang Zhao: A house of gardens for a painter and his interior designer wife. The painter paints traditional Chinese paintings and collects antiquities. The couple sold his house in Chongqing – a megacity in southwest China – and just moved to Dali [Yang Zhao’s home city]. They dream of having the lifestyle of traditional Chinese literati and therefore bought a piece of land in Xizhou, one of the well-preserved traditional villages in Dali. The land is located at the periphery of a village and faces a large rice field.
I arranged the living spaces with seven gardens of different scales and lots of atmosphere. The painter himself is quite knowledgeable in China’s garden tradition. He has been very much involved into the design of the gardens. The construction of the project is about to start soon and the couple expect to move in by next August.
What other buildings/structures are you working on at present?
I am working on several small boutique hotels and private houses. Most of them will be completed by the end of next year. These projects are located around Dali and other areas in Yunnan province. They are all commissions from private clients. I think architecture has great potential in the vast rural regions of China, and I want to use my practice to prove it.
Have you travelled to Kesennuma, in Japan, since the opening of the Home For All which you designed as part of your mentoring year under the guidance of Kazuyo Sejima?
I haven’t had a chance to visit Kesennuma, again, and I guess it would be more meaningful to go back several years later, when the building will have taken on its own destiny and merged with the place and the community.
The local people sent me images of the building being used as a fish market and they told me that people, especially fishermen, enjoy the building very much.
When you design a building, what are the three most important things you keep in mind?
The site, the use and how people may feel about it.
How would you describe your own architecture?
I would rather have others describe it.
Are you still in contact with Kazuyo Sejima?
We met in Venice this June  for the Biennale. Like friends, we visited the exhibitions and had breakfast together. Without the heavy task of the mentoring year, we were more relaxed and talked more about life. She brought me photos of us with Toyo Ito [a leading Japanese architect and one of the founders of the Home-for-All project]. They are photos she took last October during the press trip to Tohoku [the region that includes Kesennuma]. She still remembered my promise to invite her to one of the hotels designed by me in Dali, which is still under construction. I hope I will be able to make it happen in 2015. I would be very curious to see her reaction when seeing and even living in my buildings.
What was the best thing about your mentoring year with her?
The career path of an architect is like climbing a mountain with a peak that is too high to be seen. Last year with Sejima allowed me one glance at the peak. I understood a lot from that.
In retrospect, more than a year after the end of the mentorship, how would you describe Kazuyo Sejima?
She’s still a grand master for me. Her intuition is not mysterious. It’s crystal clear, exact and as solid as facts.
She senses the world around her, observes and examines these senses and transforms them into her architecture. She works hard to eliminate the barrier that has been put between architecture and this world of phenomena.
Apart from your work in architecture, did anything else in your life change thanks to the mentoring year?
Not particularly. Life seems to have moved back onto its original trail. However, just like the recent movie, Interstellar, one is somehow different after seeing other dimensions of the world.
You have been exposed to many foreign influences in architecture – through your studies in the United States and your mentoring year with Kazuyo Sejima. Do these foreign influences show in the style of the buildings you create?
These experiences provided me with different eyes. I see the world differently and this will of course shift my way of thinking and design. The appearance or the “style” of my buildings is just a reflection of that.
You have your own architectural practice. When did you start that and how many people work with you?
I started my office in 2007 and moved to Dali in 2012 when I returned from the U.S. Now I have around 10 people working with me, including interns.
Are you working on projects abroad as well in China?
Currently, I only have projects in China, and most of them in Yunnan province.
Is it important for Chinese architects to have an international profile to be successful?
It depends on what kind of success you are talking about. I feel one can benefit from international experiences. However the significance of a practice is not necessarily limited by geography.