The 35-year-old Chinese architect – who has a Master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Design – said then that he wanted his work to serve “real life conditions” in specific places and cultures; he is emphatically disinterested in so-called iconic architecture.
Three years on, this commitment has become firmly rooted in Dali, a city of half a million people on the edge of Erhai Lake in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. And four of his projects there will be showcased as part of an exhibition titled, From the Asian Everyday: Possibilities in a Shifting World, at the Toto Gallery in Tokyo, from 17 October.
What influence did Sejima – designer of internationally acclaimed buildings such as the Louvre Lens and New York’s New Museum – have on Zhao’s thinking? And what’s at the heart of his evolving approach to design?
“Before Sejima chose me to be her protégé I had started three projects in Dali, and when I showed them to her she liked them,” he recalls. “I was extremely lucky to have this education from her just when I was starting my practice. It gave me confidence. And her working methods have helped me – very tight design schedules, but very complete, from the concept to discussions with various parties involved, and construction. It was a very unique and complete experience for me, and helps me a lot in my work.”
Fusion of form
Zhao has brought a “local” modernist architecture to Dali and other parts of Yunnan, and Tibet. In architecture-speak, this approach is called Critical Regionalism and its key characteristic, in Yang’s case, is a fusion of simple lines of form, and contextual sensitivity. In this, he has been particularly inspired by the late genius of Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa – “the way he deliberately engaged his life and work with the local world. That was like a seed in my mind before I went to Dali. And when I came here, I was like – wow, I can do something here!”
That something is complicated by the fact that Yang is working in a part of China that is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese and international tourists who are attracted to what he describes as the “old” China: “The political power here is not strong (that imperious). The local culture is based upon the traditional agricultural society of China. The society works not because of the government, but because of itself.”
There has also been a significant flow of incomers from other parts of China who want to live in Dali to experience nature, and a slower pace of life. “Most of the people here are farmers,” explains Zhao. “They have quiet manners, they’re friendly to guests – and they’re a little relaxed! And so the culture here is becoming more open, and interesting.”
The local projects that Zhao will exhibit in Tokyo – two houses and two(one) small hotels, shown via models and videos – were commissioned by newer well-off clients in Dali who have, as Zhao says, “given up their condos in the big cities”.
The Northend Place Guest House, designed by Yang Zhao, is on Jinsuo Island, Dali, in southern China. ©Jonathan Leijonhufvud
They’ve accepted construction limitations, and the use of local materials as part of their change of lifestyle. “I haven’t had a client who wants to spend a lot of money without thinking about it,” Yang emphasizes. “I try to find an appropriate way to design that isn’t showing off how much money is being spent.”
And the result? “My mentality is basically modernist, so the buildings I’m showing in the Tokyo exhibition appear quite modern, or abstract. But they have moments that are sensitive, and relate closely to their surroundings. Here in Dali, each piece of land is considered part of the household of the farmer. I think this is healthy for the community.” Yang sees the very gradually changing mixture of newcomers and Dali’s established rural society as a stimulating opportunity: “This social development allows us to explore, architecturally.”
Stone and timber
The architecture that Yang is producing in Dali is typically composed of stone and timber, or concrete, and is built using local techniques. Professor Stan Fung, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes that: “This is still a world of ‘more or less’ and not the modern universe of precise measurements.”
To get built, Yang’s designs must pass through a prism of local traditional construction skills. For example, one of his Dali projects features a large single-pitch roof with a wide triangular cut-out, something the builders had never encountered: it had to be explained, initially, with simple sketches.
Geomancy, or feng shui, is another important local concern. Yang’s design for a lakeside (it’s actually located by rice fields) house for a painter and his wife not only took a traditional courtyard form, with straw and lime plastered walls, but its ground floor was carefully set at precisely the same propitious level of the floors of nearby houses.
Yang Zhao has, indeed, honoured the pledge he made as a Rolex protégé in 2012 – he is still designing for “real life conditions”. And, asked how he thinks his practice as an architect will develop in the future, his answer is instant, and very telling in the way it ignores architectural style or theory. “I would like,” he says simply, “to engage more deeply with Yunnan province.”