01 August 2013

Architecture within the scenery
Zhang Ke and his Tibet series

area: Tibet Series was published in Area in 2010. As several years have passed and how is the progress of the project?

Zhang ke: Tibet projects started in the year 2007. That year we hiked along Brahmaputra with Ouyang Xu, Chairman of Tibet Tourism Co.ltd. 3 days later Mr. Ouyang decided that the planning of the grand canyon from infrastructure to environmental system will be undertaken by us, including route planning, traffic facility location selection and tourism town plan. So we planned several small piers, one to two reception centers and several backpacker hotels based on the location. In addition, as Brahmaputra joins Niyang River at Nyingchi, we planned several small projects in Niyang River Valley-they are really small-scaled, as our main investment goes to the roads to the scenic spots. At the beginning we were really worried that the project would fail: if by any chance the developer or government is not a dream-realizer, the beauty of this virgin land could be destroyed. As Mr. Ouyang has lived in Tibet for a dozen year after graduating from Chinese Department of Beijing University, he has a high starting point and artistic taste. He allowed us great flexibility in terms of architectural standard. During the 5 years from 2007 to 2012, we designed small piers at Brahmaputra, Namchabawa Visitor Center and beside Niyang River, Niang ou small pier and several backpacker hotels. We had intended to plan a small spring as well, but last year when we were preparing to start the project small-scale landslide occurred, for which the safety re-assessment should be carried out. Besides these small projects, we've reconstructed roads based on route selection, the principle is very simple: to reconstruct the existing village earth paths into asphalt roads without widening. During the process we didn't remove any existing building; in fact, roads may exert greater impact on the environment than buildings. The backpacker hotels were brought into service just this month. The nine hotels are almost invisible from the road, as they are concealed into the mountain along the hillside; views of river and Snowy Mountain are offered from the hotel rooms; the hotel roofs are planted with highland barley and look like highland barley field from afar. Last year we've twice visited Ali for the planning of a tourism town at the foot of Kailash Snowy Mountain. Our target is based on the respect of all natural landscapes. As the road to Ali was completed only recently, as the visitor flow will increase sharply it may result in town sprawl. So we proposed to enclose the town with Mani Wall along the boundary line, so that all expansion will be kept internal, and destruction of natural environment caused by external expansion can be avoided. We thoroughly purified the sewage and strictly prohibit sewage dumping into the river. the project is small-scaled, only 2 or 3 square kilometers. In the future all visitors to Ali will visit it. As a matter of fact, landscape is not only a matter of visual effect, but is also closely linked to natural environment and ecological system. Due to our limited capabilities, the projects are only exemplary.

area:Did you have the impulse of self-expression during the projects in Tibet?

Zhang Ke: Surely there is. The impulse is much stronger particularly for a young architect. But in Tibet one has to repress such impulse because the individual expression shall be integrated with the landscape. No matter how internationalized the modern architectural concepts or topics are, building is still a regional practice, and if can never be separated from the local land. In Tibet such connection is more direct and simpler. So impulse repression can be also a strategy to express oneself with repression. This is very hard to realize, because we have to design buildings that are both modern and local, it is obviously a challenge. It is almost impossible to use the popular localism language, because we are anti-linguistic. As an existence that expresses local spirit, buildings interact with local landscape, and it requires the most straightforward methods to arouse the original spirit. Take meditation platform as an example, its spirit is always there, the problem is that we haven't discovered it. The final design is closely connected with individuals, for example, when design Niang ou pier, we have to consider how to deal with the relationship between buildings and trees, how to make the ramps more experiencing, the corners simpler and the rails more concealed. All of these are elements of design, while what I talk about previously is about strategy. We are still exploring the series, the prerequisite is that we have to break traditional pattern of concretized imitation, and the design shall be connected with people's life and localism. Of course, materials, construction methods, vegetation and topography are all design elements that are directly linked to land. 

area: Namchabawa Contemplation seems to be a special one. Can you explain it in detail?

Zhang Ke: The project concept is actually emotional. When we walked to the place with Brahmaputra Canyon on the one side and Namcha Barwa on the other, we found a great mulberry tree and several big rocks; it is a quarry and is very disordered. At that moment I felt it can be a very spiritual place if well designed. The design is easy; we just cleaned if, paved it with white stones and define the boundary with stones. The trees and mountains are always there, so the whole design just makes use of what are already there. This kind of project in not to be planned, it is achieved just because we happened to get the inspiration, plus, we are capable of designing it. So we just made it. At first we tried several more complicated options, but finally we decided that the simpler and purer, the better. It seems as if we just updated what the nature has already designed-after paving white stones, we felt like we were closer to heaven. Now it is the most popular place.Yet actually we didn't devote much effort to it. We only provided about a dozen drawings. We've also designed an observatory there and it is already completed. There is a square tea room under it, where a local seller sells butter tea and cordyceps which is very profitable. In Tibet you will find that all landscapes are buildings, while all buildings are landscapes; both temples and local houses are built into the nature; this concept of integration of buildings and landscapes has become also popular in metropolis in recent years. In fact, in Tibet, it has been so for thousands of years. The Tibetan building and landscape integration offers great inspiration for modern architectural design.

area: There are two sets of pictures about the reception center beside Niyang River, one set is colored, while the other is white. What is the story behind?

Zhang Ke: It is a story interesting. At the beginning the pictures were designed to be colored. It was inspired by a temple called Lamaling Monastery. There was a room with complicated shape, each side of which was painted with a different color. We found in Tibet this is the design most similar to contemporary architecture coloring and has the style of Luis Barragan. But this is also the very reason why I changed the color to white in the end, just because it is almost identical to Luis Barragan's style. When many people tell you that your design resembles someone else', it means a problem occurred. In fact the biggest problem is, although both colors and white are traditional local usage, huge color lumps only apply to religious buildings, while our design is not a religious one, consequently, locals are confused about the building and they took it for a small temple. In fact the colored design offers very good view from the courtyard, but during one's entering, the contrast between natural color of the external stones and internal colors makes it look like an installed artwork, and it seems the internal is another concept. So I believed that the building shall be built into the landscape and be less conspicuous; since walls of local houses are painted white, so I decided to paint it all white, so the structure and the space are more pleasing to the eye. My friends who have visited it all said that white was more pleasing than colors, because it was purer. But from the perspective of popular visional sense, colors are more popular, but from the perspective of architectural completeness, I insist on the simpler white. We have been exploring whether colors belong to signs- we are firmly against the use of concretized signs to express localism. As this is an open question, some think that colors can be used, but they must be more modern like Joan Miró or Pablo Picasso; but the color design reminds people of Barragan, which is not a good thing, as the project has really no relationship with him. But in general this is a very good story, and I consider developing a mini-novel based on it.

area: Will the building which looks humble exert negative impact on environment?

Zhang Ke: there are two kinds of impact: one is caused by the construction process; the other is caused by the completed buildings. Let's take Niyang River Reception Center as an example, we used wood structures and stone walls, the foundation has only a depth of 2m; the locals built it with simple wooden structure which is a method minimizing impact on the environment. Furthermore, the seismic performance is not bad due to elasticity of woods. But as for large projects like hotels, the foundation should be deeper so as to dig out a platform on the hillside, and two concrete retaining walls must be built at the back with plumbing system in between so that even if happens the landslide, it will only slide over the roof. Compared with the reception center, the construction process exerts greater impact on environment. But after all, the construction period lasted only one year, and the environment recovered well, in the next two years the surrounding vegetation will recover soon, because the rain is abundant there. So I believe it's not a big problem if the construction process is not so destructive, or if the environment is able to recover after destruction, just like the wound suture after an operation.

area: in your opinion, is there any conflict between modernity and localism?

Zhang Ke: it would be misleading to believe the existence of the conflict between modernity and localism, because this would make an architect simulate the existing signs in order to represent the localism, for which he would become less creative. We believe that there is no conflict between them; rather, it means huge development potential. The so-called popularity concept is overwhelming around the globe, and one of the best approaches to rescuing modern buildings from it is to explore localism which is the permanent and most touching side of a building. But the precondition is that the local design must be at the same time modern, otherwise the design becomes false. We hope to explore deeper significance of a place from a modern perspective. I learnt a lot from Mr. Ouyang, because he holds an attitude of respect. When one worships a local culture to an extreme, one involuntarily tends to worship if so much that he ends up in imitations only; while when facing internationalization, one looks down at localism out of ignorance using arrogant words that reveal ignorance, believing that he is the Saviour to save the backward places. This is the so-called "ignorant urban people": one believes that he is very metropolitan, but when he is in real nature, he would find that he is foolish. So we insist on 'respect' attitude that neither worships nor looks down on localism. That is the respect to local natural and humanistic environment. I would argue with the local and tell them that I cannot simply simulate their buildings, nor would I impose anything upon them. The locals hold three kinds of opinions towards my design: the common people accept it readily because the style is very common there, and they think it normal; the people who received partial Chinese education are against it, because they think there is a lack of doors, windows and colorful decorations and other Tibetan signs; the Tibetan intellectuals like it very much, as they know that imitation is vulgar and deceiving. As a matter of fact, Tibetan culture has already integrated into modern culture, so why not integrate modern culture into Tibetan culture? Culture preserved in museums is dead. Tibet can have very modern buildings, too, and modernity should exist in Tibet like other places, this offers a very good example for exploring the topic of modernity. Take the new observatory beside Niyang River as an example, it was built at the intersection of two rivers, and what we did is to simply transform the natural turn into a structure based on the primitive geometrical curve with concrete. We made use of the rough texture of the material. So it goes back to the essences: location, spirit, emotion and the relationship between architecture and environment, yet these elements do not necessary mean a concretized style, this is the very reason why architect as an ancient profession still exist till now. The existence of architect is for the need to cultural representation and reflecting the relationship between human construction and natural environment.












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