gooood team interviews creative individuals under 35 years old from all over the world, some are pioneering founders, some are clients, some are ordinary practitioners. gooood is trying to record the authentic living and working states of this era. Your recommendations and suggestions are appreciated!
gooood Under 35 NO.48 introduces Chen Xi, founder of ATELIER XI
More: ATELIER XI on gooood
出品人：向玲 / Producer: Xiang Ling
编辑：陈诺嘉，武晨曦，姜晓姗 / Editor: Chen Nuojia, Wu Chenxi, Jiang Xiaoshan
“When I was in Tsinghua, the professor emphasized the logic of design and a concept-driven design methodology. When I arrived at Harvard, some Spanish professors had the greatest influence on me. They focused more on broader dimensions on urban history and individual’s sensation.”
我在南方长大，北方念书；本科读的清华，研究生读的哈佛；后来又去欧洲工作了一段时间。我挺习惯在不同的地域文化里生活，不会觉得自己一定属于哪里，而这些不同的经历会带给我不一样的认同感。同样的内容，我在国内上学的时候会学，在哈佛又会学，但是角度不太一样。国内可能会侧重讲宏大的历史、风格和制式；国外反而会更加关注决策机制、土地政策、市长与市长的性格区分和轶事等等。这样正着听一遍，反着听一遍，会让我多一些开放的思考。此外，在清华的时候，老师向我推荐的是一种比较美国的学术方向，强调设计的逻辑和理性推导过程。到了哈佛，我受到了更加多元的文化冲击，对我影响最大的反而是几位西班牙老师，如教城市设计的Joan Busquets、教建筑设计的Inaki Abalos以及Rafael Moneo的理论课，他们跟同校的美国老师相比显得不是那么理性，但是多了很多历史和情感的维度，促使我做出了去欧洲工作的决定。
I grew up in the South and studied in the North; I finished my undergraduate study at Tsinghua University, and pursued graduate-level study at Harvard. Later, I went to Europe to work for a while. I am quite used to living in different regions and with diverse cultures, since I don’t feel that I must belong to one place. These different experiences have brought me an all-embracing sense of identity. I learned the same urban history in both China and the U.S., but with different perspectives. The former education may tends to focus on historical discourses and styles, while the latter pays more attention to decision-making mechanisms, land policies, the distinction between mayors and mayors, anecdotes, and other details. Studying these subjects in different ways opened up my mind. In addition, when I was in Tsinghua, the professor introduced to me academic pedagogies related more to American schools, emphasizing the logic of design and a concept-driven design methodology. When I arrived at Harvard, I was impacted by an even more diverse design culture. It was the courses by Spanish professors that had the greatest influence on me, such as Joan Busquets’ urban design class, Inaki Abalos’ architecture studio, and Rafael Moneo’s theory course. All these professors were very different from other American professors at GSD in that they were less interested in rationality, but focused more on broader dimensions on urban history and individual’s sensation, which prompted me to make the decision to work in Europe.
Chen Xi in Harvard University
Working aboard and Returning to China
“Both BIG and Steven Holl’s offices are more or less incompatible with their own cultural conditions, and I believe this incompatibility has given them a certain degree of freedom so that they are able to pursue their own ideal designs at a higher intellectual level.”
我去的第一家公司是BIG，在哥本哈根。到了才发现BIG虽然地处欧洲，但是它的思考和设计方式非常美国，强调清晰的设计逻辑，作品看上去既简单、又巧妙，而且方便大众理解，特别容易传播。这是BIG的一项巨大的优势。回到美国在Steven Holl那里工作后，我发现它反而更像一家欧洲公司。Steven关注欧洲的传统哲学、文学以及艺术的传承，思考的永远是自己跟这些艺术思潮流派之间的关系，再加上他本身是一个非常有才华并且勤奋的艺术家，每天早上五六点起床画水彩，每个项目都亲力亲为地画水彩来指导设计概念和细节，使得事务所呈现出一种非常传统的、偏欧洲式的风格。BIG和Steven Holl的事务所都与自己所处的环境格格不入，而正是这种格格不入的状态给了它们某种自由，不太受所谓学术圈语境的影响，可以在更高的层次上追求自己的理想。
The first company I worked for was Bjake Ingles Group (BIG) in Copenhagen. I soon discovered that although BIG is located in Europe, its thinking and design methods are very Americanized, highlighting a series of clear design logic. Their works look simple and ingenious, thusare easily understoodby the public and spread among the public. This became a huge advantage of BIG. However, after returning to the United States to work with Steven Holl, I found that Steven Holl Architects(SHA) acted more like a European company, because Steven usually placed himself in the inheritance of traditional European philosophy, literature, and art. He always reflected on the relationship between his architecture and these artistic or philosophic theories. He was such a talented and diligent artist that he often woke up at five or six in the morning to paint watercolors which guided the design concepts and details of every projects. In my opinion, his way of thinking and working endowed the office a European approach to architectural design. Both BIG and Steven Holl’s offices are more or less incompatible with their own cultural conditions, and I believe this incompatibility has given them a certain degree of freedom so that they are not affected too much by the surrounding academic context. Therefore, they are able to pursue their own ideal designs at a higher intellectual level.
I worked at SHA for six years. During those year, I played a role more or less equivalent to his hands. About half of the new projects were handled by me in their early stages. I tested digital drawings and physical models that reflected the spaces he had imagined in his watercolors. These experiences largely shaped my aesthetic taste and understanding of architecture. Steven is like my teacher, advising me hand in hand on how to do drawings and presentations. It was hard for me to make the decision to resign at the time, but I believed that if I stayed in the New York studio for too long, my understanding of design projects would remain mostly on drawings rather than more comprehensive involvement in later stages, such as the construction phase that allows site visit and first-hand client communication. After deliberate consideration, I decided to return to China in the end.
Chen Xi working in Steven Holl’s studio
“Shenzhen is a internationally reputable city with great architectural vitality. Relatively there is not too much historical burden, and architects can experiment with new city typologies and architectural forms with great flexibility.”
Shenzhen is a internationally reputable city with great architectural vitality. A large number of new designs emerge every year. Relatively there is not too much historical burden, and architects can experiment with new city typologies and architectural forms with great flexibility. Many of my good friends chose to develop their offices in Shenzhen when they returned to China. I joined them as well. After resigning from SHA, I hoped that I can calm down for a while and think carefully about what I wanted to do in the future, so I applied to teach at Shenzhen University as a full-time lecturer for one year, which turned out to be so enjoyable that after establishing my own office, I kept my teaching position as a guest instructor for the second-year design studio and undergrad design thesis. Design studio assignments in the school are generally very pragmatic, so I usually add a sub-topic on top of it. For example, I once gave students ten novels and asked each of them to do a design work derived from a novel; another year, I asked students to study Chinese characters according to which they created ten houses in the end. Teaching these studios is like commissioning myself with experimental design projects. Neither the student nor I know what the results will be. We explored together, and in the end there were often unexpected accomplishments.
Chen Xi teaching in Shenzhen University
“I feel that the architect serves not as-creators but tree planters. We carefully “plant” spaces for life and stories to naturally grow in them.”
The reason why my office is named Yi Shu Jian Zhu in Chinese is because I feel that the architect serves not as-creators but tree planters. We carefully “plant” spaces for life and stories to naturally grow in them. I hope that my practice will not become a copy-and-paste of personal signature. Rather, we seek to createspaces that belong to their environmental contexts with unique elements/ideas extracted from surroundings. This is my original intention and it continues to guide my practice till today. My studio is not big, with no more than 10 employees. Our projects are mainly small and medium-sized public and cultural projects, as well as some renovation and interior projects. Every year, we also participate in a few competitions that would refresh restrained mindsets bounded in pragmatic designs. Speaking of the design process, I usually bring a relatively clear motivation or conceptual theme in the beginning. Sometimes I get inspiration immediately when I arrive at the site, and I would draw sketches directly when I goback to office; Sometimes the project is more complicated. In this case, I would study the schematic possibilities with my colleagues and find the best answer collaboratively.
▼一树建筑工作室，office of ATELIER XI
“The urban villages are full of emotions, retaining the original size of the streets and the close relationship between the neighborhoods, providing a very low-cost living space for those who are chasing their dreams in the city.”
I became interested in urban villages when I was attending an urban policy class at Harvard. At that time, I wrote an essay introducing the spatial form of Shenzhen’s urban villages in relation to land ownership, discussing the relationship between policies and spaces. Years later, when I came to Shenzhen to start my practice, this topic came to me again. Speaking of Shenzhen, an image of a metropolis with the highest housing prices in the country pops out in our minds. Dozens of Pritzker Prize winners compete to design cultural buildings here. In fact, half of Shenzhen’s total building area is in the territories defined as urban villages, and more than half of the population lives in these highly densified communities. These seemingly gloomy handshake buildings provide a very low-cost living space for those who are chasing their dreams in the city. If one just simply demolish these urban villages, many will lose the opportunity to survive in Shenzhen and have to give up their dreams.
On the other hand, the urban villages are full of emotions, retaining the original size of the streets and the close relationship between the neighborhoods, having autonomous communities, performing their own elections. This is a very different pattern from that of the newly built residential districts. We have participated in about six or seven urban village renovation projects, some of which were done collaboratively with other architects as a group design study. During this process, I realized that the transformation and upgrading of these existing urban villages reflected the opportunity to generate a new pattern against traditional Modernist urban development and urban renewal models. What we are doing in the urban villages is just a beginning, and we envision greater potentials in the future.
▼陈曦参与设计的部分城中村项目，selected projects in urban village designed by Chen Xi
“The perfection of construction that we architects care the most may not be so important to the community. A more essential point is the relationship between design and residents’ daily lives and whether they would connect themselves with the design.”
In the 2018 Urban Festival, I was commissioned to create an entrance installation with a budget about 40,000 RMB. The limited budget was only a part of the challenge, since it was also difficult to coordinate with local residents. Although the site was barely used at that moment, we must get approval from all neighbors and communities to start renovation. In addition, we had to get approval from various municipal bureaus. As a result, it took almost a year for completing this project which was originally scheduled to be finished in one month. At the first moment when I arrived at the original site, I found it an amazing transitional space connecting the village to the city, thus I was inspired to create a vast space in such a narrow alleyway. So we proposed to install stainless steel mirrors on both sides of the hallway to enlarge the space in perception, and we planned to install thousands of optical fibers above the ceiling and under the ground to recreate a starry sky. However, neighbors in the urban village did not want their building to be touched. In the end, the installation was set back from the building walls on both sides, offsetting back from the pipes of each household; it also set back from the doors for each user’s water and electric meters, which can be opened and viewed like a cabinet; all the manhole covers on the ground were also kept untouched.
▼装置与原有墙面脱开，保留管道等设备，the installation is separated from the original walls, restoring the ducts and other facilities
This project requires careful response to every request from surrounding residents. These constraints made the project more complex but also more relevant to the place it belongs to. Due to limited budget and time, the details of the installation come out quite different from my original expectation. However, after the completion of the project, I asked for residents’ feedbacks and found that most people were very excited when they walked into this space, especially the children. They would look for light sources on the ground and discuss how it was made. One boy made up a game and told others that they would reach the next level of the game after passing through this installation. At that time, I suddenly realized that the perfection of construction that we architects care the most may not be so important to the community. A more essential point is the relationship between design and residents’ daily lives and whether they would connect themselves with the design.
▼儿童在装置中玩耍，children playing in the installation
“Create a small miracle, an unexpected/magical moment in the mediocrity of daily environment.”
When we started with the projects in urban villages, we wanted to improve everything related to the space, but later I found it impossible to immediately gentrify these villages into the West Village of New York overnight. In the end, all we could do was to adopt a minimalized strategy, using the simplest technique to create the purist form with the least necessary construction investment. Because we usually don’t have enough resources to improve everything in the entire space, we try to focus on certain aspects and present a simple but interesting idea. We hope that in this way, we are able to create a small miracle, an unexpected/magical moment in the mediocrity of daily environment. Our goal is to provide imaginative possibilities to the ordinary life, which became the working mindset we have continued to use in other urban village projects.
▼在城中村中创造一些不同 – 平山村4号农民房改造
Make something different in the urban village – Renovation of the villager’s house on no. 4, Pingshan Village
I think the challenge we faced in the village project was just a microcosm of a larger issue. This kind of high-density, low-cost, short-time condition of the projects and the need to coordinate with different constituencies also apply to other projects in the city outside of urban villages. The projects in the villages were exact opportunities for me to get my hands on in the practical world. Its limitations in craftsmanship, regulations, budget and time, as well as the complexity of the surrounding neighborhood are very typical compared to the overall Chinese architectural projects. The experience of working with urban villages is like the first lesson I got after establishing my practice to China. I used to work as a very idealistic architect-on-paper, but now I have to negotiate with every project contingencies for our designs to survive. After these experiences, my team and I have become better prepared for more difficult challenges.
▼大梅沙村艺术公社改造前后对比，contrast before and after renovation of the Art Commune in Dameisha Village
“They were made as new structures apart from the local building styles, acting as pieces of meteorites landing in the countryside to bring interesting new knowledge and new energy from outer space.”
Local leaders in Xiuwu advocated an aesthetic approach towards rejuvenating these communities. At the beginning, they invited me to build a 300-square-meter cultural building for facilitating the county’s culture and art education. To decide where to build, we visited many places across the county in a few days. With such a large area and so many villages to serve, I came up with an idea to divide one building into a series of miniature facilities in different locations so as to better serve local communities. Since this was also the hometown of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove in ancient time, we proposed to divide the buildinginto seven miniature parts scattered around the county. Local leaders were very supportive of this strategy, for such a plan could help them to finance the project in several phases and to achieve their goals step by step. So we together chose seven sites: one in the peach orchard, one in the farming field, one on top of the mountain, one in the village as a performance stage, and one occupying the abandoned adobe house. Once the sites were determined, the local people came up with additional requirements for each site. They hoped that in addition to aesthetic qualities, this project could also promote the sales of local agricultural products and generate actual economic benefits. Furthermore, because this county was located next to the Yuntai Mountain Scenic Area, they also hoped that such a series of cultural buildings could contribute in tourism and stimulate consumption.
▼微建筑系列的七个建筑，seven buildings in the Miniature Series
When started to design these seven buildings, I hoped that they were made as new structures apart from the local building styles, acting as pieces of meteorites landing in the countryside to bring interesting new knowledge and new energy from outer space. In the initial conceptual design, I sketched out some shapes of sculptural stones with tentacles. When each building was placed on its own site, the local users asked for more specific requirements. After adjusting the design according to their requirements, the resulting forms of these vignettes became somehow alike but different.
▼模型，建筑如同带触角的石头，models, buildings are like stones with tentacles
We hoped that the project could engage local people to in construction phase, so that the craft techniques and materials would vary based on conditions of each distinct site: some projects were made of concrete; some were painted with stucco, and some were made of wood. Conceptual design and local requirements continue to collide, reaching a sort of “locality” as we understood it. This “locality” does not mean that we have to strictly use the materials or the common construction methods used in the village, but that we can relate the design to the lives and demands of the rural residents. This connection with the land, the environment, and the behavior may sometimes result in conflicts, and may even appear as a rebellious response. Take the Library in Ruins we built in an abandoned adobe house as an example. The villagers thought that we would renovate the rammed earth house, but we searched for local craftsmen and found that no one could make beautiful rammed earth walls anymore. Therefore, we decided to create a new building that grows out from the ruins to provoke a dialogue between the old and the new. This back-and-forth design process represents our approach on interpreting the relationship between the built projects and the local environment.
▼废墟书屋外观，老房子中生长出来的新建筑，external view of the Library in Ruins, new structure emerging from the ruins of an old house
▼混凝土结构与土墙交接，intersection of the concrete structure and the rammed earth walls
“This architecture’s most important feature is precisely its condition of estrangement… the Peach Hut is an enigmatic and optimistic gizmo, and a respectful herald inviting its listeners to explore the distant worlds that he comes from…I am excited to contirbute to the rural living conditions and strive to make it full of minor surprises.”
The original idea of the Peach Hut was to erect a space purely for community education that serves kids, but the locals also hoped that it could help promoting their agricultural products, such as peaches and grapes in the orchard. I arrived at the orchard at the end of March when the peach trees blossomed in soft breeze. The whole garden was filled with color pink, so I decided to build it with pink cast-in-place concrete which was unprecedented in the local area. Our on-site architects had worked with construction team for two months on repeated field testing before we eventually reached to a formula that met the desired color and concrete strength. Since the trees on the site all leaned to one side, we envisioned that the building could be made as an reflective form derived from the trees, forming a unique shape that rises to the sky.
In the Peach Hut, all windows are of diverse shapes, responding to different views and light angles: the large floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the panoramic view of the farm; the round window frame on the south; and the entrance corner window made as a quarter circles. The shadow cast down from light well changes at every moment based on skylight nuances. In addition, we customized a special bronze wall sconce and black steel door handles that correspond to the contour of the building.
▼由粉红色混凝土制成的建筑，building made of pink concrete
I recently read an article commenting on the Peach Hut: “this architecture’s most important feature is precisely its condition of estrangement… the Peach Hut is an enigmatic and optimistic gizmo, and a respectful herald inviting its listeners to explore the distant worlds that he comes from.” I am quite impressed by this commentator whose interpretation is very close to the original intention of our design. We rejected the idea of it being a traditional building that would be seen everywhere. Instead, it was expected to function as a window that help opens up spaces for imagination, allowing curiosity and motivation for exploration to proliferate among local audience. Nowadays, architects always discuss the buildings of big cities and buildings of the countryside as two distinct genres with the latter being more unadorned and rustic, but I think both the city and the countryside deserve pursuing interesting interventions rich in content.
I originally thought that these miniature buildings would be operated by the municipal government, but in fact the two projects that have been completed by now are managed mostly by private enterprises. The Peach Hut is mainly operated by the owner of the orchard. I followed their Tik Tok account and found that users of the building are demonstrating so many interesting moments happening around the hut, such as flower viewing, tourist photography, and music performances. When peaches or grapes are fruited, the orchard owner also organize fruit picking trips. To a certain degree, this building has become a part of farm life and its Instagramable quality helps to connect the locals to the outside world through social media.
In my mind, a designer plays a role that both stimulates imagination and brings economic effects tothe rural project. On top of it, I am excited to contirbute to the rural living conditions and strive to make it full of minor surprises. Too many rural revitalization results seem to be very similar, and I wish that we can make some differences.
▼桃屋室内，邀请人们探索来自远方的世界，interior of the Peach Hurt, inviting people to explore the distant worlds
Public and Art
I think art should be a part of public life, and architecture and architects are responsible for achieving this integration. When I was living in New York, one of the greatest things was that art was within reach. There were many free activities in the museums, and there were many public artworks on streets. After returning to China, I found that art becomes a luxury, a way of consumption that classifies the crowd, which looks scary to me. One of the major responsibilities of public buildings is to create artistic and public urban places, so that everyone can inadvertently come into contact with art and poetry in their daily life. Not only do architecture have good-looking forms, but they also need to be experienced and enjoyed by people. I always keep two goals when designing public and art projects. Firstly, I hope to make a good foreground, that is, to create a unique sculptural figure that transcends daily experience and brings surprises; secondly, I hope to make a good background so that the interior space of the building can become the container of artwork and public activities and allows the surrounding landscape to penetrate in. As a result, the general public can participate in it.
▼部分陈曦设计的公共艺术项目，selected public art projects designed by Chen Xi
The Folded Time-Light-Line project of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale is located in a abandoned factory building, and the design and construction time is very tight. We choose ordinary membrane as the main material, which is very cheap and is capable of spanning over 50-meters. Its lightness and translucency brings huge contrast with the existing industrial framework. By folding the light-filled membrane walls, the exhibition venue is organized as a series of galleries for exhibition contents introducing from agricultural to industrial and internet era. On one hand, this project jumps out from the ruins of factory and occupies the foreground of the space as an art piece. On the other hand, it acts as a spatial framework to accommodate artworks and events.
Writing and Design
“Writing and design use basic elements to create a world. When you put these elements together into articles or drawings, it will develop its own intelligence independent from you. This process excites me the most when we arrive at a design theme that we’ve never thought about after repeated deductions.”
I am writing a new series called “Unfolding Cities“, which records spaces that I find interesting, such as a movie theater that continuously extends in its section across different buildings; a bus station that gradually grows from a building into streams of roads; a post office with different spatial perceptions when entered from different entries; and a monastery made up of numberless fragments of time, and so on. I enjoying writing some snippets in my spare time, because I believe that interesting texts and designs can inspire one another. Sometimes I will look at design decisions in a literary way. Taking the miniature series as an example, if they are constructed like Calvino’s “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”, then we can make the ending of each small structure as the beginning of another one, presenting a progressive sequence. Or, if we learn from the novels of Jean Echenoz, the characters and the details continue to disappear and reappear, which may be closer to current strategy of the project. Furthermore, we are designing a renovation project in a way similar to the dual narratives in Julio Cortázar’s story. Wehope that two different sets of memories could be entangled into one comprehensive whole. The structure of the storytelling, the rhythm of narration, the establishment of a world view, including its description of atmosphere in details are very similar to the essense of doing design.
Another thing I find interesting is that writing and design use basic elements to create a world. When you put these elements together into articles or drawings, it will develop its own intelligence independent from you, sometimes different from what you imagine in the beginning. This process excites me the most when we arrive at a design theme that we’ve never thought about after repeated deductions.
▼《展开的城市》内页，inner pages of “Unfolding Cities”
“In the future, I will be willing to explore some general and productive projects. We hope to create unique experiences on ordinary places.”
We are currently doing many small and medium-scale public and cultural projects. In the future, I will be willing to explore new project types, especially some general and productive projects, such as the most basic residential, office or urban space. We hope to create unique experiences on ordinary places, even at very small scales. Recently we are designing a factory and its research center. This is the first time we have been dealing with the industrial project. The client is a water brand, and the project site is located at the foot of a scenic spot. We hope to embed natural elements and ecological concepts through the design of the factory. By infiltrating publicity and artistry into an industrial building, we envision the project to be an exemplary model that can be visited by tourists in the future.
▼正在建设的项目 – 明仁水厂及研发体验中心
Project in process – Mingren Water Factory and R&D Center
Another project under construction in Wuhan is also representing the challenges we are facing in design practice, which is the flexble program requirement. The design brief requests the building to be a sales office in the first two years, but it will turn into a kindergarten two years later. So we need to respond to different functions and regulations using the same structure and make the space flexible to accommodate different programs. The strategy we adopted was to build a sculptural shell that can be filled with different floors and functions as needed. When serving as a sales center, the building area can be small, and there will bea lot of double height exhibition spaces. In the future, just by adding a few floor slabs and removing a small portion of the glass curtain wall, we can get a kindergarten that meets the functional requirements and regulations and it will provide enough sunlight. Taking such a design approach can avoid wasting an extra building and respond to different uses more effectively. For us, the significance of the strategy itself is even more important than the aethestic aspect in this project.
▼正在建设的项目 – 武汉万科城市展厅兼幼儿园
Project in process – Wuhan Vanke Urban Exhibition Hall and Kindergarten
I think teaching is a requirement for students but also for myself. I hope that students can break through the limitations of form and architectural discourse, and pay attention to the development of society and people. The subject that I gave to undergrad thesis last year was about the boundary between Shenzhen and Hong Kong in 2050. The students would study the psychological and social changes of different groups of people under specific spatial conditions. Through researching such topic, I hope it could help them further understand the world and respond with architectural mindsets. This is also what I hope to explore in the future.
▼其他项目 – FA青年建筑师奖决赛作品平武熊猫民宿
Other projects – FA young architect award finalist project Pingwu Panda Guest House