Dong & Belogolovsky

In Dialogue

Interviewed by Vladimir Belogolovsky in Madrid, Gong Dong analyzes his architecture. Both reflect on the balance between the globalization processes and the recovery of local heritage.

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Photos: © Miguel Galiano

The offices of the magazine Arquitectura Viva serve as meeting place for the critic Vladimir Belogolovsky (Odessa, Ukraine, 1970), founder of Curatorial Project in New York, and the architect Gong Dong (Beijing, China, 1972) director of Vector Architects and author of works like Alila Yangshuo Hotel in Guangxi, Seashore Chapel in Beidaihe, and Captain’s House in Fuzhou,

all built in China but with a significant international impact. Together they discuss architecture’s evolution since the Modern Movement and the different impact in the East and the West, stressing the importance of recovering the cultural history of cities without neglecting the technological development of contemporary construction.

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Vladimir Belogolovsky: Spain was, at least until the financial crisis of 2008, one of the leading countries in the global architectural panorama, and a real playground and research field for architects, perhaps similar to what China has become, but in a very intense way. There were many talented architects here, and many interesting works were built during that period. I would say that this situation is a continuous thing, despite the economy and despite the fact that a number of younger Spanish architects left the country, because still quite a few are producing very good quality work. Do you plan to visit or meet with any of these architects during this trip?

Gong Dong: This is a very short visit, but I’m sure I’ll come back next year with more time. Personally, I’m not so familiar with the younger generation of architects, but for some reason I really agree with you. When you look at the European architectural legacy, or even at the world’s, Spain represents a very subtle and sophisticated tension between discipline and emotional expression. This sums up my overall view of the environment. To me these are two essential pillars of architecture, and Spain is moving right in the middle. It’s a very fine balance.

VB: Yes, I’d say there’s a counter-trend, a kind of opposition on the side of Chinese architects towards imported architecture, that in some way was developing a national identity that wasn’t their own. Your generation, on the contrary, proposed an alternative. Not exactly Western and not exactly Chinese, but rather a sort of fusion of both, and it has generated a lot of interest among Western professionals and critics. There is some sense of creating something different, something that’s related to culture, to the place, contemporary yet based on tradition. You can see it in the use of materials and techniques.

GD: But what does architecture consist of? To me, the most complicated and at the same time satisfactory aspect is when you truly engage with a place and discover something of your own in it, culturally speaking. You get to know the place. It is a sort of emotional commitment that lies in the heart of architecture as I know it. It is where inspiration comes from. Architecture must be able to engage with the local condition in multiple layers, but when you build in places where you don’t know the architecture, the building becomes a product and the architect becomes a brand.

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VB: You started your practice in 2008. It was a very important year for China, because that was the year of the Olympics, and the year when a number of foreign architects just finished major iconic buildings in Beijing and overall in China, but particularly in Beijing. It was also the year when Wang Shu finished his Ningbo Museum; probably the first time in years that a local architect could compete with foreign ones. It is interesting because you, just like many important architects of your generation, started working in China, but had studied in the United States.

GD: I think the entire nation was trying to use that event to build a sort of pride and confidence in the identity of the new China, the contemporary China that is integrated into the world. That kind of mindset gave the whole nation strength, inviting first tier architects to design large-scale works – such as the CCTV headquarters by OMA and the Bird’s Nest stadium by Herzog & de Meuron – and really get them built. But after that there’s a very subtle change of mindset, because most of the foreign architects don’t have a very direct knowledge and engagement with China. They encounter many difficult situations along the way and it is hard for them to adapt to the country’s mechanisms, so they don’t all manage to settle successfully in China.

At the same time, architects of my generation, but trained in the West, start to appear on the horizon, with the clear advantage of being local. In sum, we have learned the techniques of contemporary architecture and at the same time share that deep love for our culture.

VB: I remember you telling me about the impressions of your first trip to Europe.

GD: That was around the year 2000, twenty years ago, and I keep fond memories. China was very different then, and to me it is interesting to see the contrast between the cultural shock I experienced then and how it is for the younger generations that travel and study abroad, in the United States or Europe. I don’t see that much cultural shock in their faces, even when it’s the first time they come out and look at the world. In China today – Shanghai, Beijing or in so many other places – they live with cars, computers, all the systems. When they come out and go, for example, to an airplane terminal or a train station, they realize that the built world is not so different, so they don’t feel a strong gap anymore. When I travelled to Europe twenty years ago I saw things I’d never seen before.

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VB: However, there is one characteristic quality that unites all these works, something which is rarely talked about in academic circles, and that’s the subject of beauty. Seductive beauty I would say, very related to this idea of nostalgia and not just the newness of the work: the nostalgic beauty of history. I just visited some projects here in Spain where I see that connection with what you were saying Chinese architects feel.

GD: But you yourself are part of a different kind of fusion: you live in New York, teach in China, and travel around the world. You know how to identify those resemblances between Chinese and Spanish architecture, and talk about a nostalgic concept of beauty that I’d like to know more about. As I see it, both countries face different conditions and cultures, as well as a different period in contemporary history.

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VB: Many of the leading independent architects in China are now building on small scale in the countryside. And you can find a number of interesting projects here in Spain, also built outside of big cities. I just went to see the work of RCR in Olot, a town outside of Girona. They work with the context, with abandoned or historic buildings, and blend the old and the new. I feel this is also happening in China. There is a kind of rediscovery of history and traditions, and a sort of refusal to start from zero and create something that jumps into the future. For instance, your Alila Yangshuo Hotel is based on the foundations and ruins of a building from the late 1960s, but it’s treated as ruins. It’s an interesting shift, and you can see this happening in Spain as well. There is a respect for what was there before, and I think that this attitude is different from that of architects years ago. Instead of trying to create this completely new, artificial object, now it’s a lot more about creating an environment, accommodation, comfort and working for the public.

GD: Modernism is almost like a revolution in terms of how the architecture engages with the system of production of this technology. Even the mindset, the culture, and religion change its philosophy. Also, the architecture system becomes more and more closed, more focussed on a final object in which all the components in architecture are integrated into a system. For instance, a cell phone, like this iPhone, is perfectly designed. Everything inside is such a smart system that it starts rejecting any relation with the exterior, because it is a closed object. This idea can be exported to many fields, but in architecture, since modernity, a more introspective model is produced. Only if we have in mind the place, people, heritage, or tradition will it be possible for the system to open up and let users interact with all these conditions, making the architecture more inviting, more comfortable.

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