Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Searching Near

“Basically I don’t like these ‘stamp architects’ like Tadao Ando or Richard Meyer,” Zhang Lei tells me as we drive through the agri-industrial countryside of Jiangsu Province. “They are doing the same thing in different contexts. They always use the same approaches, and I don’t think that’s good.”

Zhang is an architect based in Nanjing. We are driving to see his latest project, a set of two private homes built on the site of an abandoned granary over 100 kilometers outside of the city. The project is the embodiment of the architect’s ethos. “We used all local materials and local workers,” Zhang says, gesturing toward a group of middled aged men hammering and hauling at the side of the road. “Actually they are not workers. They are farmers, but they know how to build, because they built their own houses.” As we turn off the highway, Zhang rolls down my window and motions toward a hulking brown building with an enormous chimney that spews billowy white smoke, like a volcano. In front are stacks of brick that are almost identical in color to the ruddy earth on which they sit. “The bricks we used were produced locally. I mean, right there.” Before I have a chance to survey the scene more carefully, we’ve made another turn and are approaching the old granary gate.

The application of indigenous construction techniques to modern building is a hot topic in China at the moment. The ubiquity, and increasing meaninglessness, of “sustainability” as a rationale in architecture has brought about a renewed fascination with the country’s suddenly exotic rural cultures. Certain projects, like Wang Shu’s new campus for the Art Academy of China in Hangzhou, apply pre-modern construction techniques to address the challenges facing modern China – in Wang’s case what to do with the mounds of historical debris left from China’s manic makeover. But just as often, the use of “local” techniques acts as an alibi for superficial, unsustainable gestures that turn common crafts into nouveau riche frills.

Zhang Lei is keenly aware of this trend, and tries to distinguish his approach by saying, “I like to use materials and methods that are local and common – nothing special. Some of the local materials have become very special and very expensive. For example, there is a hotel in Beijing that IM Pei designed in the ’80s. It used some materials from Suzhou, and it was very very expensive, because these local materials are no longer being used, so they had to find some way to re-do it. That’s not my point in using so-called local or original materials and techniques. It should be commonplace. If these things are still being used, you can build good buildings for low budget. That’s real local, not just some symbol.” As we pull up to the house, he turns and says with undisguised pride, “This house is very cheap. About $100 per square meter.”

Zhang’s house is an interpretation of the traditional Chinese courtyard dwelling. Its front facade is modest and fairly cold. As we enter, the sensation is not unlike the feeling of protective privacy one experiences on entering a bomb shelter. But as we approach the living room at the center, the atmosphere changes. Windows proliferate and the light improves. There is more space; it feels like there is more oxygen. The off-color bricks and imperfect masonry give the space a gentle, humane quality. A small group of friends, including the house’s owner Ye Hui, is gathered around a fireplace watching NBA basketball.

To hear Ye Hui tell it, the house is more an organism than a piece of architecture. A poet in his spare time, Ye provides me an array of naturalistic metaphors to help explain his home. It is a “firefly”, a “flock of birds”, a “thunderstorm”… It is, to simplify things, a vacation house, one which needs to expand and contract according to its owners’ needs. It must be capable of providing intimacy, isolation, entertainment, and openness, often simultaneously.

To this end, Zhang has provided a variety of techniques, centered around the courtyard. At one end sits the tea room, a wood and glass enclosure designed for quiet contemplation. At the other is a large gallery/party space that looks out to the lake at the house’s rear. The walls of the gallery are floor-to-celing glass that opens to create an almost unobstructed space, which, in good weather, can incorporate the house’s natural surroundings as part of its interior design.

On the day we visit, the weather is not good, but Zhang uses the opportunity to show off another facet of the house’s flexibility. “All these glass doors can be covered up,” he tells me, motioning to the wall at the courtyard side of the gallery. He picks up a wooden plank from a pile to his right and places it over the glass. “We can put this wood over the door and create a much smaller space.” That’s a good idea, I say. “Yes, we actually took it from the shop keepers. They use these to protect their shops at night. It’s very simple, but it works. It’s very… local.”

Originally published in Domus 914 (May 2008)