Friday, November 13, 2015


Beijing No 4  High School, Fangshan Campus, 2014

The evening got dark quickly, earlier than usual. The internal reflections on the glass walls were getting annoyingly clearer. The failing light made it feel like winter rather than late spring. It had cooled off slightly after a cloudy, warm day. This Thursday talk, 12 November 2015, the last of the series for the year, was given by Chinese architect, Huang Wenjing of Open Architecture. After studying and working in USA, she opened an office in Beijing with her partner Li Hu. She has also opened an office in New Delhi, and is a senior editor for World Architecture Magazine. She studied in Princeton with Chris Knapp, Architectural Discipline Leader and Assistant Professor at the Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University. He invited her here – her first trip to Australia. She arrived yesterday and already the beaches and light have done their PR job by confirming the blurb: 'beautiful one day, perfect the next.' The blue skies and the water mesmerized her; and why not given the state of affairs in Beijing. The diagrammatic sequence of images she showed of Beijing from the same location over a whole month revealed just how rare a bright blue sky was in China. Pollution was the problem. Two kilograms of sand per person arrives when there is a sand storm caused by the deforestation of the city and countryside. Of nine major cities studied, Beijing had the smallest area of green spaces of them all. Things are getting serious in China as well as elsewhere. The sky is regularly hazed with the pollution from millions of cars and factories. Such is China today.

Beijing No 4  High School, Fangshan Campus, 2014

Huang Wenjing

Li Hu

Huang Wenjing started her talk at the usual late time after drinks. She spoke about the statistics predicting huge numbers of extra cars, cities, people, etc. in China by the year 2030. So soon, so many. Enormous! 240 new cities? Over 300 million extra people: extra! Are there really 1960 new cars on the road every day? It was truly frightening. One felt as though we were living in a fool's paradise here in Australia, selfishly unconcerned about anything but our trivially stupid politics and ordinary, uncomplicated lives, waiting for the next holiday or long weekend, and/or for the next sporting event. China seemed to be truly buzzing, alive and alert: thinking. Huang Wenjing showed a grave intelligence that would soon reveal an architectural sensitivity and skill. Here in Australia we are dealing with 24 million as the total population (2015). Why should we worry about anything, “mate” - (to quote our ex-PM)? The statisticians made one suddenly sit up and realize how insignificant we really are, like a flea on a beast. How on earth did we ever get the impression that we made a difference anywhere? How naive are we? Are we, as the colloquial jargon goes, “Up ourselves” just too much?

Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre, 2012

Huang Wenjing and her partner, Li Hu, have written a book, Open Architecture: it might have been called 'open everything.' It did start looking like a promotional tool. The 'open' theory was obscure, perhaps too parochial or self-referential, and was covered quickly. In fact, Huang Wenjing skipped over the last couple of items. Did she sense that things were dragging a little? The text on the screen was illegible, and her rationale was getting muddled, unconvincing. It all seemed a little too strictly contrived for this audience: Chinese rigour has its own enthusiasts, its own specialists and apologists. It gets too tortuously and self-evidently factual for the casual Australian, a little like screaming out the 'bleeding' obvious again and again in very formal text without embarrassment. The general summary of the 'open' theories was that the office was concerned with green environmental matters: the sustainability of all of their projects; the future; and the systems involved. They were an inventive firm rather than architects who looked back.

Plan of Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre

Grass roof of Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre

Huang Wenjing started talking about her projects. The first impression of the Gehua Youth and Cultural Centre in Qinhuangdao, 2012, was how big it was, how well it appeared to be constructed, and how quickly it was constructed: six months, including the design period! - two to design; four to build. Astonishing: and it was so big too; spacious and well appointed. Truly unbelievable. It made Australian builders appear greedy, indulgent; careless and lazy; belligerent. What must one do to get things changed? How can it be altered in this culture of 'entitlement,' where every, even the 'hopeless,' tradesman on a site, believes he/she is worth being paid far more than any professional, who would be mocked by the masses for asking such hourly rates. The Gehua scheme looked a little random in its shaping, but it soon became clear that it was tightly fitted to its site and fully resolved rationally rather than being casually 'arty.' It was a pleasure to see such quality work. One can already expect that, had this been an Australian project, the builders would have started fabricating the excuses for not completing the work on time well before beginning the construction work on site. Documents would have been poured over for loopholes, and legal minds would have been asked about strategies. This is how things are in the “She'll be right, mate;” “Go away; we know best;” (“Silly bugger!”) country.#

The play of light through the courtyard doors

Courtyard of Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre

Beijing No 4  High School, Fangshan Campus, 2014

Beijing No 4 High School

Section of Beijing No 4 High School showing the vertical arrangement of spaces

Beijing No 4  High School, Fangshan Campus, 2014

The school Beijing No 4 High School, Fangshan Campus, 2014,was likewise. It was incredibly large, and complete in every way. Nothing was skimped. The architects seemed to be able to do much more than one might be allowed to 'get away with' in Australia. Is it the culture? Is it the wealth? Is it the ambition? Is it a matter of taking things more seriously and just doing them properly instead of always 'on the cheap,' seeking to 'save money' whenever and however? The No 4 school worked on the programme of establishing large, subterranean spaces for gym, dance, theatre, functions, etc., that moulded the ground surface that was fitted with skylights poking through grassy slopes or paved surfaces, where skylights became seats. The detailing was superb, inventive. Above this undulating ground surface, there were the layers of class rooms; then on top of these, the roof garden/farming space. It was a beautiful typology, nicely resolved, and came about all because of the requirement to have a full-size running track on a limited site. Chinese schools are well appointed. China seems to acknowledge the importance of education, unlike Australia, that thinks it more important to stash money away for politicians' perks and generous super packages than spend it on schools.

The scarcity of furniture in Beijing No 4 High School

Beijing No 4 High School has twenty stairs that are all different.

Kahn-like stair

Subterrean space of Beijing No 4 High School

Huang Wenjing spoke quietly, so her voice was amplified. The evening was comfortable, it flowed easily with her logical, rational presentation revealing real life projects of an ordinary, modest office – but this was not ordinary placemaking. It was thoughtful, totally unpretentious. The office did beautiful drawings/presentations. Everything was deliberately mannered. Is this the Chinese way? All the work was on CAD, delicately, perfectly presented as if calligraphy. It had beautiful Chinese attributes - and why should it not?

Stepped Courtyards, Changle, 2012-2013

Stepped Courtyards, Changle

The dormitory scheme, Stepped Courtyards, Changle, 2012-2013, was elegant, well resolved and used the local topography of the large, extended family housing courtyard form, but cut the corners off for views without 'cutting corners' in the quality of the outcome. A theme of the work of this office seemed to be folded ground surfaces. As well as this, one kept on seeing concrete surfaces everywhere; grassed roofs; and pools of water in the various projects too.

The folded ground around the courtyard buildings

The client requested stone paving, not grass.

Plan HEX-SYS, 2015

Except for the HEX-SYS that was a small project in Guangzhou, 2015, that used steel prefabricated hexagonal forms as roofs shaped as inverted, wind-blown umbrellas supported on central columns that acted as downpipes from which water was collected for the site irrigation. All roofs were clad differently to suit the various requirements. The elements were able to be dismantled at any time for recycling. It was a nice scheme, but seemed over- deliberate, a little heavy, and, like most demountable structures, the system probably needed more effort than one supposed in the recycling process. The story of re-use is nearly always far simpler than the reality.

HEX-SYS, Guangzhou, 2015

The 'Ikea' drawing - is Ikea a good reference for simplicity?

Newer works showed a theatre, the Pingshan Performing Arts Centre, Shenzhen, 2014 - 2015, and a campus building, Ocean Centre, Shenzhen, 2012 - 2014, under construction. The theatre had an open public space woven into it so as to set an example for all of the other government-run theatres that spend most of the time closed, unused. This one had a public facility wrapped around it with open public access too. The campus structure also had open pubic spaces on various levels throughout the building that was modelled on the idea of tipping the standard campus plan of parallel lines of shed forms up vertically to give open spaces between floors, instead of between the buildings. It was inventive. Huang Wenjing later explained that to achieve their grassy roofs they have to think laterally and develop other solutions for the services that are usually placed on the flat roof. In the Beijing school she used a thermal exchange system buried in the ground.

Pingshan Performing Arts Centre, Shenzhen, 2014-2015

Ocean Centre, Shenzhen, 2012-2014

Open court with water in HEX-SYS

Stairs at La Tourette are like those on the HEX-SYS scheme

Skylight 'cannons' at La Tourette have inspired Open Architecture.

La Tourette layers span the sloping ground and are topped with a grassed meditation roof area.
School No 4 follows this same typopology.

Beijing No 4 High School sectional diagram

Beijing No 4 High School open space

The work was 'ordinary' in an excellent way, but well resolved, practical, inventive, thoughtful; beautifully managed and resolved. One could see the hand of le Corbusier in it, his inspiration. General forms and spaces, light canons, musical rhythms of blades, la Tourette bridging (the school), steps like la Tourette, separate: see  were all there to prompt memories in various different ways. Yet the work was all elegantly resolved to be more than a mere replica. On the Gehua Youth Centre, Huang Wenjing noted how the office first referenced Corbusier's recreational building at Firminy, as it was about the same size. Oddly, most of the interiors of the work were sparse. Had the photographs been taken prior to occupation? It appeared Japanese in this regard – all hard concrete, a little colour, a few people, polished concrete floors – not slippery? - but very few pieces of furniture. There was a small Eames plywood setting in one interior that looked awkwardly 'architectural,' posed – and a few theatre seats, not much more. Generally the furnishings that were built in were plywood, clear finished; nothing else. Did the schemes run out of money? Is it a cultural matter – clutter free forever?

Le Corbusier's Maison de la Culture, Firminy, France, 1956.

Raw concrete and colour at Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, Marseille, 1947-1952.

The talk had the possibility of running over time as occasionally a short video was played. Oddly Huang Wenjing tried to speak over loud music at these times. She was wasting her time; she was impossible to hear. The videos added little to the substance of the presentation other than images of people and changing light moving through the projects.

Stepped Courtyards, Changle

The evening was different to others because it showed real work both completed and under construction, without any scheming or pretension: just ordinary graft and concern for the work and the listeners. Huang Wenjing knew when to stop. Occasionally she spoke about client issues - “No grass was wanted on the Stepped Courtyard pavements,” so they had to be paved in stone; “Couldn't afford the maintenance!” Stone! Then, on the better times: “We built an igloo (at the Beijing school) – just did it; no questions.” The HEX-SYS client wanted “height, not a single story building” that the system allowed for, so the architects designed and built a steel-framed tower. The office appeared to confront the normal day to day hassles of architectural practice creatively. These were presented without indulgent hype or distorting glamour.

Beijing No 4 High School

The presentation, like most, was naively professional, gentle. It was well prepared. A look at the web site for Open Architecture, see below, will suggest that this talk has been given many times. The work all involved much more than was ever, could ever be spoken about. The presentation was somewhat schematic; diagrammatic. One must never forget that everything has to be designed, detailed and fully documented in order to achieve this quality of work. It was no simple ordinary task of some dreamer; nor did it happen by chance. Skill and expertise are needed, even in China. Then there is the other saying: that good work needs a good client. China must have much better clients than those in Australia!

Sky City, Wuhan, China, 2011.
The idea of the spaces between the levels is used here too.

One was left wondering if there really was some cultural difference in work ethic and other social matters, as Huang Wenjing seemed to have more authority there than one has here. I can recall being directed to make school rooms and corridors smaller; to limit the number and type of courtyards; and more. The refusal meant that the project was given to the draughtsmen to draw up with directions from the client! Does China respect its architects more than Australians? Gosh, one can think of some clients!! Still, the talk gave one hope. While the green statistics of the work looked good with grass, farm roofs and ponds, it was all made of concrete that seemed to be not so 'green' a material. How did the green stars really get calculated? Surely it was more than counting bike parking spaces?

The HEX-SYS tower.

Green or not, if this is the work of today's young architects, the future is in good hands. It seems sad that this work ethic and idealism does not rub off here where “She'll be right mate” rules. It will not be right! Effort and thought are needed; commitment. While the traditional craftsman said that his method was that, “Having concentrated, he set to work,” the traditional Aussie worker's process is more like, “Having made the cut, he thought . . Cripes, its wrong; but she'll be right. No one will see it!” One hears this time and time again on the building site. The traditional craftsman always said that the work was fully envisaged prior to beginning; that the working was merely the re-enactment of the thinking that had been completed. Australian workers have much to learn, but one fears that they will not be bothered in any way. Theirs is a method of discovering as you go, hopefully anticipating a possible outcome close to what has been designed and specified.

Redline Park Installation

When not busy, the Open Architecture office creates its own projects. It explored how to open up communal places by working the edges in the Redline Park Urban Research & Design Project, 2008. A Redline Park Installation in Hong Kong showed how, by applying playful solutions to the making a division or barrier using recycled materials, the boundaries could be softened, made more humane, more permeable in a friendly manner. How to use the old freeway ring road around Beijing, (with the hypothesis that cars will go by 2049), was another idea that was looked at. The solution was to turn it into a park, to add green spaces and water to the city. How to bring the happy little things into Chinese life that can get very serious was also researched? The response was to design a Mobile Joy Station, 2012! - a fold-out portable pod on a truck that carried everything from toys to a library. It was all fun; great ideas: simple but effective, and nicely documented too, as though someone cared.

Mobile Joy Station

Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre

Beijing no 4 High School courtyard

Huang Wenjing closed the evening by showing her office, noting that the staff were all young and that she and her partner would not be able to do what they do without the staff. Thanks. Only too frequently does the staff get forgotten. If one looks at the Guardian presentation videos of Hadid, Rogers, Koolhaus and Foster for the 245 Park Avenue project in New York: see - one will observe how the staff does almost everything, apart from Foster's presentation. While Lord Foster may not have designed the scheme personally, he did all of the presentations himself with a silent assistant, and won the job. It proves a point. Hadid seemed to be the unconcerned, almost dreamily careless. Her assistant, possibly the designer of the project, interrupted her and continued with the presentation when she started to babble on aimlessly. Koolhaus did his own presentation, but concentrated on his personal sculptural interests just too much. The Rogers and Hadid schemes were presented by others on the team who, embarrassingly, frequently used jargon words over and over again. I have seen better student presentations. Rogers summed up by leaning on the back of a chair chatting, as if he were in a pub. Huang Wenjing was better than them all, perhaps with less style, but with greater depth and understanding. The work had this too – well, apart from Fosters' performance and work perhaps!

Green roof in green surroundings of the Beijing No 4 High School

Question time rolled on. Unfortunately Huang Wenjing had removed her microphone, so she was difficult to hear. Those asking the questions were interested enough and could hear sufficient to keep talking, but it suited only them.

Netdragon Commune, Fujian, 2011

Memories of the Smithson's Robin Hood gardens come to mind.

It was a good talk from a knowledgeable lady – in black. We left in the dark, cool breeze that was refreshing, like the talk. At last one could sense skill and effort here that flowed through into the work, not merely sly drivel with smudged, indulgent, self-interested images promoted as ideas with a 'perhaps' and 'maybe' theory: no, this was just ordinary, everyday practice that most have experienced and could relate to. We have a lot to learn from the east, especially China. No wonder the west is more than happy to pass on all its manufacturing processes to China. The sad thing is that it does not know what to do with the time and energy that it now has available to it, other than to waste it in lazy, indulgent delights.

Gehua Youth & Cultural Centre courtyard with light filtering through doors

And so for the end of a series. Thanks Abedian at Bond.

Not this one!

This one!
Experimental structure at the Abedian School of Architecture.

Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University

For more information on Open Architecture projects, plans and images, see: The site has a variety of detail and much information.

We believe in the power of architecture
to change the world in a substantial way.
In order to make a difference,
a new kind of practice is needed for the challenges of our time.
OPEN is a platform for experimentation
on design and strategies that explore the full potential of architecture
to influence the life of common mass,
from the scale of a domestic object to a mega-troplis. (sic)

Unfortunately 'life of common mass' is an awkward term in the west with its political correctness; and 'mega-troplis' seems to be a misspelling of 'megatropolis.'
The 'common mass' term reminds me of the other word used in China that has similar gawky reverberations in the west: 'peasants.'

23 November 2015
Qualities were ascribed to the bushman, the casually or precariously employed itinerant bush worker, which were later and famously summed up as 'typically Australian' by Russel Ward:
[he] is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others. He is a great improviser, ever willing 'to have a go' at anything, but willing to be content with a task done in a way that is 'near enough' . . . He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority . . . Yet he is very hospitable and above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin . . .

Leone Huntsman Sand in our Souls The Beach in Australian History Melbourne University Press 2001 p.47

25 November 2015

There is a problem with nostalgic romance that is similar to the developments in technology. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that, with all of the new mechanical and electrical tools available, craftsmen will be able to achieve a perfection impossible to create with hand tools. Well, true to form, the lowest common denominator is always achieved. Instead of perfection, the new tools are used by all and sundry, irrespective of skills, to do things quickly, to make more money. Perfection is rarely, if ever, an outcome. So it is also with the romantic vision of the Australian bushman who was happy with everything being 'near enough,' and was able to fix anything with an improvised solution. John Williamson, the singer, song writer wrote about it in his song True Blue: 'Will you tie it up with wire / Just to keep the show on the road.' Sadly this characteristic is used by all and sundry in the trades as an excuse for the poorest quality of work being acceptable. It is the origin of the “She'll be right, mate; No one will ever see it,” argument that is used so frequently by all tradesmen in Australia.

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