apexart :: Hou Hanru :: Street Theater

Street Theater
curated by Hou Hanru and Evelyne Jouanno

Exhibits the innovative work of Beijing based architect Yung Ho Chang created in response to the massive urban expansion in contemporary China. Also presents an installation that allows viewers to more directly experience the vision of his projects abroad and the ideals behind them.

April 22 - May 22, 1999

291 Church St. New York, NY 10013

Artists: Yung Ho Chang and Atelier FCJZ

Hanru brochure

download pdf of exhibition brochure

download pdf of press release


From "Micro-urbanism" to "Street Theater"

Yung Ho Chang is a leading figure among a new generation of architects to have emerged in Asia in the 1990s. After studying and working in the US for 15 years, he went back to his native Beijing to establish the city's first private architectural firm, Atelier FCJZ ("Fei Chang Jian Zhu," or "unusual architecture"), in the early 1990s. In the face of unprecedentedly rapid and radical modernization and urbanization in China and other Asian countries, the questions of international influence and Asian tradition, as well as globalization and local specificity, have become the main issues in architectural and artistic debates and practice. In fact, negotiation with modern and postmodern architecture and culture has a significant history in Asia, occurring alongside many Asian nations' projects of modernization. The globalization of the late-capitalist market economy and the economic boom in the Asian-Pacific region in the 1990s have encouraged such negotiation even further and turned it into a veritable theater of innovation. A new generation, including Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Sohn-Joo Minn, Chi Ti-Nan, Kay Ngee Tan and Yung Ho Chang have opened up a new horizon of creation, carrying out much more diverse visions of the urban reality and highly inventive strategies to envision and construct future Asian cities. As opposed to the previous generation, who defend a regionalism based on recycling Asian traditional elements such as vernacular motifs, spirituality, "Feng Shui," Yin and Yang, etc., they open their minds toward more immediate urban conditions in Asian cities: high-density populations, fast but uneven economic development, constantly shifting fashions and modes of living, multicultural co-existence of communities, chaotic and unplanned settlements, pollution, traffic congestion, as well as political and cultural transition in society. More imaginative and flexible strategies and solutions have been brought about by their investigations of real life.

Having experiences in both the West and China, Yung Ho Chang critically observes and analyzes the current situation of urban explosion in China. He designs novel and relevant projects to improve the conditions of urban life and architectural creation without simply importing conventional "global," high-tech and even "virtual" vocabularies as alternatives to traditional or official styles. Putting real urban conditions for human existence at the center of his architectural research and practice, he focuses his work on finding solutions to negotiate more humane spaces and to articulate the excitement and pleasure of urban life in spite of the insoluble conditions of high-density, speed and chaos. It's true that Yung Ho Chang has been continuously interested in Chinese traditional and modern cultures. However, the possible influences that he receives from Chinese culture are not superficial and formal, as have been expressed by many through replicas of Chinese architectural elements. He profoundly understands the transformational capacity inscribed in traditional Chinese architecture, as well as specific rules which enrich urban life such as the multiplication of the central unit, "yuan" (courtyard), as part of the proliferating system of urban expansion. He is fascinated by the dialectical relationship between simple and plain facades and the rich, unfathomable and infinite games of life unfolding behind the high walls, between the closed exterior and the open interior. Inspired by the implicit but energetic tension generated by such a contrast, he conceives new concepts and approaches such as "Micro-Urbanism" to explore and reveal the potentials of physically and mentally expanded living spaces in the highly congested environment. His designs are therefore often focused on creating, in single buildings, diverse and ever-changing spaces which recall real urban life. The conception of the building's interior becomes a type of urban planning while the exterior remains unique but somehow "harmonious" with the existing, chaotic urban texture. The best example can be seen in his recently completed building, "Morningside Centre for Mathematics," in Beijing.

In recent years, the pace and scale of urban explosion in China have become out-of-control in the wake of the economic boom and cultural mutation. Facing such a reality, he questions: “When a city is losing control of its space, can it still function?” The usual answers from the urban developers, political and economic authorities, as well as many urban and architectural professionals, are often to apply the classical modernist tabula-rasa strategy to clean up the no-longer-functioning areas and replace them with completely new urban constructions as once-and-for-all solutions to achieve new social order. On the contrary, Yung Ho Chang’s solution is to emphasize the necessity of scrutinizing the reality of existing urban life and intervene in it with open-ended projects in order to revitalize the suffocating life and history of the cities. He starts his reflections on urban reality and possible interventions by raising the following questions: "If space is no longer at work as the paramount urban infrastructure, does it mean that time, the once secondary provider of order, may do the job of organizing the events in the city all by itself? When the city becomes temporal, would architecture follow suit?" Actually he considers the city as a multi-layered and ever-changing process, a "temporal city/thin city," or city on the move. His "Micro-urbanism" projects embody perfectly such a consideration. On the other hand, articulation of the multiplicity and complexity of the city and its perpetual potential for transformation and reinvention makes him not only a great witness to the richness of urban life and history, but also a designer who endeavors to carry out actions in order to turn the architectural profession into a highly flexible adaptation to real life and human demand. Taking speed as the major element in urban reformation, he designed a bookstore ("Xishu Shuwu") in Beijing using the bicycle as the basic structure. Another project that Yung Ho Chang is currently working on is to help urban inhabitants to transform their miserably dense habitats into more acceptable spaces: since the Cultural Revolution many traditional courtyards (Sihe Yuan) in Beijng, which were built for single families, have been distributed among dozens of families. To claim the minimum space for everyday life, many families have built illegal structures. To solve such problems of density, the authorities apply almost systematically the tabula-rasa solution to demolish the traditional districts and displace the inhabitants to the new suburban townships. In opposition to such gentrification and destruction of urban life and history, Yung Ho Chang proposes to help the inhabitants reconstruct more reasonable and efficient structures with solid architectural design. Also, he considers such an intervention as a voluntary action. Obviously, the most challenging aspect of the project is the fact that the architect's participation in "illegal" constructions will eventually complicate and even cross the boundary between the legal and illegal in the organization of urban society. Daily life in Asian cities functions beyond the conventional ideas of urban order, proving that the symbiosis of legal and illegal systems, as well as order and disorder, can become an exciting terrain for architects to explore.

Related to these kinds of projects of "light" but provocative urban intervention, Yung Ho Chang also works on projects which challenge and even cross the border between limited spaces and unlimited perception by putting forth the pleasure of experiencing shifts in vision and transgressing the limits of architectural structure itself. The result is that in entering his buildings one's mental world is brought towards an unknown horizon, leading to unexpected discoveries of the Other. In his "Upside-Down Office," he reverses the usual space-vision-psychological order and subverts the conventional distinction between the public and private spaces. One is "forced" to confront an "Other" side of oneself. In the "Shan Yu Jian" residence, public and private parts of the building are merged so that the separation between open life and intimacy becomes meaningless.

Yung Ho Chang's architectural experiments have been largely informed by other disciplines such as the visual arts, literature, cinema and theater. More importantly, as a practicing architect, he has been collaborating closely with visual artists. He has designed a Small Museum of Modern Art (SMOCA) for the artist Cai Guoqiang. Also, he has been invited to design the architectural structure for two stops of the touring exhibition "Cities on the Move" (Vienna Secession, 1997; Louisiana Museum, 1999).

The exhibition at Apex Art is Yung Ho Chang and FCJZ's first solo show in the US. Interestingly it is curated by a couple of visual art curators and held in a space which is usually devoted to visual art exhibitions. For this, Chang has created a site-specific installation to provide the audience with a direct and corporeal experience of his architectural vision and projects. The installation will function as a "Street Theater" in which a scenario of dialogue and negotiation between Beijing's urban reality and Chang’s innovative and somehow provocative projects in the city unfolds. He has always been amazed by the image of the theater. For him, architecture is a theater-creation: a theater of real life, with humans in it instead of over-decorated stage design. He has commented:

"Obviously, an over-designed stage can weaken actors' action and bury a play. There is similar phenomena in the field of architectural design. It sounds a bit unbelievable. But, architects often ignore on purpose the demands of the inhabitants and are happy with useless 'great designs.' Some architects even intend to replace human thoughts with architectural elements. What they are looking for is a play without actors."

Yung Ho Chang's "Street Theater" is an action against such a "play without actors." Visible from both outside and inside, it is also a most welcoming space for direct participation of the audience. The ramp in the front room with a screening of the projected street views and presentation of models provide a space for a "micro-urban fl‚nerie" while the "peeping" device in the rear room can satisfy one's fantasy of exploring the "backyard" urban life. The project is also an intelligent and efficient "translation" of a made-in-China "text" (reality) into the New York context while adding extraordinary visual impact to the New York street.

To conclude, we'd like to quote Yung Ho Chang's instructions to his students for an exercise called "left space":

1. Choose a space ignored by "official architecture" for different reasons, such as a lane in a city. Study its effects and functions on events from as many points of views as possible.

2. Displace an everyday event into the space. The event may be very simple, under the condition that it does not repeat the same thing as in the original event. Organize the space as to make to event unfold correctly here. The extent of the transformation depends on the event chosen. Perhaps you don't have to transform the space. Instead you might only make some architectural interventions on its borders.

Hou Hanru and Evelyne Jouanno