MISSION POSSIBLE: Looking beyond bricks-and-mortar, architect Li Hu from Beijing, China who was in town last week explains the passion he feels in designing for the people
In between snatches of time, in an almost afterthought, unplanned interview last week, we managed to catch up with Li Hu from Beijing, China who was in town as a juror for an international design competition. And, were we glad we did.
“Professor (Fumihiko) Maki (principal of Maki and Associates) is fantastic, I respect him. He’s an architect with a consistent quality of work for the past 50 years. That’s not easy and he’s a great, generous gentleman,” enthused the youngish architect, as he settled down for the interview. He was quick to praise the world renowned architect from Japan who was also a member of the jury whom he had dinner with the previous Tuesday evening.
“I believe a great architect is a great person. He’s a person with a personality. He’s like a fighter,” added Li, founding principal of OPEN Architecture and former partner of Steven Holl Architects where he worked from 2000 to 2010, on the attributes and characteristics that make a great architect.
Eloquent, amazingly present, quick-witted without almost missing a beat to the many questions posed, Li can easily pass off as a poster boy for China’s urbanised, well-travelled architect who understands what makes a thriving, livable city for its citizens – having undertaken projects internationally to benefit the masses with his architectural designs.
Elaborating on his passion of attaining a sense of precise dedication to his art and craft, he pressed on further to add that the first analogy of an architect is that “of a soldier and (the second), a monk.”
“(This relates to) the purity you practise (as an architect). Look at the life of an architect – you practise your whole life like a monk. You keep trying and never give up,” shared Li, offering a glimpse of the discipline he practises on a daily basis in relation to his life’s calling.
The purity of following a singular vision of achieving architectural perfection is capped by Le Corbusier’s (one of Li’s favourite architects) saying, “Creation is a patient search”.
“Every project is a different challenge and there’s a design in every project waiting to be discovered so that the journey to that discovery is a joy. Sometimes you fail but you need to keep on persevering,” reflected Li, offering his own interpretation of the quest towards discovering architectural perfection.
Interestingly, this open approach is reflected in the aptly named OPEN Architecture firm which he established with his wife in 2002.
“We named it OPEN because since the very, very beginning, I’ve always wanted to do something outside the elite practice. I wanted to do something for the people and the public so OPEN is a systematic approach to design to make a bigger impact of what architecture can bring to the people,” shared Li further.
It is this endearing quality of looking beyond the profit motive that sees him winning respect in architecture circles and more as he traverses the globe undertaking varied projects in search of solutions that will benefit people.
“OPEN was established with the goal of forging new architectural practices that address specific contemporary challenges such as the population density of Beijing, China and Delhi, India. Now, we’re mostly doing work for the developing world mostly in China, India and Africa.
“We have to lead as architects. We deal with certain high quality buildings and conduct research in order to bring architecture (solutions) to a larger public. It’s a systematic approach to design, fabrication and the construction of architecture,” shared Li adamantly.
Tale of two cities: Having spent a decade in the United States, with eight years in New York, Li co-founded the independent architecture magazine 32:Beijing/New York together with Steven Holl of Steven Holl Architects and Yung Ho Chang in 2002. He has similarly worked with Holl on the “very ambitious” project in the Linked Hybrid complex in Beijing. Representing one of the first mixed use projects, Li shared that it is also a geo-thermal complex that has heating efficiency while enabling the creation of great public spaces.
“I’ve come back for two reasons, the first being I was working with Steven Holl on the Linked Hybrid complex (in Beijing). I said ‘Steven, we have to be there to control (the project).’ And two, my parents are getting old and I want to look after them. I have no plans to move back to New York. I don’t plan, I just follow the flow.”
Fittingly, for now, the architect with the jet black hair and disarming demeanour is happy to just do that.
Quick takes with Li Hu of OPEN Architecture from Beijing, China
Describe yourself: I’m very straightforward, transparent and naïve… Very simple, very stubborn, very driven, very consistent and very crazy (laughs). I follow my beliefs.
Best and worst bits of the job: The best part and the worst part is the same in that every day, I have to do something different.
What contributing factors make for a winning project? Outside us, it would be the client. A client who cares about the architecture and the meaning behind architecture - that’s more important. It’s why we do this and that’s why it’s important. It’s a mutual relationship that is important. Clients for public buildings either private or public need to support and understand the purpose of a building. If he doesn’t care or cares too much, it’s a problem. You need all three - good architecture, good client and a good contractor too. If you have a good client but a bad contractor, the project will look bad.
Your thoughts on the eco-movement. Eco-architecture, because it’s now open ended - represents an attitude. I talk a lot about the biggest challenge to the developing world as the green environment is in a big crisis. It’s a crisis of a public domain and our work focuses on making great public spaces in the best possible way and also in rethinking the relationship between nature and our built environment. We’ve done nine projects in the last two years about nature and public spaces.
Your thoughts on sustainable design? Sustainable design is everything that you need to do. It is a necessity. It’s a fundamental responsibility but unfortunately it’s becoming a business gimmick.
What is the scenario framing the skylines of Beijing now? There’s too much of everything. Constructing buildings so fast is problematic for a city as it creates a problem for people everyday. I predict that in the future, for decades to come, it will not be so much about building but (there will be a need) to come back and fix up the cities – to redo the cities in many ways. I’m doing the research now…
So cities are being affected? Yes, rapid urbanisation resulting in the environmental crisis. We’re facing a lot of urban crises with many urban problems involving transportation and lack of public spaces. Cities will be more and more unlivable.
If you had your life to live all over again, would you still be an architect?
No, I could be a gardener, I think (laughs). I love nature and I’m fascinated with plants. Every weekend I buy a plant which I grow in my little garden outside Beijing. I live in the city during the week and I come out of the city on weekends.
Has New York influenced the way you approach your architectural designs? It’s not a direct influence. The years of living in New York have changed my way of thinking about design and my way of living. New York is a very open city – it’s an international city with an international community. When you look at how the city works, it does change how you think and how you work and live. To me, New York City is a green model for public spaces and public library systems that are missing in many other cities. It’s a city to be studied. You can learn a lot from New York City. It’s not just a city but a whole world happening there. It’s an inspiring space.
What is the project you’re proudest of? I’m too young to say that I’m proud. I’ve made a simple rule for myself. I put every project on the website. I’m proud of everything I do. Otherwise, I won’t do it. To me, every project is the same as we put in the same effort.
Pics courtesy of OPEN Architecture.