A Yunnan Province-based designer embodies the new generation of young Chinese architects who were educated in the West and are returning home to make a difference.
Like many of his ambitious and idealistic peers, Chinese architect Zhao Yang struck out on his own after graduating from the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and working for a year for his graduate advisor. “I had no idea what kind of architecture I wanted to do. I just thought I was capable of doing anything,” Zhao says, chuckling.
Thanks to China’s building boom, it wasn’t long before the Chongqing-born architect snagged his first commission to design an office block. The project went well; the client loved his work and another job followed. But Zhao felt empty. “I wasn’t convinced by what I had done and felt I didn’t express myself,” he says. “I thought it's important to figure out what I really want from architecture.”
So rather than plunge into more projects, he applied to Harvard Graduate School Of Design in 2008. Fast forward to 2014, Zhao has under his belt a Master’s degree in architecture with distinction, earned critical praise for a project in Tibet, and received the 2010 WA Chinese Architecture Award from the Beijing-based magazine World Architecture.
In 2012, Zhao was chosen as the first architectural protégé of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts initiative. Under the mentoring of Pritzker laureate Kazuyo Sejima – Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa co-founded the award-winning Japanese design firm SANAA – Zhao completed a centre for a fishing community affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Completed in October 2013, the Home-For-All Kesennuma project gained wide publicity and thrust Zhao into the spotlight. His recent works were exhibited at Fondazione Cini during the Rolex Arts Weekend in Venice in 2013. Zhao was of the speakers for the annual architecture conference Datum:KL 2014 organised by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM).
In the narrative of contemporary Chinese architecture, Zhao is part of a rising generation that's making waves in the global design scene. Young, ebullient and hopeful, these emerging architects effortlessly straddle the world of Western architectural influences and the reality of China’s rough-and-tumble urban development. They embrace challenge, they question the status quo, and yet they are sensitive to local context and traditions.
Zhao’s work, like the Niyang River Visitor Centre in Tibet and Shuangzhi Hotel in Yunnan Province, meld the old and the new by combining traditional construction techniques and materials with modern forms and functions. Many of Zhao’s predecessors from Tsinghua and among China’s hottest architects in Beijing – Hua Li of Trace Architecture Office, Xu Tiantian of DnA (Design and Architecture), Zhang Ke of ZAO/Standardarchitecture – favour small-scale projects that respond to regional flavours.
“My thinking can have some direct manifestation in small projects, be it in the rural or urban context,” says Zhao, 34. He is in some ways influenced by his seniors, especially Zhang Ke, also a Harvard alumni. When Zhao set up his firm in 2007, his studio was in the office building of Standardarchitecture which calls itself “one of the leading new generation design firms in China”.
“When it comes to drawings and criticisms, Zhang was rigorous,” says Zhao, who collaborated with Zhang on the Niyang project. “When we look at each other’s designs, we give really harsh comments at times. It was a good training period for me.” The culture of rigorous criticism prevails in Zhao’s studio today.