Development in China is about decongesting and depopulating cities, says Beatrice Leanza

The fifth and final part of VDF's collaboration with reSITE sees London architecture studio WallaceLiu discuss working in China and the West with MAAT executive director Beatrice Leanza in a talk moderated by Yoko Choy, editor of Wallpaper* China.

In this "East Meets West" talk from reSITE's REGENERATE conference, WallaceLiu's founders Jee Liu and Jamie Wallace join Yoko Choy and Beatrice Leanza to discuss how to build for the next generation, and how values are changing in the process of regeneration.

WallaceLiu was founded in 2014 and has designed a number of buildings in China, most recently the new Chongqing Industrial Museum, set among the structures of an old steel factory.

Yoko Choy and Beatrice Leanza in conversation at reSITE
Yoko Choy and Beatrice Leanza in conversation at reSITE

Before joining MAAT, Leanza was based in Beijing. She was the founder of The Global School, the first independent design institute to open in China, and served as creative director of Beijing Design Week from 2012 to 2016.

"China is a country that, when you work there, almost feels like the wild west in California, the gold-digging era, to start with," said Liu.

"But it also rewards passion because there is a lack of passion. Apart from generating wealth, if you can demonstrate that you have passion, people might be able to recognise you. Of course, there's a layer of luck in that."

Liu argues that young designers need to be more provocative, saying that every country has emerging architects that will put their heart and soul into their projects.

"They're desperate to prove themselves, to make a statement. That's the energy every city needs for its important buildings, not just pavilions and house extensions, which is what's happening in Britain," Liu said.

China is moving toward decongesting and depopulating cities

Wallace argues that the studio has benefited from being both Chinese and British when it comes to working in China.

"We could use the identity in a fluid way to challenge people in ways that they are not used to being challenged. Sometimes we could operate in a very Chinese way, sometimes in a very British way," he said.

East Meets West talk at reSITE 2019
Liu, Choy, Leanza and Wallace at the East Meets West reSITE talk

Liu also points out the necessity of having local knowledge.

"I think there is a risk of coming in also to say: "China can be like this, this is how you should work in China," she said, adding that this can be dangerous.

"Anywhere you work you need to know the culture, you need to blend yourself in by genuine curiosity," she said.

Going back to the reSITE's conference theme of regeneration, Choy asks what has changed in China in recent years as the country has increasingly moved away from demolition and towards preservation.

"It's just not economic to keep on building, even for the Chinese state," Leanza said.

"Everything that is happening now is exactly the opposite — it is about decongesting, depopulating cities. It’s happening, of course, in Beijing, it’s happening everywhere else."

She argues that this has to do with the realisation that we cannot keep urbanising at the expense of the environment, saying China is at the forefront of working on these issues.

"There's a value change in development"

Heritage also plays a key role in preserving rather than demolishing buildings, according to Liu. "There's a growing nostalgia with people who were born in China in the generation that was born perhaps in the 60s and 70s," she said. "They have that particular relationship with the cultural revolution."

This generation feels sorry about what happened in the past and is now supportive of change, Liu explained. "I think they will be supporting the next generation of architectural practice in conservation and renovation as well."

"I also think there's a value change in development," Wallace added. "The vast majority, if not all, of China’s cities are procured speculatively and there’s money in heritage now."

The panel discussed how to build for the next generation and how values are changing in China

In terms of regeneration and who drives the development of the future, Leanza said that while there are plenty of good intentions, the question is how to take them further.

"How do we take that to another level, how it enters the systemic level – I don't think we are there yet. I guess it takes rehearsing," she said.

What ties the east and west together is the obstacles facing architects, according to Liu.

"I don't think there’s a universal understanding of the East or a universal understanding of the West," she said. "I think what’s in common is [that] it’s very hard to build good architecture anywhere, that's my experience in London and in China."

"Give more responsibility to the next generation and let them somehow grab hold of their own fate," Liu concluded.

About reSITE

reSITE is a non-profit organisation with a focus on rethinking cities, architecture and urban development. Its aim is to connect leaders and support the synergies across real estate, architecture, urbanism, politics, culture and economics.

reSITE's flagship event is held in Prague, but it has also held events in Lisbon and Berlin. reSITE was founded in 2011 by Martin Barry, a landscape architect originally from New York.

About Virtual Design Festival

Virtual Design Festival, the world's first digital design festival, runs from 15 April to 30 June 2020. It aims to bring the architecture and design world together to celebrate the culture and commerce of our industry, and explore how it can adapt and respond to extraordinary circumstances.

To find out what's coming up at VDF, check out the schedule. For more information or to join the mailing list, email vdf@dezeen.com.