interviewed (and translated) by Han Jiawen
2012, Shenzhen


HAN: From your personal experience, what does “China” mean to you?

Liu Xiaodu urbanus3LIU: If we talk about China, it could be a geographic concept, or a demographical concept of large gathering of people…

HAN: … a nation-state?

LIU: The concept of nation-state is too abstract. Our school education overplays this concept.  Nation state was a sacred concept in China. In Chinese, we call it “Guo Jia”, including two characters. “Guo” (or State) is a big concept. “Jia” (or family) is a small concept. The understanding by Westerners of “Guo Jia” (nation state) might be different I suppose. They are more likely to understand it as a kind of relationship of the individual to the collective. In the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), we used the term “Jia Guo”. The ordering of the two characters has a subtle implication. ‘Jia Guo’ existed when I was a school student, but it gradually disappeared a long time ago.

HAN: When we say “JiaGuo”, does it convey that China is based on the unit of “Jia” (the family)?

LIU: Yes, if there is no family, China does not exist. Let me try to clarify this. When you leave a specific region, you are able to form a holistic picture of that region. When you are within it, you only see part of it, which makes it impossible for you to discern the sense of integrity. When you are in a plane and look down at a village from the sky, you can detect the integrity of the village.  That is why students studying aboard will easily become patriots or nationalists. The strength of the emotion is quite natural. When you feel alienated, you need to find something strongly connected to your original identity .

HAN: So you studied in America, you were able to see the integrity of China from outside. But when you came back to China and became part of it again, the sense of integrity probably has been changed. If we observe the same object from different perspectives, we could have different conclusions. For example, when you understand the critical views of educated Chinese élite towards China’s politics, economics and culture, you will find them absolutely different from the voices in the West. They observe the country from different perspectives.

The relationship is different. Many internal critiques are directed towards transformation and a better life. However, some critiques from outside suffer from an incomplete picture and give a false impression to the public.

When I was studying in America, it was 1990, I ran into an old American lady, and she sympathetically asked me why Chinese women were still having their feet bound I mean this has now actually happened for a hundred years and I wanted to ask her— did she have any common sense at all? However, she had this false impression of China, probably a kind of expectation. However, America is a nation state, and Americans feel extremely proud of themselves, but the public don’t really have a genuine interest in the outside world. When I was in Georgia, a poor state located in the South-Eastern U.S. I found the people to be insular and narrow-minded. Many people in Georgia have never been out of their own county. When I was studying there, I was shocked to meet a middle-aged farmer told me that he had never driven out of the county in which he lived. Maybe he just felt scared to go out, and he felt safer staying in his own county.

HAN: If we focus on the current context, in what ways do you think that international expectations of China might be a little bit different? At a conference on Africa, a lecturer told me that people there are expecting China’s contemporary architects to do something unique to represent the developing country. I do not know whether expectations in the West are still the same as before, but perhaps the actual development of China may deviate from peoples’ expectations.

LIU: Yes. This happened to our research as well. We did a lot of research. For example, Dafen Art Museum and Urban Village, I still have this concern that whether other people from different cultural contexts could understand it. Actually, when I travelled to Cairo and saw clusters of slums – well, if you were a Brazilian, you probably would not be as shocked as we were. We imagine that it must be horrible to live there. For example, in the movie of “Slumdog Millionaire,” you probably would feel scared about conditions in those slums. Taking another perspective, you can see it as just another kind of life, which cannot be easily understood by an alien.

Let me give you another example, the secretary of my company’s branch in the U.S. once came to me after she visited San Francisco, and described how dirty Chinatown was. She felt that the street was alive with rubbish. But she could not understand that kind of culture. She could not enjoy that kind of atmosphere and diversity in that specific culture. She could only see rubbish. She could not see the rich and colourful food there.

I have discussed this issue with some Americans, and actually Chinese people’s understanding of Western history and culture is far beyond Westerners’ knowledge of the East, let alone China. It is similar to the limited knowledge Chinese have about India. The Chinese probably have no idea what India looks like, and vice versa.

HAN: You have experienced international collaborations. Do you think that you sometimes took advantage of “being Chinese”?

urbanus1LIU: I have never thought I have taken advantage of the concept of being Chinese. I guess we tell the story through the condition of a contemporary city. For example, Shenzhen’s urban condition makes it a unique city in the world; the academic community might have an interest in this specific urban example, however, the general public would probably not have much interest in it.

But from this point of view, it is analogous to Zhang Yimou (one of the 5th generation of Chinese documentary makers), who walked a more extreme path. His movies were of an imagined past – and I don’t think this history is real. – but for many Chinese people, it is more real because it is abstract. His films are definitely very Chinese and he has taken advantage of the imagination of China. For me, it’s not that I don’t want to use “China”, it’s simply that I do not know how to use it. If what we have done represents “Chinese-ness”, the elaboration of regional and cultural aspects is very important in our creations, and if you find some ways to express these aspects, that would be perfect. The most significant problem is that once you try to express Chineseness in the contemporary context, it always leads to something else. I think this is very difficult, because they are different things. For example, when you intend to write a poem, you have to express yourself because if you use the iambic verse of Tang poet Song, nobody will understand you. The result will be that no-one pays attention. If you admit globalization is one trend and you are happy with this trend, you should learn English. Regarding architecture, you should learn modernist language, etc… Currently, I only can use modernist language to accomplish my expression of modernity.

However, it is possible for somebody using modernist language to tell you a very different story. Zhang Yimou started using modernist film language to tell you some Chinese stories from the past and made Westerners understand. That is it. It is still an issue of language: visual language. He uses modernist film language. If you tell a Chinese story in Chinese, you might end with English subtitles that everyone can understand. However, if you use Chinese-English, everybody will be confused …

HAN: As you said, when somebody tells stories in Chinese English to a native speaker of English, do you think there is any deviation of understanding from the original meaning? Sometimes it happens in architecture as well, if both of them can understand modernist language, but one is using “Chinese English”.

LIU:  I do not think so. It is equal to slang and accent. Dialect is understandable if we allow interpretation. In Zhang Yimou’s films, one person might only see the poverty and hardship of China, and another person might feel the beauty of the scene, and find the story attractive as well. If they view the film a second time, they probably might find the culture in the film interesting. Thus they can detect many dimensions the movie tries to present, but some people cannot understand at all.

But we must not blame people who cannot detect other dimensions in artistic narrative. Currently this sort of limited response, similar with the 1970s emotions, is reviving in China, but it is not desirable. Qing Jiang (Mao Zedong’s wife) used to be a film maker as you know. In the 1970s, she wanted to improve the image of socialism and deliver a better type of propaganda. Thus she invited the celebrated Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni to document the socialism of China. Antonioni originally supported socialism so his filming was welcomed in China at that time.

Qing allowed him to shoot anywhere, but mainly in the schools, in Tiananmen Square and in factories, but Antonioni’s camera sometimes pans across unsuspecting students. This was his documentary “China”, which may be the only authentic record of China in the 1970s. Even though it had been “polished”, so to speak, Qing was enraged when she saw it. She thought he should eulogize the achievement of the great new China such as the Great Leap Forward. In fact, Antonioni did cover all that but more attention was given to ordinary life. She couldn’t tolerate this perceived slander on Chinese socialism… and he was effectively banished.

AntonioniToday we can see traces of the director’s intentions in Antonioni’s China. However, we also recognise it is still a good documentary because it presents different aspects of the country, not only catching the enthusiasm of the revolution, but also quiet streets in Beijing, and quiet moments in people’s daily lives. It is not like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which were made purely for propaganda purposes. But I still remember furious editorials in newspapers, criticizing Antonioni’s China because it intentionally uglified our great socialist homeland.

HAN: Antonioni portrayed an evolution in China representing a connection with the past, whereas many people only wanted a break with the past?

LIU: As you know, China was completely unfamiliar with modernism when modernist philosophy first spread from Europe. But most of the first generation of Chinese architects studied modernism in America. They arrived in America at a time when eclecticism prevailed. Although we have some pioneers who went to Europe, for example, Chen Zhanxiang, the majority of the pioneers studying architecture abroad went to America. Recently, some people have questioned how the Japanese grasped the essence of modern architecture. It is easy to explain: they went to Europe in that era. For example, Maekawa Kunio travelled to France as apprentice with Le Corbusier.

HAN: I visited Tokyo Bunka Kaikan designed by Kunio, and the exposed concrete is incredibly impressive (and expressive).

LIU: That building was influenced by Le Corbusier, of course. But you know this is a fact which evolves from the history. Meiji Reform not only led to enormous changes in Japan’s political and social structure, but also its economic development. In the cultural realm, Japanese introduced many new things to enrich their traditional culture; they actually had strategies in place. However, in the same era China was facing gradual colonization. You can appreciate that whether there was still a country named China became a big issue, and Chinese people did not know how long they could call themselves Chinese. If I were an intellectual at that time, what would I urge people to do? I would try my best to promote National solidarity. How to achieve National solidarity? That would be creation of a National image; reviving traditional elements leading to a National form or style. I don’t want to over-eulogise Liang Sicheng over his peers, but history chose them, so they became the mainstream group developing a national style of architecture.
HAN: Liang Sicheng was the person who established the Department of Architecture in Tsinghua and you also did your early architectural studies in Tsinghua, before continuing your graduate studies in Miami. You also have a strong interest in implementing concepts such as civic space or public space. Do these ideas come from China or the West?

LIU: There is no doubt that these are from the experience in U.S. For us, the path of our life is very clear. We were born in 1960s in China, and received undergraduate study in 1980s in China. The 1980s were a special period in China, dominated by idealist ideas. At that time, China’s intellectuals were active…

HAN: There were intellectuals in 1980s in China?

LIU: Yes. When we left China and arrived at America; we found that America was a country with a similar atmosphere of China’s 1980s. The intelligentsia had a serious sense of mission, especially in the university with a strong sense of social responsibility. This kind of idealist thinking was quite understandable for me; because that was the ideology I always appreciated. However, in the 1990s China suddenly turned into another entity. Every Chinese person became another kind of human being. I came back to China at 1999. I found that I nearly had no idea of this country. Such a contrast. Society was moving forward in terms of its economy, but some important issues which are supposed to exist had completely disappeared. However, this society still needs a sense of mission. In a contemporary context, it seems a little bit awkward to talk about a social and moral mission but I’m not embarrassed to talk about it.

HAN: Do you think of yourself is an intellectual? How would you define it?

LIU: Well, the term “public intellectual” is becoming more popular in China these days…

HAN: Yes, the discussion of the public intellectual is increasing. But actually the term intellectual is an imported word from the West. You don’t actually write about architecture, but you seem to use your intelligence in either a professional or an individual capacity to influence the public and to bring some wider social reflections to the public discourse.

LIU: Yes, in fact, some people are claiming that China never had real intellectuals, or that the class or rank of intellectual has disappeared. The main characteristic of intellectuals is their independent positions and independent thinking. However, independent thinking and independent positions have never really existed in Chinese history. Does it mean there were no intellectual in China? Probably we call it literati (Wenren).

HAN: Maybe we could say we have “academics”?

urbanus4LIU: Yes, academics and literati. We do have the same sense of intellectualism as the West, but China doesn’t have a batch of Western style intellectuals. Some people argue that Chinese cities do not have “real” city squares, for example, because democracy is alien to traditional Chinese culture. They are right. From the beginning, democracy is not rooted in our culture. One source of today’s Western culture is from those city-states in ancient Greece. These small city republics developed the original democratic form of social order. Thus contemporary Western democracy can be traced back to its historical roots.

HAN: In your architecture, are you compelled to express the concept of a civic, or civil society and other similar attitudes in your design?

LIU: To be honest, many people, throughout the whole social structure, from top to bottom, do not have such consciousness about civil society. They do not need it, fill stop. Taking an example of constructing a large square in China, you’ll find that there has not been such neat and tidy, large-scale square, that has been designed in the current epoch. On one hand, they appreciate this grand view and narrative, but on the other hand, they do not want people to use it. So this kind of “so-called square” is totally different from the public squares in the Western sense. In the contemporary context of China, they actually do not care about the scale of the square, because you would feel smaller in a larger scale square. It has become a place for tributes to those in power, not for a meaningful gathering of the people. So when you take an academic perspective, this is not good, but when you think about it in terms of management, it makes complete sense. Some years ago, students in Beijing often went to Tiananmen Square to protest, and students from Peking University liked to gather in the Triangle Area in the campus. Gathering at these two places would attract the greatest attention. Students knew this.

Actually Social dissidence really needs to be voiced via an outlet. The open space we have designed for the city of Shenzhen serves the general public – the poor who cannot afford a private open space, the working class, etc – in other words, all our citizens. Urban open space is the only place that is totally free for these members of society. Every city should offer its citizens adequate open space. If the open space is owned by governments, citizens should enter such place free of charge .

HAN: The concept of the Chinese gated community is a prevailing urban form, in order to accommodate the middle classes rather than the general public. Could this social isolation be an obstruction for any future democratic process?

LIU: Gated communities, like an urban fortress, segregate the whole city into different sections. A city comprises only two morphological components: gated communities and street networks. This urban typology is acceptable for current Chinese people. You cannot see such a city structure in Paris. In the USA, a gated community serves only the rich and most are located in the suburbs and the main reason is people’s security considerations. Safety is a big issue in China. I personally prefer to live in a gated community. A gated community has both advantages and disadvantages. However, in reality (in urban terms), it is not good because it segregates urban life and greatly reduces the interaction between people from different communities.

HAN: My mother was born in 1956 and grew up in military base. She never owned a private house and always believed that housing, and even housing items such as furniture, belong to the country.

LIU: Or to their units.

HAN: Correct; their units. Nowadays people realise that housing is privately owned as is every single item in the house. My mother often tells me that, in the past, people would drop into neighbouring houses, and everyone was friendly. But now if you drop by a friend’s house without notice, it becomes an intrusion of privacy…

LIU: Yes, this is actually most improper… but I know what you mean. People at that time, which is half a generation before my time, were living in a society that was dominated by extreme leftism. Every single thing belonged to the country or “the collective” and an individual was afforded no privacy at all. Today, society has swayed to the other end of the political spectrum where everything seems to be privatized and people are becoming greedy. People do not seem to care about each other. You can observe many teenagers in China behaving badly; they are becoming more jealous and selfish. If these characteristics aggregate beyond a certain point, they will discover that what they own is valueless. The lack of a psychological sense of belonging to a group might explain the occurrence of depression is becoming more serious in our society. Isolation is a kind of disability.

HAN: Can you tell me about the evolution of your identity as an architect?

LIU: I am not a typical Chinese architect. Most Chinese star architects have no desire to address social responsibility in the context of Chinese cities thus their architectural designs are business-oriented. Architects who share the same design philosophy with me are in minority. However, we are eager to take such responsibility; otherwise what’s the point of intervening in urban issues at all?

So I do research… but nobody really cares about it. We have tried to present designs that show our belief that cities should be diverse and multi-dimensional. However, this is not a Chinese tradition. Chinese philosophy is inclined to see a world which is under the control of a single power. That is why many Chinese cities look very similar in terms of their appearance and structure. I think we should only focus on what we can do.