“China cannot be reduced to a single pattern.”

This week we spoke with Archiplein, and group based in Geneva and Shanghai. They are not Paperhouses partners, but are the only architecture concern we've interviewed as contributors so far, because their business model and methodology  are philosophical cousins to the idea of open source: community. As we consider the theme of “context” this week, we thought what better interview subjects than an organic and perfectly balanced bi-cultural firm, representing a seachange in the divide between East-West, global-local, developed-sustainable practices.

Paperhouses: Archiplein is a young five-partner firm born between Geneva and Shanghai. How did it come to being? What are your backgrounds, when and how did you decide to create a company between East and West?
After a first experience in China during our studies, we came back to Switzerland to start our master degrees. At that point we were very interested in meeting Chinese architecture students in our school. We quickly became very good friends by sharing our interest in China. Master degrees in their pockets, they decided to come back home. We had already decided to continue our experience by spending a few years in Shanghai. The idea to develop our own practice together came naturally, and we started Archiplein. It's more like a concentration of interests than a business opportunity.

Ph: Can you describe for us your work process?
In the Chinese context it's quite specific. In terms of project selection and design development it's quite similar to the European practice. Because we share the same education, the references and objectives in our work process are fluent, even if cultural differences exists. We all understand the other side and that brings lot of respect and understanding. From 2008 to 2011 we were all located in Shanghai mostly focusing on Chinese project. Now, the office has also developed a European practice and gives us the opportunity to share in opposite direction, with all of our experiences in China. Friendship has a big role in the possibility of working from both side of the world. Language too, because we all learned and talk about architecture in French; this circumvents a lot of communication problems.

Ph: ARCHIPLEIN is also a word charade suggesting you’re “super full” or “full of architects”… what inspired the name exactly? 
Superlative expressions are typically Chinese: “the biggest, the tallest et cetera,” so it fits quite well with the context… By using such a popular French expression it's a way to express the Western part of our education. It's a provocative word because it's not an especially nice word in French, but in Chinese it always stokes question and tell our story.

Ph: Research is a significant part of your output as a practice. One of the themes is critical regionalism (A’A’ “li xiaodong : reconstructive architecture”). Is there anything contextual in the current development of China? From another angle, how do you engage the Chinese context?
Of course, China cannot be reduced to a single pattern. There are practices that clearly follow the globalized concept of producing for a market as if territories and people were merchandised products. And in reaction to that, there are cultural fighters. In China, there are comparatively few of the latter type for many reasons. Still, we see a positive evolution of these ideas in society. The notion of patrimonial preservation and cultural specificity are a focal point today for many actors in construction, especially since (Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese architect) Wang Shu has been internationally recognized. The problem is that economic pressure is still very strong, and even good intentions are sometimes difficult to realize.

Beijing hutong by Archiplein

Archiplein is deeply involved in the process of cultural integration. I think that it made clear when you see our projects. Local condition is always the conceptual kick-off. When we talk about context, we talk about its physical aspect, of course, but also sociological aspect because our aim is to work on “reality” and not phantasmagoric projection that are too often accepted by the foreign architects. This is what we called critical romanticism.

Ph: You were selected as one of the world’s best young practices of 2013 by Wallpaper*. One of the projects they chose to feature was your intervention in a hutong in Beijing. How does this project relate to critical regionalism and generally to your architectural philosophy?
The basic point of this project is to understand (regionalism) on a bigger scale. It is not only the question of architectural expression. The issue of urban regeneration in the classical city of Beijing is still without clear response. The population density downtown is one of the major problems of the city. Formerly structured around a clear empty square space, the courtyard now finds itself colonized by a multitude of micro self-constructed buildings, because of space needs. The morphology of the urban space is completely transformed by these grafts, which make almost unreadable the old structure.

The project attempts to provide an alternative to this situation by proposing a modest and economic intervention; to reveal the quality of the existing space. Therefore our first task is to destroy these additions and redefine a new void. Our extension, necessarily, is placed in the spirit of composition of the original urban space by defining a classic courtyard. The architectural expression is detached from the stylistic and mimesis approach but we find our references in the material and form of the past that we transform.

Were you surprised by Wallpaper*? What did that change for you?
It has been a surprise to be selected for this award and a great encouragement for the futures projects but honestly it doesn't change so much…

The Tianzhoushan teahouse is a project I particularly like. You describe it though its symbiotic relation with nature. Would you like to talk about the process and idea?
For this project, our first fight was to reduce the footprint of the infrastructure. Normally it would be planned at 3 times this size, but it seemed totally unreasonable to us, in accordance with the integrity of the landscape. The site has no capacity to support a big building.  The second relationship with nature is related more specifically to an architectural concept: it is an analysis of the classical representation of nature in Chinese watercolors. That leads us to this idea of vanishing point and integration. It 's more a work about perception than a work of architectural expression, because we go far from a cultist approach, avoiding all the typical architectural patterns that you can find in the ancient Chinese architecture. For us, brutality and strength was clearly more related to the spirit of the site.

Tianzhoushan Teahouse

What is in the future for you? What are your centers of interest and upcoming projects?
We are still working on the link between architecture and culture, but on a larger scale. Questioning the urbanization of rural territories with the possibility to refuse the systematic idea that modernity comes this urbanization, especially in the context of sustainable development and approaching food crises. It's an interesting balance between to scale of reflection to understand the meaning and sometimes the absurdity of the architectural production in our days. It's an interesting reflection about scale that attempts to understand the meaning and sometimes the absurdity of architectural production in our days.

You can find out more about Archiplein here