China has undergone the largest domestic migration in human history over the last half-century, as nearly 200 million people flooded into its great metropolises from the countryside. That shift, coupled with rapid economic growth, has fueled megaprojects of ever-increasing ambition and scale; a phenomenon exemplified by cities such as Shenzhen that practically sprouted up overnight. But while feverish development has been the predominant mode, there is a growing countertrend towards smaller-scale interventions that seek to engage with their local contexts and raise the bar for environmental stability. Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, an exhibition currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, sheds light on this young generation of Chinese architects and the craft behind their construction techniques and approaches to adaptive reuse.
The exhibition occupies the first-floor gallery of the recently opened Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed expansion, and that public-facing setting—it is visible from the street through expansive storefront windows—is fitting for the large-scale models, documentary footage, prints, and material samples that make up the show. While the case studies highlighted in the exhibition differ in scale and program, they all demonstrate a thoughtful and imaginative approach to contextual design. The seven firms featured in the program include Amateur Architecture Studio; Archi-Union Architects; Atelier Deshaus; DnA Design and Architecture; Studio Zhu Pei; Vector Architects, and ZAO/standardarchitecture.
“A rethinking has begun, driven by a younger generation of architects who are working independently from state-run design institutes. Their varied practices are marked by a general skepticism toward the tabula rasa approach that has dramatically transformed the fabric of the country’s cities and changed the everyday lives of millions,” note curators Martino Stierli and Evangelos Kotsioris.
“Their holistic approach to the question of sustainability, which is largely informed by considerations of culture and tradition, can provide a way out of the impasse that contemporary architecture finds itself in.”
What does this design approach look like on the ground? Many of the projects featured in the exhibition are located outside of China’s more renowned megacities, and, instead, in the country’s secondary cities or rural areas. For example, take the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum designed by Studio Zhu-Pei, which, in its cylindrical form, is intended to resemble the Imperial Kiln ruins that surround the site. That point is further emphasized through the incorporation of recycled old kiln bricks within the double-layered brick arches. Or Amateur Architecture Studio’s wide-ranging interventions in Wencun Village, in the inland province of Anhui, that saw the construction of fourteen new homes along contextual guidelines—local materials, interior courtyards, pitched roofs—in the village center and the renovation of several older structures.
“Having achieved a certain level of urbanization and prosperity, China is in many ways similarly confronted with the (after)effects of a hitherto unmitigated building activity that sadly often resulted in the loss of architectural heritage,” continued Stierli and Kotsioris. “More and more there is a shared understanding that preservation tactics, like this, can have a multitude of benefits—historical and financial, but also environmental and social.”
Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through July 4, 2022