Words Judith A. Torres
Images Han Zhang
“It seems the general perception of Chinese architecture has finally moved beyond the big, weird and ugly,” wrote Han Zhang in 2017, two years after taking on the post of executive editor for ArchDaily China. ArchDaily is the world’s most visited architecture and design weblog. Through its English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese platforms, ArchDaily publishes a phenomenal 40 articles on new projects every single day, which half a million readers consume daily.
In Zhang’s first year on the job, ArchDaily posted on 200 projects in China, among them, 50 cultural, 48 commercial and office, 32 hospitality, 25 educational, 13 residential, 13 landscape and urbanism, 8 sports, 7 public architecture, 6 industrial and infrastructure, and 4 healthcare projects. Of course, not all of them were by Chinese architects, but 15 million pairs of eyes reading ArchDaily every month took quick notice of the quality and thoughtfulness of those that were.
It seems every year since 2015 has been a great year for Chinese architecture. About 2016, Zhang wrote: “2016 has been a momentous year… From the completion of the Harbin Opera house by MAD to the Aga Khan Awards recognizing Zhang Ke of standardarchitecture for his micro-scale design of the Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre in Beijing.”
For a look back on 2017’s most visited projects from China, she wrote: “2017 was a momentous year… From Tianjin Binhai Library taking the internet by storm with images of its terraced ‘sea of bookcases’ to Alvar Aalto Medal recognizing Zhang Ke of standardarchitecture for his professional accomplishments, China has retained a remarkable presence in the global architecture scene.”
In 2018, Zhang spoke of how proud she was to show the work of He Jingtang and Li Xiaodong to international readers. “We are now the number one source for architecture news in China, and this opportunity to influence the discourse here has been overwhelming! This makes my job very worthwhile,” she said.
China’s output is indeed prodigious in both quality and quantity. Filipino design editors feel no small amount of envy at the number, scale, and scope of the projects being built, and the willingness of project owners to have their property professionally photographed and published. We feel even more envious at the level of experimentation of ideas and the attention and care given to craft, the environment, cultural diversity, inclusivity, and community building. It is so different from our understanding of China and, sadly, very different from what is happening here in the Philippines.
The Chinese market is so huge, prestigious publications and events like World Architecture, Dezeen, and World Architecture Festival have launched awards programs just for that territory, as has ArchDaily. The numbers are impressive. When ArchDaily China announced its sixth edition of the Building of the Year Awards for 2021, the eligible projects numbered 675—as in 675 projects in China featured in ArchDaily China from January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2020. The people eligible to vote are registered members of ArchDaily from any part of the world. And vote they did, narrowing down the field of 675 to a shortlist of ten, to be evaluated and narrowed down again by public voting to one winner and two runners-up.
I understand the thrill and the burden on the editorial team from the public trust placed on them to be truthful and fair, to present the work of those who deserve exposure, without favor or bias. I am excited by the willingness of Chinese architects, a once closed-off group, to be transparent about their work and have it judged by people around the world. I am excited by ArchDaily China’s mission “to inspire and educate the people who will design the urban fabric of the future.”
Early this year, Zhang’s editorial staff wrote: “The democratically-voted, user-centered Building of the Year Awards is one of the key pillars of our response [to their mission of] aiming to tear down established hierarchies and geographical barriers.” Isn’t that exciting?
The reason I feel personally invested in Zhang’s success in ArchDaily China is precisely because of China’s big numbers—its power and sway in our corner of the world and the rest of the world. The thinking is as simple and naïve as Churchill’s “People shape architecture, architecture shapes people” quote. Shape future Chinese architects to devote themselves to the betterment of people and the planet, and they may just nudge the colossus that is China to be a kinder, more respectful neighbor and steward of our shared resources.
Read my previous interview with Zhang in “We are not an Architecture Office,” where she talks about her design conviction and values as co-founder of the multi-disciplinary design company, 汉荷设计 (maison h), and you will be thankful as I am that someone like her is at the helm of ArchDaily China.
To get a fuller picture of her thinking, read the interview with Zhang’s husband and maison h co-founder, Martijn de Geus, too. It shows how they influence each other, which in turn influences the students they teach at Tsinghua University in Beijing—another reason I wish only the best for this couple.
Working in media wasn’t the career path Zhang had in mind when she moved back to Beijing after living and studying in Melbourne for 20 years. Her mission was to “rectify” the unnatural and inhumane built environment in which her countrymen lived and worked. She wanted to do it by being a major player in architecture. If not by designing places and spaces, then through business development and coordination within design teams and practitioners in other disciplines—whatever it would take “to enable great designs to be realized.”
But then ArchDaily called, so here she is, six years later, a major player in Chinese architecture, helping direct great discourses on the impacts of design on individual lives, communities, and megacities.
Judith Torres: Tell us how you got into architecture.
Han Zhang: I went to business school before I went to architecture school. I did a degree in Economics and Finance [at Monash University]. It was not my first choice, but because I am the type of person who likes to finish things, I finished it. Then I did a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Architecture, during which time I worked as an intern for the whole duration of my time in architecture school [at the University of Melbourne].
I had this realization during my master’s program that there is so much to architecture. There are so many players that make buildings happen and make cities happen, and the complexity of the whole process was something I was very drawn into because I really enjoy being part of a process.
I had another epiphany, and I will be very honest. At architecture school, everyone was very competitive, and you start to realize where you stand. I quickly realized that I was a very good designer, but I would probably never be the best designer. And since my goal was to always be part of this process of architecture, to change the world, to shape the world, I decided, okay, I have a lot of different skills, so let’s see which skills get me furthest in my goal to be a major player in this process.
After I graduated, I went to work for a developer to see how properties, buildings were developed, to see the financial side of things. Basically, to see how the process works. That was in Australia. After that, I departed for China. Here, I decided to try my hand at doing more business development for architectural firms. I was also a project designer for a while, but I took on more and more business development and found I was very good at that. I had the advantage of being bi-lingual and understanding different cultures, so that’s where things really took off for me.
And then I was approached by ArchDaily with this amazing opportunity to lead their platform and their business into the Chinese market, which I thought, this is really an opportunity of a lifetime. The sort you’d never get offered again, and it had a dynamism I really loved because I would stay very ingrained in the world of architecture. I would literally be the person putting out architecture news every day, giving me the opportunity to get to know all the architects I respected and desperately wanted to learn more about, insights into the industry, and I would run a business.
And how old were you when you started ArchDaily?
That was six years ago (2015), so I was 31, 32.
After you met Martijn and formed maison h?
After I met Martijn, but close to when we first met, in a very early stage of our relationship. We had already started doing some small projects together, and this opportunity really hit me, like, bang!
As executive editor, you ultimately decide what gets published and what doesn’t, is that correct?
Yes. Although I have a new title now. As country manager, I manage everything, from editorial to the business and financials to the HR.
How big is your office?
It is very small because ArchDaily works on the synergy not just of the people in the office but a lot of people offsite. In the office, there are three of us, me and two full-time editors.
I know, we do a lot of work! But we have four interns who work for us every day, and we have over 30 volunteers all around the world who work for us.
For ArchDaily China?
Yes. Mostly Chinese students studying abroad in top universities. They help us choose the content, do translations for us. It’s a team of people who’re very motivated and inspired by what ArchDaily is. People are always surprised when I tell them how many volunteers we have. Every week, we get applications, letters, emails from young architects asking if they can volunteer to work for our platform because they themselves have benefitted so much and they would like to contribute something.
In the beginning, there was only me. I had to do everything. I did all the editorial work.
And all the writing too?
I had translators working for me, but I did all the editing, all the curation every single day. It was very challenging at first because we did not have contacts with firms with local architects six years ago. The Chinese architectural market was a very closed-off circle of people. They were very hesitant to open themselves up to international media. China has few architectural media groups, which are all owned and operated by the university press or governmental press because all media is owned and controlled by the government.
Were you producing content for a global audience or a Chinese audience?
We were producing content for a Chinese audience, but at the same time, we were also producing content for a global audience. How it works in ArchDaily is we have teams all around the globe. We have a central editorial system in which editors in charge of regions go out there and get local content—projects, interviews, and all of that—that goes into our editorial system. Then, editors from different countries decide what they would take from other regions and present on their own platform, with the exception of the English platform, which takes content from everywhere.
It’s a system of collaboration. I was responsible for finding local content while at the same time translating content from other platforms for the local audience. So once we would find local content, projects, interviews, we would publish them in China, and at the same time, we would also produce the English version to post on the English website.
What about conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest, since you are a practicing architect at 汉荷设计 (maison h)? Is that an issue in ArchDaily?
We (maison h) don’t really publish much. I am primarily dedicated to ArchDaily. So my role in maison h has had to change a lot throughout the years, which is why Martijn and I changed from very definitive roles to more intertwining roles. We also had to find professionals to help us do aspects of the business I just no longer could do. We really have hardly anything published in ArchDaily or anywhere else because we’ve been too busy doing work. So there’s not much out there about us anywhere. [Note: As of writing, ArchDaily China has featured only four maison h projects.]
Most people know about Martijn from seeing him speak at events. Most people know me as the chief editor of ArchDaily China because I travel the world to all the architectural events to get content for ArchDaily.
What are your thoughts on Chinese culture and urban communities losing out to uncontrolled development and monumental in-your-face architecture?
I think the era of urban communities losing themselves and their space and their place in the city from in-your-face architecture is over. I also have a lot of criticism of that era. I would say it started to change five years ago. And this was also a very conscious decision by the government to stop this kind of architecture because they could see it was destroying communities. It was alienating people.
Things have changed a lot in the last half-decade. You see a lot more encouragement of architects to explore smaller scales of buildings. We also see much greater importance on public areas, designing shared areas to foster the connection of communities that we had lost in past decades.
So yes, a lot was lost. But at the same time, there is a lot of exciting things happening. And there is still so much community that is still preserved in Beijing that people don’t talk about. People know about the destruction. But there is still so much that remains, which is so strong and now is being protected because the people and government realized it was a problem. If you scroll through ArchDaily, you can even select ‘Beijing’ in ArchDaily, and if you scroll through the years, you will see the scale has changed in the last five years. As well as the opportunities for young architects and renowned architects to work on the micro-scale. And also the conscious decision to renovate and rejuvenate old building stock rather than build new buildings.
What was the impetus behind the government’s decision to preserve culture? They didn’t just suddenly become enlightened, did they?
Ha! If you lived here, you would realize they are really quite in tune with their people. I realize this is quite conflicting information from what you read on CNN or other press, but the government here is very top-down and, at the same time, very grassroots. Every square kilometer here has a government center where the workers know every single person who lives within the vicinity. They know you. They know your family. So they are very aware of what their people are thinking, what they like, what they don’t like, what they are suffering from. And this is the kind of information that goes up the tree to the highest officials.
During the 2008 Olympics, the government wanted to put on a show for the world to show the new China. This is understandable, but they did annihilate large parts of the city. Some of them were historical parts, some were very old communities.
And afterward, the government came out, and they were very honest and very aware that this was a mistake. They had destroyed things that were irreversible. Together with the very fast development of the city over time, they could see what was working and what was not working.
Simultaneously, Chinese architects became much more bold and outspoken and concerned about a much more Chinese identity in architecture.
How about schools? Policies recommended by your university, for example?
Very much so, 100 percent.
So was it a confluence of separate events? Architects becoming bolder, university think-tanks making recommendations, and ArchDaily China playing its part?
Yes, it was a combination of many things. This is very interesting because when ArchDaily entered the Chinese market, it was when architects were becoming more outspoken. Because there was an opportunity. The architecture media started holding events. So architects would get together and speak publicly about their thoughts, which had never happened before. Architects had never publicly engaged with everyday people. So these kinds of discussions ignited them.
At the same time, many renowned architects, academicians, and professionals who are consulting with the government, helping them make their decisions, were very aware of balancing the needs of government with the needs of the people. And as these people became more outspoken and their architecture started to gather more attention in China and around the world—and I have to say that that aspect was mainly due to the success of ArchDaily in bringing Chinese architecture to the world—this really ignited a different kind of attitude.
And also, there was public pressure. So all of these combined together started to make a change.
In major cities, the government very quickly realized that there is a limit to how many of these in-your-face buildings you can make before the city becomes devoid of identity. And they were starting to have problems with their building stock, so it was all of these things that came together that informed the change that we see today.
Last couple of questions. What’s your editorial direction?
We see our role as information providers for architects. We see the platform as a free platform to provide inspiration, knowledge for architects who will build the cities of tomorrow. We take this mission very seriously.
Do the firms whose values you disagree with get exposure in ArchDaily?
Yes. We are a very diplomatic and fair platform. Therefore, our own opinions don’t really come into the mix when we publish projects. The only requirement is that the project is of a certain level of architectural quality, and the quality of photos and drawings is up to publishing standard.
Doesn’t it rankle, though, when a firm whose values you disagree with gets a lot of press, and you are helping them get press, too?
Yeah, I have to admit sometimes it feels like a hard pill to swallow, but you have to remind yourself that offering information on a free and diplomatic platform serves a greater good. Because you need to be able to provide information for people to make up their own minds. I think this platform stops being a fair platform if we as editors, especially someone like me who makes the decisions, inject too much of myself in there.
Do you? Inject yourself in ArchDaily?
Yes. How can I explain this? I inject my sense of fairness into the platform. What I always wanted to do and the reason I took on this role for ArchDaily was that I was an architect, and I said earlier that I’m a person who observes and sees things to rectify.
What I saw as a problem when I was in architecture school was I realized the world knew nothing about architecture in China. And all you ever saw in media was very limited. It was either the very few people like Wang Shu or Ma Yansong, the big names in China, or the work of Western architects with projects in China. To me, that seemed like a problem. Because every year, when I come back to China [from Melbourne], I would see a country that was literally a construction site. There was so much going on, so many new things, good and bad. Why is there nothing in the Western press about this? And since China has a closed-door internet, it was also hard to search for things in China if you were abroad.
So I made it my mission to accurately represent to the world what Chinese architecture was. And to make people understand the context of what China is also as a country. I read a lot of criticism over the years about the built environment here—the size, the scale, the massive waste. It seemed that most of the Western world was just critical but not understanding the motivations behind these things.
So at first, I went out, I would go to any architectural event. I knew nobody, but I went to them because I wanted to meet all the architects. I went to every single event. Okay, is there somebody here that I want to meet? And I met, consequentially, most of the architects producing substantial architecture in China through events. And through them, I started to understand how architecture, as an industry, worked here. And the connections here between the built environment and society and government versus how it works in the West.
So what I did was I saw the importance of representing Chinese national projects to the world. Because China was not just Ma Yansong with his beautiful buildings—I’m really good friends with Ma Yansong, this is not a criticism of him at all.
China is made out of cities built for the people and the architects who were designing and building them. So I started getting projects like train stations, airports, large-scale government buildings to show the world what was really being made here. And also to give profile to the architects building them because no one had ever heard of them. We have very famous architects here who are building for the country, academicians who have gone through very illustrious careers that you could track with China’s rise and opening up. And they had amazing stories, amazing knowledge to offer. I wanted to provide a platform for them to show their work and interview them so the Western audience could really understand the importance of buildings here, that it’s a symbol of people and progress.
I’m sorry, I spoke so much. Going to be hard to edit down.
Not at all! We love longform at Kanto! •