Yung Ho Chang spent his childhood in Beijing, often creating buildings and cities with blocks.
“As a young man, I was happy just drawing buildings,” he says. “But slowly, I developed a strong desire to build. I suddenly wanted to be inside the building, the city, that I was drawing. The feeling became so strong it became an anxiety. My mind ached.”
Now, Chang, the head of MIT’s Department of Architecture, says he builds buildings and cities because he must.
Fifteen years ago, he, along with his wife, Lijia Lu, launched Atelier FCJZ in Beijing, now one of China’s top design firms. FCJZ stands for feichang jianzhu, which means unusual architecture.
“I don’t believe in discipline boundaries. I like to think they’re not important,” says Chang, whose firm’s unusual architecture includes urban, industrial, institutional, cultural, and residential design.
His latest project involves designing a new town in the Jiading district of Shanghai. His goal is not only to create a livable city but also to suggest the model of another lifestyle, he says.
“Instead of working in an office park and driving a half-hour to your house,” he says, “you would live, work, shop, entertain, play sports, all in the same place. Everything is integrated, so you don’t waste as much energy and time.” It also, he says, would be an answer to Shanghai’s problems of pollution and noise. “It would make cars unnecessary. We wouldn’t have to rely on them. What is important for me is how climate change and the energy crisis really inspire a different kind of architecture.”
Chang’s dream is to build sustainable cities in China and the U.S. He also wants to modernize cities, blending the traditional with that which is new. “People in the U.S. are extremely conservative in terms of where they live,” he says. “You don’t see many alternatives.
“At MIT, we invent new materials on a daily basis, but where are they in the houses we live in? I love the whole notion of making new materials and new methods available for people,” he says, adding that one day he would love to build a house of plastic.
LIVES IN A LOFT
Chang, the son of an architect, who now lives in a loft in the Seaport district of Boston, attended Nanjing Institute of Technology, earned a degree in environmental design from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and earned a master’s in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 1984.
Before he launched the design firm, he taught architecture for 10 years at Ball State, Berkeley, Rice, the University of Michigan, Harvard, Peking University in Beijing, and Tongji University in Shanghai. He won an Academy Award in Architecture in 2006 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Changes in China’s economy have created a building boom there, he says. “It has created big opportunities for architects.”
His current projects under way include the campus master plan and a lab building for pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Shanghai, redevelopment of the Qianmen district in Beijing, and a pavilion that will house 44 Shanghai companies for the 2010 World Expo to be hosted by the City of Shanghai.
His recently completed projects include a publishing building in Korea, a teahouse in Chengdu, a ceramic dinner set at Maison et Objet in Paris, and an installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Chang says that his designs have been influenced by worldwide artists and writers, and also by the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
BEAUTY OF WISDOM
For all the world’s beautiful architecture, he says, nothing compares with the beauty of wisdom.
“We can appreciate many things that may be well made; however, if the building does not contain any intelligence or wisdom, it’s not very interesting and people won’t be moved by it.”
Over the years, what architecture most has taught him, he says, is to learn from the mistakes of the past.
“Auto prices are coming down and people in China are buying cars — and second cars — and the traffic and pollution are ridiculous. I just wish that during the urbanization of China we could have learned more from the lessons of the U.S. and Europe. Then we might not be in such an environmental mess.
“But humans are humans,” he says. “It takes a while to change people’s mentality. Slowly, the world is changing. That’s why I’m dying to build this new town.”