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Feichang Jianzhu

In October 2005, Buffalo witnessed The Wall, the largest Chinese contemporary art exhibition to travel outside of China. With more than 50 artists and work across three major galleries, the exhibition stirred the imagination to consider the extraordinary growth of China.

Still, The Wall was only a glimpse of China’s recent explosive social and economic phenomenon. City blocks in China become virtually unrecognizable in weeks as development takes place. Yung Ho Chang, founder of Atelier FCJZ, the first private architectural firm in China, has been part of China’s tremendous transformation. The University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning will host a lecture by Chang on September 20 to discuss his past experiences and his work.

Born in Beijing, Chang’s original passion began with art. However, schools in China are extremely selective, and because his artistic skills were not on par, he instead pursued architectural studies at Nanjing Institute of Technology. “At that time, I still had an art complex,” Chang admitted in a recent conversation.

Chang was a part of the first graduating architecture class at Nanjing Institute of Technology in 1981 after the Cultural Revolution. Curriculum, he explains, covered basics: “There was not much discussion about architecture. Focus was all about design and understanding basic levels of building.”

The contrast to the more conceptual approach in the United States was difficult for Chang to bridge. After struggling initially at Ball State University in Indiana, Chang worked through language barriers and ideas with Professor Rodney Place from AA (Architectural Association School of Architecture) in London. “He was teaching me more about art than anything else,” Chang said. “From then on, I could do anything in architecture in any different way that would suit me. That, to me, was when my career started.”

He later received his bachelor of science in environment design, cum laude, from Ball State University in 1983 and continued to earn his master’s in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 1984. Afterwards, he continued teaching in the US.

In 1993, he returned to China and established Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, which can be translated to mean “unusual architecture.” The firm now consists of 15 architects and has a broad range of projects from private residences to big and small museums, to government buildings, to installation work at the Venice Biennale.

In 1999, he set up and headed the Graduate Center of Architecture at Peking University. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2000 Unesco Prize for Promotion of the Arts. He was also the 2002-2003 Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

One of Chang’s most notable works is his Split House, completed in 2002. Chang’s sensibility to materials fuses the traditional with modern design by using rammed earth, an ancient method for building. This compacted material can rival the durability of concrete. In addition, rammed earth is a renewable resource that also provides high insulation.

The beautiful, traditional use of rammed earth along with natural wood speaks directly with the incredible surroundings. Situated in a backdrop of flowing mountains and hills, the house, with a traditional Chinese courtyard design, opens up to become a part of nature.

Chang continues his practice with Atelier FCJZ, and also, since 2005, heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Architecture. When asked about balancing these two demanding positions, he joked, “We thought that it was not impossible.”

Indeed, he has been busy working on research with students to develop the Urbanization Laboratory, or URB Lab. The aspiration was for collaboration and research between MIT and China.

Chang reflected on difference between teaching in China and teaching in the US:

“Academically, the US is very open, but outside the political and economical atmosphere is more conservative. Students don’t have a chance to put what they learn to use.”

He emphasized the importance of recognizing and seizing different opportunities. “This is the global age,” he said. “You can take on the challenge of practicing architecture in the United States but also anywhere in Brazil, Europe or even China.”

China, in its age of unmarked growth, needs responsible architects like Chang to be both sensitive to history but also to be willing to question, research and respond. “Unfortunately cities are these huge organisms,” he explained. “Architects can only input so much. But as a profession, we always strive for improvements. That and not give up.”

Chang’s lecture will be held at the University at Buffalo South Campus in Crosby Hall Room 301 on September 20 at 5:30pm.

Design Matters is presented in association with the UB School of Architecture and supported by a fellowship endowed by Polis Realty.