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Real Estate
China’s Design Generation
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 14 Nov 2014 11:25:00 EST
Zhang Xi, 35, a Chinese architect and co-founder of EXH Design in Shanghai.
Zhang Xi, 35, a Chinese architect and co-founder of EXH Design in Shanghai. Michael Ryan for The Wall Street Journal
When Daniel and Sonja Gross were looking for an architect to design their home in Bellmund, Switzerland, the couple considered a few local firms in neighboring towns. But they ultimately chose Ms. Zhang, nearly 6,000 miles away. ‘We were impressed by the diversity of ideas,’ says Mr. Gross, who says he found Ms. Zhang through the recommendation of a Swiss architect.
When Daniel and Sonja Gross were looking for an architect to design their home in Bellmund, Switzerland, the couple considered a few local firms in neighboring towns. But they ultimately chose Ms. Zhang, nearly 6,000 miles away. ‘We were impressed by the diversity of ideas,’ says Mr. Gross, who says he found Ms. Zhang through the recommendation of a Swiss architect. EXH Design
Completed in 2010, the resulting 3,230-square-foot, three-bedroom contemporary home promotes internal and external views. A large window brings light into the all-white kitchen.
Completed in 2010, the resulting 3,230-square-foot, three-bedroom contemporary home promotes internal and external views. A large window brings light into the all-white kitchen. EXH Design
The wood staircase can be seen from the ground floor to the roof. ‘These rooms are very beautiful and at the same time practical,’ says Mr. Gross, a high school mathematics teacher. Ms. Zhang, declined to divulge her fee but says it was ‘of course much cheaper than a local Swiss firm.’ Building costs totaled $622,000.
The wood staircase can be seen from the ground floor to the roof. ‘These rooms are very beautiful and at the same time practical,’ says Mr. Gross, a high school mathematics teacher. Ms. Zhang, declined to divulge her fee but says it was ‘of course much cheaper than a local Swiss firm.’ Building costs totaled $622,000. EXH Design
‘Architecture as an independent practice is still very young in China,’ says Zhao Yang, pictured, a 34-year-old architect based in Dali, a city in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. ‘It doesn’t have more than 20 years of history.’
‘Architecture as an independent practice is still very young in China,’ says Zhao Yang, pictured, a 34-year-old architect based in Dali, a city in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. ‘It doesn’t have more than 20 years of history.’ Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Real-estate developer Lee Chunfeng chose Mr. Zhao to design her home in China’s southwest Yunnan province upon a recommendation from a friend in Germany. This is a rendering.
Real-estate developer Lee Chunfeng chose Mr. Zhao to design her home in China’s southwest Yunnan province upon a recommendation from a friend in Germany. This is a rendering. Zhaoyang Architects
‘For a long time, I had wanted my home to be traditional Chinese style,’ Ms. Lee, 44, says. ‘But I love Mr. Zhao’s design, which is actually a modern villa style. I changed my thoughts after that.’ This is another rendering.
‘For a long time, I had wanted my home to be traditional Chinese style,’ Ms. Lee, 44, says. ‘But I love Mr. Zhao’s design, which is actually a modern villa style. I changed my thoughts after that.’ This is another rendering. Zhaoyang Architects
A rendering of a home Mr. Zhao designed which is being built in Dali in the Yunnan province. <br/>
A rendering of a home Mr. Zhao designed which is being built in Dali in the Yunnan province.
Zhaoyang Architects
This is a rendering of the residence, which is expected to be completed in about two months.
This is a rendering of the residence, which is expected to be completed in about two months. Zhaoyang Architects
After graduating from Harvard’s program, Xu Tiantian interned at a firm in Boston, then with Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands before deciding to return to China. ‘There was less opportunity in the West,’ says Ms. Xu, 38, pictured.
After graduating from Harvard’s program, Xu Tiantian interned at a firm in Boston, then with Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands before deciding to return to China. ‘There was less opportunity in the West,’ says Ms. Xu, 38, pictured. Eric Gregory Powell for The Wall Street Journal
Ms. Xu designed the Songzhuang Artists’ Residences, a 20-unit development on the outskirts of Beijing for artists with living space and art studios. Completed in 2009, the homes are shaped like stacked containers.
Ms. Xu designed the Songzhuang Artists’ Residences, a 20-unit development on the outskirts of Beijing for artists with living space and art studios. Completed in 2009, the homes are shaped like stacked containers. Iwan Baan
Ms. Xu opened her own firm, called DnA-Design and Architecture, in 2004 and designed her first home in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the owner of the Ordos Art Museum, who wanted a villa that could accommodate his friends and family. This is a rendering. The design resembles petals of a flower—the five suites unfold from the public spaces in the middle.
Ms. Xu opened her own firm, called DnA-Design and Architecture, in 2004 and designed her first home in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the owner of the Ordos Art Museum, who wanted a villa that could accommodate his friends and family. This is a rendering. The design resembles petals of a flower—the five suites unfold from the public spaces in the middle. Minolta Digital Camera
Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu opened their firm, Neri &amp; Hu, in 2004.
Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu opened their firm, Neri & Hu, in 2004. Tim Franco for The Wall Street Journal
The duo has designed a handful of homes both in China and overseas. This 31,000-square-foot layered compound in Singapore was built for a Chinese mother and her three children’s families.
The duo has designed a handful of homes both in China and overseas. This 31,000-square-foot layered compound in Singapore was built for a Chinese mother and her three children’s families. Pedro Pegenuate
This is a rendering of a 3,200-square-foot vacation home with five courtyards for a Brazilian film director in Rio de Janeiro, designed by Neri &amp; Hu.
This is a rendering of a 3,200-square-foot vacation home with five courtyards for a Brazilian film director in Rio de Janeiro, designed by Neri & Hu. Neri & Hu Architects
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When Daniel and Sonja Gross were looking for an architect to design their home in Bellmund, Switzerland, the couple considered a few local firms in neighboring towns. But they ultimately chose someone nearly 6,000 miles away: Zhang Xi, a Chinese architect and co-founder of EXH Design in Shanghai.

“We were impressed by the diversity of ideas,” says Mr. Gross, who says he found Ms. Zhang through the recommendation of a Swiss architect. Her firm’s “solutions were even stronger than ours.”

After graduating from Harvard’s program, Xu Tiantian worked at a Boston-based firm and then with Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands before deciding to return to China.
After graduating from Harvard’s program, Xu Tiantian worked at a Boston-based firm and then with Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands before deciding to return to China. Eric Gregory Powell for The Wall Street Journal

The couple, who have two children, worked with Ms. Zhang via email and Skype, and the architect was able to come to Switzerland a few times to check on progress. Completed in 2010, the resulting 3,230-square-foot, three-bedroom contemporary home promotes internal and external views; the experience of overlooking another space is typical in Chinese garden architecture. A top-story living room has a commanding view of Lake Bienne, and a large window brings light into the all-white kitchen. The wood staircase can be seen from the ground floor to the roof. Light wood paneling on the inside creates a sense of warmth, and a gray industrial-panel exterior battles weather.

“These rooms are very beautiful and at the same time practical,” says Mr. Gross, a high school mathematics teacher. Ms. Zhang, 35, declined to divulge her fee but says it was “of course much cheaper than a local Swiss firm.” Building costs totaled $622,000.

Ms. Zhang is part of a burgeoning group of Chinese architects rising in prominence, both in China and overseas. In the past decade, architecture in China has started to develop its own identity, evolving rapidly as construction has boomed throughout China’s cities. “Architecture as an independent practice is still very young in China,” says Zhao Yang a 34-year-old architect based in Dali, a city in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. “It doesn’t have more than 20 years of history.”

Ms. Xu designed the Songzhuang Artists’ Residences, a 20-unit development on the outskirts of Beijing for artists with living space and art studios.
Ms. Xu designed the Songzhuang Artists’ Residences, a 20-unit development on the outskirts of Beijing for artists with living space and art studios. Iwan Baan

Shut down during the Cultural Revolution, a period of unrest in which practices perceived as Western were rejected, architecture in China only began to re-emerge in the mid-1980s, after the country opened itself up to economic development. Now Chinese architects, once dismissed as imitators of Western design, are being recognized for developing their own styles. “We’ve just started to identify our cultural issues and how to integrate the development of modern architecture from overseas,” says Li Xiaodong, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing who won the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada’s inaugural Moriyama International Prize in mid-October.

Zhao Yang is a 34-year-old architect based in Dali, a city in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
Zhao Yang is a 34-year-old architect based in Dali, a city in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Jacque Chong

Ai Weiwei , the Chinese artist, architect and activist, helped design the 2008 Summer Olympics Beijing National Stadium known as the Bird’s Nest, and collaborated on the temporary Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens. In 2012, Wang Shu, an architect based in Hangzhou, China, became the first Chinese national to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Some of the top U.S. graduate schools of architecture have also seen a surge of interest from China-based students who want to mesh Western architectural thinking with Chinese ways of living. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design currently has 30 students from China in its Masters of Architecture program, up from four five years ago. At Yale’s School of Architecture, 12 students from China enrolled in the fall of 2014 compared with two in the fall of 2009.

After graduating from Harvard’s program, Xu Tiantian worked at a Boston-based firm and then with Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands before deciding to return to China. “There was less opportunity in the West,” says Ms. Xu, 38. “It wasn’t as promising as in China, where you can jump in immediately.”

A rendering of a home in Dali, China, designed by Mr. Zhao.
A rendering of a home in Dali, China, designed by Mr. Zhao. Zhaoyang Architects

She got her first break when Mr. Ai invited her and about a dozen other architects to help design the Jinhua Architecture Park, a park with multiple pavilions in Zhejiang province.

She opened her own firm, called DnA-Design and Architecture, in 2004 and designed her first home in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the owner of the Ordos Art Museum, who wanted a villa that could accommodate his friends and family. The resulting concrete-and-glass home, at nearly 13,000 square feet, has five suites, a living room, dining hall, swimming pool, library and winter garden. The design resembles petals of a flower—the five suites unfold from the public spaces in the middle. The home has several courtyards, in a nod to Chinese tradition, but these courtyards are woven among the five suites instead of serving as the epicenter of the home.

Ms. Xu also designed the Songzhuang Artists’ Residences, a 20-unit development on the outskirts of Beijing for artists with living space and art studios. Commissioned by a private developer and completed in 2009, the homes are shaped like stacked containers. There are 1,000-square-foot studios with 20-foot-tall ceilings and outdoor areas that are used for art performances. There are no overt references to Chinese architecture, but Ms. Xu says she always tries to bring in concepts of Chinese design without being too literal. In this case, the development is a free-form version of mountains that are often a part of Chinese landscapes.

Lv Qiongwen, a porcelain artist who moved to Songzhuang in 2012, says the light and height of the studios distinguished them from other apartments in the city. She and her husband, who is a traditional Chinese painter, retrofitted their 3,000-square-foot, $815-a month space to include a small loft to store his paintings. She uses much of the studio’s floor to display her sculptures. “It really makes our lives convenient,” Ms. Lv says. “I can buy materials, get my work finished and then relax in the living space.”

Like Ms. Xu, many of China’s modern architects chose to start firms in China rather than work at a Western company. “I wouldn’t have the chance to practice independently in the U.S. right after graduation,” says Mr. Zhao, who started his own firm, Zhao Yang Architects, in 2007.

Real-estate developer Lee Chunfeng chose Mr. Zhao to design her home in China’s southwest Yunnan province upon a recommendation from a friend in Germany. “For a long time, I had wanted my home to be traditional Chinese style,” Ms. Lee, 44, says. “But I love Mr. Zhao’s design, which is actually a modern villa style. I changed my thoughts after that.”

Ms. Lee’s home, which is expected to be completed this spring, will have three stories and 11,800 square feet to house three generations of her family. This home, like others designed by Mr. Zhao, uses multiple levels to designate separate living spaces for the several generations. Unlike traditional Chinese style, it doesn’t organize the spaces by hierarchy, such as allocating the largest and best spaces to the patriarch and first-born child.

The home, on the border of Pu’er City, will have a solid concrete facade facing the neighbors for privacy, and large windows facing mountains behind the home. The home will include three living rooms, four suites and four guest rooms, along with entertainment spaces. Ms. Lee says it will cost about $977,000 to $1.3 million.

After seeing how much action was going on in Asia, Lyndon Neri and his wife Rossana Hu took a “big risk” and moved their family from Princeton, N.J. to Shanghai to open their firm, Neri & Hu, in 2004.
After seeing how much action was going on in Asia, Lyndon Neri and his wife Rossana Hu took a “big risk” and moved their family from Princeton, N.J. to Shanghai to open their firm, Neri & Hu, in 2004. Tim Franco for The Wall Street Journal

Lyndon Neri ’s entry into China was part happenstance. Based in New Jersey, he was working on a project in Shanghai for Michael Graves. “I was supposed to be in Shanghai for six weeks,” he says. “Then SARS hit and I couldn’t go back.” After spending almost a year in Shanghai, and seeing firsthand how much action was going on in Asia, Mr. Neri and his wife Rossana Hu took a “big risk” and moved their family from Princeton, N.J. to Shanghai to open their firm, Neri & Hu, in 2004.

The duo has designed a handful of homes both in China and overseas, ranging from a 31,000-square-foot layered compound in Singapore for a Chinese mother and her three children’s families, to a 3,200-square-foot vacation home with five courtyards for a Brazilian film director in Rio de Janeiro.

One of the biggest challenges facing China’s rising stars is developing their own sense of style and eschewing stereotypes of Chinese architecture. “Chinese have a reputation of copying and people make that association very quickly,” Mr. Neri says. “We can’t fight that so instead we try to do something authentic. We’re probably in the minority but over time that will change.”

China’s president, Xi Jinping , has recently expressed his dislike of some of Beijing’s more avant-garde buildings. State media have pointed to the China Central Television headquarters by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas as an example.

Another issue for designers is convincing developers to focus more on design. The rapid pace of China’s development and housing policies often lead to big developers erecting buildings in quick and economical fashion. Says Ms. Zhang: “If policy doesn’t change and only big developers get land and build as quick as possible, you’ll have the same floor plan and innovation will be very limited.”

—Li Jie contributed to this article.



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