Transformation Story: the forms of Lu Lihuang’s architecture

Translation of an article published in Taiwan Architecture, vol. 214, July 2013
Ching-Yue Roan
Professor of the Department of Art and Design of Yuan Ze University

In the 1990s, after the end of martial law, Taiwanese contemporary architecture experienced an extreme and exciting wave of architectural experimentation. Now, twenty years later, the dust has settled, the meaning and purpose of every participant has slowly become clear. After detailed analysis, we can conclude that the role of Lu Lihuang is unique and cannot be ignored. Especially in view of the continuous quality of his creations and their experimental nature. His specific and individual path of creation has constantly challenged the architectural establishment, which is slowly becoming more rigid, and he has become a disturbing force to them.

Lu Lihuang graduated from SCI-ARC. In 1992, he became a teacher at the Architecture Department at Shih-Chien University and later at the Architecture Department of Tamkang University. During this period he gained attention with some buildings he realized (as for instance some buildings at the Gaoxiong campus of Shih-Chien University). He managed to play dual roles as both an academic and an architect.

In 1998, he transferred to the Graduate Institute of Architecture of Tainan National University of the Arts, and the next year he created the Interbreeding Field. It was a watershed moment in which he established the foundation for his own creative work and the roadmap for his work in the following years. It was a unique combination of academics, experiment, theory and actual construction, which made the Interbreeding Field a combination of creation and education that found its resonance in both Taiwan and the rest of the world.

If we take an overall view of Lu Lihuang’s creations over the past twenty years, we find a quest for the interaction between local space and environment, as well as extension and organic growth of a structure combined with a continuous respect for the spirit of manual labor and hard physical work. This concept of organic growth and extension makes that his constructions are in a state constant state of flux between finished and unfinished, permanent and changing. They seems to grow, everything can change, challenging the stagnant view of the city by modern architecture, as well as attacking the modern paradigm that everything must be directed by logic, instead of letting the human body, material and environment be our guide.

This hidden criticism of logic and modernity is one of the central features in Lu Lihuang’s work to analyze. It is a passionate and idealistic revolt against modernity and the building industry, which is becoming more rigid due to quantification, standardization and commercialization.

Lu’s way of working is quite similar to the Architectural Hobby Workshop of Wang Shu at the China Arts Academy, which combines academic work and experiment. At a certain level, both are working individually and are not bothered by financial of commercial forces (i.e. they are working in academics). As such, they can retain a flexible and experimental spirit of research. As such, they can enter the world of architecture like a guerilla army and attacking revolutionaries (like the noble bandits in the Chinese novel The Water Margin).

This is how Wang Shu and his wife Lu Wenyu describe their workshop: “The Architectural Hobby Workshop is an individual workshop. It does not resemble architectural bureau at all. As it is like a workshop, it retains a profound interest in anything that can happen in life. Architecture is a spare time activity, life is far more important…individuality and independence are the safeguards of the experimental spirit of the work”.

In contrast with of Wang Shu’s emphasis on life and independence, the Interbreeding Field of Lu Lihuang is an well-disciplined architectural army that is based on the faith of the relationship between material and construction, marching with a martial spirit decisively acting, constructing and fulfilling their tasks. Between the two there is the difference of character and values, the difference between the free spirit of the literary scholar and the precise nature of the military man.

Let’s have a closer look at how both men face modernity and their different attitude!

Wang Shu replied as follows when asked about modernity and the closely related globalization: “The question related to “China” is easy to answer, as easy as the question of China related to the “West”. No matter if they are pioneers or not, no matter if they are modern or traditional, the awesome force of “global unified construction” in the era of “globalization”, is a danger to the diversification of the planet. In this global environment. My work is now to carry the candle of diversification. I call my workshop the Architectural Hobby Workshop, in view of the professional simplification and global unification of production, it is an example of a way of life and work that respects the real, spontaneity and diversity.

If we highlight again the goals of Wang Shu, he mainly creates a disruptive contrast between the professional simplification of globalization and “a way of life and work that respects the real, spontaneity and diversity”. We can find some similarities of these values in the Interbreeding Field by Lu, but at the same time we find the differences between the two. In principle, Wang Shu believes in the value of the traditional techniques of craftsmen and the importance of actively learning from them. He wrote: “Traditional Chinese architecture is completely different from our present day architecture, it is a completely different architectural activity. The essence of this activity is its respect and close relation to nature, and far more superior to the architecture we know today. But now only fragments remain in the hands of craftsmen in villages in the Chinese countryside. In recent years my architectural activities have been focused on how to confront the modern construction system and create a natural change, how to revive a value system that has been damaged for over a century.”

The attitude of Lu’s Interbreeding Field towards working methods is following modernism based on tradition, applying a new discourse of material, construction and body, emphasizing that it derives from the individual hands and body, and rebelling against uniformity, standardization, emptiness and possible future problems that are a result of globalization. If we state that Wang Shu is a rebel and revolutionary against modernity, then maybe we can say that the Interbreeding Field by Lu Lihuang is an experiment to transform modernity, creating a conversation to amend elements within the existing system.

In Lu’s series of the Interbreeding Field project the most poignant feature is the unique construction and shapes and the possibilities that derive from the spaces. Three recent creations: the “Hidden-State of Being” at Yangming mountain in 2012; “Whispering City” at the Zhongshan creative base in Taipei in 2013; “Concert and Variations” at the Yilan Green Expo in 2013, are all powerful and beautiful works that are exponents of the many years of energetic development of the Interbreeding Field. Especially the maturity and power of the three high quality creations that were completed within just one year are truly admirable.

If we want to study construction shapes in great detail, then we have to return to the discussion about the essence of the aesthetics of space. The construction and shapes of the Interbreeding Field emanates the basic knowledge and use of materials, the complex process and transformation from wooden to metal structures is the origin of the Interbreeding Field spirit. Although during this process occasionally plastic containers and other intermediary materials were used, but they were in the interaction between installation art and architecture, they were never elements of the core vocabulary.

In relation to space, the Interbreeding Field most prominent characteristic is that with its organic character it can enter in conversation with any possible space. That is to say that with its attention to minute detail and lively improvisational work method, the Interbreeding Field can engage in a smooth conversation with its environment. With this interaction between detailed way of working and smooth transformations (in an overly rigid and systematic building environment), he successfully creates a space where both elements are separate and at the same time work together.

For instance, “Hidden-State of Being” at Yangming mountain, the hidden building was an excellent example of this principle we mentioned above, and it was visible in every element. With the “Whispering City” project at the Zhongshan creative base in Taipei, he adopted a scattered guerilla strategy, reacting to the complex urban tapestry, reflecting and adapting to the environment in intricate ways. “Concert and Variations” at the Yilan Green Expo, were two constructions of an interior dialogue forming a complete creation. This beautiful work reflected elegantly against the magnificent background of the river and mountains.

Why is there a relationship between the aesthetics of structure and form? And how can we convey aesthetics?

The 18th century German philosopher Schiller wrote on how we can use the original disorderly natural elements of creation and construction to resist a hostile natural environment, and give form through the process of creation, in order to liberate the spirit of man and establish aesthetics. Schiller said: “Man gives form to that which has no form, to prove his freedom. Fear only exists in those vague and heavy areas where borders are unclear and not specified. If man gives form to any fearful element in nature, it becomes part of himself and he can defeat it. Just as the natural man faces a phenomenon, he starts to protect his individuality, as the natural man faces power, he also protects is dignity, and faces his demons with noble liberty.”

The form aesthetic of the Interbreeding Field, is in a way an expression and confrontation with the existing environment, encapsulated inside is the ambition of the creator and people for victory, the respect of the people/creator is clearly held high, the taste of struggle is strong, but if we really want to understand what is the goal. Do we want to determine or not determine, are we searching for liberty or fear, then there is no definite answer, and we don’t strive to clarify.

However, this undermined character, created an ambiguous and contradictory relationship between form and practical application. It seems that the creations of the Interbreeding Field were unintentionally based on form and construction, directly answering the demands of reality. It seems like it is even more like a howl coming from inside, and therefore it has a little bit of the “…faces his demons with noble liberty”.

So how are we going to look this freedom between the two elements? This freedom between form and reality, is this actually a problem?

Schiller wrote about this: “If man wants to have an appearance, he needs to go way beyond reality. If a man walks on the road towards ideals, in order to avoid walking the road of reality, and there he is wrong. We do not need to consider the harm appearance does to reality, but the harm reality does to the appearance. As man is bound by materialism, he has been letting the appearance serve his every goal, only later with the art of idealism the appearance begets a separate identity. Because of this, the emotional life of the people needs to go through a revolution, otherwise through idealism people will not find the way.”

This means that the form aesthetic of the Interbreeding Field stands heavily relies on the contrast between reality and the practical purpose of materials, and its characteristics are difficult to define as ‘already bound by materialism’ modern architecture, in fact, it is in many ways pure art, more in the realm of metaphysical form aesthetics. In the meantime, Lu Lihuang and the Interbreeding Field have an internal discourse, and it is difficult for outsiders to perceive its cause and effect. But, judging from the last three works, this kind of discourse and deliberation has ended and the creator has found some kind of stable and comfortable place, which is the objective aim to serve reality, with a subjective personal voice, Lu Lihuang and the Interbreeding Field proved that they have found peace and comfort and that if the hallmark of a maturity of style.

It is difficult to define a point of departure of the aesthetics and forms, as well as the spatial relationship created through transformations of Lu Lihuang’s Interbreeding Field, but that is not the end to understanding them, as the meaning of the language they communicate does not finish here.