Interview of the architect Li H. Lu

Taiwan Architecture, vol.254, Nov. 2016
Li H. Lu ✕ Ray Chu

Time: August 11, 2016
Location: Taipei
Interview editor: Huang Yufen

Ray: There are three topics I would like Li H. Lu to explain to us today: first, there is the past and future of the Interbreeding project. Secondly, I would like to ask Lu about his observations of architectural education, and thirdly, what is the educational meaning and value of the way of actual building and its relationship with the Interbreeding project?

Ray: In the 1990s, there was great change in architectural education in Taiwan. There started to be actual workshop internships in Taiwanese architectural education. We know you are one the pioneers, so I would like you to share your memories of that era with us. How did these workshop internships in Taiwanese architectural education started?

Li: Well, as soon as I returned to Taiwan I tried to define the term “work place or field”, the word “place or field” sounds like “factory or workshop”, but I don’t mean a factory or workshop where you produce products, but a creative space. It is not a space where products or models are made, it is a space where the process of creation and actual practice can be pursued. So from the beginning the Interbreeding Field project started from this idea. Workshop style education was another way of describing it, but as soon as the name “field” appeared, this gave a whole new meaning to the concept. For years people have asked me about this, so here I will clearly define the meaning. When I studying abroad, the “workshop” was actually a real life situation, a “field” for thought, like what we call a lab. Abroad it is an actual lab, but unlike a chemistry or physics lab, it was a space for spatial creation, a spatial lab.

When we are talking about education, things are actually quite vague, as Taiwan is positioned on the verge of a radical break with the past. There has never been a real industrial revolution in Taiwan, we have no idea of the spirit of the industrial revolution, and as we are rapidly adopting foreign systems, they are actually all just imitation. As the world was leaving the classical style behind, (modernism), and the year Bauhaus appeared on the scene, a wave of anti-classicism occurred, and a chain of new directions developed, such as De Stijl in The Netherlands, the Vienna Secession in Austria, Bauhaus in Germany and Constructivism in the Soviet Union. As we are now living in “modernity”, do we develop our own modernity or do we just copy historical examples? Are we following the historical spirit and create a new history? Actually, in Europe and the U.S., the all types of education have workshops, this has been a continuous development. In the U.S. all schools have workshops, the only difference is in the quality of these workshop.

Ray: You moved from Shijian University, to Mingchuan and later to Danjiang…

Li: As I just returned from abroad, Shijian had a engineering department, so it was easy to install a workshop in such a department. Later at Mingchuan, which was a new school with new spaces, so establishing a workshop was no problem. Later when I moved to Danjiang University, I encountered many problems. Although the engineering and aerospace department had a workshop, but it was difficult to accept that the architectural department needed a workshop. So the Danjiang workshop was very small indeed in the beginning.

Then there was the chance of working with the Tainan National University of the Arts, so I went there. When I started working in 1998, I asked dean Han Baode if I could have a workshop. He responded that I would have to wait till the end of the year for funds. At the end of the year there was NT$ 1.81 million [approx. US$ 56.000] available. I could have the money, but that would be all. I used the money to create the Architectural Interbreeding Field. On a space of approx. 360 square metres, we created an empty structure and an electricity system for 110, 220 and 380 volts. In this way we created our own space. After the working space was ready, we started giving practical education at the Southern Taiwan University of the Arts. So in these first years we were experimenting with the creation of our own space.

At the time, you needed to gain and accumulate experience in a real life environment, that was the specific atmosphere of that place. At the time, Mingchuan and Shijian were unable to do that, as they were confined to architecture, for Danjiang it would be even more difficult, but at the Tainan National University of the Arts was space to develop this project.

Ray: I am very curious, when was your way of teaching accepted, and were there possibilities for future developments?

Li: I think it was possibly when I got the first prize at an architecture exhibition for the “Architectural Interbreeding Field”. Everybody was very curious how a creation like that could win the top prize. But at the time everybody was just watching. When I was invited to design the Taiwan pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2004, everybody started to believe this thing was for real. When we were still developing our space between 1998 and 2004, everybody just viewed it as a private project. In fact, we were exploring the possibilities of the “Architectural Interbreeding Field”. Afterwards the question of the “mobile educational experimentation field” occurred. How to be mobile like an army, how to move and rapidly deploy, as there are many steps in this process, so the mobile factor needs to be trained well, only then it is possible to do creative experiments. At the time, when the workshop was created we always followed the creative education method of “playing spatial jazz”. Even after starting in 1999, we never allowed to make initial drawings for the in the process of developing the work. Until the present in 2016, all our projects have started without initial drawings. These were only made after the projects were finished, to be used as a record of the project.

There are no specific plans before starting to play spatial jazz…the object is to train to work together, so the foundation of the Interbreeding Field is in creating a common bond, as this bond has developed to a certain level, the team can go to work and at that time it has developed a closer working relationship.

Ray: In 2009, I noticed that the leadership in different schools started to accept to work in real life dimensions. It is astonishing that only after several decades architectural education started to realize it is necessary to work like this. What do you think about this?

Li: The developments in architectural education in Taiwan are very slow. If we only look at AA or Sci-Arc, they are way ahead and the education of real life construction design was already widespread. They called it “creating public spaces”. When the Architectural Interbreeding Field was accepted by the Venice biannual to be presented in the central garden in 2008, it was the first time until now that someone from Taiwanese architectural circles was invited to present an exhibition at such a central spot at the entrance of the Giardini Gardens at the head office. Originally only large prints were exhibited at the main hall, but after discussion with the curator, we would like to build something at the entrance connecting with the main hall, we wanted to create a structure in the public area of the garden. The exhibition at the main hall in 2008, was for me the real first event of building the Architectural Interbreeding Field.

Ray: I have two further questions. Over the past ten years you have taken part in numerous events related to the Architectural Interbreeding Field, what are the main frustrations or doubts you have encountered in this process? Secondly, the Interbreeding Field represents a practical educational value, this educational value is not limited to one occasion or group of people, many people see the Interbreeding Field as a strange educational group.

Li: As I arrived the Tainan National University of the Arts there was an architectural arts graduate school, so it was not like something for regular students, and we thus had to start from scratch. The Tainan National University of the Arts was originally a school for architecture, so there we several departments and a clear mentoring system. Under these circumstances the Architectural Interbreeding Field was just starting practical experiments in school.

We developed the Interbreeding Field at Tainan National University of the Arts as a training ground for members of our team, so in the beginning was the creation of our home ground. In 2003, we took part in the in the “Tree House Project” at the Yilan Children’s Toy Festival. That was the first time we presented ourselves as a team. In 2004, we were part of the Taiwan pavilion in Venice. In 2005, we made a creation at the Hai’an Avenue. That was the first time we entered a city to have fun in the street and create an installation. The project at Hai’an Avenue was a transformation combining the Interbreeding Field with artistic creation, artists noticed the spatial possibilities of the Interbreeding Field and its artistic interpretation. After the Interbreeding Field was established, we no longer called the “xx th” version, but the “xx generation”, the term generation would give every phase a clearly marker definition, that would be easily remembered. As soon as a member joined the team, you would get a bar code on your person, signifying your existence. The whole trajectory was a process of training. The most important part of education as part of the team is developing “discipline” and “attitude”.

What I am talking about is an attitude towards life. At the time, we entered the era of liberty and democracy, and before understanding the intricacies of democracy we needed to practice democracy, and to understand openness, you need to open up first. All students that entered the Interbreeding Field grew up together with the Field, no questions asked, you work together, and while you are working you develop feeling for the material, the space and the Field. If you are curious you can always ask questions or enter discussions…maybe we could be named as an alternative form of education, the main elements are “discipline” and “attitude” mentioned above, they are indispensable if you want to create quality.

Ray: The concepts of quality and attitude are essential to labour and physical activity. I find the aspect of training of discipline of Interbreeding Field the most mystifying. Why? I have been teaching for twenty years, and you even five years more than me, and during this period you find that the times are changing rapidly. You need to communicate with the students in a democratic way and not in the old patriarchal fashion. Yet, you still need a certain hierarchical core, if you don’t lead there is no discipline.

Li: I think is not mystifying at all, aren’t all schools in the West like that? All leading schools have the same way of working, this as part of the change in their education and the demand of discipline. In the international scene it is like this, so I do not think it is not a problem or laxity. If they can do it in education abroad, then why can’t we do it?

Ray: So I think it must the special relationship between master and pupil, which creates a special bond that is not forced.

Li: We let the older students coach the younger male and female students, or let older female students coach the younger female students. So in every generation of the Interbreeding Field there are young, middle and older students, including people who did projects outside the team. In this way the young learn fast and an understanding between them is developed. The younger students can follow the older ones. After some time they have matured and they can feel it themselves, they can have their personal creative interpretation of space.

In education I try to avoid to be on the frontline, because when you are there you are you are becoming part of the “patriarchal system” mentioned before, and there will be embarrassing moments and confrontations. So usually I give some simple information on the direction of the project to some advanced students. One or two people will ask what are the key elements of the project, and then the advanced students will understand, if they understand I will step back. I sweep the floor during the project and if things really go in the wrong direction, I will intervene and have a meeting with the advanced students. So during the education process I try to be involved as little as possible, because I think that if a team has developed a good mutual understanding from the start, it needs to build on this mutual understanding. From the beginning we talked about the Interbreeding Field as: “the atmosphere of space is our opium”. So the atmosphere is of utmost importance, as well as the training of the creation of a mobile space, as the internalization of practical experience becomes part of the physical memory of every participant and thus extremely important. Every time we start a practical project and we cannot deal with it, then we go back to discussing the structure, confronting the environment of the site and the relationship with the structure, then we take it from there.

Ray: Creation and art are related, and therefore the act of improvisation is an artistic expression. I think this is one of the most unique features of the system, the body and the field are learning together to create.

Li: If I want to train the sensitivity of the students, then that is not a question of design, but a class of sowing seeds and inspiring students. So I do not teach them how to create, but teaching them how to develop that “atmosphere”, later you can find out what is creation and action.

Ray: I wanted to discuss this because everybody says that architectural education needs to be ruled by logic and be structural. We need to be very precise, but this seems to be in contradiction with creativity.

Li: There is no contradiction! From the beginning of humanity, people can create structures for shelter from wind and rain, and at the time no structural calculation existed. I actually only want to reclaim the liberty of creating space, that’s it!

Ray: I mention this as in our architectural education experience in Taiwan, there are always people saying that the architectural department in some schools is only doing creative work and no buildings. This leads us to the question of non-qualitative and qualitative thought. Do you think that in architecture you need a certain standardization and stability to be effective or do you support more flexibility in order to create. What is your vision of the contradiction?

Li: Stability or not is a dialectical subject! But I need to stability as well.

Ray: Interesting!

Li: With materials we all know the dimensions. Pipes are two, four, three of six cm. we all know that. We know everything about the material. We thus have the basic “two feet and four measures” class, the so-called two feet are the length and scale, the measures are the dimension, width, height and depth. In everything we work with these “two feet and four measures”. So if I return to the previous question of stability, all things mentioned above are stable, the size, the dimensions, it is all a question of relationships and in architecture especially dimensions! After that width and height, followed by depth, these are all stable elements.

So if we are talking about qualitative and quantitative factors that is a question of discourse, but what I know for sure is that everything starts with qualitative and quantitative elements. If these elements are unclear, nothing will work. Over the years the Interbreeding Field has developed the “two additions, one work method”, it means that while building the structure things can be added or extended. This method can create a structure and truss system. It can extend the creation, to the size of the whole site. But the all things start from the qualitative elements of the basic material! From morning to evening we are talking about “the way of the hand”, that is what old Taiwanese builders mean by the manual feeling. Understanding the system behind the Interbreeding Field, for outsiders it is just watching the fun, for insiders it is looking at expertise. For me it is very clear that the “two additions, one work method” resolves a problem in the field of mechanics system development.

Ray: Is this craft a way of branding the Interbreeding Field?

Li: When we were designing the educational system, we decided “we will not use a nail gun!” The nail gun easily relates to the Taiwanese so-called plywood or wallpaper culture, it is an enormous headache in architectural education….we can only call it architecture if we use the system structure itself as an expression of creativity.

Ray: If we look with fresh eyes at the Interbreeding Field and its future, under what circumstances can it continue to develop?

Li: I think it is a situation where diverse elements and diversity go hand in hand and develop under different circumstances. I am curious to know how it will react to societal changes and the physical memory in the process of growing up, and the physical coding. I wonder how this coding will influence their future grouping and development in life.

Ray: You have educated so many generations of students, from your perspective as a teacher, who will continue to develop?

Li: I find them in the year list, and I see how different people live in different environments. I can find the influence from the coding of the Interbreeding Field, I can have an overview, and I am proud they entered society and have grown. I also check how they can develop in society, in that way I can chart how the concept of the Interbreeding Field has been put into practice over the years, and see if its influence can be enlarged in the overall educational system, that is what I most care about.

Ray: In the end I would like to expand to the overall educational culture in Taiwan. What do you perceive as problems in the process of the modernization of architectural education in Taiwan, or what methods must be used to improve?

Li: People often say the architecture in Taiwan needs to be done by architects, but basically everybody needs to participate, including the field of criticism. If we look at the development in the West, we find that the academy leads the way followed by the critics.

When we look at architecture, are we actually talking about architecture or about building, we need to make that clear. And when we talk about architecture do we include environment and culture?

Ray: I think that people of our generation think they can take on anything, so we carry quite an invisible load. It is not something that is demanded by others, it is something that we take on ourselves, but as we are getting older, we lose some of our capacity and the next generation needs to take over.

Li: Quickly hand over the reins! I noticed what you mentioned and we need to hand over the reins soon and give the younger generation space to grow. The experience of growth will be theirs. So handing over the reins to the next generation has become essential. This is a big test in Taiwan in the fields of politics, economy and education!

The speed of creation is an important element in the Interbreeding Field. The accumulation of experience with speed, will create a layer of process, a layer of space and maybe a layer of history, so “speed” is all the time related to the “making of history”, they influence and motivate each other.

Ray: On this point I differ from professor Lu. I studied history, so I see things rather serious and heavy. I cannot imagine how the Interbreeding Field can be something of such weight, while moving so fast, so amazing, that is something very special to me.

Li: I perceive history as something being so very serious and heavy, yet history is changing so fast. Under the current rapid changes, I can only use speed to go forward, and add something to the march of history. History is important! Only if we understand the catalyst and evolution of history, then we can become part of the march of history, or we miss the opportunity, as others are moving faster.

Ray: So these are the words of wisdom you want to communicate, speed is important, we have to go through life like a rocket.

Li: If we look at the whole world moving forward faster in modernity, should architects go slower? When there are less opportunities, then we have to create more speed and opportunities. We often speak of the “speed of events” or the “intensity of events”, only if we combine both we can create sparks! With speed, the concept of the Interbreeding Field is to reclaim with body and action the right of spatial interpretation and the basic spatial right to live

Ray: And truly understand your own body

Li: Indeed, early humanity had the knowledge of the body, later we forgot about this. The physical memory and the awakening of the body of which I talked about earlier, this is all inside the body of the aborigines, so when faced with movement, migration, hunting, these are all not anything difficult for them. In order to live they have to create a living space and reproduce. No matter if they are in the mountains or the plains, or under changing circumstances, these are basic qualities. All the physical awakening is happening in the current capitalist system and power structure. If we want to be an architect or a researcher of architecture we discover and experiences there things.

Ray: Words of wisdom. Thank you professor Lu for giving this interview, we wish you the best for your retirement and that the Interbreeding Field may be successful and smooth.