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The simplicity of Liu Jiakun’s work

The emotionally charged work of Liu Jiakun celebrates the vitality of ‘everydayness’

Contemporary China is admired (or reviled) for its remarkable transformation over the last few decades: entering the globalised capitalist market, creating new cities, providing transport, business and service infrastructure, and improving the lives of millions. The United Nations calls China an ‘economic miracle’, the BBC recognises an ‘urban miracle’ and The Economist writes simply of ‘a China miracle’. But it has not all been plain sailing. 

China has seen its fair share of tragedy. Much of it within living memory. From the madness of the Great Leap Forward through the barbarism of the Cultural Revolution, political events have decimated the population. But natural disasters too have taken their toll. Famously, the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 – that lasted just 15 seconds – resulted in the death of between 250,000 and 655,000 human beings. The numbers are vague because the authorities hushed it up. 

‘Treasuring the value of ordinary lives will be the foundation of our nation’s revival’

Liu Jiakun is an architect of memory. He believes: ‘Treasuring the value of ordinary lives will be the foundation of our nation’s revival’, and his work is, in many ways, a celebration of humanity. Whether it is the community loss born of China’s urban upheaval, the loss of traditional skills in a modernising world, or the losses wrought by natural catastrophe, Liu has something to say. 

When the Sichuan earthquake struck in 2008, with around 90,000 immediate fatalities, Liu visited the area to offer support and assistance. After meeting one grieving family, whose 15-year-old daughter was lost under the rubble of Beichuan Middle School, he offered to design and build a simple public memorial. Using their tragic story to relate the magnitude of the tragedy suffered on that day, his ‘Memorial to Hu Huishan’ is a very simple place of contemplation. Built in the grounds of Jianchuan Museum Cluster, the memorial is a small house in a woodland setting.



‘Rebirth bricks’ were formed from earthquake rubble mixed with materials such as wheat stalks and cement for new constructions

Just as in a fairytale, the route is  paved with brick, and the house conveys  the simplicity of construction and materials found in local rural cottages. Inside is a riot of pink – the young girl’s favourite colour – and an exhibition of some treasured artefacts of her life. Illumination is from a simple round rooflight and that’s it. A place of remembrance. Liu writes: ‘Though small, it is the most meaningful work I have done in my whole architectural career’. Sadly, this charitable memorial was intended to be a public building but, of course, the authorities have denied public access lest it excite the emotions. 

The material used in this project and continued through much of his work is known as ‘rebirth brick’. It is reconstituted brick taken from the rubble  of the earthquake, mixed with wheat stalks and cement and formed into briquettes using simple, labour-intensive, intermediate technology. ‘Rebirth’ is a much more highly charged, philosophical word than ‘recycled’ that captures Liu’s values and beliefs.  It is a rebirth of the material, as well as an emotional encouragement for the rebirth of the community and is intended to represent spiritual rebirth for those who have suffered. 

“Treasuring the value of ordinary lives will be the foundation of our nation’s revival”

This cheap material is found in many of his works including the facade treatment of Liu’s gigantic West Village project, but also in simpler constructions such as the Shuijingfang Museum. It is a much more mundane use of recycled materials than found in Wang Shu’s architecture, but simplicity rather than showmanship is something of a hallmark of Liu’s work. His West Village – Basis Yard project, for instance, seeks to celebrate the vitality of ‘everydayness’, which he sees as ‘the main content and primal pleasure of human life’. 

The West Village project on Chengdu’s North Beisen Road covers an entire block: 237 x 178 metres. He has taken an area that has strict planning restrictions (a site originally containing a golf course) and created a commercial compound whose core ambition is to integrate the public in order to re-energise the surrounding community. The shops are unremarkable stacked units, although the concrete finishes, using woven bamboo shuttering or embedded with rough-cut bricks and various aggregates, add variety. The central public spaces are where the exciting potential lies: giving rare civic space for locals, from play spaces, football pitches or semi-enclosed areas for public screenings or Chengdu’s ubiquitous mahjong games. The claim that this is in homage to Chinese courtyard typology is simply PR hype. In reality, it is simply an enclosed public campus. 



West Village plan & section - click to expand

The north elevation allows free movement from the street through a tight network of columns resembling a rollercoaster support structure – intentionally so, as this is a huge dog-legged synthetic running track and cycleway that leads people from the street all the way up to the roof and around the perimeter. Old folk amble at high level, appreciating the views over the city. It allows locals, he says, ‘the space to think’. Unsurprisingly then, after 9,000 people decided to promenade along the roof on a rare clear day last year, the authorities sealed it off, ever fearful of mass assembly rather than structural collapse. 

Born in 1956, Liu Jiakun was sent down to the countryside for three years during the Cultural Revolution to labour with the peasantry. As soon as universities re-opened in the late 1970s, he was accepted to study architecture in his home town of Chengdu. However, architecture was his fourth choice of subject (first he opted for a variety of medical sciences reflecting his parents’ professions, then architecture, then leather treatment and finally, storage management). The shoe and cardboard box industry’s loss is our gain. He chose architecture because he thought it meant sketching and his immediate disappointment led him to work only for a short while as an architect before running away to be a writer. If China had hippies, which it didn’t, Liu would be one. 

His 1999 novel Project Moon, concerns an architect named Ouyang Jiangshan who proposes a new town whose utopian design will bring wealth and regeneration in order to ‘re-cultivate the residents’. There are clear resonances from the Cultural Revolution as well as contemporary urban policies (the end of the 1990s was a time when the Party emphasised ‘ideological education and spiritual civilisation’). Liu’s book is an anti-Fountainhead story in which the architect fails to triumph. But so do officialdom and mass politics. Unsurprisingly again, it resulted in a 15-year wait before it was published in China. 

‘Liu’s book is an anti-Fountainhead story in which the architect fails to triumph. But so do officialdom and mass politics’

In the 1980s, Liu spent some time hanging out writing and painting in Tibet and Xinjiang Province but tired of having to ‘commit every single thought’ to the government for approval. So ‘10 years after graduation’, he says, ‘my passion and commitment to architecture was suddenly rekindled. I couldn’t tell you why and how I became an architect but I just did. As they say: “Life will find its own way”.’ 

Spending some years in repetitive work in a local government Design Institute, he eventually became one of the new generation to make the break from mainstream official working practices and set himself up in a small private practice. Yung Ho Chang of Atelier FCJZ launched China’s first private architecture firm in 1993, then Liu opened his office in 1999 adding to the professional diversity available to clients.

As he points out, as a 60-year old, it is odd to be constantly characterised in articles as an ‘experimental architect’, a phrase coined in 1999 to include Wang Shu, Liu Xiaodu, Dong Yugan and even Ma Yansong as members of the new Chinese avant-garde.  He baulks at ‘emerging architect’ too, since the initial chapter of individual Chinese architects is now firmly established. 

Jiakun Architects is based in unassuming premises in Yulin district, south of Chengdu, in a grim tenement. It turns out that the staff are loath to relocate because of the proximity of good shops, street-food and Chengdu’s famous nightlife. Actually, it is the development of Chengdu’s nightlife that has dramatically affected one of the practice’s latest projects. Shuijingfang Museum, the distillery and museum of baijiu (white wine spirit) is on a historic site and designed to fit in with the low-level residential quarter surrounding it. However, on completion the residences were demolished and the building now stands out as an island of memory within a booming nightclub area. It is the speed of change that Liu most bemoans: ‘There is never any time for strategy-making’.

Stone museum

Stone museum

Stone museum site plan

By contrast, the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum completed 2002 is situated in the remote town of Xinminchangzhen, 40 kilometres north-west of central Chengdu (so remote that a street sign reads ‘Caution: Town Ahead’). It is home to a private collection of Buddhist figures and relics that is visited by a grand total of almost no one. The building, which hints at Liu’s future oeuvre, is a mix of Modernism and low-tech architecture. 

Once past the baffled security man who wasn’t expecting visitors, the promenade is a contemplative winding route through the trees and bamboo groves (no tree was removed from the site), over stepping stones, up a narrow ramp, to arrive through a gash in the building on a high-level bridge looking down on the artefacts. The sculptures are beautifully presented in a cold, echoing, austere building with subtle daylight illuminating each piece. Religious niches with sidelights contain individual pieces. The design of the building is suitably skilful but the workmanship less so. As I stood on the Verandah of Supreme Values, it was clear that mastic was a necessarily worldly indulgence. The second phase comprises a bare space with a perimeter walkway, and a separate museum shop composed almost entirely of stacked glazed box niches for display purposes. Allegedly modelled on a Chinese garden, the landscaping and particularly the water features are charmingly understated.

‘Architecture can only express a certain amount of thinking at a certain period of time. Regrets are inevitable’

Jiakun’s multidisciplinary work includes educational buildings, residential and cultural buildings as well as urban planning, landscaping and art installations. His kinetic sculptural piece at the Venice Biennale entitled ‘With the wind 2015 – It’s your call’ was a self-supporting arcade formed by a delicately balanced array of fishing rods lodged into a base of rough logs. Contrasting this delicate work is the more brutal Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which was completed in 2006, that resembles a 1960s council estate on the top of a hill. Deft architectural touches like the external stair elevations and barrel-vaulted or inverted V-shaped roofs alleviate the severity. Here too, he uses perforated brick – his characteristic niches – to animate the facades. 

Such rebates are an essential feature of his Museum of Cultural Revolution Clocks in Anren, Sichuan. The three-part building is an ironic take on formal classical religious architecture: the conjunction of museum and the business district in which it sits is a musing on the sacred and the profane. The ‘columbarium’ – a wall designed to hold cremation urns – contains clocks that symbolise the end of the Cultural Revolution. Liu’s 15 years of active architectural design is a portfolio to be justly proud of, although he says that ‘architecture can only express a certain amount of thinking at a certain period of time. Regrets are inevitable’.

As a result, maybe, Liu is most animated when talking of literature and he admits that ‘literature and great writers are the most influential’ on him and his work. He is currently reading Carson McCullers, the American novelist well-known for her stories of estrangement. She writes: ‘All we can do is go around telling the truth.’ A fitting tribute.

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