PLAN 62: Article
Yung Ho Chang To Head Mit Department Of Architecture

Founder of Graduate Program at Peking University Will Maintain Practice in Beijing

Yung Ho Chang, founding head of the Graduate Center of Architecture at Peking University, has been appointed head of MIT’s Department of Architecture as of July 1.

Widely regarded as one of China’s most accomplished architects, Chang is also a founding partner, with his wife Lijia Lu, of Atelier Feichange Jianzhu, one of China’s hottest design firms, with projects ranging from exhibition installations and private homes to government institutions and urban-scale proposals, with occasional forays into furniture and graphic design. (For a look at one of their projects, see the Split House.)

Born in Beijing in 1956, Chang attended the Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeastern University) from 1978 to 1981. In 1984 he received a BS in Environmental Design from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and a MArch from UC Berkeley.

After working briefly in architects’ offices in San Francisco, Chang began his teaching career at Ball State and later went on to teach at other US schools for eleven years before returning to Beijing to pursue his private practice. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Berkeley, Harvard, Rice and Tongji University in Shanghai; in 2002 he held the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard, and in 2004 the Eliel Saarinen Chair at MIchigan.

During that ‘teaching era’ he concentrated on designing studio problems that avoided repetitive routines for simple skill-building in favor of acknowledging the complexity of design thinking. While at Rice, for example, the reading of J.G. Ballard’s science fiction novel Crash was juxtaposed with observation of crowded highways in Houston in an attempt to shed light on “the motor-happy urbanism of America”.

In his first few years as head of the new program at Peking University, Chang and his colleagues devised a three-year master’s program that eschews the creation of building proposals for fictitious sites and programs. Part of the reason for that is that most of the program’s students have already completed a five-year undergraduate program with case-study studios at all levels. But on a more fundamental level, rather than helping students simply develop further design skills, the graduate program aims to improve their ability to identify and comprehend architectural issues

Specifically, the program is focused on two architectures – autonomous and social. ‘Autonomous architecture’ is the focus of the first-year studio in which students design and build a small facility such as a woodshop or meeting room. Working with a small budget, students must calculate both the construction costs and the structural loads, and managing the budget and schedule is as important as the act of erecting the building. Because this is an architecture that is meant to be physically assembled and intimately experienced, drawings can be made only when the need occurs. And since every detail is meant to be resolved, this part of the program is referred to as the micro studio.

The study of ‘social architecture’ takes place in the second year, during which students research Chinese urbanization, focusing mainly on Beijing. The city is seen as a complex organism of political, economic, social and cultural forces supported by the organization of material resources, including space. While developing an understanding of the phenomenon of the city, students are encouraged to establish their own social agenda. In its focus on the learning of greater architecture, this part of the program is referred to as the macro studio.

In the third year of the program, students are given the freedom to complete an independent work, which can be a design thesis, research report or other creative project.

Established in 2000, the Peking University Graduate Center of Architecture is one of the newest architectural programs in the world, situated within the oldest university in China. MIT’s Department of Architecture, on the other hand, is the oldest department of architecture in the United States (established in 1865) at the same time it is one of the newest, having recently undergone a $6M renovation resulting in some of the most up-to-date facilities in the nation.

During his tenure here, Chang will continue to maintain his practice in Beijing. For a list of selected work, and for lists of awards, honors, publications and exhibitions,
click here.

The most famous of Chang’s works so far is probably Split House, one of a dozen homes designed by Asian architects at the Commune by the Great Wall, a project developed by SOHO China.

The house is comprised of two angled halves that together form the structure, with the third element -- the courtyard between -- completing the composition. The idea was to transplant the traditional Beijing courtyard house from its urban context to the country, allowing the mountains to enclose the courtyard on one side while the building encloses the other two sides.

Based on the Chinese concept of shan shui – literally, ‘mountain/water’ – the Split House opens conceptually and literally to receive both mountain and water. Splitting the house into two wings brings views of the mountain landscape inside while the glass floor in the vestibule brings in a view of the creek running underneath the house.

While shan shui is a traditional subject in Chinese landscape painting -- the idea behind it is to achieve a world of harmony, whether it is spiritual, technological or ecological -- it is equally relevant to building and landscape construction. Feng Shui, the art of proper arrangement now so popular in the West, could be seen as a particular reading of shan shui: it is a set of principles of balance and counterbalance meant to take on specific manifestations as they are applied to specific conditions, rather than prescribing inflexible rules or aesthetics.

On a functional level, Split House is also split evenly in half – guest living spaces in one wing and kitchen and dining room in the other. The second level of both wings houses bedroom suites where open decks on each end further connect the outdoors with indoor spaces.

For Split House, Chang borrowed the old notion of using tu mu (earth and wood) as the primary building materials. In his contemporary version, a laminated wood frame and rammed-earth walls create the basic enclosure with floor-to-ceiling glass opening to the courtyard and the views.

The main walls are made of load-bearing rammed earth, an indigenous construction technique used to build the nearby Great Wall. By using local material available on site – excavated soil from other construction sites – the construction minimizes the environmental impact and also pays respect to the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.

Chang sees the design as a flexible prototype that could be adjusted to various sites by changing the angle of the plan. Depending on the site and needs of the client, it could become a parallel house, a right-angle house, a singular house or a back-to-back house.