Atelier Zhanglei

Atelier Zhanglei rubs the universal against the particular to create tension.

By Clifford A. Pearson

They swim thousands of miles away, then return years later as mature adults to their place of birth. Their compatriots call them hai gai, or “sea turtles,” likening their years studying abroad and their return home to the long-distance migratory patterns of those hard-shelled creatures with unfailing memories. Like many of his generation, Zhang Lei went far away for his graduate education—in his case, the ETH in Zurich—but came back to China to participate in a booming economy and a cultural renaissance. In Switzerland, Zhang learned a disciplined, rational approach to architecture and a precise way of dealing with materials. “Over there, they build buildings like they do watches,” says Zhang, who graduated from the ETH in 1993, then returned to Asia to teach in Hong Kong and Nanjing before starting Atelier Zhanglei in Nanjing in 2000.

Photo © Iwan Baan
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Since establishing his own firm, Zhang has slowly adapted Swiss precision to the realities of building in China. But the local challenges, instead of compromising the integrity of his work, have added layers of meaning—bringing the native and particular into an intriguing dialogue with the more universal and absolute in his architecture. You can see this bicultural fusion in a pair of projects he completed in 2007: Slit House and Brick Houses. In plan and organization, both projects exhibit the rigor of Swiss Modernism. But in their handling of materials and their siting, they acknowledge local building traditions. Slit House, for example, echoes the massing and masonry construction of its gray-brick neighbors from the 1920s while reinterpreting them with more severe lines in concrete. Likewise, the Brick Houses he designed for a pair of friends in Nanjing clearly refer to old Chinese courtyard houses but introduce a radical treatment for the traditional material. Executed by someone else, these buildings could have seemed confused or awkward; done by Zhang, they resonate with a remarkable tension between different places and eras.

“Materials are very important to me,” says the architect. “But they don’t have to be special materials; they can be common ones that I treat in unusual ways. I want to create a logic in the skin of the building.”

Looking at the 20-year-long building boom in China, Zhang muses that “prosperity has meant chaos.” Although Nanjing has experienced rapid growth in recent years, it is “a little quieter than Beijing or Shanghai,” he says. Zhang likes it that way. “It helps keep my practice smaller and gives me a little more time to think about what I am doing.” One of the things he strives for in his projects is “to create some calmness. This is my personality.”

As Zhang’s professional profile has risen with the publication and exhibition of his work in China and abroad, he has begun to design projects farther afield from Nanjing. Current commissions include buildings in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu (in Sichuan province), and Tianjin (east of Beijing). Although he is vice dean at Nanjing University’s School of Architecture, he is teaching less now and growing his practice. He is particularly interested at this time in working on projects that have an impact on the urban context. And he sees his work fusing the rationalism he learned in Zurich with something more local, “more mysterious.”

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