Liu Tao & Cai Chunyan

FuturArc Interview / 2nd Quarter 2024

Liu Tao & Cai Chunyan

by Weili Zhang

June 11, 2024

Liu Tao and Cai Chunyan co-founded Atelier tao+c in Shanghai in 2016. Cai received a master’s degree in architecture from the Berlage Institute in Netherlands, and Liu graduated from Shandong art college. They have handled projects in architecture, interior design and product design, being especially active in the architecture of adaptive reuse.

Through various projects in ageing neighbourhoods, the firm examined the in-between nature of trend cycles, showing us how the aesthetics of transience are sometimes necessary to support certain functions/typologies or ‘futureproof’ a space by way of flexibility. Their projects have won various awards, most recently in A&D Awards 2022, INSIDE World Festival of Interiors 2022 and Design for Asia (DFA) Awards 2022.

WZ: I would like to refer to a project of yours in Shanghai, where your practice is based. You renovated a warehouse on Lixi Road into Over Bakery—which you said in a design statement that it is formed by buildings along it rather than the other way round, because of how it winds and twists. Could you elaborate on your architectural approach/design with respect to the statement? What were the main considerations with respect to the surrounding buildings and their formations?

ATC: Lixi Road is quite impressive in the sense of its proportions—about 730 metres long, but only 4 or 5 metres wide. The way it twists and turns creates pockets of street space that are both memorable and commonplace. It is commonplace in the sense that the area is almost entirely residential without commercial activities, which also makes it quite an interesting location for a bakery. The original space must have been a warehouse on the ground floor, and there is hardly anything special about the building itself, not historic and without ‘expression’ or characteristics.

Perhaps noting how it reflects the overall site, we decided to keep that quality even as we could give the whole façade a make-over. The original openings were kept, but treated such that a semi-outdoor space is carved in and framed by an overhead beam, the kind of spot where a cyclist could stop by for a sip. The effect of the renovation that we envisioned was ambiguity where the added can hardly be considered new.

WZ: You have often worked ‘archeologically’ in transforming the interiors of old houses into semi-public spaces, such as for SPMA Store in Shanghai and Capsule Hotel + Bookstore in Qinglongwu Village. Do you consider your work to have an in-between quality with regards to time—for example, in preserving the old features and preparing it for possible future changes in function and expression? Or alternatively, do you design for longevity?

ATC: The notion of longevity is certainly part of our consideration. It is interesting because when it comes to a spatial typology like a retail store, we regard it as fleeting in existence. Take SPMA for example, the speed at which a retail business comes and goes, or the seasonal nature of its content, is juxtaposed against the historic building in which the project was housed. We spent a lot of time analysing the building interior’s many layers, repurposing a domestic layout into a commercial one. All of our own creations were inserted modules or blocks that could be easily disassembled when the time comes, and the building restored to its former state. Ironically, when SPMA’s business folded a while ago, the new tenant decided to keep some of what we had designed for a new store. That was a continuity that we did not have in mind. The capsule hotel in Qinglongwu, on the other hand, was not a listed building and its design was a straightforward response to the client’s requirements (the number of capsules, the need for public area, etc.). It does raise the question of how we should regard buildings that are not designated as historical and thus, worthy of protection.

WZ: Tell us about the use of ‘local’ construction for the tourist centre at Longyou, which uses commonplace construction methods that one can find in any Chinese village. What were your design considerations for the added space?

ATC: As we were saying about the Capsule Hotel, some buildings may not be old or important enough to be preserved. Yet, we have always been attracted to what we call ‘organically built’ structures—for example, the sheds erected by tea farmers in Yunnan to dry their tea—mostly square-profile steel frames with corrugated metal sheets and polycarbonate panels. You see such forms everywhere, sometimes as additions to houses in the countryside.

When people think of architecture in the village, they often picture rammed-earth walls, timber and bamboo structure, or the signature ceramic tile. The reality is such a house would be costly to build today, so people opt for a new vernacular that relies primarily on mass-produced building materials like those we mentioned earlier. This system of building comes with a complete supply chain of hardware and assembly methods, and it defies the romanticised building tradition. We left the interior of the old house (built during Qing dynasty) intact, including timber beams and columns, while weaving lightweight steel structure in between them, furnishing with a set of display shelves and seating made from galvanised aluminium.

Weili Zhang is a Singaporean architect and writer based in Shanghai. A graduate of architecture at the National University of Singapore and Tsinghua University in Beijing, he has worked for such practices as Neri&Hu Design and Research Office and AIM Architecture. Zhang also worked with the Singaporean artist Amanda Heng for the exhibition A Walked Line Can Never Be Erased. His work Melania was exhibited at the George V Art Center in Beijing. In 2020, he received a grant from Goethe Institute China and was published by the art initiative Beijing 22. He writes regularly for architecture and design magazines and has a column on STIRworld.

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Read more stories from FuturArc 2Q 2024: In-between Spaces!


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