Zhang Tang

FuturArc Interview / 2nd Quarter 2024

Zhang Tang

by Weili Zhang

June 11, 2024

Zhang Tang is an architect based in Chengdu and Tokyo, who graduated from the University of Tokyo in 2017. In addition to architectural design, she actively engages in urban practices through interdisciplinary collaboration and has organised numerous youth art exhibitions as well as initiated community-focused art and research projects in China.

While pursuing her master’s degree, Zhang founded YIIIE, an architectural design and multidisciplinary creative firm that envisions public spaces, community renewal, experimental spatial design and enriched quality of life. The firm’s projects show how in neighbourhoods, spaces like cafés can be necessary in-between places where various layers of society can converge, with the commercial function supporting other activities that weave the communal fabric together. The Yulin Alley has received several accolades, including the Good Design Award 2020, the 2021 Taipei Design Awards and Award 360°’s Best Social Design of 2020.

WZ: Your hometown Chengdu is considered a new ‘first-tier’ Chinese city like Beijing and Shanghai. How do you see Chengdu—its urban life, architecture and its popularity with millennials—vis-à-vis other places, especially from the perspective of a working architect in this city?

ZT: I first ran a café-cum-exhibition space in an old neighbourhood in 2016. It was during that time that I came to know about issues and organisations regarding local communities. That indirectly led to the Yulin Alley project after my return to Chengdu from Japan where I studied, in 2018.

It is true that Chengdu is an important metropolitan centre and is regarded as a new-first-tier city these days, but being in the southwest of China, it does have a special sense of locality unlike other megacities.

Programme and development timeline of the project. Images courtesy of YIIIE Architects

The fact that it is not an industrial or trade powerhouse like Shanghai and Guangzhou gives Chengdu more room to consider the civilian aspect of a city. It is also a place rich with scenic and touristic resources, which all contribute to it having a special branch in the local administration that focuses on community building and regeneration, which to my knowledge is unique in China.

You could also see it under the larger umbrella of the city government’s effort to promote cultural tourism, which happens concurrently with a rise in café culture—Chengdu is supposedly the number one city in China when it comes to the number of cafés. A café, as you know, is but one venue where one could observe the daily lives of local people. As the concept of unique stores or spaces ‘curated’ by private owners becomes phenomenal, Yulin—an old neighbourhood in the city centre—assumes the role of an experimental ground. Along with a strong media culture and the existence of both governmental and private platforms, the city provides opportunities for many young homecoming architects like myself.

WZ: Your first project of note is the community centre and plaza at Yulin Alley, an old neighbourhood in the heart of the city. It comes across as having a very youthful presence that contrasts with its surroundings. How did the project come about and how does it fit into the urban context? How does the local community utilise the space?

ZT: The local committee of Yulin posted an invitation for external designers/planners to collaborate in neighbourhood building. After some communication, I decided to submit a competition proposal for a new space they were envisioning. We were lucky that our thoughts aligned with the organisers’, so we began working together to polish the concept.

When we came upon the Yulin Alley project, it was stated in its brief that the space should be friendly to the community and the disabled. I think some would interpret it as a social initiative, providing people from the local or disadvantaged communities with work or business opportunity, but we soon realised that in order to maintain a venue without funding, where it could still be a place where such issues can be discussed, it has to be a sustainable business model. We also wanted to construct a place accessible to everyone, including the elderly and children, without giving it specific labels.

Regarding the contrast in appearance, which is created by this architectural addition, we actually took inspiration from many temporary sheds that you could easily find in the vicinity. The fact that the neighbourhood is a visible, organic accumulation of buildings of different times—for example, old red brick factory buildings—makes our building rather un-special. The people of Chengdu are quite accepting of new things, and a space that facilitates gathering and coffee drinking fits nicely with our local culture of tea, chess and leisure.

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.

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

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