We derive the name from our mission, which is to link resources, knowledge, and creative thought between across borders and between cultures.
In my teaching, I try very hard push students to create unique and personal approaches to the subject matter at hand.
for us, our larger goals go back to traditional architectural values such as space, form, and light.
Yichen Lu is the founder of the Link-Arc Studio that designed the Chinese pavilion at Expo Milano 2015. Yichen Lu, Chinese by birth, has a multi-ethnic cultural and working background, before founding his own studio he obtained a master’s degree in architecture at Yale and won numerous awards, he also played an important role in the Gehry Partners studio and Steven Holl Architects .
Today Yichen Lu in addition to leading his own architecture studio participates in various conferences and lectures in some cities of the world. Listening to Yichen Lu’s answers, we understand that his first goal is to create a thought-out architecture, capable of having its own language and identity. As he will explain to us during the interview, reaching this goal is exciting, but the road ahead is very tiring and difficult to find.
Why is the studio’s name Link-arc?
We derive the name from our mission, which is to link resources, knowledge, and creative thought between across borders and between cultures. We work between these diverse sources to create unprecedented works of architecture, urbanism, arts, and strategy.
Before founding Link-arc in 2012, you earned a Master’s degree in Architecture from Yale University and then you played an important role in the Gehry Partners studio, then you worked with Steven Holl Architects.
How was a so high level training important for the creation of your own architectural firm?
This is actually a very interesting question. I think the primary lesson that I learned from my experience with these two offices is that in order to create truly innovative architecture, you have to bring a very personal thought process and experience to the problem. If you approach architecture within the constraints of standard design education, you’re never going to go beyond what has already been done.
The China Pavilion for Expo Milano or the Nanjing Art Center have fluid and continuous shapes that seem to be in contrast with the regular volumes of the CVIC Gallery or the China Resources Archive Library. Where do you start to get these very different shapes but clearly created by the same pencil?
We try very hard to create something unique and special for each project. We look for ways to create uniqueness in our projects but we try to do so using factors that are unique to each project. The CVIC Gallery, for example, had a very complex program on a very large site. This allowed us to take special program elements and express them as individual forms located in an elliptical reflecting pool. The site allowed us to do that.
For the Archive Library, the above-ground massing is restricted by the footprint of the archive storage beneath. So in order to make something expressive, we had to create a very “architectural” composition constrained by a restrictive rectangular footprint. This meant that we would have to create something very subtle, but since this project is on a university campus, this seemed very appropriate to us. Thankfully, the client agreed.
The China Pavilion, though, was a very unique situation. We could not really respond to the site because it did not yet exist when we were designing the project. The site was basically a shape on a masterplan drawing. So on some level, any design solution we created would have to come from a source external to the site or locale. Thankfully, the client had a theme for the project, which was “On the Land of Hope”. We used that as our jumping-off point. We drew two profiles. For the north side we traced the profile of the skyline of Beijing’s Central Business District. For the south side we traced a profile of a portion of the Guilin Mountains, which are not far from Beijing. Using digital modeling software, we merged the two profiles to create a sculptural roof form. The idea here was that “hope” could be achieved when nature and city can coexist harmoniously. This seemed to us like a unique and poetic solution, and this would eventually drive the entire project.
So you can see that we don’t bring any predefined ideas or approaches to any project that we do. Each of our works is driven by a process that is tailored to the specific conditions of each project.
You are the boss of Link.arc but in addition to this role you are a professor who teaches or holds symposia in universities such as the Politecnico di Milano or the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Do you have any recurring concept that you illustrate during your lessons?
I teach a variety of courses, from form-making, architectural design studios, to courses in parametric design. In my teaching, I try very hard push students to create unique and personal approaches to the subject matter at hand. The difficulty there is that to create unique approaches you have to quickly learn historical approaches to form and space, and learn them well enough to be able to distinguish your own work from things which have happened before.
This requires a much more iterative process. If you want to build a personal approach to design, you can’t go through the process once and expect to become unique. It’s a process that requires you to attack a problem again and again, to start, stop, go back to certain points and see if you should go in another direction. It’s a much more intense approach, but if you do it correctly, it is very rewarding.
For many reasons you know both Eastern and Western culture well.
How do you think globalization has changed the way cities are built and lived? With globalization, are these two worlds closer together?
I would absolutely agree that the two worlds are closer together. In my experience, people connect across cultures via physical, face-to-face, or digital connections. It takes a certain number of connections for people to create understanding across cultures, and digital interactions allow these required connections to happen more quickly.
However, nothing beats being there in person and making connections to others. What is good about the new digital world is that it serves to allow people to interact with other cultures in an exploratory manner—dipping the toes if you will. I think this leads to an increased desire to go to another place to visit, to live, or to work. And to us, it’s the physical presence in other cultures that really brings societies together.
The process of working on the China Pavilion really exemplified that process. We started by working between New York and China to produce the competition proposal, and then started interacting with consultants and fabricators. The process started digitally, but as things progressed we had to travel to Milan multiple times to really move the project forward. We became friends with many of our Italian colleagues during this process, and I hope to work with them soon.
In recent decades the Chinese government, thanks also to the support of architects, has strongly changed the territory by building new cities and promoting the economic revolution.
In Europe and the United States the situation is different for many reasons. Can you imagine a path that politicians and architects could take together with the goal of managing the huge cities that are growing?
This is a tough question. One of the things that makes development easier in China is that it is many ways a new country, and many of the developments that people see are in areas that are previously undeveloped. This makes it easier to effectively build new communities along with the infrastructure that is required to support them. In addition, there’s much more of a pro-growth mindset, that’s very much geared towards accommodating an increasing middle class.
In the Western world, it can be a more difficult conversation. Many developments occur in contexts that have existing communities and histories, so as architects, you need to consider these viewpoints—you’re not creating new cities from the ground up so much as you’re extending existing communities and contexts. It’s a much more nuanced discussion, with many more players involved. One of the great things about architects, though, is that we fundamentally understand how communities interact within existing and new contexts, and we know how to stitch them together carefully. I personally believe that involving architects at all stages of urban development can help create new urban environments that are modern but still respond to local history and contexts. That’s the value that we as architects bring to the table.
What kind of relationship do you have with technology?
This is a question that we think about all the time in our own practice. We obviously use a lot of contemporary design technology in our work, including digital modeling, scripting, and parametric design technologies. However, for us, our larger goals go back to traditional architectural values such as space, form, and light. Even if we want to create new forms and spaces, we are always going back to those ideals.
The China Pavilion is a prime example of this. The design process for the project was incredibly digital. We used digital design and fabrication technology to create the structure and the roof panels. However, the structure creates a beautiful public space made from glulam timber structure. The roof panels, which we designed parametrically, create incredible shadow effects on the roof membrane above the wood structure—the effect is incredible, like being beneath a forest canopy. So it’s very contemporary, but it evokes the feeling of being in nature.