“Within a building frenzy in China—where an impulse to simply build, build, build often means rather vague project briefs—I’ve always admired how Li Hu and Huang Wenjing manage to take the commissions they’re assigned and give them a sharper social and cultural purpose. Beyond the striking forms, there’s a real ethic in their work.”
—Aric Chen, Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut
“During the past three decades, China has undergone a building boom that has made it the largest construction site in human history. After years of urban megaprojects and spectacular architectural objects, many of which were designed by Western firms, a new generation of independent Chinese architects have challenged this approach.” —Wall text from Reuse, Renew, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China, Museum of Modern Art, New York
As underscored in MoMA’s recent Reuse, Renew, Recycle, the institution’s first exhibition dedicated to architecture in China, an exciting new generation of Chinese architects has emerged in the wake of the country’s rapid 21st-century transformation. Casting a critical eye on the starchitect-designed megastructures and unchecked development of China’s urban centers (which have dominated international architectural news for decades), these mid-career visionaries are forging a fresh, dynamic approach to building for China’s future—one that sensitively balances human needs and enjoyment, adaptive urban rehabilitation, sustainability, and preservation of the rich cultural, material, and natural heritage of their home country.
Two leading voices of China’s ascendent architectural movement, husband-and-wife team Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of Beijing-based OPEN Architecture, were this season’s final guests for Architecture: The Legends.
“What happened here in the past two decades,” Li told me, “is far more complex, sophisticated, and overly challenging than reuse, renew, and recycle.” China, he explained, is building new cities from scratch on a scale never seen before. And yet, the country’s traditions and history need to be considered, referenced, and addressed alongside universal global issues.
Looking back over the shift in China’s architectural culture that his studio has helped propel, Li reflected that “China of the 1990s was fearless, and nothing was holding the developers back.” Now it is time for greater reflection on the architect’s key role in defining China’s future through deeper, more authentic and enduring storytelling.
After I congratulated Li and Huang on their first monograph, A Radical Vision by OPEN: Reinventing Cultural Architecture (authored by urban planner Catherine Shaw and published by Rizzoli in Spring 2022), our conversation turned to the journey that led them to this moment of success. After they each earned a B. Arch. from Tsinghua University in their hometown of Beijing in 1996, the married couple moved to the US to pursue Masters degrees; Li completed his M. Arch. from Rice University in 1998, and Huang completed her M. Arch. from Princeton University in 1999.
At the time, unlike today, American architecture schools enrolled few students from China. Li and Huang’s challenges during these years of separation were exacerbated by the language barrier. While they could read English well, their verbal skills were limited at first. “I remember when I first got to the States, I could not open my mouth,” Huang shared. “It took me a long time before I could speak.”
As soon as he graduated, Li joined his wife in Princeton, where he landed his first job at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. When Huang completed her degree, the couple moved to New York. Li found a position at Steven Holl Architects, and Huang was hired by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Their first child followed soon after. In 2006, they struck out on their own, launching OPEN Architecture in New York as a lab for research and experimentation.
Two years later, they moved their practice and now two children back to Beijing and began to focus on building cultural projects. Over the next decade, they came to be seen as one of China’s most intriguing architectural talents, with an exceptional aptitude for creating beautiful, emotive public spaces driven by humane and environmentalist values.
Completed in 2018, Li and Huang’s UCAA Dune Center for Contemporary Art is a striking complex of white structures, nestled in the seaside dunes of Qinhuangdao, fluidly following the site’s topographic rises and curves. Inside, the galleries glow with natural light while offering sublime ocean views. With its quietly dramatic character—full of delightful surprises and yet serenely harmonious with the landscape—the design allowed OPEN Architecture to fully express its distinct voice and unique take on organic architecture.
Huang noted that this project gave them their first opportunity to work in an untouched natural environment and to select their preferred building site along the broad stretch of beach. They drew inspiration not only from the undulating white sandy dunes, but also from the ever-changing temperament of the ocean, which can be tranquil or wild depending on the time of year. The resulting effect is dream-like, as the rustic white walls seem to morph in response to transitions in ambient light, hour to hour, season to season.
Erected along a winding bucolic path in Chengde, in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains and green foliage, Li and Huang’s Chapel of Sound is no less compelling. This open-air concert hall appears at once like a natural cave formation, a contemporary Land Art sculpture, and an alien monolith; its rock-like structure was crafted in a concrete mixed with crushed local stone to strengthen its visual connection to the epic landscape. The project was commissioned as part of a larger government effort to revitalize the prefecture, which has lost many young people to the economic lure of megacities (like Beijing 225 km to the southwest), and attract a new generation of tourists to the storied, ancient region.
Here, too, Li and Huang were given the freedom to choose the precise building location and shape the design in response to the surrounding topography. The poetic name alludes to the structure’s sonic magic: “collecting, reflecting, and resonating nature itself.” Wallpaper* Design Awards 2023 just named OPEN Architecture’s Chapel of Sound the Best Public Building of the year.
When asked to identify some of their favorite historical architecture, Li and Huang said they were drawn to work that highlights the relationship between people, nature, and art, as exemplified by mid-century modernist masters like Le Corbusier and Lina Bo Bardi along with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark designed by Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert.
Li and Huang’s upbringing in Beijing though, they agreed, gives them a crucial advantage in translating this international approach to the Chinese contexts essential to their commissions. Together with their intellect, curiosity, and architectural expertise, they demonstrate a profound sensitivity to regional aspirations to forge a renewed sense of community and place.
From an inviting cultural center that repurposes abandoned industrial fuel tanks for the people of Shanghai, to a maritime museum shaped like icebergs to call out the crisis of global warming for the people of Shenzhen, Li and Huang’s work testifies to their commitment to building narratively layered expressions of national identity for a future-facing China.
This article was published today in Forum Magazine by Design Miami/.