Amid the rush to modernize, Chinese cities are becoming homogenized and losing their distinct identities, laments Pei Zhu, principal of the eponymous office, Studio Pei-Zhu, which he started in 2005, after leaving Urbanus [RECORD, December 2005, page 100], the firm he cofounded in 1999. "Our studio seeks to create architecture that reflects contemporary Chinese culture, including its roots and contradictions. We want to energize urban districts."
Studio Pei-Zhu is enjoying some high-profile commissions right now. Earlier this year, Zhu was on a roster of well-known architects—Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel—to design a piece of a multibillion-dollar museum complex in Abu Dhabi. Zhu has also been retained by the Guggenheim Foundation to design a future outpost for the foundation in Beijing. Although the project is still under wraps, Zhu reveals this much: "We have come up with an almost invisible building. Most of the structure will be fabricated in a factory, and most of the structure won't touch any of the old buildings. It's almost floating in a courtyard, and it can be installed on the construction site without any damage to the ground."
In a way, the idea of an "invisible" building is a continuation of the urban research that influenced an earlier project, the Blur Hotel (since renamed Kapok), a renovation of a 1980s building east of the Forbidden City. To Zhu, that project was indicative of the insensitive development that has disrupted the traditional hierarchy of the city plan. He reimagined the envelope with a fiberglass-reinforced grid so that it recedes from the foreground, blurring into a translucent block along the traditional streetscape.
Regardless of what will eventually be built for the Guggenheim, the ongoing project is emblematic of the kind of approach that characterizes Zhu's work. "I have turned the direction of my studio more toward architecture and research," he says of his post-Urbanus practice. "We're not just doing projects from an urban-planning point of view; we are using our architecture projects to explore problems."
One of the projects that he took with him from Urbanus is the Digital Beijing building, which will be the control and data center for the 2008 Olympics and will then serve as an exhibition hall once the games are over. In the ongoing process of building Beijing, Zhu's approach seems to be a bit more balanced and nuanced than the government's approach to urbanism, which currently favors large, iconic buildings. His preference is for contemporary structures that leave only a light mark on the cityscape. "There is still something missing in the city. Architecture is not just a tool for urban development," says Zhu. "Architecture can be very interesting, something for people to enjoy. And it can be something to help people relax; it shouldn't just be serious. Everyone shouldn't focus just on economic growth. I want to create buildings that help people enjoy themselves, to have a sense of an experience beyond the physical aspect of the architecture."