Shangai, China

In a country where globalization’s impact can be seen almost everywhere, Shanghai-based Atelier Deshaus wants to keep traditions alive. “China has changed very fast,” says partner Liu Yichun. “In many places the traditional poetic culture is becoming just a memory. We want to represent this memory in our architecture.” This doesn’t mean he wants to design pagodas or roofs with old clay tiles. For Liu and his partner Chen Yifeng, architecture isn’t based on form. “It’s based on the relationship between different kinds of space, between the building and the context, and between the building and nature.”

This approach can be seen in Deshaus’s 2005 Xiayu Kindergarten, where spatial relationships follow those of a well-known local model. “In traditional Chinese residential developments there are always two parts,” Liu explains. “One is the housing where there’s a lot of activity. The other is the garden, with small buildings in it.” This mix of high and low densities appears in Xiayu as a cluster of ground-floor classrooms and a more open plan of rooftop nap rooms. In a kindergarten in Jiading, the firm turns that duality 90 degrees; the dense layer and open layer meet in boxes side by side instead of bottom to top.

Deshaus interprets a different spatial model in a house and studio for artist Yue Minjun, currently under construction. “Traditional residences follow a rhythm of building, yard, building, yard,” says Liu. “The structure of the building is like an image of the family: The grandparents live at one end, then the parents, then the children.”

The architects twist the traditional linear form into a complex plan that mimics Yue’s paintings of labyrinths—echoing the pattern of open and enclosed spaces but breaking the hierarchy.

Liu (born in 1969) and Chen (1972) founded Atelier Deshaus in 2001 (with Zhuang Shen, who left the firm in 2009). They adopted the German word Deshaus, because Liu had studied German in college and the term means “of the house.” It also sounds similar to the firm’s Chinese name, Da She, which means “big house.”

Surprisingly, the firm’s most innovative projects have been in the suburbs, in Shanghai’s Qingpu and Jiading districts. The government there, in particular District Mayor Sun Jiwei (who trained as an architect), has given Liu and Chen excellent opportunities. Jiading commissioned the Spiral Art Gallery, a striking concrete-and-aluminum structure that expresses both a 21st-century form and a much older idea of enclosure (seen in its narrow stair to the roof) and exposure (the rooftop itself). “Poets walking in the landscape prized this kind of rhythm—from enclosed to open spaces,” says Liu. Local visitors find familiar places behind Deshaus’s modern facades. But those who read architecture as sets of forms may need to squint to see the Chinese references. “Representing is not just repeating traditional things,” says Liu. “We use a modern way to represent our traditions.”

Atelier Deshaus

LOCATION: Shanghai

FOUNDED: 2001

DESIGN STAFF: 12

PRINCIPALS: Liu Yichun, Chen Yifeng

EDUCATION: Liu – Tongji University, M.Arch., 1997; Tongji University, B.Arch., 1991. Chen – Tongji University, M. Arch., 1998; Tongji University, B.Arch., 1995

WORK HISTORY: Liu – Tongji Architectural Design Institute, 1997–2001; Guangzhou Design Institute, 1991–94. Chen – Tongji Architectural Design Institute, 1998–2001

KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Spiral Gallery, Jiading, 2011; Kingdergarten, Jiading, 2009; Plot 6 of Jishan base in Jiangsu Software Park, Nanjing, 2008; Xiayu Kindergarten, Qingpu, 2004

KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Youth Activity Center, Qingpu, 2012; Studio of Yue Minjun, Jiading, 2012

WEB SITE: www.deshaus.com