Dialogue with Professor Liu Jie of Shanghai Jiao Tong University: The Expression of “Zen” Culture Through Modern Wood Construction
Dialogue: Dialogue with experts from the wood construction industry Explore the world of modern wood construction Get to know the infinite possibilities of wood Realize coexistence between architecture and nature
Dr. Liu Jie
- Professor/Doctoral Supervisor/Assistant Dean, Department of Architecture, School of Design, Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Director of Wood Architecture Research and Design Center;
- Member of the Editorial Board of Asian Space Customs Series, University of Hawaii Press, United States;
- Director of the Chapter of Architectural History Studies and Member of the Academic Committee, The Architectural Society of China;
- Vice-Chairman of the Landscape Architecture Research Institute, The Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) Society of China;
- Deputy Chairman of the Professional Committee of Wood and Bamboo Structure, Shanghai Society of Civil Engineering;
- Vice President and Secretary-General of China Society for Covered Bridges (preparatory). He participated in the shooting of the US documentary Operation Bridge Rescue in 2018.
Since you have participated in a slew of projects for restoration and reconstruction of ancient Chinese temples, what characteristics do you value the most in wood? And what do you think is the biggest difference between traditional wood construction and modern wood construction?
Antique buildings or temple buildings themselves are mostly traditional wood constructions. With the advancement of the times, the demand for architectural functions of temples has become diverse. When conducting restoration and reconstruction, we try our best to apply traditional or modern wood construction technology while maintaining the original architectural style.
As a breathable, organic and long-standing building material, wood, in the eyes of Buddhists, can convey the “Zen” culture. Wood is gentle, robust and hygroscopic in nature, which can not only reflect the artistic conception of Buddhist architecture – “since all is void, where can the dust alight”, but also can be used as a low-carbon, energy-saving and environment-friendly green building material.
Regarding the difference between traditional wood construction and modern wood construction, the biggest difference, as far as I am concerned, remains in concepts, such as aesthetic concepts and functional space requirements, apart from the general academic views, such as structural connection methods, material processing methods, and material recycling limits. Architecture is designed to serve human-beings and human activities. In this regard, the practicability and humanism of architecture should be fully considered in the design. Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Shigeru Ban have also used logs and wood blocks to showcase the beauty of modern wood constructions. However, in some functional venues such as theatres and cinemas, even if they contain traditional wood elements, they will still be categorized into modern wood constructions.
According to our knowledge, several restoration projects of ancient Chinese constructions such as Hangzhou-based Xiangji Temple and Jingci Temple have adopted a combination of traditional wood construction and modern wood construction. How did you come up with such an approach?
I have been engaged in the research on the history and theory of traditional wood constructions for a long time. Since 2000, I have paid inspection tours to Europe for a couple of times. During this period, I visited countries like Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, all of which boast high forest coverage, extensive wood construction buildings and a long history of construction. Since the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, industrial production has driven the modernization transformation of traditional wood construction technology in these countries.
After returning to China, I found that both the design and construction of wood constructions in China remain traditional in terms of concept/philosophy and technical means. In my opinion, we should learn from the developed countries where there are proven technologies and mature experience, and adopt modern wood construction technology to promote the further development of China’s traditional wood construction.
At that time, Xiangji Temple in Hangzhou was scheduled to conduct restoration, which turned out to be a prime opportunity for us. Modern mindset and innovative technical methods were adopted in the restoration of the temple. In another restoration project of the wood Jingci Temple in Hangzhou, since the temple is located at the core of the World Cultural Heritage site, West Lake of Hangzhou, we are obliged to strictly follow the relevant technical regulations and requirements for the protection and restoration of cultural relics and buildings.
Stepped in history and rich in culture, wood architecture embodies the essence of ancient Chinese philosophy. In most cases, a good mix of wood construction and architectural space is beyond the reach of other structural systems. For developers, overall considerations shall be given to such factors as function, market and cost when deciding the project type.
Could you please share with us some of your memories in the process of project design and construction?
We had many interesting memories when we were renovating Xiangji Temple in Hangzhou. Established in the Northern Song Dynasty, and steeped in history, Xiangji Temple is a sacred place where ancient civilians came to pray and redeem a vow to a god. In the original construction plan, the owner advocated reconstruction in pursuant to techniques described in Yingzao Fashi (lit. ‘Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards’) of the Northern Song Dynasty, i.e. Restoration shall be conducted based on the principle of the design and construction of Song-style buildings. Later, some changes have taken place in the mindset of Hangzhou’s leadership, and they hoped that innovation would be introduced to traditional buildings. As a result, we had to make a new plan to incorporate innovative elements while preserving traditional culture, thus making Xiangji Temple the first of its kind in China to be built, on the whole, on a large scale with glulam.
At that time, there was a scenario in which the owner denied the building of a basement. I think as a designer, one should have a sense of responsibility and mission, truly consider the interests of the owner and the future operation of the temple. The basement is a practical necessity in order to meet the need for storage space.
After further discussion with the owner, it was learned that the owner did not disapprove the establishment of a basement, but was worried that the project could not be completed and delivered on time due to a tight construction period. To meet the requirements for the construction period and function, we later made some adjustments in the scheme design. In the new design scheme, the pattern of a temple built in the mountain is simulated; the elevation of the outdoor terrace gradually increases with the progress of the space, and a semi-overhead and semi-underground space is naturally formed at the last layer/courtyard of the temple. As a result, the risk of construction delay caused by extensive excavation is avoided, and the regulation and pattern of a traditional Zen temple are reflected, thus solving the limited storage space issue of the temple and showcasing the pattern of a traditional Zen temple built in the mountain. In addition, the temple’s step-by-step elevation design enriches the architectural outline and achieves excellent visual effects. As for project period control, since the wood construction can be prefabricated in the factory, the concrete foundation and the semi-basement can be constructed simultaneously. After the structural curing is completed, it is seamlessly followed by the on-site installation of the wood construction, so that we have successfully completed the scheme with half the time and effort.
At that time, there were few similar projects in China where there was a lack of construction experience. For example, there was a prominent contradiction in the joint/cohesion between concrete construction and wood construction. The fact is the accuracy of wood construction is very high compared to concrete. Whereas you often see tolerance issues in centimetres with built RC, in wood construction misalignment issues are only occur in millimetres and are hence easy to repair. Later, the connection problem was solved due to recalculation and adjustment.
Which projects do you think reflect the future development trend of wood constructions? What do you think is the biggest challenge for wood buildings at the moment? Compared with steel construction and concrete construction, what is the greatest opportunity for the development of the wood construction industry?
I think anything is possible. Relatively speaking, the wood itself is a healthy and organic building material and will be applied to more scenarios, especially in cultural, educational, healthy and religious buildings.
The biggest challenge, I think, lies in policy and economy. Policy factor comes first, as favourable national policies have a great and positive impact on the development of the wood constructions sector. The economic factor comes second, as the market determines the price. The unbalanced local economic development and different local bidding policies directly or indirectly affect the choice of wood construction.
If the cost of wood construction is judged from the whole life cycle of buildings including planning, design, construction, application/usage and maintenance, even demolition, recycling and reuse, etc., wood construction still boasts certain comprehensive cost advantages. Western countries have been following the route of sustainable development for long. However, wood buildings in China are still in the growth stage. Considering that wood-frame constructions are lightweight, highly comfortable, prefabricated, and easy to install and dismantle, they will enjoy broad development potential in the future.
In some cases, wood construction possesses incomparable advantages over steel construction and concrete construction in terms of the expression, affinity, health and aesthetic properties contained in wood materials. Living in wood houses makes indoor occupants more focused, calms the nerves and enables them to feel happy. Several scientific studies have found that living in wood houses for long can prolong the life span by 9-11 years. It is turned out to be the best choice for people pursuing a healthy life.
How do you think the development of modern wood construction will be integrated into the industrialization of construction?
Wood construction is inherently a product of modular design and construction, and industrialization has brought unprecedented development opportunities to the construction industry, so how to optimize design, integrate resources, improve efficiency and reduce costs is the key to the development of the construction industry in the next stage. With the advancement of wood construction technology at home and abroad, architects have to pull collective wisdom to innovate design and technology, enabling wood construction to embrace more room for growth. Moreover, its superior material performance will benefit wood construction to achieve further development in the smart construction sector.
We know that Mr. Liu is currently a professor and doctoral supervisor in the Department of Architecture of the School of Design, Shanghai Jiao Tong University who enjoys rich teaching experience. In recent years, some colleges and universities, including Shanghai Jiao Tong University, have already offered relevant courses on wood design. What do you think drove the offering of such courses at these schools?
The content setting and development of wood design courses vary from school to school. We at Shanghai Jiao Tong University have also been trying to promote the teaching and research of wood construction building system. Our wood construction center is scheduled to offer a four-in-one program in architecture, construction, materials and art for postgraduates. Candidates in relation to these four majors can apply for this program. In the past, the curriculum setting was either narrow or meticulous, which enabled students not only to be proficient in only one subject or one aspect but also prone to be one-sided without a comprehensive and long-term vision. From the perspective of teaching, the offering of interdisciplinary subjects can expand students’ knowledge and improve their comprehensive design capability. Only by combining technology with the concept can high-quality buildings be designed.
Students are taking the wood design course in a summer vacation program at The University of British Columbia (UBC)
What’s your comment on students’ attitude towards wood construction in the research and teaching of wood construction? How will this shape the next generation of architects?
△ K11 Architecture Festival “The Resurgence of Wood Architecture” Exhibition
Wood architecture enjoys wide popularity among students. This is not only because they nowadays have a wide range of interests, but also due to the excellent expression of wood materials and the vigorous promotion of wood construction. Students have also been more actively engaged in relevant events and activities than ever before. Tongji University recently planned a theme exhibition entitled “The Resurgence of Wood Architecture”, which also attracted massive college students of related majors. We encourage students to take part in more activities alike. These exhibitions showcase the latest materials, technologies and future development trends. The assimilation, application and mastery of this knowledge will be of great help to students in their future work.
K11 Architecture Festival “The Resurgence of Wood Architecture” Exhibition
What teaching measures has your employer taken to train talents in the field of wood constructions? Which aspect of ability training should we pay more attention to? What are your expectations or suggestions for them?
Timber Design of Tourist Center (submitted by Nanjing Tech University), the award-winning project (First Prize) at the 4th National College Wood Construction Design Competition
We want to get students of architecture and engineering construction major involved by holding exhibitions, competitions, speeches, training, etc., through which students’ performance in design and practice can be elevated to a new level. In terms of talent training, different schools have different missions and orientations. For example, Nanjing Tech University focuses on undergraduate training, while Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Tongji University focus more on postgraduate training. Whether you are students or construction practitioners, people of different majors have their own fields of expertise. In the process of cross-disciplinary cooperation, we should communicate and consult more widely, be prudent, and consider things from every angle and in all directions.
List of classic project cases
Xiangji Temple in Hangzhou
Kaiyuan Temple in Liuzhou
Jingci Temple in Hangzhou
Tourist Service Center of Jiuyi Mountain Scenic Spot in Ningyuan County, Yongzhou City, Hunan Province (Honorable Mentions at the 2019 BC WOOD DESIGN AWARDS in Canada)