Bal­anc­ing the world thru ar­chi­tec­ture

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By HUA SHENGDUN in Wash­ing­ton

What is ar­chi­tec­ture? What is beauty? And if not an art ob­ject or a per­son­al­ity cult, what are the pos­si­bil­i­ties?

It took Calvin Tsao 30 years to draft out the an­swer sheet to those three ques­tions, which he and his part­ner Zack McKown listed when they founded their de­sign com­pany Tsao & McKown Ar­chi­tects in New York in 1985.

“Our thirty years have been in search of beauty, a beauty that might be uni­ver­sal in the glob­al­iz­ing world,” Tsao, pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of The Ar­chi­tec­tural League of New York and board mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Academy in Rome, told China Daily in an in­ter­view at the Wil­lard Ho­tel, a 200-year-old luxury Beaux-Arts ho­tel, which he used as an ex­am­ple.

Ev­ery­thing is “shin­ing and lux­u­ri­ous” in­side the ho­tel as a sym­bol of pros­per­ity and ma­te­ri­al­ism, but at the same time, it iso­lated hu­man be­ings from a nat­u­ral state, he said. “Some­thing needs to be changed.”

To Tsao, Shang­hai, the city where his par­ents grew up and fell in love, be­came his first “Dream­Works stu­dio”, where he pack­aged his long-con­ceived ideas into a mind-body well­ness cen­ter, an in­te­grated utopian-like cen­ter to open in March.

Built on a French con­ces­sion in Puxi Dis­trict, Shang­hai, and based on a vin­tage house of the 1950s with a rooftop for grow­ing veg­eta­bles and play­ing Taiji, the Oc­tave Living Room – an ur­ban learn­ing cen­ter for per­sonal growth - aims to break the im­bal­ance of devel­op­ment by hear­ken­ing back to an “an­cient life” of nat­u­ral and in­ner peace from the mod­ern sta­tus quo of hus­tle and bus­tle.

“We hope peo­ple at the cen­ter can com­mu­ni­cate more with peo­ple around them, for ex­am­ple, they can sit to­gether and chat out­side af­ter din­ner like old times,” said Tsao, re­call­ing his first time com­ing back to his moth­er­land China in 1980s when ev­ery­one smiled to ev­ery­one and life was at ease and sim­ple.

Born in Hong Kong in 1952, three years af­ter his whole fam­ily set­tled down from Shang­hai, Tsao, the el­dest son in the fam­ily, was cul­ti­vated with both tra­di­tional Chi­nese and West­ern arts from the be­gin­ning.

“I started learn­ing Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy and vi­o­lin when I was only six,” Tsao said. The house res­onated with mu­sic be­tween Tsao’s vi­o­lin, his sis­ter’s pi­ano play­ing and his mother’s Pek­ing Opera singing. “I found that I was ad­dicted to the arts.”

His mother Zhou Meiqi grew up in a schol­arly fam­ily and grad­u­ated with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion from Saint John’s Uni­ver­sity in Shang­hai, a prom­i­nent school dur­ing the Repub­lic of China era.

A Bud­dhist and ad­vo­cate of tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion, she al­ways backed her son in his de­ci­sion mak­ing, not only in his later ar­chi­tec­ture de­signs but also in his pri­mary choice to study art.

By Chi­nese tra­di­tion, Tsao was orig­i­nally des­tined to fol­low his fam­ily busi­ness of ship­ping. His fa­ther Frank Tsao suc­ceeded in Hong Kong and South East Asia by found­ing and run­ning the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Car­ri­ers Pan Asia Al­liance Group since 1966.

But the fa­ther’s ex­pec­ta­tions that Tsao would pur­sue busi­ness con­flicted with his own de­sire as a young man to be­come an artist. “My fa­ther had to lis­ten to my grand­par­ents, that’s a tra­di­tion. They loved arts and sup­ported me,” said Tsao, who was in­ducted into the In­te­rior De­sign Hall of Fame in 2011.

Im­mi­grat­ing with his fam­ily to Cal­i­for­nia in 1965, Tsao formed his crit­i­cal think­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, a hub of stu­dent ac­tivism and crit­i­cal think­ing in the • MA rch, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity (1978) • BA, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley (1974)

• • • • • • Found­ing Part­ner (with Zack McKown), Tsao & McKown Ar­chi­tects (1985-present) Ar­chi­tect, I.M. Pei & Part­ners (1980-1982) Ar­chi­tect, Richard Meier & Part­ners Ar­chi­tects (1979-1980) The Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica Le­gacy Award, 2012 The In­te­rior De­sign Hall of Fame, 2011 The Cooper-He­witt Smith­so­nian Na­tional De­sign Award for In­te­rior De­sign, 2009 1960s, where he took a wide range of lib­eral arts cour­ses, from so­ci­ol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, and psy­chol­ogy to art, mu­si­col­ogy, and chore­og­ra­phy.

Af­ter gain­ing his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in 1974, Tsao went to Har­vard for a mas­ter’s de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture, where he won the Henry Adam Award for ex­cel­lence in the study of ar­chi­tec­ture. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Tsao met his fu­ture em­ployer Ieoh Ming Pei, known as I.M. Pei, the world-renowned mas­ter of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, who is also Chi­nese.

With knowl­edge of Chi­nese, Greek, and Ro­man ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory gleaned at Har­vard and one year’s work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with Richard Meier, an­other leg­endary ar­chi­tect, Tsao joined I.M. Pei’s de­sign team of five peo­ple for the Fra­grant Hill Ho­tel, the first project by for­eign ar­chi­tects in China, and landed in Bei­jing in 1982.

“It was a dif­fer­ent time when there were only three ho­tels in Bei­jing: Bei­jing Ho­tel, Xi Yuan, and Diaoyu­tai,” he said. “Ev­ery morn­ing you looked out, tens of thou­sands of bi­cy­cles went by on the roads.” He was deeply im­pressed that even though peo­ple had noth­ing, there was an in­cred­i­ble spirit of com­mu­nity and a gen­uine sin­cer­ity.

Since the open­ing up pol­icy in 1979, China has gone through “dra­matic changes”, Tsao, how­ever, found out that the Pan­dora’s box not only brought wealth and pros­per­ity, but also caused pure emo­tions to fade away and made life more com­plex.

A de­sire to “keep the bal­ance and main­tain hu­man iden­tity” in­spired Tsao to found his own de­sign com­pany with his class­mate from Har­vard Zack McKown.

Hav­ing al­ways “been in­ter­ested in the hu­man con­di­tion as the ba­sis for ar­chi­tect de­sign”, McKown said, the com­pany cov­ered about 70 projects, with the “widest con­ceiv­able range of project types and scales” from North Amer­ica to Europe and Asia, from Sun­tec City — a 6 mil­lion square-foot mixed-use com­plex dubbed the “Rock­e­feller Cen­ter of Sin­ga­pore” — to the de­sign of a lip­stick case for Ja­panese cos­met­ics gi­ant Shu Ue­mura.

The com­pany made its China de­but in 1985 with the de­sign of a high-rise res­i­den­tial build­ing in Shang­hai, and then went on to Dalian, Qing­dao, and Chengdu.

In 2006, the firm fin­ished con­struc­tion of the Jianfu Palace Mu­seum in the For­bid­den City in Bei­jing. Jianfu Gar­den, which was made of wood in 1749 as a place for recre­ation and en­ter­tain­ment, was ru­ined by fire in 1923, its restora­tion shelved for 80 years.

The palace, which won the Best of Year prize from In­te­rior De­sign mag­a­zine, now serves as both a re­cep­tion cen­ter for vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries and mu­seum of Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture with ex­hibit space for ar­ti­facts, pho­tos, and draw­ings.

In the firm’s re­cent work in Qing­dao Agora in 2012, Tsao de­signed an of­fice build­ing in the form of tra­di­tional Chi­nese scholar’s rocks, small nat­u­ral­ly­oc­cur­ring gar­den rocks fa­vored by Chi­nese schol­ars since an­cient times.

“The spe­cific shapes of the stones are said to evoke is­lands off the coast of Shan­dong Prov­ince, and are of­ten pre­sented on an in­tri­cately carved base,” Tsao said on the pro­gram’s port­fo­lio.

He said the use of Chi­nese rocks in­spired the estab­lish­ment of “a po­etic and spe­cific con­nec­tion with the nat­u­ral his­tory and cul­ture of the lo­cal re­gion”.

To Tsao, build­ings pro­vide en­vi­ron­ments and in­flu­ence the way peo­ple live, and the mission to “de­sign the right kind of build­ing to use is im­por­tant”, and the se­crets lies in both the hard­ware of con­struc­tion and soft­ware op­er­a­tions of how to use the build­ings and in­still cul­tural and spir­i­tual val­ues.

A mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee of 100, a US-based non-profit Chi­nese- Amer­i­can group pro­mot­ing China-US re­la­tions ini­ti­ated by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and I.M. Pei, Tsao has also stayed de­voted to his moth­er­land.

Af­ter the 2008 Sichuan earth­quake, Tsao at­tended the Com­mit­tee of 100 meet­ing for the dis­as­ter re­lief and, with McKown, helped con­ceive a de­sign for 13.6 mil­lion square feet of build­ing on 240-acres in Chengdu-Xiqu.

A self-pro­claimed global cit­i­zen, Tsao flies be­tween Asia and Amer­ica ev­ery few weeks to both care for his projects and visit his fa­ther and fam­ily mem­bers.

At the 2008 Pres­i­dent’s Medal cer­e­mony by The Ar­chi­tec­tural League of New York, Tsao, then pres­i­dent, re­marked that ar­chi­tec­ture is “the most public of the arts” and “not just about aes­thetics nor ex­cite­ment for the new”, but about “zon­ing laws and build­ing reg­u­la­tions and city plan­ners” and “re­spect for the best of the old”. And ul­ti­mately, it is “about val­ues”. Sheng Yang in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this story.


Calvin Tsao is the found­ing part­ner of Tsao & McKown Ar­chi­tects and pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of The Ar­chi­tec­tural League of New York.


Oc­tave Living Room, Shang­hai, China, 2015.

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