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Architecture's new head sees MIT 'treasure'

Yung Ho Chang
Yung Ho Chang
Photo / Donna Coveney

Yung Ho Chang, one of China's most accomplished contemporary architects and the founding head of the Graduate Center of Architecture at Peking University, has been appointed head of MIT's Department of Architecture.

Chang, 49, replaces Stanford Anderson, professor of history and architecture, who served as head of the Department of Architecture from 1991 through 2004.

For Chang, whose appointment was effective on July 1, coming to MIT is like opening a "treasure of knowledge and ideas, and I'm dying to learn what's inside there. MIT has offered an excellent opportunity to reflect, learn and debate new possibilities and directions in architecture," he said.

Chang was also a founding partner, with his wife Lijia Lu, of Atelier Feichang Jianzhu (FCJZ) in Beijing in 1993. Translated as "unusual architecture," FCJZ was the Chinese capital's first independent architectural firm, with completed projects including private residences, large- and small-scale museums, government buildings and installations at the Venice Biennale and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

In an interview, Chang credited an eclectic group of artists, writers and architects with inspiring his innovative approach to built space. "I am strongly influenced by the art of Marcel Duchamp, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Flann O'Brien and Alain Robbe-Grillet," he said.

Split House, completed in 2002, is Chang's best-known work and an embodiment of his vision of balancing contemporary and traditional elements in what he hopes will develop as a new Chinese architecture.

A luxurious private residence, one of a dozen homes at the Commune by the Great Wall, Split House is a single volume cut in two with a courtyard in between the halves. An urban prototype structure transplanted to the countryside, it hugs the landscape but stands apart, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. The internal spaces -- loft-like rooms and high glass walls -- reflect European influences, while the primary building material is rammed earth, an ancient cousin of adobe, in which soil with a high clay content is literally pounded and compacted into hard, durable blocks, like concrete.

By using local material available on site -- excavated "rammed" soil from other construction sites - the construction minimizes the environmental impact and also pays respect to the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.

As for using rammed earth -- or any sustainable building practices -- in the surge of Chinese construction, Chang cautioned, "China has not yet found its own approach to pursue sustainability in practice. Some of the more typical measures, as seen in Europe, would drive up construction costs prohibitively."

Chang, a native of Beijing, attended the Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeastern University) from 1978 to 1981. He received the B.S. in environmental design from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and the M.Arch. from the University of California at Berkeley.

He has taught at the University of Michigan, Berkeley, Harvard, Rice and Tongji University in Shanghai; in 2002 he held the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard, and in 2004 the Eliel Saarinen Chair at Michigan.

Chang will continue to maintain his practice in Beijing while teaching at MIT.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 14, 2005 (download PDF).

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