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Chang describes building blocks of his career

Yung Ho Chang, the new head of MIT's Department of Architecture, founded both the Graduate Center of Architecture at Beijing University and a versatile contemporary design firm in Beijing, Atelier FCJZ (which stands for feichang jianzhu, "unusual architecture"). FCJZ is China's first independent architectural firm, and its completed projects include homes, museums and government buildings.

Chang, 49, is known through FCJZ projects and through his teaching as an architect who seeks to combine traditional Chinese forms and materials, such as the courtyard house and "rammed earth" walls, with evolving modern and global practices.

In an e-mail interview, Chang discussed his early experiences with built space and his development as a designer, linking the young boy who played with wooden blocks to the seasoned architect and educator eager to work with his MIT students.

Q: What was your early experience of the built environment?

A: I was born and grew up in the traditional neighborhoods of Beijing. My family lived in a Siheyuan or courtyard house in a Hutong or alleyway, like most people in Beijing did in the 1950s and '60s. My grandparents lived in a courtyard house built with wood frame and gray clay bricks, and the elementary school I went to was also a courtyard building. We now live in a 1960 apartment block on the campus of Peking University.

Q: What was beautiful to you then?

A: Since I did not have the opportunity to visit other places until I was 15, the experience of beauty of my early years was all in Beijing -- its architecture, such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, its landscape, especially the surrounding mountains, and its arts. Peking Opera was an experience of beauty for me.

Q: What buildings or architects excite you now?

A: Now I travel a lot, perhaps too much, and have seen a lot of magnificent built environments. I found beauty in architecture outside China in the Alhambra, the 14th century Islamic palace in Granada, Spain, and Cranbrook, the arts and crafts-style educational community outside of Detroit. A big fan of Mies van der Rohe's work, I was very much moved by his German Pavilion in Barcelona, Spain.

I am also drawn to the buildings of the late Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka and to those of Massimo Carmassi of Italy.

Q: Who inspired you to study architecture?

A: My father, now 93, is an architect. He suggested to me that I study architecture since my drawing skill was not good enough to apply for art school. Today, when I begin a project, I draw on paper.

Q: What other art or media influence your design process?

A: Everything or almost everything. I am strongly influenced by the artwork of Marcel Duchamp and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In literature, my favorite authors are the Irish novelist Flann O'Brian and Alain Robbe-Grillet of France.

Q: How have changes in China's economy affected architects and designers there?

A: The ongoing economic boom and the vast and fast urbanization it has triggered present opportunities for architects. These are not only in the making of buildings and towns, but also in the making of contribution to the definition of a contemporary Chinese culture.

Q: Is China facing a surge of "McMansions" -- a housing bubble as in the United States?

A: The surge is already here.

Q: Do sustainable building practices go along with the building boom?

A: China has not yet found its own approach to pursue sustainability since some of the typical measures, as seen in Europe, would drive up construction costs prohibitively.

Q: What about in your own work -- did sustainability figure in your design for the Split House?

A: Only in a conceptual way. The Split House was built with earth and wood so that once the building is no longer needed it would not be too hard to demolish, unlike concrete, and much of the building material can disintegrate.

Q: What were some turning points in your career?

A: All the major turning points in my career have something to do with the crossing of the Pacific. Coming to America in 1981 was one, and going back to China to practice in 1993 was another. Now, coming to MIT will certainly be the latest.

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