The Icon 20/20 Architects: Zhang Lei 01.05.09

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Design for a house in Nanjing

Like many Chinese architects of his generation who have studied overseas, Zhang Lei is eager to transcend the boundaries of both Chinese and foreign design. But with the big picture has come a particular concern with the tiniest of details. Chalk it up to a year at architectural finishing school in Switzerland. "There, you make a building like you make a watch," he says. "That's very important for me." After graduating from the ETH in Zurich, Zhang returned to teach in Hong Kong and his hometown of Nanjing, where he established Atelier Zhang Lei in 2000. Bringing his precise rationalism and interest in craftsmanship to bear on China's quick-and-dirty construction practices, Zhang has turned out a series of delicate, poetic houses. The Slit House, sliced down the side by a zigzag slot of glass, and his courtyard houses in Gaochun, with their surprisingly textured brick facades, are thoughtful reworkings of tradition. In a new house rising above the trees along the Yangtze river near Nanjing, Zhang trades traditional style for sculptural abstraction: a stack of concrete boxes features sensuous openings that suggest wood knots. The placid, sturdy designs reflect an indifference to sensation and a love of process - one he is starting to take to larger projects. "A lot of architecture here is only about interesting pictures," he says. "But good materials and construction, basically that's what I want to achieve in China."




Adam Laycock



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