Italian architect Stefano Boeri is the mind behind a model for sustainable buildings.

His project of metropolitan reforestation aims to regenerate the environment and the urban biodiversity without expanding the city upon the territory. Protecting and increasing permeable and green surfaces is the solution for those cities that are responsible for climate change problems.

Boeri is pushing the architecture to a whole new level in China.

Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti

Official site | Facebook

This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 03 issue

China-Underground: When and how did you start your work experience in China?

Stefano-Boeri-architect
Stefano Boeri

Architect Stefano Boeri: It began in 2012 when we opened our studio in Shanghai and we started to have a series of very important opportunities in China. In the beginning, it was mainly consultancy, and we were occasionally present. I’ve been to China many times.

The first time happened when I was a young boy in 1979, with my mother, who had been invited by the Italian Ambassador to China.

Then I came back to China, many times and I also organized a series of cultural events. My real business has started with the opening of the studio in Shanghai, in 2012, when we incorporated our Chinese company, which manages the studio and our business in Shanghai.

C-U: How many projects have you already completed in China and how many are ongoing?

S B: Many, around twenty. We won the restructuring of the Stock Exchange Bank, the Shanghai Stock Exchange. We finished this project three years ago. Our studio is inside the Shanghai Stock Exchange building. We finished a major project in Beijing, the Sino Italy Design Center. We have completed another project for a cultural space related to design in Shanghai.

We are under construction at Pudong airport, in Nanjing on the Vertical Forest project and on a fashion school in Shanghai. We are starting construction in Xi’An and Lishui. We have a project for a large housing development area in Chang Chung.

We are starting to work on the project for a large hotel in Shanghai. We have a project in Qingdao and another one in Chongqing. We have many, many projects right now. Many, at the moment, are already in construction and functional phase.

C-U: What are the main differences between working in China, compared to other countries?

S B: I find myself very well in China. In some ways, I like the speed and the density of work. Working in China obviously means accepting a particular way of interacting with the client, but this happens in every country where we work. We are working a lot in Europe. We worked in the Arab countries and also in South America.

We learned to adapt ourselves to the decisional context, to the way in which the project construction is directed. Political issues, consensus issues, relationship with public-private, are all important topics that an architect must know well. China is very unique, but when you accept some rules and some ways of working, you can work very well. We are satisfied with the way we work in China.

We have a rather large studio, which handles the works very well. Moreover, we also have the habit of discussing the work we do in China, even here, in the Milan studio. So sometimes we analyze Italians projects in China and Chinese projects in Italy.

C-U: What is the most challenging project you are doing in China?

S B: The restructuring of the Shanghai Stock Exchange was a great challenge, for sure, also because this project started in 2012. At the time, it was the first major project in China. There is no great tradition in the recovery of historical buildings in China.

So even at the beginning of the work, we were aware that we were doing something new. I am also thinking of the Vertical Forest of Nanjing, which is now underway while the two towers are climbing up.

According to Times, this project is one of the 10 most important and beautiful projects of 2018. It will indeed be an important project because it’s a building with all facades completely covered with green plants and trees. In China, it’s a big challenge.

Even at the beginning, naturally, as happened in Milan and in other places in the world, where we are designing Vertical Forests, it turns out to be a project that, from a certain point of view, moves the imagination and the imaginary and responds to many real needs but at the same time, however, it frightens.

It’s a new thing, something that creates skepticism and so we had many discussion in Nanjing, two or three years ago. A certain amount of time has passed before being sure to do it.

C-U: Do you think the Forest Revolution and the Urban Forestry are the future of housing and part of the solution to improve the quality of health and life in cities like Chinese metropolis that are facing severe pollution issues?

S B: Yes, it’s one of the solutions, but not the only one. We have begun to deal with these issues in Nanjing and as well in Shijiazhuang, which is an industrial city, within a large megalopolis involving Beijing and one hundred million people.

This highly polluted industrial city asked us to imagine an alternative model of growth.

Shijiazhuang-Forest-City
The Forest City in Shijiazhuang will be a new city for 100,000 inhabitants. A city of a new generation, capable of becoming a model of sustainable growth in a large country seeing, each year, 14 million farmers migrating to the cities.

Naturally, in China, the urbanization is an unavoidable problem, because every year there are millions of Chinese who leave the countryside, they arrive in the city and this means that they are going to build new pieces of cities.

We tried to propose, instead of building additions to existing cities, to imagine a model of small, totally green cities surrounded by high-density green: Vertical Cities. The reason was that from the quantitative point of view, we can offer a similar solution for the service spaces and residences, but from the qualitative point of view, this model is much more efficient and great in quality, and above all, it contributes to reducing pollution instead of creating it.

Liuzhou-Forest-city
Liuzhou Forest City will have all the characteristics of an energy self-sufficient urban establishment: geothermal energy for interior air-conditioning and solar panels over the roofs for collecting renewable energy. The new green city will host in total 40,000 trees and almost 1 million plants of over 100 species.

From there we were called by the administration of Lizhou to implement a project about a City Forest, which we presented and which was then approved. Now we are working on Lishui, which is another city near Xi’An, to carry out a similar project: this idea of building green neighborhoods and forests is becoming a theme.

Of course, it’s not the only way to solve the air pollution and CO2 production, but it’s one of the most effective. At the same time, we are working with Slow Food China, set up in October 2017, to intervene in the farming villages. Try to show that is possible, with a minute and sustainable interventions, to make sure that these villages become more active and more solid in their agricultural production capacity.

If we could prove that the farming villages system becomes a vital, fertile and active place, we could give a very important signal, not only in China. Obviously, in China, everything is much more important because the numbers are extraordinary. I am very passionate about Slow Food China project.

C-U: What are the most frequent questions asked by Chinese clients?

S B: It depends a lot on the type of project if it’s about building a residential project, rather than a commercial, cultural or infrastructural one.

For example, in Macao we are planning a Highline for a totally green cycle route that runs alongside the railway line, which we are also redesigning, revising all the stations. In this case, we were asked to think of an infrastructure that was not just a bicycle route but also had other functions. We are also building, with the Highline a recycling system. We built a system for water collection.

In this case, we tried to give an answer that was not simply about green, but also an answer useful to satisfy other questions that are very important in a city like Macao.

Another example is Xi’An where we designed an entire neighborhood near the Da Ming Palace park, Xi’An’s most important archaeological site. There we tried to build a functional mix. This isn’t so easy to implement in China: a system of residences where there is a commercial area that offers space for businesses and for crafts. We are still discussing this project with the client.

We care about it because the buildings are close to this large archaeological area, where there is a mix situation, which is a bit of the reality that is found when visiting the old Chinese villages.

Who knows China well, experienced that in many centers the theme of the courts having craft spaces, areas dedicated to ceremonies, and residential spaces, is extraordinary because it serves as a unitary organism connecting together very different activities. This is what I would like to try to reproduce in the context of the Chinese countrysides.

C-U: Do your iconic buildings and projects in China include elements of feng shui?

S B: Yes, we care about it in a quiet way, it’s not an obsession. We start from the project, from the customer’s questions, from the aesthetic quality we want to do, then we also considering feng shui, but we do it because we know that it’s an important issue and it’s a question that very often customers ask to respect, not always, but we take it into consideration anyway.

Certainly considering the orientation of the building is an important thing, because it includes the inhabited spaces, also the themes related to the icon and the shape of the project are addressed. Feng shui is interpreted in a very different way.

They aren’t strict rules anyway. These rules change and must be interpreted according to the situation. So it’s like opening a parallel conversation with the client or with the administration.

When a project is presented, a parallel channel of negotiations regarding the “feng shui” is opened. However, it shouldn’t be understood as a law but rather as a parallel channel of communication.

C-U: What are the new features presented in the Trudo Vertical Forest in Eindhoven?

S B: Every time we try to build different Vertical Forests. In Paris we are starting with a new project of Bosco Verticale, a 54-meter-high tower with all-wood structures.

While in Eindhoven we are working on an innovative social housing project, whose construction cost will be under 1300 euros per square meter.

Trudo-Vertical-Forest-of-Eindhoven
Trudo-Vertical-Forest-of-Eindhoven

In Netherland, it’s a cost that makes it possible for this building to be rented at a very low price, especially for young couples. So it’s a great success for me to be able to do a Vertical Forest – Social Housing in Europe.

It proves that we can have the quality we achieved in the Vertical Forest of Milan, which is a project that is aimed instead at wealthy families, which it cost a lot because it was the first project. It was the prototype and so we had to spend a lot on materials research, on typologies, on structures. In some sense, we couldn’t follow that way.

During these years we worked in China, and even here in Italy to try to show that the same kind of quality, the biological and plant presence, we have in Milan can be found in buildings that are cheap, that are addressed to people who have few resources.

It’s clear that when we can demonstrate that forestation isn’t simply just an environmental issue, but a theme that also solves the conditions of poverty, of housing problems, we would have taken a fundamental step in the right direction.

It’s clear that when we can demonstrate that forestation isn’t simply just an environmental issue, but a theme that also solves the conditions of poverty, of housing problems, we would have taken a fundamental step in the right direction.

This is very important to me. We are truly working on this. So Eindhoven is very important.

C-U: Do you think it is possible to export a similar project of social housing, in Chinese society, which has a varied social level?

S B: Absolutely yes. We are doing it in China, in Lishui, in Lizhou, these are projects of whole sites having buildings with all exteriors with trees and green vegetation. So it’s not just about luxury residential towers but schools, hospitals, social security spaces.

Certainly, it’s possible and indeed in China, in some ways, it can also be less expensive, in some cases make these buildings. Naturally, there is a climate of innovation, from every point of view.

In some cases, the structures used can be reinforced concrete. In other cases, can be used the wood, which has a historical tradition for social housing building. In other cases it is possible to use a mixed structure of steel and concrete or even wood and steel, there are a series of variations that must be studied well to reduce the cost.

Images courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architetti

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