"When different designers arrive in different locations, cities, with different historical and cultural backgrounds, and different people's lifestyles, the designs that emerge should be distinct. So, originality exists and is not dead."
Weitao Li is an individual designer working on Masterplan, Architecture Design, and Interior Design. Weitao was in charge of aLL Design’s China office till July 2017. Weitao completed his BArch at CAFA in 2010 and MArch at Bartlett in 2011. He has diverse work experience in Beijing, London and Chongqing. He is familiar with different ways of doing design both in the UK and in China. Weitao worked with world-class master architect Prof.Will Alsop from 2013 to 2017 and has been involved in a huge range of projects including mixed-use complex, high-rise residential towers, master planning works, interior design works, design hotels, and is mostly famous for the Testbed2 project.
Apart from his architectural work, Weitao also does lots of fine art works in his spare time. His artwork SEEDS RV has been selected in the 2013 RA Summer Exhibition, and TERRITORIES BEYOND THE DURES are selected in Beyond Architecture international exhibition, etc. He also gives crits at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Chongqing University, RIBA workshop, etc.
Keyi Zhang: First of all, on behalf of KeyElements Studio, congratulations to project "Joybo Farm (江小白——一亩三分地)” for being shortlisted in the World Architecture Festival! "Joybo Farm" is the only project from Chongqing shortlisted in WAF this year and represents the collision between the rural and a young Baijiu (white liquor) brand. In your project's concept, you mentioned the idea of "A Country Club to Release Nature." Could you please elaborate on how you used design to encourage the clients of "Joybo Farm", primarily urban and fashionable individuals, to reconnect with nature and release their inner selves?
Joybo Farm (江小白·一亩三分地）
Weitao Li: That's a great question. The idea was originally based on a few key points. Firstly, "Joybo Farm" is a young and fashionable brand with a primarily youthful audience. They also host a lot of cultural events like hip-hop, street dance, graffiti, and more, which are quite trendy activities. When such a young brand goes to the countryside, it should bring something different, a different customer base – that's the first point. The second point is from the rural perspective. Many people have asked me this question recently about rural architectural design or rural revitalization. When we talk about rural projects, it's easy for our minds to conjure up a stereotypical image – wooden structures, rammed earth walls, tiles, and bricks. This is the nostalgia we associate with the countryside, the kind of memories we have when we visited the countryside as children or when our friends grew up in rural areas. However, is this what the countryside should be? Does the countryside want to develop and change? Do the villagers want to transform themselves? Why did so many people leave the countryside and move to the cities over the years? Weren't they seeking a more modern, fashionable life? Does the countryside really want to remain in the nostalgic memories of decades ago? Perhaps not. So when discussing this concept, I traveled to Europe right after signing this project. Many people might ask, "Shouldn't you be working after signing the contract?" No, I needed to free my spirit first. I traveled extensively in Europe, and on the train, I began sketching this project. Looking at the European countryside and drawing my own sketches, I pondered a question: Do I like this countryside? Yes. Is it the same as the "nostalgia" we have in our minds? No. So why would I like a countryside that is different from my impression and memory? This is actually a question. Many people travel to other countries, see clean and modern countryside, and they like it. People don't reject a countryside because it's not old, dirty, or messy; they appreciate it. So, can't our countryside also be modern and fashionable without being old, dirty, or messy? Does our countryside have a new possibility? So, "releasing nature" refers to the state people experience when they come to the countryside. I had to release my own spirit first while traveling and having fun. During this process, I thought about what people should do when they return to the countryside. The common phenomenon is that people come to the countryside and continue playing mahjong or using their smartphones for mobile gaming. Life doesn't change once they arrive. The living environment, such as rural guesthouses, is not bad, but it still resembles the lifestyle of decades ago. You can only sit down to play with your phone, play mahjong, eat, sleep, and enjoy the scenery. Now, the things we do in the city every day, the same things you do when you arrive in the countryside, should people really just play with their phones and mahjong in the countryside? Shouldn't people truly enter the countryside, return to the land, the soil, the fields, the mountains, and the rivers, rather than playing with smartphones and mahjong when they arrive in the countryside? So, we were very committed to bringing people from indoors to outdoors. From the moment they entered the countryside, their auditory, visual, and tactile senses were no longer confined to a building. Why did we create many public spaces, mezzanine levels, semi-outdoor spaces, skylights, etc.? It was all about bringing sunlight, wind, and even water into the interior. Last time I visited an art gallery, it was raining, and I heard the sound of water dripping into a channel on both sides of the hall because the indoor and outdoor spaces were connected. It was a big hall with echoes, and hearing the sound of dripping water was very soothing. From the visual, auditory, and tactile aspects, people in the interior could feel the outdoors; in fact, they were outdoors. Many activities took place on mezzanine levels, in corridors, on balconies, and not just inside closed rooms. People could constantly feel the changes in outdoor weather, sunshine, wind, rain, and these natural elements from the moment they entered the countryside. Thus, we brought people outdoors, to the riverside, the sorghum fields, and places where they could truly "release their nature."
Joybo Farm (江小白·一亩三分地）
TESTBED2 (Before & After)
Keyi Zhang: As one of Chongqing's early Internet-famous landmarks and the location of your studio, the “Testbed 2 (鹅岭二厂)” is a unique place. Can you share more about the design process and your approach to it? Why are there more and more Internet-famous landmarks in Chongqing, but “Testbed 2” isn't an easily replicable success?
Weitao Li: That's also a great question. The Testbed 2’s success is actually attributed to many people's efforts. As you mentioned earlier, it has performed well in various aspects, which shows that it's not something that one person can achieve. The “Testbed 2” project was from 2014, and at that time, I was working at Will Alsop's aLL Design and participated as the project leader for Chongqing. At that time, I worked with this British master and executed the project based on his concepts, from design to execution. In terms of design, engineering, investment, commercial operation, cultural content operation, government support, media, and movie promotion, as well as the quality of each merchant, all of these played crucial roles in this project. So, the design provides a good foundation, and good engineering allows the design to come to fruition. The financial strength of the investor, government support, merchant selection, creative content, taste pursuit, and ongoing activities and exhibitions, content integration, and property management are all essential factors. Therefore, the “Testbed 2” is the result of the hard work of many people. In this project, I was only responsible for the project's design aspect. From the perspective of design, achieving something like the “Testbed 2” requires several important points:
The first is the core principle introduced by Mr. Alsop at that time, called "rough luxury." Rough luxury means, first and foremost, allowing people to enjoy the current lifestyle in an atmosphere with a sense of history. Many people simplify this as a contrast between old and new, but that's not accurate. It's not about placing new things in an old space to achieve rough luxury. It's about presenting a lifestyle where you can see history, but you're enjoying contemporary things – it's the first layer of meaning. The second layer is a state of mind. When people are in a somewhat rough, less refined, or less exquisite environment, their state of mind is relaxed. When you enter a highly refined space, you may feel restrained and not know how to behave, thinking that every action and gesture must be dignified. But in a somewhat rough space, you don't need to be that way; your mental state is relaxed, and this relaxation is a form of luxury. True luxury is a state of being free and relaxed, not necessarily a splendid environment. So, "rough luxury" is the first principle and attitude in design.
Weitao Li: The second point is about originality. This is something we insist on in all our designs. It's not about copying what's done in 798 or Testbed 1 and then doing the same. Each design should be unique and one of a kind. It shouldn't be something you can find in any other converted factory space in the world. It's not about copying something or borrowing from somewhere else. When different designers arrive in different locations, cities, with different historical and cultural backgrounds, and different people's lifestyles, the designs that emerge should be distinct. So, originality exists and is not dead. There are many original elements in the “Testbed 2” that you won't find elsewhere, but they are very sensory, highly personalized, and rooted in the historical context of the printing factory. Many designs have stories related to printing behind them, presented and told in a more contemporary and subtle manner. So, the second thing is that originality is essential.
The third is about the meaning and spirit of "Testbed." This is a very important aspect. "Testbed" is essentially about gathering people with ideas, creativity, and vitality in the city to experiment and try things out together. In this experimental process, there's always the possibility of failure. So, a crucial attitude here is that "failure is allowed." We encourage young people with ideas to boldly present their ideas and their work, to exchange ideas, to criticize, and to explore together, rather than hiding and being afraid to showcase their ideas due to fear of failure. Therefore, Testbed serves as an energy field to gather people in the city who have ideas, creativity, and energy. This is also an important original intention and starting point.
With the background of the above points, the project that was born is truly unique from the ground up. In the later stages of operation, investment, the selection of merchants, the bold presentation of merchant ideas, adhering to the concept during operation, is different from simply introducing a few artists into a park. So, it can't be easily replicated.
Concept Drawing - Joybo Farm
Keyi Zhang: The last time we talked by chance, you mentioned the yoga studio you're currently designing and how the architecture itself serves as a medium to express concepts like male and female, yin and yang. Could you share more about the architectural concept and what makes it different from simply "telling a story"?
Weitao Li: This is a very important question, and the difference between a concept and a story is significant. In simple terms, the concept comes first, and the story comes later. In my view, the concept is the starting point of a project. It's like a seed that determines what a project will ultimately grow into. The story is what emerges first, and then, based on what it looks like, we tell people what it might be. So, they are entirely different things. The concept runs throughout and can determine many aspects. When you're faced with choices, such as whether a form should be circular or square, red or yellow, the reason for choosing a specific form is determined by your concept. Without this concept, we (designers) would be clueless. For instance, as you mentioned earlier, the yoga studio has countless variations worldwide, and all of them look different. If I were to choose from them, I wouldn't be able to. What the final design looks like, its spatial prototype, compositional logic, circulation, functional layout, material selection, form, and lighting, it all falls under the framework determined by the concept. But without this concept, you would merely be moving things around—putting something here, something there, and assembling them into something that would essentially be a "Frankenstein's monster." If you then attach a story to this "Frankenstein's monster," it won't hold up because many elements inside it won't make sense. Every detail needs to be related to the concept, and you should be able to explain why a particular material was chosen because it corresponds to a point in your concept. On the other hand, a story doesn't fit everywhere; it lacks logical thinking. Therefore, the concept and the story are entirely different things.
Drawings by Weitao Li
Keyi Zhang: What is the relationship between architecture drawing and architecture? Is architectural drawing an independent form of art separate from realized architectural design?
Weitao Li: I believe it is! I'll answer the second part first: I believe it is! We are trying to do something in that direction. I'm still thinking and researching how to treat architectural drawing as something independent of architecture. However, I haven't figured out how to do it yet, or we are in the process of trying to figure it out. But I genuinely believe that architectural drawing and architecture are different. At the same time, it is also different from artistic drawing. Architectural drawing has a unique way of thinking and a methodological system for drawing, and what it wants to express and its thought model are very interesting. Moreover, they are different from architecture and art. It is something that exists between the two or, one could say, independently of the two. This is a very interesting thing. Architecture Drawing can actually play a very important role in the process of architectural design. Drawing itself is a very sensory thing, and in this process, the rapid subconscious reactions of the brain will unconsciously manifest through your hand. This feeling cannot be controlled by subjective consciousness. When we use Computer Drawing or 3D Modeling, it is a very rational way of thinking, where you are controlling your actions with your subjective consciousness, and subconsciousness hardly plays any role. However, when you draw by hand, that state is different. This is the first point, and of course, the explanation above is more inclined towards Sketching.
Drawings by Weitao Li
Weitao Li: When creating an expressive drawing, there are many ways and methods, such as the one Perry Kulper often uses and the one we also like, Tracing Paper. Why do architects use Tracing Paper? This method is used less and less now. The role of Tracing Paper, besides making it convenient for you to make changes and trace drawings, is more about overlaying and optimizing information. There is a base drawing, and on top of it, you use Tracing Paper, which is actually doing a second round of information processing on the basis of existing information. In this process, information overlay, filtering, and deletion are all processes that you do not have in CAD or computer models. In a computer, when you delete something, it's gone, and you can't see what was deleted. When you add something new, it's added, and you can't see what wasn't there before. The role of Tracing Paper is to help you see this relationship: what was there in the previous round that is not there in this round, and what is there in this round that was not there in the previous round. You can see this process of evolution, and this process is very important for architects to understand the project and grasp the design. The drawing process itself can bring a lot of inspiration and ideas or starting points, like, "Hey, actually, this thing from before can still work," so I'll bring it back. But in the current workflow used by most people in the industry, there is no such process. If you lose something, it's gone forever, and you can't retrieve it. Drawing itself can help architects think about problems along a timeline. Many times, our thinking is momentary, not thinking along a timeline, and our thoughts are not as three-dimensional as they used to be. So, drawing can make a person's thinking more three-dimensional, which is a very good tool. In the design process, I think it can at least serve this purpose.
Another function is that, as I just mentioned, it exists independently of architecture and can be a very good way to express your design concepts, your understanding of space, your thoughts on the prototype of the project, and some more emotional and abstract intentions and atmospheres. It can be a very good way to convey certain ideas and thoughts that an architect wants to convey. Perhaps in some ways, its transmission can be more direct than the space itself. Perhaps, in the process of transmission, it can allow its readers and audience to imagine more, and it can make others have a better understanding of the space. Because a house or a building, when it is completed, it solidifies, while a drawing itself does not solidify. A drawing can stimulate people's imagination. So, a drawing, even for a project, can make people think differently about the project: this project may still look like something else? Maybe in another universe, it can be something else? Through a drawing, a design becomes richer and more three-dimensional. It is full of imagination and possibilities.
Dongcun City Terrace
Keyi Zhang: Can you share your study experience at UCL London with us? Were there any memorable mentors or events during your time there? What changes did UCL bring to you?
Weitao Li: Yes, it was very important and brought about significant changes. I had a Taiwanese classmate, seven years older than me, who was considered quite senior at the time. He gave me a lot of stimulation. Our two groups often had classes together. I was used to teachers assigning homework, and my learning mode was always to rush through the drawings at the last minute. My classmate and I both started working on our drawings just before seeing our tutors, and once we saw our tutors, we relaxed. One time, I was quite impressed because I finally gave a good presentation, and I was so happy that I was planning to celebrate with my classmate by going for hotpot. However, when I turned around and saw my Taiwanese classmate, he was doing something similar to me - working on drawings and sketches in the classroom even after seeing the tutor, and he had no plans to celebrate or relax over the weekend. I was curious and asked him if he wanted to have dinner together since we had just seen our tutors. He replied, "I need to continue working. Is seeing the tutor really that important? I didn't come here for him." At that time, I found this quite tough. Later, he told me that he came here to learn and that seeing the tutor was just a small part of it. His influence helped me establish my proactiveness during my time at UCL.
Dongcun City Terrace
Weitao Li: Before, I used to think that I could do well without working too hard, but in a place like UCL, where there were many talented students, I realized that even "working hard" wasn't enough. I needed to have strategies. I couldn't compete with my foreign classmates in software, programming, modeling, animation, rendering, etc. But I had an advantage in hand drawing because I had been practicing sketching for many years. At that time, I realized that, when compared to these classmates, I needed to bring out my strongest skills because I had them. So, I decided to focus on hand drawing.
During my time at UCL, my classmates were a great source of inspiration. Of course, the teachers were also excellent. My tutor SHAUN is still in contact with me, and I often share our current projects with him. He was very strict (although he was considered quite gentle at UCL), but in my eyes, he was still very demanding. In the first class, he said, "this is rubbish" while pointing at my sketch. I was quite shocked at first, coming from China. Chinese teachers would never say something like that. Over time, I found that our ideas actually matched quite well. One time, he said, "you should do something to the planet." At that moment, I thought the scope was so broad and that this was something I would be interested in. He's a good mentor because he didn't tell us how to do things; he encouraged us to explore, make mistakes, and try new things on our own. This education not only changed the design of our projects but also our ways, methods, habits, and attitudes toward doing design. That's very important.
Li Xuerui National Fitness Center
Keyi Zhang: Regarding the architecture industry in China or in Chongqing specifically, do you think the power of space can address social issues? What unique qualities or changes does Studio WE LIVE want to bring to the architecture industry?
Weitao Li: That's a very broad question. I've worked in foreign and local companies in London and Chongqing. I haven't worked in state-owned enterprises, but I have worked in private enterprises and, later, started my own studio. Maybe I don't understand state-owned enterprises well, but foreign and private companies, including our current working method, are indeed quite different. First, it's about personal preference—what kind of working environment you prefer. It's not about which is right or wrong; it's a matter of personal choice. I chose an environment that is design-oriented, and the way we work is more focused on design. We might not even consider what time to start or finish work, whether there's overtime or work on weekends; we are more focused on how to do the design and do it well. Work hours might be less important for us. For example, in terms of time management and the goal or purpose of design, we might put design as a higher priority. Perhaps we will choose projects that have a higher proportion of design value, so it aligns with my original intention of entering the design industry and doesn't treat design as just a tool to achieve other objectives.
South Mountain Gutenberg Star Han Bookstore
Keyi Zhang: As a small team studio, Studio WE LIVE mainly focuses on commissioned projects, and you are deeply involved in every project from concept to realization, controlling the details. The future must be even better. But we all know that the design environment in China and overseas is very different. What was the most challenging moment in the process of starting a business in Chongqing? Given the impact on downstream real estate and the three-year-long pandemic, do you think the architectural design industry will still face significant challenges in the short term? In the Chongqing architectural community, many people have heard rumors that you are a "second-generation rich," only taking on projects you want, and each project has a long design period. Do you have any response to this?
Weitao Li: Not just in the past two years, but every year has been very challenging. As for the "second-generation rich" label, I really don't know where it came from... We might appear this way to others—able to produce work, maintain a team, work slowly, and be selective about projects—indeed, it might seem like only someone from a wealthy background can do this. While I personally don't understand it, it seems to make sense to others. It's true; we've balanced the company's economic income with the quality of the work we present. At the very least, within our controllable range, we aim for every project to be something we can confidently show to others. I think this is our bottom line; it's called "duty," which means responsibility. This has always been important for architects, a bottom line. A project you design should be user-friendly, or the actual space should match your renderings closely. At least, you shouldn't be unwilling to talk about it later, although it may not necessarily be problematic. Many times, architects are helpless and can't do much about it. But within the scope of our abilities, we try to make this happen because a space designed for people should be usable, and if you can only show photos and do Photoshop to present it, there might be issues. Architects should have a bottom line, and this bottom line is called "duty." It's important. This has been our commitment. Of course, this commitment comes with a cost: time, energy, and expenses, which can put a heavy burden on the company's operations. Because you're not just working on the design in the early stages, but also spending a lot of time on-site in the later stages to ensure high-quality delivery. So, it's quite difficult, even though we've managed to adhere to it. While it's difficult, we may still continue because it's contradictory logic.
South Mountain Gutenberg Star Han Bookstore
INTERVIEWER: KE ZHANG
EDITOR: WANTONG YAO, KE ZHANG, CHENYU LIN
PHOTO/RECORDING FOR INTERVIEW: CHUNLU ZHANG