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Lu Zhigang: Changing Chinese architecture one design at a time

Volumes 5&6, 2015

By June ZHU

Beside a line of stately trees alongside the Taopu River sits an old factory building; the word “MINAXDO” elegantly engraved on the sign at its gate. The air inside is filled with the refreshing scent of wood, and just beyond the entrance is a wooden screen carved with eight Chinese characters which loosely translate to “Kind thoughts make the world a better place”. Though the room is packed with an eclectic mixture of wooden pieces — a tea table, a Chinese chess set, and a lot of sculptures including one of the Indian god of mercy Bodhisattva Guanyin — there is an obvious order to how everything has been arranged.

“The showroom is too small, it’s only 100 square metres,” owner Lu Zhigang tells TheLINK during our visit last August. To fix the problem, one month later in September MINAXDO launched its first-ever experience centre, called Shi’erjian-Hill, where the activity area alone is 300 square metres. Lu has been busy, wearing his many hats. An architect with almost 20 years of experience, he is founder and president of MINAXDO and MINAX Architects; he is also a designer and photographer at MINAXDO. In 2015, he took on yet another role, that of CEIBS EMBA student.

 

In Search of Self Expression

Lu began studying architecture, in 1994, at the Chongqing Institute of Architecture and Engineering (now the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, Chongqing University). Three years later, he was recruited by the state-owned East China Architectural Design and Research Institute (ECADI) in Shanghai, one of China’s most influential architectural design institutes. His career took off. In less than six months Lu was assigned to lead projects, and when he was promoted to Deputy Chief Architect at ECADI a few years later he was the youngest person ever to hold that position. A slew of prestigious awards soon followed, including the China Architectural Society’s Young Architect Award and Pacesetter in the New Long March of Shanghai. In 2004, he was also named among the 100 Most Influential Chinese Architects.

However for Lu, career milestones alone are not very satisfying and he began to look inward to ponder the question: what is an architect’s real identity?

During his work with ECADI, Lu received the French President's Scholarship, and took part in the Sino-French project “Chinese Architects in France”. This experience abroad deepened his understanding of Western architecture, and offered him the chance to re-examine his career path. “In Europe, you can see many buildings with historic architectural elements, in styles ranging from the classical to modernism and post-modernism,” he says. In his eyes, modern western architecture is not only responsible for setting global trends; it also speaks to architects’ personal styles. While in France, he closely examined the landmark works by one of his favourite architects, Le Corbusier. “He introduced modern architectural style, and you can see his personality in all the buildings he designed. For example the Villa Savoye, you know it’s designed by Corbusier because his style is everywhere in the building’s design,” says Lu.

After returning to China, he decided to pursue architectural design as art. He left ECADI in 2005, along with some like-minded colleagues, and founded his own architectural design firm MINAX. The characters in the firm’s Chinese name, 米丈, are western and Chinese units of measurement, respectively. “The name is a combination of East and West, and easy to remember,” Lu explains. 

For years, he has made one guiding principle his standard for MINAX – the firm only designs public use structures. “Designing public buildings is different from designing residences. It’s just like shooting TV series is different from shooting movies in China. We don’t focus on big projects; we focus on interesting ones,” he says. To make sure builders are following their design specifications, Lu and his colleagues drive to construction sites and do project checks each week. “We are currently only focused on projects in the Yangtze River Delta, because they are within driving distance,” he explains. MINAX’s designs include Shanghai High People’s Court, the standard magazine display kiosks used across Shanghai, Ningbo Yinzhou Financial Building, Shanghai Da’ning Theatre, Taihu New Town Primary School, and Liyuan Middle School.

Lu’s ultimate goal is that his architecture will impact people’s lives. This is why he has included areas for playing games in the schools he designs, hoping this will improve teenagers’ imagination as well as their leadership skills.

 

A Wood Workshop is Born

This clarity of what he hopes to achieve helped him through the challenges faced when launching his start-up. “You must be a little crazy to start your own business; it takes a lot of devotion. There are always problems popping up,” he says. Unlike the detailed work assignments they received at ECADI, Lu and designers at MINAX must seek out projects themselves. In the beginning, some were quite small, and only returned a meagre profit. Lu kept going because he knew that “first you just need to survive, then you have to gradually make a name for yourself.” Thanks to China’s surging need for architectural designs in 2008, MINAX had plenty of work to keep its 30-member team busy.

When starting the MINAXDO wood workshop, Lu drew inspiration from his hometown Kunming, in Yunnan Province. Known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, it boasts beautiful greenery year-round. However he also carefully considered the business environment before launching the new venture, which he sees as a hedge against a potential slowdown in building commissions. “China’s architecture industry is in bad shape now, and may be even worse next year,” he says, adding that there is a movement towards counter-urbanisation in some parts of the country, and there has been a slowing demand for urban architecture. Woodworking and architecture have different business models, explains Lu. “Architects always have different customers, and every project is a brand-new start. The business model is quite primitive, and it’s not so profitable. Anyone who works in architecture must have the courage to hold onto their original dreams.” However, Lu’s fundamental principle is that one can never pursue dreams at the expense of a company’s survival. “If you are really going for something high-level, you have to offer favourable conditions to attract talent. Ideals are beautiful, but without practical considerations, they are not sustainable. Though designing wooden furniture can be difficult, once the design is finished it can be reproduced. The pieces can be both works of art and commodities,” he says.

From his perspective, manufacturing furniture is not as difficult as architectural design, which has a much larger scale and therefore requires a more advanced skillset. Before launching MINAXDO, Lu and his team spent two years doing research on materials, design and production. They integrated architecture techniques into furniture design, challenging the traditional styles of Chinese furniture – all straight lines – by creating beautiful modern curves. They also introduced more traditional craftsmanship techniques, such as sculpture, into their work. The results can be seen in the pieces on display in the MINAXDO showroom, which include a model of the Chongguang Gate from the Confucius Family Mansion. “People can tell instantly that it’s a MINAXDO product,” says Lu. Today, MINAXDO’s team has grown to 40. Lu describes the design team as talented young idealists, with many of the carpenters experienced in doing repairs at the Forbidden City in Beijing, an indicator of their expertise.

 

One of a Kind

MINAXDO’s pieces are a combination of seriousness and fun. Each piece is made with rosewood from Myanmar, and expresses the designer’s ingenuity and the carpenter’s exquisite craftsmanship. The Yuanyuan Armchair, featuring concise lines and sophisticated ideas, is the firm’s most ground-breaking piece. At first glance, the armchair appears to have the same form as the classic round-backed Ming Dynasty armchair. However on closer examination, one can see the chair’s impressive modern elements such as its soft texture and smooth curves. When designing the piece, Lu and his team spent months working out how to transform the traditional mortise-and-tenon joints; eventually the curves on the arms and legs were inspired by elements of modern auto industry design. “Many people cannot accept these changes; they think the design does not conform to the norm. However, to me, every road leads to Rome,” Lu says with a smile. Based on the Yuanyuan Armchair, MINAXDO has developed a line of Feng Gu chairs. The words mean strength of character.

Lu wants to build MINAXDO into a true luxury brand. He believes hand-crafted items will become increasingly more precious, as the time and customisation required to make a piece is part of what makes a luxury item so valuable.

 

Now that he has sorted out design techniques and production processes, Lu is turning his focus to marketing, which is the most critical link in developing a luxury brand. He is keen on “experience marketing” and doesn’t believe that an online store would be a wise move for MINAXDO’s China operations. So far, sales have come through word-of-mouth and store visits. Located in Shanghai Culture Square, the spacious Shi’erjian-Hill showroom is the first of what Lu hopes will be a series of experience centres. “Hill is the central theme of this first centre, and we are planning others with different themes like cloud, Zen, and wind. The centres will be located around Shanghai, and in other cities such as Chengdu, Hangzhou and Beijing,” he says.

MINAXDO is also looking beyond the borders of the domestic market. Lu is considering launching an online store from New York after a friend helped conduct a market survey there that showed there was a large potential market. He is also planning an exhibition in Japan. MINAXDO also has a magazine, which Lu sees as a “cultural tie” with customers.

Improving exposure of his brand remains a long-term focus, and it is one of the reasons he chose to do a CEIBS EMBA. He cites CEIBS Entrepreneurship Camp participant, Luo Zhenyu, creator of the “Luoji Siwei” talk show, when explaining his decision to enrol at CEIBS: After 20, what one learns is no longer really novel, but only brings new ways of looking at old issues. “I’d like to learn more ideas from more people, and open up my mind while acquiring business knowledge,” says Lu. “CEIBS is helping me a lot.”