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Bamboo’s Trip ——An interview with architect Eric Salmon

May 9th, 2015 by


His bright and clear voice seemed to wake me up from the call waiting. Actually I was not so familiar with him, even haven’t seen him before. Architect, American, tall and teacups, that’s all I know.

These years, as economic crisis continues, large numbers of foreign architects have swarmed into China. It seems that China has become a melting pot of architects at home and abroad. Obviously, Eric is one of them. However, he is different from those utilitarian.  He likes culture and enjoys the diversity. “I want to know more about foreign culture,” he said in a hurried and enthusiastic voice. He had also been to Japan for one month to study. He told me reluctantly: “Japan is doing adventurous architecture because it is an island with much more limited and it also has earthquakes.” He nevertheless can’t deny that was great experience.

He had been very vocal in telling me about his thoughts even his experiences. Actually this frank man should have been an engineer but suddenly an unexpected idea changed his mind. He asked his professor for some books about architecture and went to the architectural building. It was the hand-made building model that drove his attention. He couldn’t love it anymore. The encouragement of his professor urged him to be an architect. “You will be doing this, you stuck in here,” his professor said.

It’s not hard for him to live in China. He searched from the Internet and found the posters of Fanfan International Studio. After a series of processes, he arrived for internship. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” He also got himself a Chinese name “艾竹”, like bamboo. He said: “Thanks to my tall and thin, I could finally get this award.”

With a group of Chinese budding architects like Wang Shu and Ma Yansong appearing, foreigners may be adversely affected. What a competitive market. But for this 27-year-old young man, things are different. No one can imagine that he quit his job and went to Zhejiang for making teacups. Actually, teacup-making is just one part of his trip, he also went there for his friend’s movie which has been made in a temple.

“It’s about Buddhism and the temple’s building,” he said in tones of interests. Before he came to China, he was impressed by Buddhism temples in Japan. Of course, China does surprise him. Various temples were made from the nature. They admit this outsider with open arms. “I was very moved by how the temples are related to nature. They not only make courtyard but nature and art,” said Eric, “When you visit them, you see even your life in some way. It’s quiet, you just watch the leaves and farms. And you can’t find them in the city because things are so fast.”

Isolate from worldly life and back to nature. It is not avoiding things; it may be a way of understanding humanism. It reminds me of a magazine which talked about the Japanese architect Ban. He just won the Prizker Architect Prize. The relationship between architecture and nature is the emphases in his design. He devoted his easy-to-build residence for the people who suffer from disaster. Eric and I see eye to eye on this humanitarian way. “Actually Ban’s design is what many architectural critics called “the shit of architecture”, but he said, architecture doesn’t mean money. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you should find your way.” It sure is, Ban is so interesting a man that he used paper and cardboard tubes as a structural element. “I’m sure if you do like Ban, you can build a very beautiful place which is efficient and not taking much material.” Eric said.

The restless society sometimes blinds us. We get confused about our future and principles. Someone gets stuck but others choose to take a different tack. In my perspective, architecture is not only need “modern and innovation” but “comfortable and convenient”. It calls up the speech I have listened made by the copartner of PAO, He Zhe. They put the house on the back of the three-wheeler and this inspiration rooted in quadrangle in Beijing. This kind of movable “RV” provides residence for people who can not afford a real department. They told us that the land is not the only way to create dwelling environment and the standard of judging the architecture is also not focused on the cost. What we should concentrate on is whether it can achieve some bind, not only between tradition and modern but between person and person.

When we talked about Chinese architecture, there was a silence for a second. “It’s really difficult to say. The pay, the decision people made, the building process, the work they finished, all of them is very fast.” The eagerness to success may ruin people even architecture. In Japan, for example, a house, the relationship between the clients and the architects is very important. Even after the house’s built, the clients and the architects will have connection with it. However, in China, it’s different. He said: “I take into granted because in the United States, we have criticized to build the construction and to choose the architects. We have a trust. When we choose someone, we trust them. But in here, my experience is lacking of trust between the architects and clients. That makes me much more difficult to make good building.”

Confucius once said: “To stabilize the senior, to trust friends, to care the teens.” The base of cooperation is trust, we can’t live without it. During cooperation, we need trust as well as connection.

Just as the copartner of PAO said, the bind between person and person is important. It creates a bridge of connection. “There are multiple people in all in the process from when the building is started to when it’s finished. Between these levels, the clients choose the architects, the design, the construction documents, and the actual construction. They are making sure the quality is being well,” he said, “But all of these are divided. Separate. It’s unique in China because there are many big firms they just pass the work on to the next person and let it go.”

That appeared hard for him to adapt this kind of way. “I do my job as quick and fast as possible and I give it to the clients and never see it again. In my mind, we should discuss about concepts. It can bring more imagination. It’s creative and it can be a good thing to work quickly,” he kept talking, “We don’t talk to the structural engineers all these things. However, some better firms in China, they don’t divide it. So when one design concept finished, they can hand it to themselves to the own engineer or the own designer. The longer they preserve the form, the better the project would be.”

The culture shock excited him but the working shock really confused him.

He explained: “I’m puzzled about it. Something I learned in China is that architecture is an idea. But in my mind, the best, the most humanitarian place for people has no architects. People will build building out of wood. They will build the house in the community. And the house will be built together. The place will be built by the people who use them.” Like a countryside hermit, he continued: “This is a very different relationship than an architect. If you build your own house, you care a lot about it. So my favorite places in China have been built like this. The love of the people’s hand and buildings were built by themselves without the architect. If you look at Italy, it’s different. I also studied in Italy a short time. The most beautiful city was the one that slowly grew by time. The people would put the phone into the wall and houses. The strips they wind back and forth is like a river. Not a straight line. I think if you have an architect to do something, you get the straight line. We use paper and pencil and work on different kind of design. So they understand how the thing will be built and go. We are just one disconnected from the real building. I think that’s really making a difference design without architects and designers.”

The “Bamboo” buddy did encounter problems. Before, for broadening his horizons, he came to Zhouzhuang and some other old towns without architects. He never come far places of China, so he decided to have a look. He asked his boss to leave and go for a dream travel. The Bamboo’s dream is to grow into the soil of Yunnan.

He came over to the Yuntai Mountain in Zhejiang. For him, it’s the most fantastic journey because of the beautiful mountain. “It’s also the first place in China where the Buddhism started. Many friends of mine learned about Chinese culture here.” He sounded full of energy. What’s more, he even has friends who have their own elementary school in the village and it could only be accessible by boat.

To start with, by the friends he made in his travel, one of them is an artist from Longcheng where has Qingci. He changed quickly into a historian. “In the Song Dynasty, the Longcheng Qingci is the most popular thing and the emperor appreciated it a lot. At that time, many beautiful shapes were created. They made it very simple and clean. The detail is the shape. It’s not the painting on the top. I was very impressed by this art and ask my artist friend to study with them. Right now I have started for 4 months. And it’s not just teacups we also make vase. I am very happy with powdery because you can make almost anything you need.

The modern city and the countryside in China did bring different feelings to him. “I think the people are very warm. It’s very special. It’s very different from Japan. In Japan, people are very nice. I think that’s a place that most interesting in my life. I got very good feeling. But I never feel the warm I have in China. Chinese people may be a little bit louder and dirtier. But at the same time they are the warmest people. Even the table and room is not the best but the people around you are so nice. It changes everything.”

The senior people in the countryside are very different from the city. They were not brought up by material so they are almost warm-hearted. They always ask me: “你吃过了吗? (Have you eaten before?)” he laughed, “I get used to the food, but at the beginning it’s difficult. Chinese people eat various meats in different ways. In America we eat more chosen food, it’s not natural.” Just like the documentary he watched: A Bite of China. “I watched a little but I felt very hungry. The best food I had is in the village where they grow their own vegetables and feed animals,” he said.

Life in the village is comfortable and peaceful. His plan is to finish studying with his friend in Longcheng and then come back to Shanghai to talk to his friends and former boss if they can start this new design construct—The handmade design construct. “I hope these experiences will influence my architecture and my building design. There is one fact that many very good architects or famous architects, during their childhood; they had worked as a craftsman. They have a father that makes them make. They do carpentry. And they learned the skill first and then became an architect. And their buildings become the best in the world. So I haven’t had that childhood. I hope I can,” he said eagerly.

About his handmade design constructs, he did plan with another friend he worked with. They talked about creating small skilled design, but it’s handmade. He thought typically the modern process was you had one designer that made design on paper and modeled it and gave it to factory. They could build. And all the things they built may be very beautiful. But they produced machines as much as possible. This was the connection left by the human hands. He thought we can merge into design, the handmade together. And when you know something made by hand, you will appreciate it more. He thinks if you have a ball and you know someone have made them by hand. You know the details and you won’t lose it. If you buy something that many other people have as well, maybe you will enjoy it when you first have it. After you use it, you don’t care because it’s cheap and you can buy another one. He thinks it’s the wrong philosophy of life.

“I want to be an architect that designs are simple, humble, with a relationship of indoor and outdoor space are fluid, and ultimately to promote happiness. My favorite buildings have had the feeling of simplicity. When you look closer at the details, you realize it was not effortless, but a great task to keep it that simple. Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, was the first building that took my breath away.” Meanwhile, poetic means a lot for him. His final professor in university believed all art forms derive from poetry, which includes architecture. Poetry is dense. The feeling is universally accepted by any human and any culture. It is nothing short of amazing. “I strive to have this relationship in my designs,” he said.

And then he poured out words about human and nature: “If you look at a Chinese Shan Shui ink painting, then you can imagine what human life was like with the intimacy of building, human, and nature. As humans we may be the most intelligent creature on the planet, but this dominant thinking bothers me. I wish the relationship ultimately accepts nature and human life as harmonious as possible. The traditional Chinese courtyard is a wonderful example of nature worlds. What I mean is if you have a courtyard, which let's fresh air and light in, maybe a butterfly or bird's song to fill the open room, and the human is comfortable and warmed by the touch of wood and the breeze flowing from the window to the sky well. Historic Asian design strongly has influenced my thinking about this subject. Everything is connected. We must be responsible for what we do, and be aware of the preciousness of our resources, such as water, food, and materials.

It isn’t hard to imagine that he was very impressed by Chinese culture. “The ancient way is to help people think and build. It’s very different from how we are doing today. To me, I can not forget that. It’s like seeing a movie. After you finished the movie you just can’t believe what happen. That had changed you. I would not design a Chinese style temple at my home but I will learn how the temple works. How they work courtyard and how they relate to the courtyard and how people use them. In America I don’t remember one building have a courtyard. This is surprising. You could say that I grow up in the farthest way from nature. In America we have the most beautiful nature outside, in the National Park. We don’t have ancient people and a lot of history. So we can’t coherent from ancestors. We like conquering our country and we never really dwell in our country. We never really live with nature. But in China for thousand of year’s people has lived with nature. It’s the most natural life. In the later dynasty, the Tang and Song Dynasty living became an art. Right now it breaks my heart is in America everything is just new. Even like the cell phone, you know, when the new cell phone publish, we quit directly the old cell phone. This is very different from the powdery. Well powdery is one of the ancient forms of art. This is the connection with the ancient people. I have had this art to make; I understand what this part of ancient art. Before in China, I haven’t had any ideas about what the ancient life is. I only see new ideas. Just think new is good. Just take new and keep going. In the village, I really feel like what the real nature is and understand what the human nature is,” he said without stopping.

“The life in China is interesting,” he said, “I think someday I will back to America. I don’t know when until then. I will be back to America because of my friends and family, but I appreciate everyday’s life through Chinese culture.”


Just few days later, Eric emailed to me and said: “For cities, I could imagine Shanghai as one of the nearby water towns in the past, a place for people and nature. These small towns are filled with character and emotion. Tiered tiled roofs, white washed walls showing wisdom of age, reflection of colors and bridges above flowing water canals, small pedestrian streets, beautiful stone paved details and patterns… These towns were designed from the true spirit of happiness of humans coexisting with nature. An art of living.”