Wen-Yuan Peng was a lead designer at Zaha Hadid Architects for seven years, and was named among the top-50 rising designers from the Chinese-speaking world in 2014. Currently he is the Founding Director of Yuan Architects.
Peng reflects on the past decade, working on international projects, when he realized that his huaren identity makes him unique. He believes the best way to win international recognition is through designs that are rooted in local contexts, communicating authenticity, and a trace of the designer’s cultural essence.
Peng completed postgraduate studies at the University of Texas, Austin, winning first prize in architecture design. After graduation he became a project designer at Teague Design in Los Angeles, and then took a position as Lead Designer at Zaha Hadid Architects two years later, which is a dream job for many architects. Working on projects across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, his future seemed bright at the global firm, however, seven years later he left to form his own practice and discover new possibilities in design.
“We will never be Western,” Peng exclaims. “When I imitate some Western master, people do not think of me as an international designer. It is exactly the opposite. Only by showing my authentic self, and my local roots, can I showcase my unique qualities, and find my place on the international stage.”
As a member of the huaren community, the influence of Chinese culture is in Peng’s blood. For example, he is fascinated by Chinese calligraphy, and he sees commonality between calligraphy and architecture.
“Writing calligraphy is like building a structure on an empty lot,” Peng explains. “The space is blank, but my design designates where the walls go up. The walls are like brushstrokes in calligraphy, and the blank spaces in calligraphy are like empty spaces in architecture. The proportions, and the lines between the spaces, together decide the final aesthetic appearance of the work.”
Many of Yuan Architects’ projects reflect an Eastern sense of aesthetics. For example, Realm of Water is an interior design project for the first floor shared space of a residential building in Taoyuan. The main design concept is “drifting clouds and flowing water” (xingyun liushui, in Chinese).
In Peng’s spatial metaphor, the residents are water, and amenities such as the reading room, gym, and karaoke room are all rocks. As the residents arrive home they “flow” through these “rocks”, where they can relax, released from the stresses of the outside world.
The spatial design was created to facilitate this journey. White stripes on the ceiling visualize a reflection of flowing water. Lights embedded in the stone floor look like moonlight on water, and lights in the walls evoke falling leaves. The overall aesthetic effect is fundamentally Eastern.
Yuan Architects’ interior design, the luxury Ink Oriental Hotel in Shanghai, embodies Eastern thinking in its furnishings. The patterns on the carpets are inspired by traditional Chinese ink-wash paintings, golden curtains hang from the walls, and the lighting fixtures, screens, and window traceries are all distinctly Asian. The combination of all these furnishings is what lends the space its Eastern character.
The firm’s visual communication design, BMW concept car display center, features circles to echo the automotive brand’s “infinity” concept. The space is dominated by enormous circular lines, which evokes a sense of confidence and control in the space.
Peng uses local materials in his architectural design practice. House S, located in suburban Hsinchu, Taiwan, is constructed using polished pebbledash, a traditional building material in Taiwan. Traditional Taiwanese pebbledash is made using a very refined technique, and at first glance it could easily be mistaken for Béton brut or expensive masonry. House S, located in the verdant hills of Hsinchu, earned the moniker of “the neighborhood art museum” among the local community, and images of its unique exterior were shared more than five-hundred times on social media.
Hidden House, which overlooks the plains of Taitung, Taiwan, is a variation on the traditional Taiwanese “sanheyuan” farmhouse. Peng looks back on his childhood in the countryside, and fondly remembers playing barefoot in the rice paddies as a child. His grandfather’s house was a “sanheyuan” with a courtyard where rice grains and vegetables were dried under the sun. The courtyard was also a playground for the children and a place where the family would congregate and simply spend time together.
Nostalgia of his childhood is the concept behind Hidden House, bringing the natural outdoors into the lives of its residents. The floor plan of the house also features long corridors, common in Asian homes, connecting different spaces and moods. The house lies on a seemingly infinite expanse of rice paddies, as far as the eye can see, co-existing in harmony with its surrounding environment. Both in the case of House S, and Hidden House, Peng employed a succinct and unembellished design language that blends effortlessly with nature.
“My goal for these houses is not to emphasize how luxurious the materials are, or how refined the design is,” Peng says. “I want to strip these houses back to the essentials; I am only building a roof over the owner’s head, which creates limitless possibilities for the family that lives beneath.”
Discussing the rise of the huaren market, Peng believes its development has two key effects — first, many Western designers have started working in China and their professionalism has influenced young Chinese designers. This is a positive for the huaren design industry. Second, many new construction projects are now targeting the huaren market, so Western firms are starting to hire Chinese designers, which creates amazing career opportunities for them.
Peng says that Chinese designers have excellent technical and problem-solving skills, but they tend to be relatively weak in creating original concepts, and lack the scientific approach to research and learning. If they can overcome these weaknesses, it will not take long for Chinese designers to reach a level with their counterparts in the West.
About Wen-Yuan Peng
Wen-Yuan Peng earned a Bachelor of the Arts at Feng Chia University and a Master of the Arts, with first-prize in architecture design, at the University of Texas, Austin. He worked at Teague Design in Los Angeles, and as a Lead Designer at Zaha Hadid Architects for almost 7 years. In 2012, he returned to Taiwan and founded Yuan Architects. His work has been recognized by international award groups in Taiwan and abroad, including Taiwan’s Golden Stone Awards, the Design for Asia Awards, the Taiwan Interior Designer Award, the Conde International Design Awards, and the iF Design Awards.
In 2014, he was named among the top-50 rising designers from the Chinese-speaking world by MyHome magazine, and in 2017 he received the Sina China Neo Power Interior Design Award.His representative works include House S, Hidden House, De Guang Church, House Duo, The Cocoon of Life, and The Inspiration Point.