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Building up Relationship Through Architecture

2024-06-24 10:34:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter LIU CHANG
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French architect Éric Le Khanh has been strengthening Sino-French relationship with his works over two decades.


A renovation project of Qinzhou District Library in Gansu Province that Éric Le Khanh helped direct in 2019.  

In 2021, archaeologists announced the results of their excavation in Fengtai District in southwest Beijing. They included ruins of the wall of an ancient city known as Zhongdu, the capital of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) for six decades before it fell to the Mongols.

Subsequently, it was decided that a Jin Zhongdu City Wall Ruins Park would be built on the site, next to Beijing’s new Lize financial district, as part of the capital city’s urban renewal drive. French architect and urban planner Éric Le Khanh was on the design team. “The protection project is part of a larger urban park and cultural facility that shows how history can be integrated into the central business district in a modern city,” Khanh told China Today. In 2022, the project won the Outstanding Planning and Design Award from the Tianjin Landscape Garden Society.

During his two decades of residence in China, Khanh has been involved in many stimulating projects for big cities and also in transportation, landscaping, and urban network services. Currently, his priority is set on small projects.

His China journey started in 2003 with a month-long business trip. After that, he approached several Chinese construction companies and got a job offer from the East China Architectural Design and Research Institute. “I accepted it with pleasure and curiosity,” he says.

A design rendering of the protection of Jin Zhongdu City Wall Ruins Park in Beijing’s Fengtai District in 2021. 

Encounter with China  

Khanh had been working as an architect in Paris for more than a decade before coming to China, so this job was a new professional experience for him. In July 2003, he began to work in the Shanghai-based architecture firm and was struck by the scale of construction projects and rapid urban development in China.

At that time, there were fewer foreigners in China. “Although there was a lot of international communication in China, it was mostly superficial,” he recalls. “Cultural differences may have been an important reason.” Khanh realized that the biggest challenge in communication was not mastering the Chinese language, but understanding the Chinese culture. With thousands of years of history, the rich and complex Chinese culture reflects the country’s vast size and geographical diversity. As a result, he worked hard to learn more about China.

However, cultural and language differences were no barrier to love. In 2010, Khanh met his wife at an art exhibition. Their mutual appreciation and shared values brought them together. At present, the happily-married couple live in Beijing with their six-year-old son.

Chinese Cosmology and Urbanization  

In 2016, Khanh joined the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, becoming the firm’s first French expert. He found that the Chinese cosmology played a unique role in urban design in China.

“In the case of the central axis of Beijing (a nearly eight-km imaginary line that connects the four important places of the city and monuments and other structures and heaven representing the power of the state), the relationship between the emperor and heaven guided the development of all buildings around the Forbidden City. It illustrated the central position and importance of the emperor, while also symbolizing the connection between heaven and earth. Under the tenets of Taoism, the relationship between humans and nature is very strong. Through this concept, China has built many harmonious traditional cities that are well integrated into the landscape,” he says.

In Khanh’s view, the rapid urbanization that began in the 1980s broke this harmony to some extent. However, in recent years, with the adjustment and optimization of China’s urban planning and development policies, ecology, the protection of heritage and pragmatism have been put at the core of urban development. This also coincides with Khanh’s design concepts. He believes that it is important to protect the cultural heritage in urban development. His urban renewal concept also has elements of sci-fi – building a city on top of a city.

Éric Le Khanh (third from left) poses with his colleagues for a group photo at the Sino-French Ecological Park in Chengdu in 2017.

Sino-French Cooperation 

Another significant project he took part in was the Sino-French Ecological Park in Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan Province. From 2017 to 2018, as head of the French company AREP in Shanghai, he was responsible for coordinating the planning and implementation of the ecological park. “The international community needs to look at the future from the perspective of sustainable development,” he says. In Khanh’s view, protecting and appropriately developing the environment is crucial for future generations and urban residents. “(Participating in the project) has strengthened my professional skills in managing and coordinating Sino-French cooperation, which has benefited from the diverse cultural backgrounds of my colleagues,” he says.

At present, Khanh is working on a series of renovation projects in Sujiatuo, a town in Beijing’s Haidian District. A base of Sino-French cultural exchange, Sujiatuo was the home of two Frenchmen. The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate in literature Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) had his holiday villa there. The other was Jean Jérôme Augustin Bussière (1870-1960), a doctor who provided selfless assistance to the Chinese during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945).

Projects Khanh is working on include the construction of a hotel, a department store, a cultural building, and a Sino-French art center to commemorate the friendship between the two countries.

Khanh was also on the design teams for many projects across China, such as the Yangliuqing National Grand Canal Culture Park in Tianjin, and a residential community in Chengdu. The French architect is a visiting professor in the School of Architecture of Tianjin University, where he instructs senior students in urban and architectural renovation projects.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France. “It is a milestone year because it confirms the close and deep ties between the two countries,” he says. It is the strong kinship between the two countries that drives him to explore and contribute more to China-France cooperation.

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