In the humid summer heat of Xiamen, a beautiful island city in the south of China, my YeYe walks beside me and points ahead to a glittering glass façade that stands tall at the end of our street.
“Do you see that building?... I designed that.”
I didn’t know then why I felt so proud and astonished by my grandfather, standing there five years ago actually having frozen in my steps, but I do now.
The next day, he took me into his office. Even a retired man, his passion for architecture was a flame that could never be extinguished, and he spent many of his days in the beloved firm he once owned.
There, I met his colleagues and friends, and was toured around the office like a prince. I learnt of how the drawings stacked in piles over the uniform desks were turned into buildings like the tower at the end of Dou Xi Lu (our street); how ideas were born and nurtured into the buildings that surround me every day.
That was the day when architecture meant something to me for the first time. Five years later, the smell of old books, wood, and calligraphy ink hits me just the same as I open the door to YeYe’s apartment in 2022. It’s deceiving because so much has changed in the three years that I hadn’t been back. But beyond what has barely changed in his apartment on the fifth floor, something is clearly missing. The pink flowers, orange fruit, and bonsai trees on the white-tile balcony are limp and brown, and fresh ink is not sitting at the calligraphy table. My YeYe was very ill and was not staying with us in his apartment like he did every year we returned.
Over the next six weeks, in this city and country that was still firmly attached to eradicating the virus, I spent most of my time stuck in this apartment. These were the most difficult and painful weeks of my life, but also the ones where I learnt the most about my YeYe, my family and what architecture means to me.
My mother’s old bedroom is where I stayed. Fax documents, dusty photo albums, and ’90s posters of idols and ballerinas populate the space, and I realise it is like a time capsule back into the moments just before my mum left for Aotearoa. As the city grew rapidly around this bedroom, buildings sprouting like bamboo shoots from the cleared rubble of demolished ones, it remained completely unchanged — its door seldom opened into a world long foregone.
This made me realise the significance of spaces and architecture in our lives, and its ability to tell the story of the people who inhabit these spaces and buildings, if only for a fleeting moment.
While some spaces remain unchanged like this, most change immensely. Walls are plastered-over and repainted, carpets are pulled out, and families move in and out of buildings. In the case of our apartment in Xiamen, the room where my mum, grandparents and uncle once ate dinner every night became a study stuffed with books on architectural rendering and magazines. At some point, stairs became a lift. What was once my YeYe’s office on the lower levels is boarded shut for good and there is little suggestion of the canteen that once existed. Most of the rooms and spaces within the buildings that stand today are barely recognisable as to when they were first designed. Perhaps, even, the original architects may not have intended for their creations to turn out this way. To me, though, that is the whole beauty of architecture. The evolution of buildings and the spaces within and outside of them is the most interesting and most important story that binds the urban fabric of Xiamen; of Auckland; of all the world’s cities together. It is a story of people, places, ideas and events, of everything that came before us today. For a fleeting moment in the life of a building, it is ours. It tells our story, however beautiful or tragic.
That’s what it meant to me as I flipped through the pages of photo albums, seeing my YeYe looking proudly over a master plan in Hong Kong, sketching out a portrait of my mum as a young girl, and standing in front of the Bund in Shanghai with my NaiNai (grandmother) on a sunny day just before the Cultural Revolution, having studied architecture together at Tongi University.
Although tastes will change and design movements come and go, one thing remains constant, and that is the role of architecture to house people and to facilitate their day-to-day lives. Everywhere in the world, buildings and the cities that these buildings make up tell a story of the people who live and work within them. That never changes. That’s what I found so extraordinary about my YeYe and his job on that day five years ago. Although he has since passed away, the record of his love and commitment to his work stands proudly at the end of Dou Xi Lu and in many other places throughout the world. His work touches so many lives every day.
He loved people very much, and I think he understood better than many architects of his time that the way to design great spaces is to understand the people who will live and work in them.
His memory will stay with me forever. And his buildings will stay with us forever.
This essay was the winner in the Rangatahi category of the 2022 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.
Photo: Xiamen skyline by Dongsh from Unsplash.