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Redefining Urban Intervention and Street Architecture

TDC Interviews: Marcial Jesus, Architect & Founder, 100 Architects, Shanghai

100 Architects is a Shanghai based firm that specializes in street architecture, urban interventions, and architectural objects that encourage social dynamics through the creation of human-scale landmarks. Their work stands out with an incredible portfolio of impactful urban spaces that you might not have seen before. Curious to learn more about the practice and its approach, we asked its founder Marcial Jesus to answer some questions.

Marcial Jesus

1) Is there a story behind the name 100 Architects?

The story of 100architects began with my arrival to China. I am Marcial Jesus, an architect from Chile. I graduated from the Universidad of Chile in 2010 and arrived to Shanghai in 2011, after working for a few years in Europe. (I worked at Fuksas in Rome in 2009 and at OMA in Rotterdam in 2010).

The company that brought me to Shanghai was called Hassell, a distinguished Australian company that gave me a solid platform to develop my career in those early years. Hassell developed big mixed-use projects, shopping malls, towers etc.

After working in Shanghai for about 2 years I was leading the design of big mix use projects with offices like HASSELL (AU) and later on BENOY (UK), however despite the great opportunity I just wasn’t happy designing big towers or shopping malls. Somehow it wasn’t meaningful for me. I wanted to work in something that matter more to the people.

I had the revelation that I should create my own company since. I realized that I didn’t need to wait until I was an expert in architecture to do so; I could learn on the way. I also recognized that Shanghai and the Asian markets in general had plenty of room for new ideas. These were markets that were less developed and less consolidated than the European one; therefore, there was space for new ideas that were not conventional.

100architects had its official beginnings in February 2013, when the concept and idea was born. I was just 25 years old and in order to undertake this mission, I partnered up with different friends, co-workers and architects who were interested in this collaboration. However, none of these initial partnerships really flourished.

The name came as a result of many thoughts of the moment and evolved over time. Firstly, it wasn’t 100, it was IOO (i, o, o) and the idea was this to mean “Interactive Open Objects”; at that time, we were focusing in small urban installations. But very soon after we realized that 100 was much more powerful than that. First, the number 100 is something that can be written and read in all languages. In that regard, it was aligned with our international position in Shanghai and future determination of reaching the international market. Second, I realized that the anagram didn’t really help since we were envisioning to take the “intervention” of public spaces to the next level (not only for small interactive objects). But more importantly, that 100architects had implicit sense of “completion”, Robust team, “Consolidated”, “Perfection”, 100%, and of course, a team of one hundred architects. 100architects was definitely a good name to sell. This came fast. At the end of 2013 our name was already determined.

2) Your journey so far has been nothing short of inspiring. From your initial days in South America to working in Europe and eventually in Asia, you had worked on projects all over the world before choosing to set up shop in China. How have these experiences impacted your work today?

I studied architecture in Santiago, Chile, but I did one year as part of an exchange program in the IUAV in Venice, Italy in 2007. In total, my program was 6 years to become a licensed architect. Before getting the architect diploma I did an internship of 6 month at Fuksas in Rome, Italy. I got that just by sending my portfolio and cv to many well-known architects. They ended up picking me at Fuksas. I believe that was a very significant experience for me, where I met a type of international architectural office that in Santiago was inexistent. It opened my eyes.

Soon after the internship was over in Italy, I applied to work at OMA. They picked me and I spend 2010 in Rotterdam learning from within one of the most legendary and celebrated companies of architecture in the world. This experience was sublime for me. I probably didn’t play any significant role in the projects I worked on, but I truly absorbed every single bit of design strategies, processes and methodologies. Also, I got to see from within how a truly inspiring creative environment works.

I believe this experience was really significant for me, since it filled me up with big ambitions. I wanted to create something by myself; a creative environment that would invite young talents from all over the world to learn and contribute with fresh ideas, producing architecture “out of the conventional”. A creative business as the one I had the luck of working in Rotterdam that year.

3) Why did you choose China as your home front?

After working in Europe for these few experiences I had to go back to Chile to finally graduate in January 2011. Luckily, I had the support of my professors and I was able to do all that very quickly. Right after that, I spent around 3 months trying to figure out my next step. I had all what was needed to leave my hometown again; the momentum of being recently in the international professional environment; no strings attached, since they were already loosen during the past year abroad; and an attractive international profile with fresh working experience in top international architectural offices.

I decided China was the next step because I understood that this was the land where I was going to be able to grow fast and create value. It was the land where I was going to be able to use my talents in a way that I could outstand from the young architects surrounding me.

In Europe the market is too consolidated. Architects providing of services have huge experience. There is no room for new comers with fresh ideas. And if there is, it is not for a Chilean architect 24 years old coming into a world of tradition and hierarchy. Instead, China is a developing economy that the last 30 years has been growing to an unprecedented speed. This process leaves room for new ideas. It is a fertile terrain in which with the right seed one can flourish immensely.

4) Tell us about your office and set-up in Shanghai. What it like working for 100 Architects?

I believe to work at 100architects is quite cool and comfortable. At the office, we are all young architects; the age range goes from 25 to 35 more or less. We have an international environment with around 20 architects from diverse background and nationalities. Also, we are based in Shanghai, one of the most exciting and entertaining capitals of the world. In addition to that, our working hours are from 10am to 630pm and we do not do overtime. Also, we do a lot of team buildings and activities, since we truly enjoy that part of our professional and personal relationship.

On the other hand, we are experiencing a growing process that accelerates every year since there is an increasing interest to the kind of spaces we design. So, it is a work environment where everyone grows very fast and, if matches the values of 100architects, he or she can become a key member of the team very quickly.

With the increasing demand for our architectural production, we are all growing together. We have generated a creative environment which is very horizontal, where everyone is able to come up with ideas, from a trainee to seniors or directors.

To conclude, I think working at 100architects can be very exciting, not only because one can be part of a young growing studio reaching the international market and be part of this process from within. But also, because in our creative environment and architectural exploration there is really room for so many fresh ideas and innovation. We are so proud of doing what we do and in the way we do.

5) As a firm, you have been working in the public realm for quite some time now, creating impactful and unconventional urban intervention projects that are eye-catching and colorful. Tell us about your approach towards your projects. Why do you choose to make public places colorful and interactive?

This realization came many years ago. During the development of 100architects as a professional architectural company, we passed through a period of research in which we sought to answer 2 fundamental questions regarding our brand’s identity: where should we focus our practice, and what architectural or design style should we embrace?

First of all, at 100 we believed that working in the Public Realm is a privilege. This is where our design would have the biggest impact on the largest quantity of people. We also believed it was a very relevant and meaningful realm of action, where we could produce a direct impact on the citizens and users of determined urban spaces. Therefore, we developed a singular vision: designing architectural objects that attract people and encourage social interactions. Within that range of action, we developed projects that served as “interventions” in existing urban enclaves and projects that were more closely aligned with landscape architecture – all of which we created with our special twist and approach as “street architecture” rather than traditional landscape architecture design.

Secondly, we addressed the aspect of the architectural design style (and there were many factors that played a defining role in that). As young architects trying to set up a business in China that targets the global market, we figured that we were facing many challenges. We questioned ourselves about how to call attention and make our projects remarkable in this culture of disposability, wherein art is forgotten as quickly as it is celebrated. Ultimately, we came to understand that architectural objects for social interactions alone were not enough to attract attention on a global scale. Rather, we had to play according to the rules of this culture of overstimulation, in addition to having a functional purpose and a meaningful narrative.

Our projects had to be pop & controversial, eye-catching and contrasting from their surroundings – hence our particular use of color and iconic shapes. But our projects also had to offer an interesting program of functions to be easily used and enjoyed, and displayed as open platforms for social interactions. In short, we needed a striking and eye-catching style that would call the attention of citizens, stimulating them and encouraging the occurrence of social dynamics.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a learning experience, especially for designers. In your opinion, how should urban design evolve from the pandemic? Can its effects make us thing differently about urban design in the future?

I believe the biggest lesson from this pandemic is that public space is the only safe space, and there is definitely not enough, we need way more quality outdoor public spaces in our cities. However, I don’t this will mean a structural change in the way we design our cities. I see this pandemic as something temporary. I believe we will remember this period as our grandparents remember the Spanish flu of 1918. And if pandemics like this one will occur every 100 + years, we need to prepare in many ways, nonetheless structural change in the way public space is designed, seems to me an exaggeration.

6) In your opinion, what is the key criteria for designing great public spaces and street architecture?

We believe that nowadays it is not enough to simply have trees, a patch of greenery, a bench and nice lighting features in order to have a remarkable public space. Nowadays, the new generations are experience seekers, to the point that they prefer to invest in meaningful and memorable life experiences rather than in owning objects or products. Also kids nowadays are not the same as when we were kids; they are exposed and used to different kinds of sensory stimulations. In that regard, we believe urban public spaces are lacking a form of recreation that meets those new needs of a generation that demands increasing stimulation and fantasy in its experiences.

In order to aid place-making, urban interventions despite being eye-catching, pop and controversial, must serve purposes that are focused on people’s health, happiness and wellbeing. As we like to say, we sell happiness. Over time, our office has specialized in conceptualizing interventions that bring joy and entertainment to the citizens in their public realm through fantasy and surprise, two attributes we always try to implement in our proposals.

The fantasy factor is the one boosting the imagination and creativity of the users, despite their age, while the surprise factor refers to the feeling of encountering completely unexpected spaces when walking through a city, which is something we seek. It is through these two attributes that our urban interventions make the link and engage with the audience and the citizens. Once that link is created, our projects are just pure platforms for the community to colonize - not only enjoy the spaces, but most importantly, to enjoy the social interactions that those spaces encourage through their morphology. The ultimate purpose of those spaces is to be used by the community - even in totally different ways that were not even planned by us at the studio.

7) What does the future hold for 100 Architects?

During the past four years, 100architects has undergone a huge transformation. We grew from being a company of two foreign architects trying to convince Chinese people to build our crazy ideas, to being a very well-established company with a team of over 20 architects developing experimental projects in Asia, Middle East, USA and Europe. We have solidified the core values of our company and helped foster talent from within. The junior architects who started with us four years ago have now become senior architects and team leaders. I regard these last four years as a formation period for 100architects – a period that transformed us into a robust company ready to undertake bigger projects and bring our practice into the international sphere. At this very moment we have the power to expand our business and open offices in key places outside China. I cannot say much more at this point since it’s confidential, but we are already working on international expansion.

On the other hand, we are now increasing the size of the projects we are requested to design. At first, many years ago, we were focusing in small urban interventions that weren’t even permanent. Now all projects we do have a permanent nature. During the past year we worked in many projects ranging from 1500 to 4000m2. Now, we have reached a more metropolitan scale ranging from 10000m2 to even 30000m2. Many new things await 100architects future.

Q: The Design Collective

A: Marcial Jesus

About 100 Architects:

100 Architects was born with the mission of improving our cities and the experience of citizens in the public realm, by providing high-quality, innovative and stimulating public spaces, inclusive & accessible to everyone. “Our architecture studio doesn’t do buildings (at least not in the conventional way). Through our experimental design approach, our work aims to transform the cityscape we know today into the hyper-stimulating one we envision tomorrow. We specialize in street architecture & urban interventions, generating innovative solutions that encourage the occurrence of joyful social dynamics."

Know more about the firm here.

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