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Brenda Ye

Estimated reading time: 7 min

After graduating from one of China’s most historic universities, Brenda embarked on a career in architecture that has spanned two decades and led her to her current position as Executive Director of RMJM Red. Her involvement in every stage of the design, development and construction process mark her out as an architect known for her precision and discipline. Brenda’s skills in consistently delivering large-scale projects on time and budget make her fundamental to the continued success of RMJM Red.

When did you decide to be an architect?

I attended university at just 16, a few years ahead of schedule, and didn’t have a deep understanding or careful consideration of architecture before I chose the subject. I remember during the summer holidays watching a programme that was related to architecture which also talked about geometry as a type of ‘space mathematics’ and this was a strong subject for me. Eventually I decided to study architecture and use my geometry skills in this field but, at the time, I had a limited understanding of what architecture really was. At the start, my family didn’t want me to study architecture, but rather wanted me to become a lawyer because they thought I was eloquent. However, I thought law was too strict and a little boring. I was stubborn at that time and was sure architecture was what I wanted to study.

Lin Huiyin (1904-1955) is known to be the first female architect in modern China. One of the few women who could access formal education, Huiyin had the chance to live, study and work in England, the U.S. and her homeland. Together with her husband, the famed ‘Father of Modern Chinese Architecture’ Liang Sicheng, she began the restoration work of cultural heritage sites of China in the post-imperial Republican Era of China. According to her closest friends, she was always living a “kind of double cultural frontier,” and facing the problem of “the necessity to winnow the past and discriminate among things foreign, what to preserve and what to borrow.” Where do you see Chinese architecture today? You have lived and studied in the UK. What should we preserve and even export of Chinese architecture and what should China borrow from the “foreign”?

During my period in the 90s, Chinese architecture was impacted by trends in the Western culture and there were many architects who favoured this style. At that time, as a student, I was learning about traditional Chinese architecture, a classic style full of beauty. I am not sure why it happened but after the reformation and the era of Mao, the ancient style fell out of favour and the architecture industry in China changed. Of course, the urbanisation which was occurring also had something to do with this, as did technology. Traditional buildings were often made from ashlar or wood and this obviously had to change to keep pace with the growing population and to keep China modern. Many of the West’s architecture concepts were revealed and imitated during this time and, as a student, I was indecisive about whether I should produce work that had Chinese concepts or more modern ones.

I feel that it’s not just the difference in forms between Eastern and Western architecture but something that goes deeper, to their cultural roots. For example, Western architecture is like an oil painting, you can view it and quickly see the pleasing aesthetics. I feel it’s beauty is easily transmitted to the viewer and there is a strong expression of design. But Chinese buildings are like Shangshuihua [Chinese landscape paintings] in that they require time to understand and see that it reflects a kind of connotation of time and space.

You can see that many Chinese buildings are cluster combinations, made up of various courtyards whether in palaces or residents. There’s many Siheyuan and courtyards combined together and you have to walk through an area like that and be in that environment to experience its ‘inner meaning’. In my opinion, Shanshuihua are metaphorical, reflecting Chinese culture. Oil paintings are more about realism, and place more emphasis on expression of individuality.

If Chinese architecture concepts are ‘implicit’ and beautiful I feel that the Western concepts are bolder and less restrained. If Chinese architecture is more introverted, then Western architecture is more extroverted. Western architecture reflects on the the aesthetic of an individual building and its distinction, while Chinese architecture explores the relationship of an overall group. These are the differences. So although RMJM is a British brand, RMJM Red is a merging of different cultures. Our design groups cater to both government and private clients, with the work usually including Chinese cultural influences. There are many examples in RMJM’s history in which the company assimilates cultures. Here, we are using methods and technologies from the West with great success.

For the 2008 Beijing National Olympic Convention Centre, the roof is curved to echo and fully express the large type of roofs that can be seen in the capital city. The curved roof expresses the mood and the divided facade reacts to the column division outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony. I think the building gives off a the right contemporary image, reflecting the the spirit of the Beijing capital and culture of the East. But, in fact, the design of the area, space and facade have all been influenced by the West. I think this is a really successful design combination of East and West in modern architecture.

Would you encourage women to start a career in architecture?

Lin Huiyin is a really famous female architect, so the question ‘would a women be accepted today?’ is a little dated. We are fully accepted in China. There are many female architects in China and it’s a quite common profession. Maybe at the time when I was just starting out, it wasn’t very common. People thought it was very tough for a girl to learn this, but it became more and more common. I think this maybe related to marketing as a few years ago the industry was booming so girls may have chosen it almost absent-mindedly, as I did. Sometimes they don’t understand what the industry does entirely, they see that it’s popular so they choose it. I chose it because I was inspired by a TV programme, after all. The only obstacle that is different for women and men is how to balance your work and personal life. The work of an architect is very tough and there are many deadline and times when you are required to work late. Combining this with having a family is tough but not impossible. There is no doubt that being a mother and an architect is hard! My husband is also an architect so finding a work-life balance with our son is, at times, complicated. I must say my mother is a great help and I know I am fortunate in that regard. In relation to the question, it depends on the individual and what kind of purpose they’re holding when they are starting their architecture journey. If they only understand the surface of it, if they think it’s a popular subject in China, or if they don’t have the dedication then it will be difficult for them to stick to this profession. If the girl has a strong interest in architecture with persistency and spirit then she will be able to contribute a lot in this area.

What is your personal motto?

I don’t feel that I have any great big motto, my current situation is be pragmatic through each day and do everything well. It is important to live each day well and be positive about the future. Of course, there is a pressure and China is in a challenging moment right now but it is important to be calm, work with focus and take on each challenge as it comes.