An Interview with Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray Author:Zhang Fang Date: 2010-07-02 Size:
Robert Mangurian (RM) and Mary-Ann May (MAM) are my neighbors in Cao Chang Di (CCD) art district. Both are architects from the United States. They moved to Beijing in 2002. Aged around early sixties, the couples are always in high spirits to experiment with new urban-village architectural programs in Beijing.


MAR RM Beijing 

Robert Mangurian (RM) and Mary-Ann May (MAM) are my neighbors in Cao Chang Di (CCD) art district. Both are architects from the United States. They moved to Beijing in 2002. Aged around early sixties, the couples are always in high spirits to experiment with new urban-village architectural programs in Beijing.

In February 2010, they brought eleven graduate students from the University of Michigan to their harbor, Base Beijing, for a whole semester, committed to bring forth young talents and ingenuity into close contact with locals in CCD. Located by the side-road of Beijing Airport Express and occupying less than one acre of land, CCD resides people of all walks of life, indigenous villagers, office ladies (OLs), migrant workers, artists and galleries. Their vision of applying teaching and practicing together has fascinated me into this light-hearted exchange of views which started with Robert’s settlement in New York City (NYC) after he stepped out of college in late 1960s.

ZF: Why did you choose NYC? What were you doing there? What people were in your neighborhood?

RM: Most of my life was living outside cities. I grew up in Los Angeles, where there was no buses or shops. I craved to live in a city even before I studied in 1963 at UC Berkeley, situated outside San Francisco. I decided to go to NYC after school in 1968. I worked with two partners in an architecture studio on 33 union square west in Manhattan, producing prototypes for furniture and products and designing for interiors. We were on the 7th floor and Andy Warhol was on the 6th floor. His career just started to sell his prints. The old elevator stopped sometimes on the sixth floor and gave us glimpses into Warhol’s Factory. I remembered one elevator encounters with Andy. I told him a building across the street was for sale. He said, “Great! I know you are an architect. Please follow it up and let’s work something out together!” I still felt a little sorry never following that up until Andy was shot by a crazy women with a gun walking into his Factory.

ZF: In Chinese people’s mind, a lot of problems popped up in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., for example, feminist movement, nude performance art, sexual liberation, and etc. Can you please tell me how did you feel and understand those social issues when you were quite young?

RM: Yes, there were many issues for attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But all these problems arouse from 1940s and 1950s when the second World War was over and people became euphoric about the wealth in America. For the first time, families could use their cars to discover this country. But the self-imposed and strict social codes of behavior repressed free minds. The beat generation popular with Jazz musicians and poets used drugs and made crazy sexes. The Hippie thing was well in swing. Vietnam War was over. Civil rights and feminist movements were behind us. When I started at Berkeley in 1963, free speech movement was rampant. Later when I was about to leave Berkeley, students asked for stopping colleges across Europe and USA. In Yale University, some activists burned down their architecture building though it was built with concrete.

ZF: How was the art scene in NYC like? Who were those leading artists and what were they doing then?

RM: The art scene in NYC was in its infancy. New York had very important artists from 1950s, such as the Giants, Rauschenberg, De Kooning and Jackson Pollack. They worked in Long Island but they didn’t live in the city. SOHO had a bunch of buildings with high ceiling and massive loft space. Because of cheap rent, artists moved in. One of the first artists who moved there was Donald Judd. In between 17th street and Park Avenue, there was this restaurant called Max’s Kansas City where oftentimes hanged out Judd, Warhol and the like. Warhol led Pop art while Judd heralded conceptual art. Galleries such as Mary Boone gallery started in early 1970s when empty large warehouses became exploded in SOHO. SOHO means south of Houston street.


Cao Chang Di in 2003


Cao Chang Di in 2009

ZF: What kind of ideals did Americans have in the early 1960s and 70s? China launched its economic open-up program in late 1970s. From 1980s, China aspired for realizing four modernizations, namely, strengthening the sectors of agriculture, industry, technology and defense. After three decades, we see the flips sides. People’s mind are opened, but they become disillusioned with the realities.

RM: In 1960s, during Kennedy’s Administration, Americans thought it fabulous that we could make it to go to the Moon.

MAM: The 1960s was the happiest time. Life became easier with dish washers, washing machines and TV.

ZF: I guess we must switch to today. Why did you decide to move to Beijing? What is this love about?

MAM: I prefer to live in Beijing than Los Angeles (LA) or NYC or even Shanghai. In L.A, we live together with a lot of migrant workers and entrepreneurs, just like here in CCD. Many cities in the States are too established with strong power structures. I love Beijing because there are always unexpectedness along with social transformation. Beijing is always on the move. Creativity is nurtured in such drastic movements when its society is torn between stability and instability.

ZF: I am wondering what do you envision, four years living in this urban village, CCD will turn out to be? I know you like this idea of putting peasants together with the artists and galleries and hope to keep this village intact. For you, it is like a healthy eco-system to thrive on itself. You wouldn’t like to see farmers are driven off while only keeping artist studios and galleries? How do you see that would happen?

MAM:During these years, we have witnessed a great deal of rapid changes in this village, from nothing to something, from small low houses to four-story buildings. Our housekeeper, Madame Yang, has become quite well-off renting out her 90 rooms and making about half a million yuan a year. This urban village changes not because of the content of art, but because the existence of art. We are very happy to see these changes. From 2008 to 2009, we produced and published “Cao Chang Di in Beijing: Inside Out” documenting different people experiences living through changes.

ZF: In April 2010, CCD Photo Spring will kick off twenty gallery shows of international photographers. I remembered seeing many villagers with their children enjoying art shows and barbecue at the openings of Galerie Urs Meile. I believe people in the village will be happy to see this festival which includes art shows, performances, symposiums and screenings. I know these eleven grad students have been working on some projects in this village? What programs are you involved with during the Photo Spring?

MAM: The function of Base Beijing has been an incubator for new talents. We encourage these young architects to engage in local building projects on the spot. They have done some mock-ups of the future in CCD which will be exhibited during this Photo Spring. Now my students are negotiating with shopkeepers to show video works indoors and outdoors with their TV sets and DVD players. Also they are making road signs for the village. Imagine villagers walking on the streets or bumping into these shops see art works rather than entertainment TV programs! This is a fabulous idea!

ZF: We bought a small courtyard with 40,000 yuan in Songzhuang in 1997. It was 300 square meters with five rooms. We never had any contacts with local farmers. Since 2001, we moved to an apartment building in Tongxian and mixed quite closely with urban villagers. Now residing in CCD since 2007, we have much more closer communication with locals. Now it seems we might face the threat of demolition. I know you had dialogues with the chief of CCD, Mr. Zhang. What did he say? Was he interested in keeping intact CCD?

MAM: Mr. Zhang has done some great things to keep CCD. The village commission edited and published five books about the past, present and future of CCD. Mr. Zhang has tried to lobby senior officers to retain this village culture and contemporary art district by submitting these five books for approval.

ZF: How do you look at the changes in Beijing? What if we all need to move away?

MAM: Then we find another place. All our life has been like this. We love Beijing like our home. It is not because of its stability. For sure it is not stable. We love it because we always find new energy, friendship and chances. When we rented 706 factory near 798, we had this huge space of 7,000 square meters, 25,000 US dollars a month for four month free in a year. Before we were about to start renovation, someone from Chaoyang district government took it over and kicked us out. Life is funny. Almost everything happens by accident. Then you take advantage of it and see some interesting parts.

[Editor] Elemy Liu