Blending Digital Fiction Into Physical Reality, Boston-based Architect Zhifei Xu

Zhifei Xu (徐之非) received his Master of Architecture degree at MIT, and his bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, where he received the Eisner Prize for the highest achievement in architecture. He has previously practiced in world-renowned architecture firms in the United States, France, and China. He builds his work through different formats and media, ranging from buildings to interactive digital content. He has published writing in Doums China, CARTHA, and MIT Out of Frame. Zhifei Co-founded PlayCity, a practice focused on gamifying urban experience.

Specious Bark Pavilion, 2022, 8’x8’x12′, collaborate with Jie Wu

We’d love to hear how you got started. Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

I was born and raised in Shanghai, and then came to the US for my college education. I’m currently working in an architecture office in Paris. I am a trained architect, from my bachelor’s degree to graduate studies. The architecture education here in the US is a bit different from the rest of the world. Instead of focusing on the technical side of erecting a building, the architecture education here is more theoretical and conceptual. Especially for my graduate studies at MIT, the topics are very diverse. We are free to explore whatever we are interested and it was very normal to do some interdisciplinary exploration. It is this kind of education that shape the way I look at design now. 

Materialization of Digital Simulation of a Rock, 5“x5”x5“ each, 2022

What ideas are you exploring in your practice? Is there a theme you are currently addressing?

I am interested in the so-called “spirit of the times” in general. As with so many art movements in the past, great works of architecture and art have always reflected their own zeitgeist in some way. We are now in an era of constant digitization and virtualization, and this brings out a lot of excitement, problems, and confusion. In a sense, this is one of the motifs that has been explored since modernism. I am just one of the many who are interested in the impact of modernization, which is digitalization and virtualization in our era, on us. I’m interested in both the technique and the critical impact of the technique. Most of my projects are centered on this. 

Of course, digitalization/virtualization is too broad a subject. There can be many sub-topics within it, like digital tectonic or digital media. Each of my projects may target a different sub-topic, but still under the overall umbrella of the impact of digitalization.

The theme I’m recently focused on is the question of reality that is brought up by the constant virtualization. Our world is saturated by digital media that’s manipulated, spread as facts, sorted algorithmically, and increasingly blending the “faked” into our physical reality. Just as Jean Baudrillard claimed in his book Simulacra and Simulation, the digital used to be the simulation of the real, but now it’s overtaking the real and gaining its own reality. As a result, the modernist sense of truth is on the verge of collapse. Although it has always been thought that the authenticity and reality of architecture are self-evident, and it’s a moral imperative for architecture to express the “real”, the field of architecture is not immune to the question of reality. The faking of one architectural material with the image and texture of another has long existed in our field for various purposes even before the digital age, and today the digital media adds another dimension on top of the simple binary of real and fake, making the authenticity of the building increasingly confusing. So I’m recently into the idea that this kind of dissolution of authenticity and reality can lead to a different kind of architecture. I’m trying to experiment with (architectural) materials, in a way not focusing on their inherent physical quality, but more on seeing them as contemporary mediums that blend digital media into physical reality.

A Study of Photogrammetry Software, Clip, 2021
A Study of Photogrammetry Software, Clip, 2021

Do you have a mentor or piece of advice that influenced your practice?

I have many professors who have left a strong influence on me; they shaped the education I received. If you look carefully, you might find some hints of them in my work. But I don’t consider any of them particularly a mentor to me, at least there’s no single one that stands out. They brought to me the same influence that the work of other people I admire brought to me. These influences, along with some of the books I’ve read, some of the movies I’ve seen, some of the experiences I had growing up, and many other things, have blended together and become a part of me, shaping the way I think, the way I judge good and bad, my aesthetic choice, the technique I work with, and the way I work. 

Rather than typical mentoring, which I understand as questions and advice sessions, I feel I am more inspired by observing how they run their practices and listening to how they create their own works and their creation process. I feel it makes something unthinkable and out of reach more tangible to grasp, and motivates me to keep going on.

Specious Bark, 2022
Specious Bark, 2022

What does “community” mean to you? Has your local community inspired you as an artist?

Community is essential for everyone. Especially in the world of art and design, sometimes it’s all about the community. Our disciplines are made up of many of these small communities, so to speak. 

To me, the “community” goes beyond the people that are physically around me; it’s more about sharing similar sets of discourses and interests. Members of a “community” don’t have to be physically together or know each other personally (although this is definitely more ideal), as long as the members can constantly inspire each other and have meaningful conversations, I consider it a community. And personally, I can’t learn and grow without this kind of community, whether it’s those around me or those I only know by their work.

Within a community, with so many people who share similar interests and work on similar topics or mediums, it’s also easier for one to discover the differences between him/herself and others. Personally, I think this is very helpful in terms of understanding myself as a person and the uniqueness of my work.

Choreographing Form, Maya, 2020

Is there any advice you would like to share with others?

Have fun with life : )  

Sometimes I found people wear themselves out when they push too hard and work too intensively. Compared to that working ethic, I would rather believe the happier ones can eventually go farther. 

Plastic Rock, 2022

text & photo courtesy of Zhifei Xu

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