Rooted in Nature – Minimalism According to Sun Dayong

For Sun Dayong, Founder & Chief Architect of Beijing-based architecture studio Penda China, minimalism is the answer to our post-consumerist world.

Editorial Team15 Jul 2022

Ever dared to take stock of the entirety of your belongings? A quick glance over at the dining table and you might find a smattering of cups and a pile of correspondence. Perhaps some overflow pantry items shoved in a random corner, old photo albums and toys collecting a fine layer of dust in a storage basket… Everyone’s house is different, but a problem we all have is that we have too much stuff. 


Owning “things” has become a marker of contemporary living – maybe they give us a sense of security, something to grasp onto in the rough tides of today’s world, but at the same time, more and more of us are coming to realise that we live in a world of overconsumption. The rise of Japanese author Marie Kondo’s “KonMari” method of decluttering, or the even earlier philosophy of minimalism reflect our desire for less – to edit, whether in daily life, design, or architecture. To Chinese architect Sun Dayong, it’s what informs his creativity. 



“Less is Love”: words to live by 


“‘Less is Love’ isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s an idea that embraces the environment we live in,” says Sun. At a time when the desire for consumption is at odds with nature’s resources, Sun’s philosophy of “less” could not be more timely. To him, the environment is worth protecting as he believes that Earth is our only home, not just for humans, but for all living things. His philosophy “comes from the East, and as Chinese architect, it is my dream and humble suggestion for the world”.


“When I say ‘Less is Love’, you’ll probably think of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Less is More’. As I see it, ‘Less is More’ came from an era of industrial design and radical minimalism – standardisation meant that things could be mass produced, which was important to meet society’s needs at the time,” explains Sun. After World War II, it was essential to rebuild as quickly as possible, which resulted in what some would call bland cityscapes. “Architect Robert Venturi once wrote in a critique that ‘Less is a bore’. It was a different time, one when post-war consumption needed to be encouraged, but now, more than half a century on, overconsumption has proven to do more harm than good, and is putting intense strain on our planet's resources,” says Sun. 


There’s no time like the present to rid ourselves of over-consumption, and Sun believes we can look to Chinese philosophy for clues on how to live and work with less.



What Chinese philosophy can teach us about minimalism 


When Sun speaks of Chinese philosophy, he’s referring to Lao-Zhuang, the combination of ideas from Laozi and Zhuangzi, Taoist philosophers from the 6th and 4th Century respectively, whose writings still influence Eastern thought today. Taoism advocates the idea that “Heaven and Earth” (nature) is at one with humans and all other living things. The idea of “less” isn’t just about physical things, but a mindset of less – letting go of materialistic desires, and understanding that resources need to be shared among all living beings. He explains, “Design isn’t only about satisfying our needs as humans – a building becomes part of the ecosystem, a place that becomes symbiotic with the wildlife around it”. Conversation with Sun is imbued with Taoist concepts, and his work reflects one of the philosophy’s key ideas – “wu wei”, or inaction, if action is at odds with the natural course of the universe. “Traditional Chinese architecture tells us that the Chinese have a different view of posterity. Buildings don’t need to last forever,” he says, “if a building deteriorates, it goes back to earth, and the same site can be redeveloped by future generations”.  


As a young architect, he spent the first five years of his career toiling on endless large-scale commercial projects, which left him questioning the purpose of his generation of Chinese architects. He went back to school – to do a graduate degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing – and it was there, at a seminar, that he found his calling. 





The seminar was led by German industrial designer Luigi Colani, focusing on biomimicry, design that emulates structures found in nature. Some of Colani’s examples that day stuck with Sun: “Spiderwebs – they’re extremely efficient structures that are tailor-made for how spiders live; termite nests have excellent airflow; skyscrapers are just like corn – the cob is the core, which can support just the right number of grains, which are like individual units”. And just like that, Sun’s eyes were opened – his graduation project was based on principles of biomimicry.


“Zhuangzi often talks about the beauty of nature. To that end, nature should inform design,” he says. For his graduation project, he took inspiration from the nests of the muskrat (a semiaquatic rodent), and beavers. The result was a “Floating Island”, a structure that has no foundations, leaves the surrounding environment undisturbed, and can float with rising water levels. Constructed with a composite made from reeds from the immediate area, the building isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s a place that both looks and acts as part of the environment.


Sun Dayong’s rendering of his graduation project, ”Floating Island“. (Photo Courtesy: Penda China)




Build from nature, with nature


It’s now been a decade since Sun co-founded Penda China, and the firm’s vision remains unchanged – “to be in awe of nature, respect it, learn from it, protect it, and live in harmony with it – each of our projects is infused with at least some of these ideas,” he says. 


Beauty abounds in nature, and is an endless source of inspiration, or even guidance, for architects. Penda China’s Zhuhai project, Shili Lianjiang, is testament to that. “Lian” means lotus, and is the central theme of the building, an agricultural exhibition centre, as reflected in the abstract undulating form of the roof. Like a lotus leaf, it dips towards the centre, creating an organically-shaped auditorium for outdoor performances, or simply a place for the public to relax. People on the roof, Sun explains, are like the water droplets that roll around the surface of the lotus leaf, “when they sit and enjoy the open air, views, or performances”. To Sun, biomimicry is both the vision and the solution. 


Penda China’s project, Shili Lianjiang, in Zhuhai, China, inspired by a lotus leaf. People on the roof of the building are like the water droplets that roll around the surface of the lotus leaf. (Photo Courtesy: Penda China) 




Traditional wisdom


Apart from biomimicry, Sun’s years in graduate school also allowed him to delve deeper into traditional Chinese architecture, which he emphasises has always combined elements that is both in tune with nature and people’s needs at the time. He gives an example of eaves that curve upwards, which considers the angle of the sun across the seasons, so as to maximise sunlight inside the building. This feature informed their design for the entrance of Haikou Wenming East Road Tunnel. 


This 60-metre canopy cleverly bridges traditional wisdom and the requirements of cosmopolitan transit. “We took reference from traditional [Chinese] roofs, introducing a gentle upwards curve to the canopy to diffuse natural light, creating a smooth transition for drivers’ eyes before entering the darkness of the tunnel. The concept was adapted from traditional [Chinese] mansions,” says Sun. 


The shape of the 60-metre canopy of Penda China’s design for Haikou Wenming East Road Tunnel, in Hainan, China, was informed by traditional Chinese upward-curving eaves. The gentle upwards curve of the canopy diffuses natural light, creating a smooth transition for drivers’ eyes before entering the darkness of the tunnel. (Photo Courtesy: Penda China) 




Moving forward


In modern construction, Sun’s foundation-less “Floating Island” is almost utopian – in most cases, architecture inevitably disrupts the land. “Less is Love” is a goal that takes planning, be it in choice of materials, waste reduction, being open-minded about reuse, as well as revisiting ideas from the land’s ancestors, and centuries-old wisdom. It’s what guides Sun’s work, especially at a time when the climate has not only changed, but has become an emergency.


“Perhaps in the future, ‘Floating Island’ can become a real solution. Of course, back then, the details were underdeveloped, but if we were to be given the opportunity in the future, with the experience we’ve now accumulated, I believe we can make this project a reality,” Sun says. 


To this new breed of Chinese architect, life and design are intrinsically linked. With their clear values and willingness to learn, the world awaits their new perspective with bated breath.