Born and raised in Taipei, Kris Yao is one of Taiwan’s most highly regarded architects. He has won numerous awards including the National Award for Arts and Architecture — the highest honor in cultural and art disciplines in Taiwan. In 2002, Kris Yao represented Taiwan in the 8th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale and was invited again in 2008. In 2004, Yao was asked to present his project, the THSR Hsinchu Station, at the 1st International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, and also exhibited work at the 1st International Architecture Biennale in Beijing, China. Most recently, Yao received the Architizer A+ Award for his China Steel Corporation Headquarters in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The College of Environmental Design recognized Yao with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005.
Yao’s works include an enormous array of building types: corporate/industrial, residential, cultural, educational, medical, retail, and transportation. He is also known for his superb interior architecture. But he maintains a special passion for cultural and historically related projects, as well as projects that involve complex technology. As someone who spends more than his share of time traveling, Yao admits that he’d love to design an airport. This passion for art and technology in fact inspired the name of his firm, Artech Architects. Headquartered in Taipei with another office in Shanghai, the firm currently employs over 160 people.
Luck also played a role in Yao’s advanced education. While he applied to a variety of institutions in pursuit of his masters degree, Yao explains with a smile that he didn’t really chose Berkeley; Berkeley chose him.
Having never before visited the U.S., Yao was captivated by the free exchange of ideas, the diversity, and the lack of hierarchy that he encountered when he arrived on campus — a unique character unlike anything he previously experienced in Taiwan. He went on to receive his Masters of Architecture from CED in 1978.
Since then, Yao has maintained close ties with CED and has been a generous supporter of the college and campus, including contributions to the campaign for Wurster Hall, leading the Berkeley Taiwan Alumni Club, and sponsoring the recent 2012 Shanghai Berkeley Ball.
During his thesis work, Yao interviewed diverse interest groups and individuals, giving him the opportunity to immerse himself in the local community and American culture. While he’d always been interested in how design happens, his CED experience helped him more deeply understand the personal, social and political dynamics that shape design.
This relationship of the person to the built environment remains central to Yao’s work. He views architecture as a theatrical stage for the people who interact with the space. Comparing architecture to story-telling, he strives to communicate an experience that people can relate to — that although it may be like nothing they’ve ever before seen, there nevertheless should be a familiarity that touches the heart.
These concepts are perhaps no better exemplified than in Yao’s Wuzhen Grand Theater in the surreal water village of Zhejiang in southern China, where visitors arrive by wooden boats or on foot from an island across a bridge. The building, set to complete in May 2013, uses familiar local materials: reclaimed wood forms a graceful lattice across a fan-shaped glass facade and ancient massive bricks from the city wall clad another portion of the exterior.
For Yao, three things are vitally important in the design of a building: response to locality, craftsmanship and refined attention to the way a building is put together. In the design of the Wuzhen Theater, these values come together to create a structure that, though massive and modern, feels almost hand-made.
Buddhism also plays an important role in Yao’s work and his life. While Yao doesn’t adhere to a particular design philosophy, he likens his approach to the Zen art of “direct seeing.” This approach undoubtedly contributed to the design of the recently completed Water-Moon Monastery in Taipei where Master Sheng Yen imparted his vision for the building in six words: Flower in space, Moon in water. With this guiding principle, Yao created a design that reduces color and form to a minimum, conveying the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Yao used an innovative technique to void cast a Zen sutra in prefabricated GRC panels, painting the scripture in sunlight onto the interior surfaces.
Kris Yao looks with gratitude to Berkeley and the College of Environmental Design for the wisdom and experiences that have contributed to his success, “It’s a wonderful university that benefits many. I loved being a part of it.”
Dean Jennifer Wolch acknowledged Yao’s generosity, “Kris’s wonderful support over the years is greatly appreciated. We’re definitely lucky that Kris chose us.”