The 'dream home' creator and his often controversial journey

From Shanghai's most beautiful bookstore to dream homes, he is practicing the revival of Shanghai's urban spaces.
Ti Gong

Yu Ting

Personal profile

Yu Ting was born in Shanghai in May of 1972. He became famous in 2015 after renovating a 30-square-meter quarter in a former water tower into a three-bedroom apartment in popular TV reality show “Dream Home.” 

Inspired by this success, he launched the “Urban Micro Space Revival Campaign” at old local residential communities.

The 40 years of reform and opening up have created a variety of architectural concepts. Meanwhile, Shanghai's urban development is under rapid change. There are constant battles between design and practicality, life and beauty. 

With his deep affection for the city, Yu has fully utilized his design talents and transformed a number of projects with both social and market effects, such as Zhongshuge (Thames Town Store), which was dubbed the "the most beautiful bookstore," and the Sinan Bookstore. 

His studio, Wutopia Lab, was recognized as one of the “top 10 pioneering architect institutes in the world” in 2018. He believes the lives of ordinary people can become different and unique with design and aesthetic vision as well as a little change.

Ti Gong

Yu Ting

My Story

When I was a child, my family of four lived in a rather crammed apartment covering 10 square meters. My parents changed the position of the bed and furniture every half a year to create fresh spaces. We children were required to dress neatly and have clean nails. Our white sneakers had to be touched up with white chalk. My earliest aesthetic education and code of conduct came from these authentic Shanghai genes of my parents.

Most Shanghainese felt a bit anxious in the 1990s. Compared with the bustling development of Shenzhen in southern Guangdong Province, Shanghai became too quiet.

But soon, the signal of Shanghai's opening up was released from Pudong. In 1995, after I graduated from the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University, I returned to work in Shanghai when various buildings were mushrooming across the country. 

The architectural design institute I worked for participated in the design work of many of the city's landmarks, such as the Shanghai Art Theater, Dongjiao State Guest Hotel, State Grid Control Center, CPC Central Foreign Affairs Department building, Shaoxing Grand Theater and Pudong Civil Defense Office Building.

The vitality and diversity that Shanghai has shown in the wave of reform and opening-up has shaped my personality as a designer. It is difficult for me to find another city that can encourage me to explore and give me nutrition. During the 40 years of reform and opening-up, I am growing rapidly every day with the city.

Although today's aesthetics are quite different from the past, if you explore deeply, you will find that the city's aesthetic genes have never changed — you can always trace back or extend into the future.

In 2013, my wife and I founded the studio Wutopia Lab — Wu is the ancient name of Shanghai. We appreciate the relaxed and elegant quality that is our design philosophy and our principle of life.

I was invited by the TV show "Dream Home" to renovate the "water tower apartment" on Jinling Road E. in 2015. My first impression I gave to the landlord, surnamed Ren, was "refreshing." Even in the slimy environment of his apartment, Ren's family maintained a refreshing home, appearance and optimism.

Their quality gave me full confidence to renovate their crammed apartment. The 30-square-meter "water tower apartment" was later transformed into a cozy home with three bedrooms and two sitting rooms for three generations of five family members. The practice made the audience believe that the slogan of the show, "designing can change life," was not just empty talk.

After finishing the interior of the "water tower apartment," I repainted the facade of the whole building. The white building stands outstandingly amongst a group of run-down residential structures. I realized that a simple act from an architect can make things different, and help people live more casually.

Ti Gong

Inspired by the project, I launched the “urban micro space renaissance plan,” calling on more peers to discover and transform the tiny "negative space" around us.

After the "Dream Home" program was broadcast, a friend of mine called me and asked the landlord if he would like to rent the house for 8,000 yuan (US$1,168) a month. I was very surprised at the time because the average monthly rent in the area was only 2,000 yuan per month. The friend said he planned to rent the apartment and turn it into an Airbnb home stay site. The 8,000 yuan monthly rent is not expensive for its downtown location.

The phone call gave me inspiration. I was working on another project to transform a 47-square-meter, dilapidated house at the intersection of Shaanxi Road S. and Julu Road for a Shanghai woman. Her monthly income was slightly over 7,000 yuan, but the mortgage for the apartment was 6,500 yuan per month. I divided the house into two quarters. The woman lived in the north-facing room, while the south-facing room was made into a "female bnb" for 300 yuan per night. It turned out to be very popular and the rent can fully cover the mortgage, with some surplus.

I think this is the meaning and value of a designer's work. The value of designing is not only to create a good environment, but also to create a new way of life, so that everyone living in the city can reduce their grievances, despair or distrust of the city.

Earlier in 2012, I received the task of designing the Zhongshuge bookstore in the outlying Songjiang District. I felt most of the bookstores at that time were quite unappealing. After the opening of Zhongshuge, it was immediately appraised as “the most beautiful bookstore in Shanghai” and was also regarded as a benchmark for the transformation of China's brick-and-mortar bookstores. 

In 2017, when a new Zhongshuge branch was opened to Suzhou, I designed the bookstore into a “rainbow paradise.”

Some tried to say that the bookstores I designed were created in order to become wanghong (Internet sensations) rather than to satisfy book lovers. In 2018, the Sinan Bookstore gave me an opportunity to design a bookstore for actual readers. I believe that there are always a small group of bookstore lovers, and the Sinan Bookstore is a gift for them where they can enjoy the most in-depth words.

On the opening day of Sinan Bookstore on April 23, I wrote on my WeChat account that the bookstore is my gift to my hometown, Shanghai. This most humanistic bookstore is like a lighthouse to guide our future.

I also received criticism when I took part in "Dream Home" again in 2017. Most of the previous designing projects on the TV program aimed to turn small apartments into multiple rooms, but the program director asked me to try another method. I accepted the challenge and changed a 121-square-meter apartment in Shanghai with three bedrooms and two sitting rooms into a studio. That later became the most controversial episode.

People often ask me whether designers or artists are the only group of people in pursuit of beauty in life.

My answer is "certainly not." It is undeniable that most of us lack the training of beauty from childhood, which makes our lives become filled with clichés, such as "an apartment must have multiple bedrooms and several sitting rooms," or "the living room sofa must be put opposite the TV wall" and so on. But as long as you change these traditional views, you can make life different.

From major landmark buildings to people's living spaces, if we continue to create new aesthetic styles based on Shanghai's historical tradition, I believe that we can create new iconic Shanghai-style architecture.

The 40 years of reform and opening-up have passed, but the glorious architectural era has just begun. There are many incredible new opportunities waiting for us. 

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