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Material culture: MOCA by Waa in Yinchuan, China

AR_EA 2015 Commended

China’s museum boom has brought with it a vast array of buildings of varying quality and attention to local context and cultural heritage. The demands and expectations are high – new museums face the monumental task of representing Chinese culture to the world in a modern setting. Although part of the government’s decision to determine culture as a strategic industry, these structures not only fulfil an economic function of urban branding; they also respond to an increasing demand for traditional material culture and contemporary art within the younger Chinese generation.

In the north-western province of Ningxia, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Yinchuan is not exactly central. In fact, the project claims to be the first museum dedicated to contemporary art in the north-west. Yinchuan is something of a liminal zone, a threshold between the East and the West. Home toa significant Muslim community, the cultural overlap is prevalent in the everyday realities of the region. MOCA Yinchuan plays an important role in this, providing a space for the local community to explore this heritage and live out any difficulties that might surface. With a collection focused on the introduction of the Western practices of oil painting during the Qing dynasty and an exhibition plan connected to the China-Arab States Expo, MOCA Yinchuan seems to be well on its way to fulfilling this function.

Yinchuan MOCA WAA Plan

Yinchuan MOCA WAA Plan

Floor plan

Designed by waa (we architech anonymous), a practice dedicated to flexible and unimposing architecture that instils a sense of humanity and place, the MOCA Yinchuan is a project keenly aware of both its cultural and geographical context.

Inspired by the local topology, the facade design uses more than 1,600 unique glass-reinforced gypsum panels to reference both the rigid strata of geographical formations and the curves of the nearby Yellow River. The structure creates immediate associations with Yinchuan, literally ‘silver river’, and this is not simply symbolic: it shows a consideration for the museum context. Far from the city centre, MOCA Yinchuan is surrounded by protected wetlands and agricultural land, making a consideration for nature and ecological thinking deeply relevant, especially in one of the few provinces in China still focused on agriculture instead of industry.

Yinchuan MOCA WAA Section AA

Yinchuan MOCA WAA Section AA

Section AA

The T-shaped structure is entered through a gash on the eastern axis leading to the reception and the huge central atrium. Progression through the museum follows a narrative of ascension and enlightenment through time, with the depiction of changing geological formations reflected in the interiors resulting in an almost Classical architectural hierarchy. The visitor is led through open galleries intended for installations and sculpture represented in darker and rougher materials, to the higher levels where the curated content and permanent collections are housed in increasingly lighter and more synthetic surroundings.

Before exiting through the restaurant, the visitor once more experiences the structure through the atrium. Could this divide also be a metaphor for the two conflicting cultures the museum intends to bring together? Or is the gap simply an invitation to think about what is left unsaid? A representation of the cultural loss suffered through Western imperialism, civil wars, the Cultural Revolution and the influx of capitalism? Perhaps not. But the gap between the two cultures is being addressed.


Architect: Waa

Photographs: Iwan Baan


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