The search for an authentic and modern Chinese regional architecture takes an encouraging turn with the Ningbo Museum
With its deepwater port and long history as a trading centre, Ningbo is the engine of China’s east-coast economy. In the wake of the economic boom, urban development has expanded to the Yinzhou district, making it the setting for a new history museum. In 2003, Hangzhou-based practice Amateur Architects won an international design competition for the museum.
In China, such ambitious expansion usually involves the relocation of more general municipal functions. Surrounded by mountains, the site was originally arable land, but dozens of old villages were razed to make way for two new government administration buildings, a vast, empty plaza and a cultural centre to the east of the museum. To the south is a park and beyond it lies a field that will make way for the headquarters of the city’s planning section.
Wang Shu, Amateur’s principal, realised he could not renew the site’s rural vitality, since it had simply ceased to exist. All that remained of the villages were acres of broken tiles and bricks. As Wang acknowledges, building a museum in China can be problematic due to lack of clarity with regards to function. Given these difficulties, Wang opted for what he describes as a ‘free design’. Set between the somewhat incongruous ensemble of new buildings, his task was to create ‘a single vital substance’, aimed at responding to the natural environment, local history and customs.
Today, architecture in China is facing a dilemma. Works by internationally renowned superstars may have put Chinese cities on the architectural map, but the bulk of domestic architecture remains business-oriented, wrapping conventional buildings in Western and Japanese facades to make them acceptable to the Chinese nouveau riche. In terms of establishing a distinct (let alone intellectual) Chinese approach to architecture, outdated institutional practices cannot cope with such a rapid pace of change.
Their attempts result either in buildings with stylised pagoda roofs or ideas sublimated from the Communist ‘modernist’ past, which, even if blended with imitative Western or Chinese characteristics, fail to respond to the natural environment, local customs and built heritage of particular places or regions. But this is hardly surprising.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution the term ‘regional’ was banned from the architectural agenda and, since the 1950s, has become synonymous with limited, local and provincial. Lately, however, a new generation of architects has emerged whose principals either studied overseas or under foreign teachers in China. Some of them, like Wang, dare to emphasise ‘placeness’ once again.
‘A mountain represents the place for Chinese people to find their lost and hidden culture,’ Wang claims. Historic Chinese ink-and-wash landscape paintings seem to support his hypothesis and responding to Yinzhou’s natural landscape, a mountain is an appropriate leitmotif. But Wang’s notion of the mountain also responds to Ningbo’s old city code with its maximum eaves height of 24m, so the building extends horizontally.
Decisive, sharp cuts and the layered facade represent man’s footprint on the building/mountain, either as relics or as the new manifestation of a vital city structure.
In spite of its fortress-like appearance and scale, the building invites people to walk an ‘archaeological’ trail. Partially immersed in a man-made lake lined with reeds, visitors enter this mountain of structural concrete through a 30m-wide rectangular hole in its east side. Three ‘valleys’ (two indoors, one outdoors), four caves (the entrance, the hall and two sides of the steep exterior valley) and four tunnel-shaped courtyards (two in the centre and two in the ‘depth of the mountain’) wait to be explored. The upper part defines a big terrace, which gives views of the city as well as crop fields and mountains.
An emphasis on surface and facade are deeply culturally rooted in China. Wang responds to this with a complex, layered facade that derives from small-scale experiments in his earlier projects, Five Scattered Houses and the campus of the Chinese Arts Academy (AR July 2008). Imprints of bamboo planks may prompt memories of béton brut, yet can also be interpreted as the fossil remains of bamboo groves.
Twenty different types of grey and red bricks and tiles, salvaged remains of the farmers’ razed homes, depict another ‘archaeological’ layer that borrows from wapan construction, a regional tradition of building emergency walls after typhoons.
Wang guided craftsmen on how to apply these traditional construction techniques, but was not allowed to control the whole process. And although the architect drew colourful working drawings for every wall, in practice, the craftsmen were unable to control the materials. For example, where there was supposed to be a straight line, there was a curved one.
As Wang recalls, there was heated debated over whether or not to redo the wrong parts. ‘Finally, I had no choice but to persuade all parties with a theory of “letting nature take its course”. I felt like an ancient Chinese philosopher,’ says the architect. Mediating this process earned him the respect of the craftsmen, who now call him shifu (master) instead of laoshi (teacher). Rectangular niches scattered across the walls, seemingly at random, allude to the small caves in Chinese mountains where Buddhist monks are said to have dwelled.
‘During the design and construction process, I was accused of creating something that reflects the most outdated appearance of Ningbo in the most modernised district of the city,’ Wang recalls. But for him, the first thing a history museum should collect is traces of time to face the past. Ningbo was once a walled city, besieged by foreign powers. The Chinese both won and lost. Today the ‘fortress’ of Ningbo seems to be besieged by critical regionalism with Chinese characteristics. But with architects like Wang rediscovering a renewed sense of place, it could turn out in everyone’s favour.
Architect Amateur: Architecture Studio, Beijing
Project team: Wang Shu, Lu Wenyu, Song Shuhua, Jiang Weihua, Chen Lichao
Structural engineers: Shentu Tuanbing, Chen Yongbing
Construction supervisor: Hu Jun
Photographs: Iwan Baan