Arata Isozaki brings Japanese rigour and sensuality to a new art museum
Originally published in AR July 2008, this piece was republished online in November 2015
Founded more than eighty years ago as a prestigious art college, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) was transformed into a university of art, architecture and design in the 1990s, and relocated from the centre of Beijing to the north-eastern Wangjing district in 2001. That gave it room to expand and serve as a catalyst for the burgeoning DaShanZi Art District. Crisp, grey-brick blocks house classrooms; there is a slender clock tower that Arne Jacobsen might have designed, as well as a domed studio in which students still sketch plaster casts of classic European sculptures. However, CAFA wanted something more adventurous and expressive of its role as China’s leading art school, and they selected Arata lsozaki to create it. Working in China since 1996, lsozaki can draw on a longer experience than most of the Chinese condition. Earlier this year he completed the Shenzhen Cultural Centre; the Nanjing Conference Centre is still to come, and his Shanghai office is currently overseeing construction of a large mixeduse project that includes an art museum, hotel and offices.
At CAFA, three arcs of clapboarded slate panels, resembling boomerangs on plan, intersect to form the walls and roof of a museum that is bathed in soft natural light from a trio of tapered skylights. The six-level building (two belowground) responds to a curved boundary road and the L-plan site, and its interior provides a challenging alternative to the conventional sequence of white cubes. lsozaki’s concept sketches show the museum taking shape as an organic form that wraps around an existing block to provide a defining image for the academy and a layered complex of interconnected display areas. Contained within this sensuously curved volume is an entrance hall that rises the full height of the building, a wedge-shaped auditorium opening onto a sunken garden, and a cubic sculpture gallery cantilevered out above the main entry. Ramps ascend to the different levels, and there is a constant alternation of shadow and light, intimate and expansive display areas with low and lofty ceilings, to accommodate classic and contemporary art.
The museum was designed for temporary exhibitions of work by international artists and selections from the academy’s collection of Chinese art. The four-storey entrance hall can accommodate the largest installations and these can be viewed from different levels. A small stage is cantilevered from the lift shaft when the hall is used for receptions. On the second floor, the natural textures of dark stone, poured concrete, wood and fabric enhance the display of traditional drawings and paintings. The curved walls and lofty ceilings of the two upper levels provide an ideal setting for all kinds of contemporary work. Curved skylights generate abundant natural illumination, filtered through fiberglass membranes, in the entrance hall and fourth floor gallery. The intensity of lighting is subtly varied as an inspiration to curators and visitors alike.
To ensure that the complexities of the design were fully realised, project architect Daisuke Tofuku moved to Beijing in 2004 to supervise every aspect of construction. ‘I needed to educate and motivate local architects and engineers,’ he says, ‘and they stayed on the job even though the Chinese system does not usually allow them to concentrate on one small building. Most of them were in the mid-twenties and inexperienced when the project began.’ He saw that as the impermeable shell with its an advantage, since lsozaki and narrow slit openings, to the the client wanted a Japanese, luminous, soaring entry hall, rather than Chinese quality of builds anticipation for what construction. To hold costs down, the architects specified domestic in which each level materials, except for lighting flows into the next, and the shift and specialised fixtures.
The slate panels recall the inkstones that were still a central feature of Chinese art when CAFA was founded, but they take a contemporary form. The curves were generated by 3D CAD software, which plotted every joint and opening, and the details were confirmed by using mock-ups. However, the success of the installation depended upon the craft skills of the workers onsite.
Intellectual and sensory of the main galleries themes achieve an ideal balance in this building. It may be the most satisfying and least mannerist that lsozaki has ever realised. The transition from the impermeable shell with its narrow slit openings, to the luminous, soaring entry hall builds anticipation for what is to come: an architectural promenade in which each level flows into the next, and the shift from brightness to near darkness fosters the contemplation of every kind of art that may ever be shown there. Even before the art was installed (the museum is scheduled to open in October) the interior was as thrilling a spatial experience as Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin in its first years, but far better tailored to its primary role. At every turn, the play of curves draws you forward, and each of the main galleries provides a triumphant climax.