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China Art Academy in Hangzhou by Amateur Architecture Studio

[Archive] The campus for China’s leading art school is richly nuanced.

A monumental gift package, wrapped in red cloth and tied with a big bow, has been erected at the entrance to the China Art Academy. It celebrates the opening of a new campus for an institution that is celebrating its 80th anniversary as one of the country’s most respected schools. Though the Academy already has a pompous new building beside Hangzhou’s West Lake, it was decided to move 5000 students and faculty to Xiangshan, an idyllic location I 5 kilometres west.

The husband-wife partnership of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu won the competition with a linear masterplan for the 53 hectare site, which curves part-way around the base of a forested hill, and designed all of the 21 buildings.

External ramps provide access to classroom blocks

External ramps provide access to classroom blocks

Design was fast-tracked, and the entire campus was completed and landscaped in two three-year phases. The varied structures make inventive use of locally sourced and recycled materials, putting a fresh spin on traditional forms and building techniques. ‘To achieve quality design, you must insist on everything,’ says the architect.

‘To secure quality construction, you have to instruct the workers and have them do test pieces.’ Despite the speed and a budget of 150 pounds per sq m, the results are exemplary. It’s a formidable achievement for Wang who heads a 10-person office in the city and the Academy’s Landscape and Architecture Design Institute, in addition to his jobs as department head and teacher.

The informal campus landscape provides many different kinds of spaces for social encounters

The informal campus landscape provides many different kinds of spaces for social encounters

The first phase of construction comprises four classroom buildings and several smaller studios and workshops extending along the north side of the site, from the massive library that marks the entrance to an athletics field at the end. The language is simple: concrete-frame courtyard blocks with grey brick infill and rich-toned wood shutters have shallow-sloping roofs of grey tiles. External steel frames support projecting brises-soleil that employ the same tiles. From the belvedere on the small administrative tower, the roofs and louvres flow together in a rippling cascade. A long, utlilitarian art gallery doubles as a boundary wall, and a raised bridge reaches out to the side of the hill. The buildings are nestled into the site, responding to the topography and rustic character. The land has been returned to local farmers to cultivate edible grasses and raise fish in a pond, giving the campus an organic character that few designers could match.

Phase two on the south side is more ambitious in its architectural expression, and it shows the architects’ growing confidence in handling larger compositions. Wang, who was born in the western province of Sichuan and grew up in Xi’an, has a reverence for nature and natural harmony. He also draws on his passion for calligraphy, striving to capture in his architecture the gestural freedom of the brushstroke and the tension between the characters and the intervening spaces. For the schools of architecture and fashion design he employed boldly swooping concrete roofs topped with scavenged clay tiles stacked on end, and these abstract the curvilinear roofs of traditional Chinese architecture. Fragments of terracotta are mixed in with the grey brickwork- a kind of bricolage that was developed in the coastal region as a means of reconstructing buildings from the rubble left by hurricanes.

Landscaping eases the buildings into their settings

Landscaping eases the buildings into their settings

The varied textures of walls in which bricks project or are recessed, contrast with an open exhibition hall of smooth poured concrete with jagged openings at the top and sides. Similar sculptural shells are wrapped around a trio of scholars’ studies. Long, low classroom buildings are accessed by wood balustraded ramps, and their horizontality plays off a vertical block of student dormitories and common rooms. Water is channeled to evoke the canal towns that are scattered around Hangzhou.

During the years it took to build the campus, Amateur Architecture created a series of pavilions for a new park in the neighbouring city of Ningbo, and converted a factory on its riverfront into a municipal art gallery, employing massive steel plates to wrap circulation space around the old structure. Their most accomplished work to date is a cluster of six 26-storey apartment towers at the centre of Hangzhou. Pairs of floors are enclosed in projecting concrete frames and rotated nine degrees back and forwards from one to the next. This instills a sense of motion and a rhythmic alternation that carries over from one tower to the rest, while giving residents the feeling that they are living in a duplex, rather than a high-rise block.

China Art Academy

Architect: Amateur Architecture Studio

Photography: Iwan Baan

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