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Fan Zeng Art Museum in Nantong, China, by Original Design Studio

Inspired by traditional Chinese paintings, Original Design Office’s Fan Zeng Art Museum is a wash of greys

Original Design Studio has been gradually developing its unique architectural language, from the Shanghai History Museum of Guild Halls with its semi-translucent materials that integrate outside and in, to the ‘Power Station of Art’, the Shanghai Modern Art Museum, with its many courtyards in a large volume. This enriched vocabulary culminates in the Fan Zeng Art Museum.

From the expressway, the museum is a welcome surprise, located on a large area of land at the south-east of Nantong University’s new campus. Distant from neighbours, both physically and architecturally, the museum takes a novel approach compared with typical campus buildings in China, where complex compositional tricks often generate confusing spatial sequences. The monolith resembles a Chinese stamp pressed against rice paper, leaving an imprint and absorbing the scenery. The distance between the museum and its neighbours both defines its own boundary and highlights its uniqueness from the indistinct urban logic. You can sense the influence of traditional Chinese painting in the architecture, perhaps even the ink and wash paintings of the building’s namesake, Fan Zeng, a master painter.

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Location plan

A diagonal path connects the museum to the outside world like a castle with a barbican entrance. Fan Zeng Museum uses water as a demarcation to define and reinforce its presence, a buffer to the retreated building.

Inside, a vertical system of overlapped ‘courtyards’ alternates functional blocks with voids within the spatial logic of a rectangular envelope. The ground-floor ‘courtyard’ is an enclosed space with small exhibition spaces in two L-shaped aisles on the fringes. On the first floor, the mass-and-void relationship is reversed, with the main exhibition hall at the centre, and the sky-reaching Rock Courtyard and Water Courtyard on either side. On the second floor, the courtyard regains the centre of the composition, enclosed by offices with curved ceilings. This central courtyard has a more complex beauty, in contrast to the simpler ‘courtyards’, with its water feature, fungi garden and black-and-white tile pattern.

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Floor plans - click to expand

In the Fan Zeng Museum, light is used to guide visitors up the building. You are lured to the museum by diffused light playing on the water. Walking into the ground-floor space, elusive reflections pour over you. Light is also used on the main staircase: soft light from the Rock Courtyard divides the space into two contrasting parts, highlighting the depth and soaring momentum of this building. Reaching the corridor outside the first-floor exhibition hall, three sources of bright light from the entrance to the main hall and from the Rock and Water courtyards indicate the spatial layout of this floor. As the core space, the main exhibition hall is rightly the most illuminated. Fan Zeng masterpieces are displayed in this cheerful space. Looking out from the museum, ceramic screen windows mediate with the outside world. Unlike the view-framing lattice windows used in classical Chinese gardens, the screen windows don’t interrupt the continuous scenery, but wrap it in a thin, gauze-like curtain, reducing the contrast between inside and out. At dusk, the museum glows like a lantern.

The colour scheme is grey in many shades, textures and materials - cold grey: the rocks; rhythmic grey: the ceramic shutters draped on the facade; serene grey: dark sky reflected on the metallic panels; heavy grey: concrete poured; hard grey: the steel structure; lukewarm grey: the cobblestones; and a mystic shade of grey mingling with the reflections of the pond in the glass facade.

In a Chinese ink and wash painting, ‘ink’ is myriad degrees of black between wet and dry shades. That’s why a Chinese painting can still exhibit rich layers and colours using only ink. Likewise, the Fan Zeng Museum is a greyish architecture, with the greys created by light. Reminiscent of water-and-mountain paintings, where scenes are pitted far and near in rich overlays, this sophistication reflects the efforts made by the architects in choreographing materials, so that the entire architecture is wrapped in harmonious tones. From the top-floor courtyard, the eaves, skyline and endless mountains dissolve; architecture and Chinese art melting into the cultural saga of Nantong City.

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Sections

Fan Zeng Art Museum

Architect: Original Design Studio with The Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tongji University

Architects in charge: Zhang Ming, Zhang Zi, Li Xuefeng, Sun Jialong, Zhang Zhiguang, Su Ting

Photographs: Yao li, Su Shengliang

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