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TAO's Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, China

A new museum dedicated to the historic Chinese art of papermaking is authentically rooted in the relationship between context, craft and construction

It has long been held that there are ‘four great inventions of ancient China’: gunpowder, the compass, printing … and papermaking. Indeed, in AD100, while Tacitus was scribbling on wooden tablets about Britain’s barbarian hordes, on the other side of the world a Chinese eunuch named Cai Lun had the balls to create a sheet of paper using wood fibre and hemp.

Up until that point in the Han Dynasty (206BC−AD220) messages were inscribed on bamboo, silk and even the shoulder blades of oxen (also known as oracle bones). Cai Lun’s technological leap could be said to be the first real Information Revolution, but it still took a thousand years for papermaking to reach the West. Each vellum version of the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, for example, required 170 calves’ skins.

sdfsdfDaylight floods a low-ceilinged bookshop space, panelled with light fir and paved with dark volcanic stone

To mark what the Chinese government calls ‘his contribution to civilisation’, a tomb and temple in Cai Lun’s honour were built in Shaanxi Province, and he takes pride of place in Beijing’s Eunuch Museum: a tourist must-see containing ‘authentic scenes’ from a castration room.

Paper is everywhere in China: used for lanterns, scrolls, paintings, toys and decoration, and the Chinese are inordinately proud of their paper-making and making-with-paper history. A paper manufacturer has just begun construction of a £21 million museum of rice paper in Anhui Province, while a small paper-cutting museum founded by artist Liu Ren is located in one of Beijing’s many hutongs. Ren’s home is a typical example of small-scale museums − some no more than family homes − that are cropping up all over the country, contributing to the official statistic that cites China as having more museums than the UK (China has 100 new museums opening every year).

03_North_view_copyAfter dark the hermetic composition is pierced by illuminated doors and windows

One of the latest museums to be constructed is the Museum of Handcraft Paper, which is situated near the village of Xinzhuang in Tengchong County, Yunnan Province. High in the Gaoligong Mountains − a UNESCO World Heritage site − this is a remote location for a museum. It is a remote location for anything. It’s a six-hour flight from Shanghai, or, if you prefer, 45 hours and 19 minutes by sleeper train (for the grand total of £46).

Designed by Beijing practice TAO (Trace Architecture Office), it is a modern twist on the local vernacular. The founder of the practice, Hua Li, told me that ‘the building is conceived as a micro-village, a cluster of several small buildings’, and his exploration of traditional village geometries and regional materials mean that the buildings settle into their surroundings. Even with nothing for miles around, they manage to meld with the background.


Taken as a whole, the appearance is typical of a self-contained, self-protective Chinese village arrangement, where, hidden behind the walls, along narrow alleys, the communal space opens up in a flurry of washing lines and the chatter of peasant life. Ironically, this building represents more bourgeois ambitions altogether: the preservation of cultural heritage. Indeed, Hua Li is critical of architecture’s ‘obsession with fancy forms’, and says that he is more committed to ‘exploring (the) ontological and essential meaning of space and tectonics in architecture, (and) its social and environmental impacts’. But first let’s take a look at the layout.

Six museum galleries are arranged around a small courtyard, with a three-storey building along one edge and three gallery/studios along each of two wings. The buildings are seen from the main road leading into the village, and the main public elevation displays areas of blank gallery wall with hidden recesses between each one. On first appearance, these niches seem to present the visitor with the possibility of turning and wandering down shikumen-style alleyways between individual buildings. The slight overhangs of the roofs fall inwards so that there is only a hint of the roof material and of the activities beyond.

Tearoom, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAO

Tearoom, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAO

The dominant, three-storey, almost rectilinear block forms the entrance to the museum. A full-height picture window on the main corner of the building allows visitors a glimpse inside the double-height reception space, which leads on to a ground floor tearoom. The tearoom is the pivot point, providing access into the two wings, external enclosure and the floors above.

The discrete gallery rooms, which have quirky shapes on plan, step down to follow the natural slope of the land and there are many interesting changes of level and angle − with surprising and unexpected views across, through, and out of the building. Each gallery along each wing is joined by short low-level corridors that are little more than full-height windows. These are clearly intended to frame views out, but also allow the lush mountain ranges that dominate the surroundings to become integrated into the building. In traditional Chinese gardens the framed, or ‘borrowed’, view is carefully chosen to capture a scene as a poetic composition in its own right. In this museum, however, the windows are much larger and more all enveloping, and are deemed to provide a greater connection to − rather than distance from − the view. Hua Li says that by connecting the interior to the surrounding landscape − farmland and countryside − these views ‘hint at the relationship between paper-making and context’.


Above the tearoom are a series of open-plan workshop spaces, and above that on the second floor are small artists’ cells, or guest dormitories. A roof terrace accessed by an external stone staircase takes the visitor up onto a second floor roof terrace that offers views over the dramatic countryside, but also provides the first clear sight of the bamboo roof covering, the stark original colours of which are intended to fade into the landscape over time.

The roof planes fall in two directions from the diagonal ridge, and the bamboo looks loosely attached − tied, almost − to the structure. In truth, the roof has been constructed to modern building standards and the bamboo has simply been overlaid as
a finish rather than functioning as the primary waterproof layer. But even so, the simplicity of the material still manages to convey honesty rather than parody, and this may have more to do with the construction methods than the overall design.

2nd Floor Work Area, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAOThe main paper-making studio, its intimate, workmanlike atmosphere reinforced by warm, organic materials

Built by a group of local farmers and villagers, the architect says that ‘the building is deeply connected with the local people’, which incidentally means that costs were kept down to around £60,000. Post-and-beam construction has been used and solid timber logs (the main posts of the three-storey building are 9m long, for example) have been jointed and pinned together. Throughout the building, hand-edged mortise and tenon joints (which are known as ‘Sun and Mao’ joints, in Chinese) connect the main structural elements. The goalpost frames were built on the ground and hauled up, and, while guy ropes anchored them in place, the horizontal floor plates were slotted in and bracing was added. Local coniferous Sha wood (fir) is used throughout.

The inherent flexibility of these materials and structural techniques has historically made them more resistant to earthquakes than masonry structures. But it was predominantly the unavailability of other materials and skilled labour that led to this choice of construction method. Qualified labour was brought in to complete the phases of construction that the local people were not skilled in, such as plumbing, fenestration and industrial product fit-outs.

Courtyard Looking into Tearoom, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAOPart of the network of narrow internal ‘streets’ between galleries

The plinth at the base of the external walls is made from local volcanic rock and, as the external ground level falls away, the horizontal plinth stays level to form the low level enclosing wall at the front. Cross ventilation is achieved through gaps in the plinth rather than by the natural porosity of the material itself. A Chinese colleague informs me that there is a rather boring proverb that says, ‘there is neither sweltering summer nor severe winter in Tenchong, but a rainy day brings the temperature down’. Given that the local climate is always mild, the architect says ‘there is no need for insulation’.


The ceilings are exposed timber and some of the walls are finished with bare timber planks of warm reddish hues. The museum exists to exhibit the history, technique and product of paper making and large areas of the internal surfaces have been covered with the local handcrafted paper in 450mm square sheets, set out on timber studwork, allowing light to filter through in places. Additional high-level angled slit windows also throw direct light into the interior.

Site Model, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAOSite Model, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAO

At the end of 2011, the Chinese authorities finally passed legislation protecting ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ (ICH) and a number of private museums have sprung up during the 10 years that it has taken to get the law passed. This museum is one of those. It is an interesting project that develops, rather than apes, the local vernacular, but it also exemplifies the potential and subtlety of China’s emerging young practitioners.

Since every family in Xinzhuang is involved in paper making, ‘the entire village functions as a living museum’, says the architect. ‘More and more people,’ he says, ‘have visited the village since the museum opened to learn about traditional paper making.’ Today’s preservationist instinct in China seems to differ from the contemporary Western fetish for cultural reverence in that it
seems to be a symbol of self-confidence rather than of nostalgia. Speaking on Chinese TV, minister Zhu Bing said, ‘China’s heritage protection efforts used to be concerned with tangible items including artifacts and historic relics … (now) Chinese traditional cultural practices have legal protection.’

Surrounding Landscape, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAOSurrounding Landscape, Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, China, TAO

Culture minister, Ma Wenhui goes further, with the dubious claim that the ‘cultural legacies of China’s ethnic communities are facing an onslaught from modern urbanisation and civilisation’. It’s a bit rich to blame modernisation for the erosion of cultural practices a mere 55 years after the horrors and ignominy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. That experiment consciously sought to destroy traditional and cultural elements of Chinese society, and it is good to see reparations being paid that in some way acknowledge that fact.

Yet, it is also apparent that the consequence of such legislation (the growth of remote, small-scale, living museum pieces) also provides the local peasants − those that haven’t yet benefited from China’s economic miracle − with plenty of labour-intensive ‘cultural activities’ to keep them occupied.


Fact File

Architect: Trace Architecture Office
Photographs: Shu He

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