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Essay

The Infinite Spontaneity of Tradition
By Grace Ong Yan

Through the thick, humid air in the seaside city of Ningbo, China an unexpectedly singular architecture stands out from a bland commercial district. Comprised of an accumulation of materials, the Ningbo Historic Museum rises up from the ground as a squared geometry, then angles outward towards the top. “Architecture as mountains” (1) is how its architect, Wang Shu describes his design for the Ningbo Historic Museum. The matter-of-fact, yet monumental manner in which his architecture sits on the barren plaza is no mistake. Envisioning a natural formation is, in fact, a re-instatement of the rural past into what has become a hyper-urbanized context, devoid of history. The museum’s site is a flat, paved landscape, dotted by nondescript buildings. By creating an artificial mountain, Wang has shaped an architectural topography that is filled with an abundance of nature-inspired experiences. The building massing appears monumental but once inside, Wang’s architecture is focused around experience. The museum as a mountain is composed of three “valleys,” four “caves,” four sunken courtyards, a body of water with reed covered banks, as well as a mountainous topography. Wang expresses the building’s key moments of space and circulation as natural phenomena. Understanding Ningbo Historic Museum as a landscape is key to perceiving the project’s meaning. Movement through the building is not expeditious, but slow and thoughtful, as if we have been transported to a past, pre-technological time. Wang has imagined his architecture as a kind of Chinese garden where a likely scenario involves a thoughtful scholar meandering through the landscape. The building’s circulation was conceived as “a labyrinth of pathways,” (2) which means that multiple paths interconnect with public spaces. As a result, inhabiting the building is wonderfully cinematic.

The exterior of the Ningbo Historic Museum was conceived as a kind of mountainous topography. Through different devices, Wang Shu’s allusion to nature occurs on both the interior and the exterior of his building. Its walls have been built with what Wang calls, “Chinese vernacular sustainable construction.” (3) In response to the large-scale demolitions and reconstructions in China, millions of pieces of bricks and roof tiles from different decades are salvaged from demolition sites all over the province to construct the new building.(4) The collected building rubble is used in the construction of new walls with the rammed earth wall technique. While quarried earth is traditionally used to fill the walls, Wang has re-invented the technique by using rubble from demolished villages as fill. It is at once a rejection of China’s demolition and renewal projects, and a way to ensure continuity of the region’s history in its new construction. Additionally, the appeal of rammed earth walls as a sustainable building technology is recognized as intelligent and timely.

Another major project designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, Wang Shu’s architectural practice with his partner and wife, architect Lu Wenyu, is the Xingshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou China. Wang Shu has served as the head of China Academy of Art’s architecture department at the since 2000. Xingshan Campus is not contained as a single mass as at Ningbo, but an accumulation of more than twenty discrete buildings that make up a campus for studying, working, and living. Wang’s approach was to allow the pastoral site, composed of a large hill, rivers, and trees, to inform how the architecture would be situated. As a result, nature and architecture not only co-exist but also complement one other. While Xingshan Campus is vast in size, its scale does not feel this way and can be described as an architecture of accumulation and variation. While the complex demonstrates a consistency of design, it also possesses the bricolage of a rural village in its use of a variety of local and available materials and siting. Again, as with the Ningbo Historic Museum and other projects, Wang utilized Chinese vernacular sustainable construction. Bricks and tiles collected from the Zhejiang province which would have been otherwise treated as garbage, were reused.

Xingshan Campus’ planning is not grid-based, but a tight layout of scattered architecture. This approach, like that of the Greek tradition, gives experiential views of buildings as three-dimensional rather than as frontal. As well, picturesque views are offered through idiosyncratically shaped openings. Through these openings, one sees compositions of building facades, and courtyards, as well as glimpses of the fertile landscape beyond. These framed views are rich and complex, highlighting the variety of light, materials, and shapes seen throughout the campus. Building profiles and roofs are reminiscent of Chinese temple roofs, yet firmly contemporary. At the Xingshan campus, architecture has achieved the variance found only in nature. Textures, shapes, and colors are defined by the natural landscape and the architecture.

(1)Wang Shu quoted in “Wang Shu & Lu Wenyu, Ningbo History Museum,” GA Document 112(2010): Featuring: China Today(Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita, 2010), 95.

(2)Ibid.

(3)Wang Shu quoted in “Wang Shu & Lu Wenyu, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art,” GA Document 112(2010): Featuring: China Today (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita, 2010), 112

(4)Ibid.

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