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Building in China: Sutherland Hussey Harris' Chengdu Museum

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Working with local partner Pansolution International, Sutherland Hussey Harris has created a monumental gateway in the Chinese city of Chengdu, says Di Zhang

CLIENT’S VIEW • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • PROJECT DATA • PLANS • SECTIONS • EXPLODED AXONOMETRIC • CONCEPT DIAGRAMS

Like many Chinese cities undergoing major expansion, Chengdu’s intimate urban grain has been gradually replaced by vast redevelopments competing to outdo each other in scale. Surrounded by mountains on the western edge of the Sichuan basin, the city’s physical separation from the centre of China has increased its desire to reach out and gain national status over other regional capitals. Yet Chengdu also has a long history and reputation for the relaxed lifestyle of the locals, which runs counter to its fast pace of growth. 

Intended to house local artefacts and the city’s historical collections, the new 65,000m2 museum forms a symbolic gateway to Chengdu and completes the city’s main square. The City Museum of Chengdu, designed by Sutherland Hussey Harris (SHH), boldly positions itself between the Chairman Mao statue to the north, ever-rising commercial developments to the south and a local street market and mosque along the west side. 

Chengdu welcomes international architects to advance the city’s modern look, but foreign architects must team up with local practices to comply with statutory requirements. SHH (then called Sutherland Hussey Architects) won the Chengdu Museum design competition nine years ago with Pansolution, a young Chinese practice. The size of the museum holds symbolic value (the original brief was for 80,000m2), reflecting the city’s ambitions to build at a grand scale. The brief had no clear programme requirements; the client’s focus was visual impact and the creation of a landmark. This is not unusual in Chinese projects, but it challenged SHH’s design ethos, which is based on ‘a manifestation of a set of functional requirements’. Not only did they need to create a building with real presence, but also creatively fill the space with a non-specified programme –  while ensuring the building functioned as a physical manifestation of the city’s pride. 

In Chinese culture, the symbolic holds value not through literal visual representation but, as in the art of calligraphy, through more abstract and spiritual connections. A client is likely to give higher priority to the symbolic value of a building than to its programme. SHH’s response to this challenge was to introduce into the design a mask or veil, a translucent alloy mesh, as a reference to one of the museum’s most important local artefacts, a gold mask. The building’s ‘golden mask’ (in fact brass) wraps around the body of the museum and continues over the roof. 

The veil is lifted on the long elevation to create a physical gap connecting the front and back of the site, as well as indicating the entrance to the building. Public foyers are arranged along the lifted edge ‘to allow a more human scale and intimacy to the interior’, say the architects. Steel structural components cast intriguing shadows in the foyers alluding metaphorically to the local tradition of shadow plays. 

The ‘monumental gateway’ of the design lends itself to a public outdoor programme to extend from the building through to the square (although the client opted not to install public landscape furniture). But a giant six-lane motorway blocks the pedestrian connection between the square and the museum. The architect’s suggestion that the motorway be diverted to maximise footfall from the square was overruled by the traffic masterplan. The result is a public gateway that cannot perform its intended purpose. 

In contrast, the rear of the building faces a bustling narrow lane, which offers a context and scale more akin to SHH’s previous work. The cladding here is composed of much smaller modules, creating various ‘folds’ in the veil. Solid and perforated alloy panels are arranged in line with functional demands, but also create a dazzling effect where they catch the sunlight. The top north corner of the external skin is raised to form the gateway, and the silhouetted cladding sits surprisingly comfortably next to the 16th century mosque. The alternative rear entrance is a more intimate and comfortable place in which to wander. Sensitivity to scale and the making of streets is celebrated – one senses the architect was more at home working with this smaller but richer, more European city grain. 

Interior spaces are orthodoxly planned and overtly generous. The site may be constrained in plan, yet the architect has managed to stretch the vertical dimensions so the galleries and public lobbies can breathe. 

The viewing gallery is the most intriguing space in the museum. Here, a narrow footbridge leads through steel lattice components to pockets of spectacular views. From a Chinese perspective, it’s very brave of the architect to engage the public with the structure of the building. This requires well co-ordinated information flow during construction, which is usually a challenge on local projects. In China, the architect does not administrate the building contract in any type of procurement, providing no mechanism with which to influence the construction team. 

SHH managed to maintain the design intent primarily with the help of local partner Pansolution, which devoted more time to on-site supervision than it would customarily. The additional attention to quality is highly visible in the finished building. No doubt it reflects Western best practice, but it is unusual in China. 

So how, in this foreign context, where the architect’s approval is not vital to the process and execution of construction, did the practice maintain control over the design intent? Here Pansolution’s familiarity with local manners and customs and the art of gentle persuasion Sichuan-style has been crucial to the success of the project. 

And it remains so. Since the opening of the museum, the client has placed more than a thousand plant pots inside the building – a cute addition to the internal decor but visually odd. Practice director Charlie Sutherland considered writing to the client to ask for these to be removed, but Pansolution’s Hu Lin dissuaded him, saying he would approach the client – and in a more locally accepted manner. ‘That is my next goal,’ he says.

Di Zhang is a Chinese architect and founder of Beijing-based we architect anonymous

Ground floor plan

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Third floor plan

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Fourth floor plan

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Section A-A

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Section B-B

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Exploded axonometric

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Folding skin concept development diagrams

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Source: Arch Exist Photography

Architect’s view

The new museum sits along the full extent of the west edge of Tian Fu Square to form one complete edge of the most important public space in the City. The singular facade helps to create a cohesive edge to an otherwise disjointed square, forming a datum in relation to the adjacent Museum of Science & Technology. 

The long narrow site is exploited using all the public areas to maximise a dramatic relationship with the new square, the remaining façades consequently enclose the largely hermetic exhibition halls, these are represented as a giant crafted artefact in the city cloaked in a precious skin of copper alloy rigorously profiled to play with light, shade and texture whilst accommodating all the technical requirements for ventilation grilles. 

The form envelopes a new undercover outdoor public space - a monu­mental gateway through the building, offering a large outdoor public space where people can gather, cultural events can take place, even the local street market extends through to the square. This gateway within the building also creates an important connection between the C16th Huang Cheng Mosque, the most significant in South West China, and the main square. The main entrances to the museum, theatre and museum offices all connect with this route through the building. 

Charlie Sutherland, Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Source: Arch Exist Photography

Client’s view

Our 9-year cooperation with the architects in this project was seeking problems and searching for solutions. For such an important building, the brief was not coming from one-off study; it was generated, tested and finalized through architectural design. Between the start of conceptual design competition in 2007 and governmental approval of the project in 2009, architectural design became the means of communication between the government, client, architects, experts and the public, and helped to improve the shared understanding of the architecture.

 The creativity, professional expertise and devotion impressed us and other parties who had been involved in this project. The design of Chengdu Museum has received very high compliment and appreciation from the government, the client and people. Chengdu Museum has quickly become one of the most popular cultural venues of the City. Within three months after opening, the visitors summed up to more than 600,000. 

The persistence about quality was shared by the client and architects which ensured the delivery quality of the building. During the 5-year construction our architects offered the service which covered far beyond the ordinary site service. They helped identify the problems, suggest solutions and supervise the realization. Through them, the client obtained a much better control of the final outcome of the construction. 

Mingbin Li, Chengdu Museum

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Source: Arch Exist Photography

Engineer’s view

After the terrible earthquake in Sichuan Yingxiu in 2008, the requirement of seismic prevention for public buildings in Chengdu had been more restricted. The existing metro tube cut through the site of Chengdu Museum at the northern corner. Vibration is one of most serious risks of damage to the artifacts and antiques. The flexibility for the use of exhibition halls is one of the most important factors in museum building and the client required 30 metres space free from column. 

According to the above requirements, the building was designed as a hybrid structural system of steel grids and reinforced concrete. The steel grids formed the envelope, connected to the service cores of reinforced concrete by pre-stressed steel beams. This structure has both advantages of rigidity and flexibility which gave the building a good performance against earthquake. Furthermore this structure can achieve much better height for exhibition space at the clear span of 30 metres. 

The structural system sits onto more than four hundred seismic absorbers and a seismic gap on the periphery of the Museum was proposed to separate the building itself from the surrounding earth. This mechanical solution could effectively diminish the transfer of vibration from the adjacent metro line and potential earthquakes. 

Hu Lin, Pansolution International

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Chengdu Museum by Sutherland Hussey Harris

Source: Arch Exist Photography

Project data

Start on site December 2009
Completion March 2016
Gross internal floor area 65,000m2
Form of contract or procurement route Engineering Survey, Architectural Design and Special Design
Construction cost £120 million
Construction cost per m2 £1,846.15/m2
Architect Sutherland Hussey Harris and Pansolution International
Executive architect Sutherland Hussey Harris
Client Chengdu Museum & Chengdu Administration of Culture
Structural engineer China Aviation Planning and Design Institute
M&E consultant China Aviation Planning and Design Institute
Interior design Beijing Truebond Building Decoration Engineer
Main contractor China Construction Second Engineering Bureau
Project manager The Municipal Department for Unified Construction of Civic Buildings in Chengdu
CDM coordinator The Municipal Department for Unified Construction of Civic Buildings in Chengdu
Approved building inspector Chengdu Urban and Rural Construction Commission
CAD software used Microstation and AutoCAD

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