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Wang Shu by David Eagleton

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

The work of Wang Shu and Amateur Architecture Studio has come to global prominence since he was awarded the Pritziker Laureate in 2012. He has become known for his highly crafted and contextually rich buildings offering a contrasting approach to the majority of contemporary architecture built in The Peoples Republic of China. Through his buildings Shu demonstrates a deep understanding of the environment in which he works, including the social, political and physical implications of his architecture. The most striking of Shu’s work is the Museum of History in Ningbo, a public building in the capital city of the Zhejiang province, 200Km south of Shanghai. Its richness is more than skin deep and a series of surprising, exciting and stimulating spaces unfold within.

Upon approach the building strikes a bold form and presence on the horizon. A faceted mass wrapped in reclaimed brickwork it sits on the edge of the city’s new central business district. Arguably its imposing appearance is not one with many inviting characteristics, but read in its context of banal glass office blocks it is definitely intriguing.

The patchwork masonry references historical constructions in Zhejiang and is one that Shu has somewhat mastered in its use on large-scale contemporary buildings. The bricks and tiles are reclaimed from ancient neighbourhoods that have been levelled to make way for the office blocks, shopping malls and luxury apartments of the expanding city. This creates a visual and material continuity in the project.

Sections of concrete cast in a bamboo-lined formwork are also used on the façade adding another level of detail and texture. Small haphazard fenestration patterns puncture the brickwork with deep reveals in an apparently random fashion. Watching daylight move across this texture and depth on such a massive form gives the building a true sense of permanence.

The base of the museum is surrounded by a 20m wide band of pebbles, water and tall grasses, which serve to intensify the sense of mystery generated by the buildings hulking appearance. As your eye gets dragged across the rich and varied façade you move along the buildings perimeter until you reach a ramped entrance roughly in the middle of the plan. This leads to a central court with inward facing elevations clad in a textured cast glass façade, which subdues refracted light deep into the plan. It also offers a glimpse of the buildings inner workings and movement along centralised circulation routes enticing the visitor to enter and explore. The consistency and rhythm of the glass sections offers a contrast from the museums weighty outer appearance and shapes a calming environment from which to advance through the building.

In this arrival sequence Shu has created a figurative slowing down of time and an extremely different experience than that found in the urban environment of the modern Chinese metropolis. A journey has been created that allows the visitor to engage with the buildings cultural program long before reaching the front door.

From the court a central atrium is accessed. Here visual connections are made both across the large expanse of the ground floor and also to overlapping floor slabs and balconies of the levels above. A partially glazed roof filters natural light and shear walls of the same bamboo cast concrete as used on the façade enclose the space. These concrete walls define the black box exhibition spaces within. It gives the atrium a powerful presence. The heavy concrete with a delicate texture evokes a poetic quality in the space, and creates the feeling of being in a valley from which you are beginning an assent up through the museum. By creating a concrete surface that is enriched by the very fact of its roughness and imperfection Shu has succeeded in achieving a material richness that is lacking from the vast majority of new buildings in China. This material richness succeeds in engaging the visitor and echoing imagery of ancient Chinese storytelling and its intrinsic relationship with the landscape of the nation.

The assent through the building creates a series of spatially complex but pleasing spaces. Materials are of the same pallet from the exterior with consistent presence of the surfaces felt throughout. Circulation spaces are enriched with the introduction of more courtyards. The journey culminates at a terrace at roof level.

Criticism has been made towards the quality of the exhibition spaces within the museum. It is fair and the quality of the content is below par for a museum billed as being of national importance. I would not pin these failures on Shu but rather on the curation of the exhibits and the collection at large.

That said, the loose fit of the exhibition spaces with the circulation areas works extremely well and these spaces are filled with people moving from room to room amongst friendly loiterers. It is obvious that there are people here who have not come for the exhibitions but rather to pass the afternoon reading in the bamboo courtyard or meeting a friend in a tucked away corner on the second floor. This variety of visitor can be found in abundance on the roof terrace.

Brick clad volumes rise from terrace and their arrangement creates a series of extremely pleasant spaces in between, populated by individuals and groups alike. There is no café here nor is there a gift shop. The roof terrace is purely a space on which the journey summits. And it is refreshingly richer as a result.

What Shu has achieved within this museum is a place for people that also contains objects from the past. The journey of the visitor is celebrated through the building itself and an engagement with the physical traditions of the history of the city is achieved. The scale of this building makes it difficult to compare with the historical fabric of the city yet through a deeply layered relationship between the plan, section and elevation the resulting spaces create a place where the atmosphere of the ancient city can be felt with every step.


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