Open Architecture: The husband-and-wife design duo redefining China’s cultural landscape

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

With China experiencing a museum boom, and cities of all sizes constructing cultural venues at unprecedented pace, there’s something refreshingly modest about Li Hu and Huang Wenjing’s method to structure.
The husband-and-wife duo, founders of Beijing-based follow Open Structure, are accountable for a few of the final decade’s most thought-provoking Chinese language arts locations. Greatest recognized for reworking a sequence of aviation gas tanks into a preferred riverside gallery in Shanghai, the pair’s understated theaters and efficiency areas provide a welcome dose of subtlety in a rustic with skylines all too typically blighted by daring statements.

“It is about making a dialogue between us, as humanity, and nature,” Li mentioned in a video interview.

Chapel of Snow

Chapel of Sound, a live performance corridor in-built a valley northeast of Beijing. Credit score: Courtesy Ni Nan/OPEN

The couple’s newest venture is a living proof. Nestled in a valley northeast of Beijing, a stone’s throw from the Nice Wall, the boulder-like Chapel of Sound appears to be like as if it had been carved from the panorama itself. The architects added native rocks to the concrete and mimicked sedimentary layers to assist assimilate the construction with its environment.

Though envisaged as a spot for quiet contemplation — or “a chapel with out faith,” as Li put it — the constructing is primarily a live performance corridor. As an alternative of conventional soundproofing, Li and Huang opted for strategically positioned holes that, they declare, play the identical position as absorbent surfaces.

The openings additionally serve two very totally different capabilities: Producing performs of sunshine and shadow that journey throughout the cavernous inside because the solar strikes by way of the sky; and letting within the sounds of breeze, birds and bugs. Whereas this will appear counterintuitive for a quiet live performance house, the architects had been by no means concerned with creating “an ideal silence.”

Another view of the Chapel of Sound.

One other view of the Chapel of Sound. Credit score: Courtesy Jonathan Leijonhu/OPEN

“We’re actually attempting to make a deeper connection to the traditional pure historical past of the positioning,” Li mentioned. “There is a mysterious high quality of house, and mysteriousness is one thing we’re very concerned with: bringing individuals to find a special type of expertise.”

Greater than landmarks

Over 150 miles to Beijing’s east, within the seaside metropolis of Qinhuangdao, an equally mysterious artwork museum provides a special tackle Open Structure’s manifesto pledge of “placing a brand new stability between the man-made and nature.”

UCCA Dune, a brand new outpost for one among Beijing’s most revered modern artwork establishments, takes the looks of pebbles strewn throughout a sandy seashore. The primordial, cave-like gallery areas usually are not solely built-in with their environment — they’re partially submerged by them.

The photogenic design has helped make Qinhuangdao an unlikely vacation spot for design-lovers and day-trippers from the Chinese language capital. And whereas Li and Huang appear unshowy by nature, they’re aware of the ability of iconic structure.

UCCA Dune, an art museum in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao.

UCCA Dune, an artwork museum within the coastal metropolis of Qinhuangdao. Credit score: Courtesy Zaiye Studio/OPEN

In China, it is a energy that has been abused lately — by property giants branding actual property developments with outlandish skyscrapers, and by native officers utilizing big-budget cultural buildings to place their cities on the map. However, citing Sydney Opera Home for instance, Li believes that well-designed arts venues may give cities a definite id whereas additionally contributing to their cultural material.

What Open Structure is against, he mentioned, are landmarks for landmarks’ sake. This stance can put the pair at odds with their purchasers, like when officers from Yantai, in Shandong province, approached them with an invite to “create an iconic landmark.”

“That was the one temporary: ‘Make a landmark,'” Li recalled. “They got here to us and mentioned, ‘We would like one thing just like the Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards.’ And I mentioned that was precisely what we do not wish to do.”

Relatively than strolling away, Li mentioned he satisfied town’s authorities to develop a extra significant cultural program. Ultimately happy that their creation would serve a goal, the structure duo designed a sundial-inspired construction — dubbed The Solar Tower and set for completion in 2023 — that comes with a library, digital museum and outside theater.

“I feel it is an enormous waste of assets to construct one thing with out figuring out what it’s,” Li mentioned.

Sun Tower rendering

A digital rendering of the Solar Tower in Yantai, Shandong province. Credit score: Courtesy OPEN

The concept architects ought to solely create buildings which can be wanted appears easy sufficient. However it’s one typically ignored in China. With the nation’s authorities now pumping billions of dollars a yr into the cultural sector, provide can outstrip demand, resulting in unused vainness initiatives and “ghost” museums. In relation to tradition, the “construct and they’re going to come” mannequin that has accommodated China’s breakneck rural-urban migration, could not apply, Huang mentioned.

“There’s a enormous push for cultural buildings,” she mentioned. “(In China, we) really feel as if now we have developed actually quick, however left ourselves behind and have to catch as much as present the world now we have tradition. Nevertheless it’s arduous to domesticate tradition and… a lot sooner to construct. In order that’s why you see quite a lot of cultural buildings pop up with no contents and no one to function them.”

Such accusations couldn’t be leveled in opposition to Open Structure’s Tank Shanghai, a gallery that breathed new life into the positioning of a decommissioned airport by the Huangpu River. Constructed into 5 renovated gas tanks, the venue provides not solely gallery areas but in addition a pub, a restaurant and efficiency services. Landscaped parks in the meantime dissolve the excellence between private and non-private house, excessive tradition and recreation.

Tank Shanghai

Tank Shanghai was in-built a sequence of disused aviation gas tanks. Credit score: Courtesy Tian Fangfang/OPEN

Providing group parkland was not merely a gesture to town — it expressed the concept artwork shouldn’t stand other than on a regular basis life.

“The aim of a cultural buildings is to try to enlighten individuals, however these days they’re turning into an increasing number of like remoted objects,” Li mentioned. “Artwork is put up (on a pedestal). We wish to deliver it nearer to the bottom — to the individuals — and blur the boundaries.”

Common values

That homegrown designers like Li and Huang are being entrusted with a brand new technology of Chinese language venues ought to come as little shock. However the cultural panorama has lengthy been formed by international forces. From Zaha Hadid’s sculptural Guangzhou Opera Home to a Norman Foster’s long-awaited museum in far-flung Datong, Western names are ceaselessly requested to supervise China’s largest modern landmarks — not just for their technical prowess and avant-garde designs however, typically, for the status.

The pattern traces again to the early 2000s and Beijing’s Nationwide Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), an enormous, shining oval recognized regionally as “The Large Egg.” Just some blocks from the historic Forbidden Metropolis, French architect Paul Andreu’s controversially futuristic constructing sparked a wave of Western-designed landmarks and, in Li’s phrases, “started the entire train” of establishing “iconic buildings” in China.

It’s also a venue that instantly formed Open Structure’s method. Visiting as soon as for a live performance, Li discovered himself on a protracted quest for water through the intermission, finally discovering only one spot “in the entire gigantic place” to get a drink. A small gripe, admittedly, however one he felt spoke to a scarcity of user-centric design.

By means of comparability, Li then recounted a latest go to to Germany’s “unbelievable” Berliner Philharmonie live performance corridor: “The break was half an hour, and it was like a celebration. It was an ideal social occasion. That’s the true goal of a cultural constructing: bringing individuals collectively, not simply listening to music when you cannot even get a water.”

This isn’t to recommend that Open’s founders are by some means against Western design in China. In any case, Li made his identify beneath Steven Holl, some of the prolific international architects working within the nation, whereas Huang as soon as labored for the late I.M. Pei in New York. And though the pair welcome a leveling enjoying area for native corporations, they see their designs as neither Chinese language nor Western, however an expression of one thing common.
One of the cave-like gallery spaces at UCCA Dune.

One of many cave-like gallery areas at UCCA Dune. Credit score: Courtesy Wu Qingshan/OPEN

“Undeniably, being Chinese language, now we have our methods of taking a look at our relationship with — and our existence in relation to — nature and the cosmos,” Huang mentioned. “However intuitively we’re looking for one thing extra timeless.”

“We regularly get this query from purchasers and college students who say, ‘Your constructing does not look very Chinese language, the place are the connections?'” Li added. “That is as a result of we consider in a lot deeper which means, and a deeper connection to tradition.

“There are two qualities of structure which can be profoundly necessary,” he summarized. “One is being radical. We’d like one thing that radically modifications our way of life, and that is extra pressing than ever.

“The opposite factor is poetry. The poetic high quality of structure is so necessary. It’s one thing that you should expertise in particular person by strolling across the house, touching the surfaces and feeling the textures.”

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