A Fortress Besieged by Critical Regionalism

architects Wang Shu, Li Wenyu
project Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, China
written by Till Wöhler

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Two thousand two hundred years ago, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty established three counties; one of which was called Yin. Yin administrated the port city of Ningbo, which started foreign trading in the 7th century, and continued until after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In due course, Yin became a county of Ningbo, and was renamed Yinzhou District in 2002. With its deepwater port not only an important entrepôt, the city is considered the engine of the economy on the east coast of China. In the wake of the economic boom, the urban development expanded to Yinzhou, eventually making it the setting for the new History Museum. Hangzhou architect Wang Shu won the international design competition in 2003.


In China, such expansion is usually led by the moving of municipal buildings. Not long ago, the site in Yinzhou, surrounded by mountains, was a field of crops. Dozens of old villages were completely razed to the ground in favour of two government administration buildings; a vast unpopulated plaza and a cultural centre to the east of the museum; to the south is a park and not far beyond that there still lies a field that, ironically, will make way for the headquarters of the city planning section. Wang realized that, in this particular case, he could not renew the rural vitality since it had simply ceased to exist. All that remained of the villages were broken tiles and bricks.


As Wang acknowledges, building a museum in China can be problematic due to uncertainty about functions. When the main body of the building was about to be completed, the exhibition concept was still unknown and his design would have been unresponsive to the architecture. Given these difficulties, the architect opted for what he describes as a ‘free design’. With a distance of more than 100 metres between the rather incongruous new buildings, his task was to create a ‘single vital substance’, aiming to respond to the natural environment, local history and customs as much as possible.


On the lookout for identity


Today, architecture in China is facing a dilemma. While works by internationally re­no­wned architects like Koolhaas, Hadid and Holl as well as numerous ‘globalization architectures’ by North American firms have the welcome side effect of putting major Chinese cities on the architectural map, the bulk of domestic architects remain business-oriented and map their conventional buil­dings with Western- and Japanese-looking façades in order to make them desirable for the Chinese nouveau riche. Outdated institutional practices that have never been required to pro­duce readably differentiated objects could not cope with the fast economic growth in terms of establishing a distinct, let alone intellectual, Chinese approach to architecture. Their attempts either create buildings with stylized pagoda roofs or sublimated ideas from the communist ‘modernist’ past, which – even if blended with imitative ‘Western’ or ‘Chinese characteristics’ – predominantly fail to be responsive to their natural environment, local customs, and the built heritage of particular places or regions. Not least because the Chinese Cultural Revolution banned the adjective ‘regional’ from the architectural agenda, a term synonymous for limited, local and provincial since the 1950s. Lately, a new generation of architects has emerged out of the rare private architecture studios whose principals either studied overseas or had fo­reign teachers in China. Some of them, like Wang, dare to emphasize ‘placeness’ once again.



China and critical regionalism


The Chinese world of thought did not notably establish a critical philosophy in either the Qing dynasty or during the Liang Qichao led ‘Hundred Days Reform’ or the ‘Chinese renaissance’. Thus, unlike Japan for example, not much of twentieth century Chinese architecture seems to match the expectations of a critical regionalism as defined by Tzonis and Lefaivre in 1981. Its harbinger in modern China was US architect Ieoh Ming Pei with his Fragrant Hill Hotel on the outskirts of Beijing from 1982. Apart from his other works in China, the Suzhou Museum from 2006 also emphasized ‘placeness’ in as much as it considered contextual elements like scenery, historical references and light. Since it sits right next to historical sites and serves as Suzhou’s city museum, Pei fell into imitation or at most sublimation at some point. However, it successfully reconciled foreign construction methods with regional aesthetics and, in terms of responsiveness, is still one of the shining examples of this within China.


Free design and responsiveness


To this day, Suzhou in Zhejiang province plays a vital role in the Chinese world of thought. An old saying claims ‘Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below’. Wang Shu, one of the few Chinese architects who practise critical regionalism, drew lessons from old Suzhou while craving for that ‘singular vital substance’ in Ningbo. ‘When faced with the over-artificial city, people chose to create gardens with natural vitality, expressing the coexistence of man and nature, like in the Lion Grove Garden of Suzhou,’ Wang explains. Once designed by a Zen Buddhist monk, that garden is mostly occupied by a downscaled ‘rocky mountain’ resembling roaring lions. In this typical Chinese setting of contradictions and diversity, buildings play a sub­sidiary role.


‘That’s the meaning of architecture, the place it occupies in the whole world,’ states Wang. Above all, he believes in a ‘free design process’, i.e. creating a place rather than a building, able to respond to the given conditions as they appear during the building phase – seemingly a very Chinese approach. This is the actual method of creating a Chinese garden, as Wang explains, for the simple reason that it cannot really be designed: it is the result of a construction process. His sincere wish is ‘to make this a principle of modern architecture’.


Walk and face


‘A mountain represents the place for Chi­nese people to find their lost and hidden culture,’ Wang claims. Chinese ink-and-wash landscape paintings seem to support his hypothesis. Not least in response to the natural surroundings of Yinzhou district, a mountain as the underlying motif appears to be reasonable for a place that today seemingly calls on people to take up the threads of their regional heritage, diversity and customs to wave that ‘single vital substance’ anew.


Wang’s concept of mountain also sublimes Ningbo’s old city code with its maximum eaveline of 24 metres and thus stretches horizontally. Both its decisive, sharp cuts and the layered façade represent man’s footprint, either as relics or the onset of a vital city structure. In spite of its fortress-like appearance and scale, it invites people to walk an ‘archaeological’ trail.


Partially immersed in a man-made lake lined with reeds, vi­sitors enter this mountain of structural concrete through a 30-metre-wide rectangular hole in the East. Three ‘valleys’ (two indoors, one outdoors), four caves (the entrance, the hall and two sides of the steep exterior valley) and four tunnel-shaped courtyards (two in the centre and two in the ‘depth of the mountain’) wait to be explored. The quartered upper part of the mountain defines a big terrace, which allows for a view of the city as well as fields and mountains.



An emphasis on surface and keeping the face are almost synonymous and undoubtedly culturally rooted in China. Wang responds to this necessity – with a layered, intriguing façade that derives from small-scale experiments in his earlier projects ‘Five Scattered Houses’ and the campus of the Chinese Academy of Arts. Its imprints of bamboo planks may flash on memories of beton brut, yet can be interpreted as fossil remains of bamboo groves. Twenty different types of grey and red bricks and tiles, salvaged remains of the farmers’ razed homes, depict another ‘archaeological’ layer that borrows its technique from the local wapan tiling, a distinct regional tradition of building emergency walls after a typhoon hit.


Wang himself guided craftsmen on how to apply the construction method that was found in the last village of Yinzhou, yet was not allowed to be in control of the whole process. Although the architect drew colourful working drawings for every wall, the craftsmen were unable to control the portions of the materials. Where it was supposed to be a straight line, it was curved. As Wang recalls, there was heated debate over whether or not to redo the wrong parts. ‘Finally, I had no choice but to persuade all parties with a theory of “letting nature take its course”. I felt like an ancient Chinese philosopher,’ smirks the architect. Mediating the free design process earned him the respect of the craftsmen, who now call him shifu (master) instead of laoshi (teacher). Not least the rectangular niches scattered across the walls seemingly at random, flash on memories of small caves in Chinese mountains where Buddhist monks are said to have dwelled.


‘During the design and construction process, I was accused of creating something that reflects the most outdated appearance of Ningbo in the most modernized district of the city,’ Wang remembers. But for him, the first thing a history museum should collect is traces of time to face the past. Ningbo was once a walled city, besieged by foreign powers. The Chinese both won and lost. Today the ‘fortress’ of Ningbo seems to be besieged by critical regionalism with Chinese characteristics. Thanks to people like Wang, it could turn out to become a win-win situation.