KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace embraces the wisdom of 'emptiness'

KiKi ARCHi brings a contemporary outlook to traditional Chinese architecture in one of China’s most important Taoist temple complexes on Tiantai Mountain in Zhejiang Province.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Oct 22, 2022

Resting at the top of Tiantai Mountain, the Tongbai Palace in Tiantai County on the urban fringes of Taizhou is one of China’s most prominent traditional Taoist temples. First built almost two millennia ago, the older structure was submerged underwater following the construction of a nearby reservoir, with a replacement complex now built towards the northeast. Embedded into the blooming natural landscape that dresses the slopes of the mountain in Zhejiang Province, the complex’s structures are exemplary in their rendition of traditional Chinese architecture, with a layout that utilises a stepped configuration, melding into the inclined topography of its context. In this scenario, Tokyo-based studio KiKi ARCHi was handed the task of building an extension to the existing complex which would serve as a daily practice space for the master of the temple. Handed a site that was situated at the top of the palace yard, the Japanese architecture firm sought to incorporate a sense of modernity into their addition to the development, titled the KONG Fangzhang Building, which would exist in harmony with the buildings that predated it.

The project is located on the slope of Tiantai Mountain | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
The project is located on the slope of Tiantai Mountain Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

The design team mentions in a statement, “In ancient Chinese texts, it was mentioned that there are eight layers of the mountain, and the scenery is similar at every turn. This project is located on the second layer of the mountain, which means that it is not only a place where immortals reside but also the one closest to the human world.” The term Fangzhang itself refers to the principal abbot or abbess in a monastery, and the structure’s position at the peak of the complex is reflective of the stature of its principal user while also serving as a point of focus for visitors as they ascend the mountain. As they were conceptualising their intervention during the early stages of the design process, the architects were inspired by the openness of the natural setting they found themselves in, leading them to embrace the concept of kong or ‘emptiness,’ an absence of desire, to fuel their thought process.

  • Overlooking a reservoir, the site is surrounded by scenic natural beauty | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    Overlooking a reservoir, the site is surrounded by scenic natural beauty Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • Tongbai Palace, one of China’s most important Taoist religious sites,  serves as the setting for the intervention | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    Tongbai Palace, one of China’s most important Taoist religious sites, serves as the setting for the intervention Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

Hence, the design of the KONG Fangzhang Building diverges from that of adjacent examples of religious architecture - the main hall, side hall, and the tower of scriptures - but also reinterprets some of their defining aesthetic features to present a cohesive take on the temple’s overarching motifs. The existing complex possessed a strong traditional architectural slant, with elaborate East Asian hip and gable-style roofs and courtyard-centric layouts with pathways that invite visitors to traverse them and engage in silent reflection. Applying strokes of contemporary design to this style, the three-storey extension to Tongbai Palace channels this ideal of ‘emptiness’ into a plan that exudes clarity, with four blocks of varying size and elevation positioned around a court, that effectively function as a single entity.

The project is situated on the highest level of the terraced temple yard, serving as a daily practice space for the master of the temple | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
The project is situated on the highest level of the terraced temple yard, serving as a daily practice space for the master of the temple Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

Upheld by a system of composite concrete and cedar columns, the roof structures for each of the extension’s blocks retain the traditional grey tiles used to clad surrounding buildings but eliminate their ornamental eave details, instead streamlining the prevalent design language in a more minimal vein. In their place, the roofs instead terminate in steel plates, which combine with curved cedar ceilings to form wedge-like profiles that cut off direct sunlight. The columns themselves taper from cuboidal concrete bases to more slender wood profiles, expressing a gradient of lightness that makes each of the roofs seem to levitate in the air.

  • Composed of four blocks at different levels, the structure adopts a theme of emptiness and clarity | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    Composed of four blocks at different levels, the structure adopts a theme of emptiness and clarity Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • Columns of concrete and cedar wood define the building’s front faces | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    Columns of concrete and cedar wood define the building’s front faces Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • A viewing deck surrounded by glass railings is situated on the upper level of the complex | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    A viewing deck surrounded by glass railings is situated on the upper level of the complex Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • The wooden ceiling above the deck is spliced into two, representing the eight trigrams of Taoist cosmology | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    The wooden ceiling above the deck is spliced into two, representing the eight trigrams of Taoist cosmology Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

Similarly, the materiality of the complex’s façade design also exhibits this gradient - from weightiness and opacity to transparency and lightness - as seen in the stone walls at the base which transition into clear glass panels and terraced spaces on the upper levels. KiKi ARCHi notes: “These contemporary design languages, an abstract fusion of people's minds and the Taoist spirit, express the concept of transcending worldliness.”

  • A circular skylight occupies the centre of the pool on the upper level | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    A circular skylight occupies the centre of the pool on the upper level Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • The space exudes a restrained beauty, filled with artificial landscapes | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    The space exudes a restrained beauty, filled with artificial landscapes Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • View of the court and pool  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    View of the court and pool Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

Following the entrance, gallery spaces, and storage areas on the ground floor, a circular skylight offers a glimpse at a plaque on the level above, emblazoned with the word Fangzhang, denoting the property’s primary occupant. “The shape of the skylight represents the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of ‘The round sky, the square earth,’ where a quadrangular ground plane is enveloped by the dome-shaped heavens. Through the steps to the second floor, there is a viewing platform for meditation with a wide view, which faces the reservoir and is close to nature,” reveals the design team.

  • Roof structures have been simplified, doing away with ornamental eaves in favour of steel plates to shade the interior from sunlight  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    Roof structures have been simplified, doing away with ornamental eaves in favour of steel plates to shade the interior from sunlight Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing
  • A gradient from opacity to transparency is seen from bottom to top on each block’s face  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
    A gradient from opacity to transparency is seen from bottom to top on each block’s face Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

Above, the ceiling of the viewing platform is made up of cedar, spliced in eight directions, referencing the eight trigrams which represent the fundamental principles of reality in Taoist cosmology. Glass railings run along the periphery of the deck, eroding the visual limits of extent, such that visitors will have an uninhibited view of the valley and reservoir below the temple yard. At the other end of the deck, the space flows into an artificial landscape of water, plants, and rocks, with the skylight at the centre of a pool.

Glass railings on the viewing deck connect the space with its surroundings  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
Glass railings on the viewing deck connect the space with its surroundings Image: Ruijing-Photo Beijing

There is an ascetic natural beauty to the composition of this space, perfectly embodying the theme of ‘emptiness,’ neither too ornate and cluttered, nor too bare and insipid. Aside from its undeniable aesthetic value, the pool also absorbs heat to regulate the complex’s microclimate without the need for air conditioning, while the skylight at its centre illuminates the gallery spaces below. The two blocks on either side of the main block on the upper storey contain halls of varying configurations, and the introverted layout of the lower floor gives way to one that is far more open and expansive.

Floor Plans  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
Floor Plans Image: Courtesy of KiKi ARCHi

Granite, concrete, glass, steel, and cedar wood are the main constituents of the material palette, both on the building’s faces as well as in the interior design scheme. KiKi ARCHi states, “The materials used in the Fangzhang Building were all sourced locally, which reflects the project’s environmental considerations, its humanistic angle, and the concept of green building. Through this we have strived to achieve an organic unity of form and content.” Straying from the grey brick walls and dark red ornamentation seen on the older buildings, the new complex features an abundance of stark white surfaces, reiterating its distinct identity and temporal grounding.

Section  | KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace | KiKi ARCHi | STIRworld
Section Image: Courtesy of KiKi ARCHi

To conclude, the architects mention: “The design and construction of the Fangzhang building is more of a callback to the history, culture, and style of Tongbai Palace. Under this historical exposition, we have tried to outline our own understanding of kong (emptiness) and how to experience it through spatial atmospheres with a quiet and clear intention. Through simple techniques and local materials, we have attempted to convey these ideas to users and visitors, to inspire exploration and inquiry."

Project Details

Name: KONG Fangzhang Building in Tongbai Palace
Location: Tiantai County, Taizhou City, Zhejiang Province, China
Site Area: 1142 sqm
Building Area: 758 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Client: Tongbai Palace
Architect: KiKi ARCHi
Director: Yoshihiko Seki
Design Team: Saika Akiyoshi, ChenXin, Akihiko Tochinai (TAKiBI)

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