by Zohra KhanMay 09, 2023
A diaphanous bamboo-leaves shaped metal exterior sheaths MAD Architects’ proposal for a cultural centre in the Zhejiang Province in southeast China. The Anji Culture and Art Centre is visualised to create a link between the natural and the built, foregrounding the surrounding natural landscape of Anji. Known for its verdant bamboo forests and tea plantations, the town on the eastern side is framed by a river, and mountains on the west. Hence, the undulating design for the cultural centre is meant to serve as “a transitional connecting space” between the two contextual features.
The cultural centre, surrounded by green tea fields, blends seamlessly into its terrain—echoing the shape of the lush hills. The proposal includes a grand theatre for cultural performances, spaces for conferences, sports activities, a youth activity centre and an art education centre. The facilities are spread across a site of 149,000 sqm. Meant to be a “porous meeting space,” the centre once opened will be accessible to the public at all times of the day.
The programmes are separated into different blocks, with corridors and courtyards interspersed throughout the porous design linking these spaces. A spacious visual promenade cleaves the built volume into two, offering framed views of the distant mountains for the visitors. This open space also doubles as a platform for outdoor performances. The design ensures that various pockets of activity are provided that assimilate manmade and the natural through spatial dialogue, emulating the profound relationship of Chinese architecture and culture with nature. A respect for the natural vistas and a sense of integration between the sky, earth and architectural aesthetics guides the design. This is perhaps in accordance with Daoist beliefs, which maintain that a close relationship with nature boosts overall health.
Talking about the proposal, MAD’s founder Ma Yansong explains the intent being to capture "the unique aura of this region and integrate it into everyday life.” At an aesthetic level, the design achieves this by mimicking bamboo leaves in its roof design and the form of the mountains in its silhouette. Apart from a surface-level treatment of natural elements in the design, courtyards punctuating the organic architecture of the building, are proposed which dissolve the distinction between the built and the unbuilt. These courtyards are also meant to offer the visitor a space of pause amidst the various closed-off functional spaces.
The cavernous interior spaces of the main functional areas: the 'Grand Theatre' and the conference centre are designed to be distinct from the other spaces, with a two-to-three-storey layout. The rest of the structures sit humbly within a single-storey layout. Once opened, the theatre will serve over 1300 people and the interior design of the conference hall will be able to accommodate nearly 2000. However, the most intriguing aspect of the design is its roof which looks like bamboo leaves swaying in the wind. The parametric form of these with “ridges that add visual complexity” follows the trend of structures that use computational technology for biomimetic design. The intention always seems to be to create a visually stunning form, without much consideration for the experiential quality of the design.
In the proposal by MAD Architects, the aesthetic and experiential seem to converge. Concealing and revealing the building in parts, the parametric roof offers visitors inside the campus glimpses of the surroundings. The iterant openings in the roof also let in natural light to ensure a feeling of lightness within the interiors; this effect is heightened by the floor to ceiling glazed walls. This glass façade, which will be 17-metre-high, will be the highest self-supporting glass wall in China once completed.
The proposal for the cultural centre in the verdant environment of Anji, which is expected to take shape by 2025, draws from the Chinese philosophies of assimilating the natural world into arts and culture. The formal qualities of the design do little more than generate intrigue, and it is the spatial organisation that creates a continuity between nature and architecture. While visually appealing, the stark white metal of the still ‘bamboo leaves’ looks strangely otherworldly against the gentle curve of the misty mountains.