by Jerry ElengicalMay 10, 2022
Qingyang Palace in Chengdu has long been regarded as a premier shrine for the Taoist religious tradition which has its roots in the teachings of Chinese philosopher Laozi (or Lao Tzu). Its history stretches as far back as the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-221 BCE), when its ancient predecessor, the Qingyang Si was first constructed. The current complex - following its expansion and rebranding as the Qingyang Palace by Emperor Xizong of the Tang Dynasty - is now one of the largest and most prominent Taoist temples in China’s Sichuan province, and the country as a whole. Located fairly close to Chengdu’s centre, the complex’s history as a haven for those who live in harmony with the Tao, was a decisive force in a recently completed restaurant design intervention by MUDA-Architects, which breathed new life into a building to the west of this storied structure.
Dubbed the Kuansan Town Restaurant, the renovation project’s formulation was heavily influenced by Taoist thought, particularly Laozi’s conception of the 'valley'. MUDA-Architects explains, “The 'valley', according to Laozi, is a realm of all births, autopoiesis, and an infinite self-generation mechanism. The ‘valley’ is shapeless within, allowing it to take any form. It alludes to the 'vacancy' and 'nothingness' within the 'real', providing the possibility to nurture everything possible.” They continue, “While the valley is formless, ‘water’ acts as a stream of liveliness that endlessly nourishes and fills the ‘valley'. In Taoist philosophy, the relationship between the two is vivid, eternal, and vital; it is the origin of all beings. We extracted this depiction of the 'valley' and reinterpreted it through architecture, employing the idea of 'water' to build a spatial narrative and sense of place.”
With entrances to the south and east, the hospitality design venture bridges the historic complex to the latter side and the main road hosting the Qingyang Palace metro station to the former end. The southern entry is the main point of access for patrons from outside the complex, with an archaic-looking copper knobbed door leading into a courtyard with an undulating red wall. According to the architects, this space has been termed as the 'Gate of Primordial Origin', closely associated with the Taoist concept of Wuji - referring to the primordial universe prior to Taiji, the Chinese cosmological term for the ‘supreme ultimate’ state of being of absolute and undivided potential that acts as the point of origin for yin and yang. The wall’s path itself traces the symbolic representation of yin and yang, which form the two aspects of Taiji, and a tree planted in the yang portion of the courtyard embodies the earth in this dualist spectacle, becoming the main focal point of the space.
In essence, moving from the gate to the waiting room, and then into the courtyard, is a journey from a formless primordial state, to the material world where the ‘valley’ inside gives life and shape to all that exists. The bold red hue of the wall exudes an evident traditional aesthetic, tying it to the examples of historic Chinese architecture around it. This stylistic sensibility extends throughout much of the restaurant’s bounds, with traditional sloped roofs and a courtyard style layout, complemented and contrasted by more contemporary elements, which lend a keen air of duality to the architectural expression. It is also reflected through the extensive use of natural materials such as wood and stone in conjunction with modern ones such as concrete and glass - which impart balance and add a contemporary touch to the ensemble.
Forming the centrepiece of the entire design, the central courtyard is surrounded by a fluid sequence of transparent red railings, culminating in an expressive staircase design that cascades down towards a water feature at its heart. “One of the fundamental Taoist principles is non-willful action, in which any human tampering with the flow of reality will be reverted to what is natural. We started with this idea and restored the original rigid square-shaped courtyard with a soft yet bold skyline,” shares the firm. They continue, “By adding the second-floor terrace and connecting it with the sinuous spiral staircase, the visitor’s sightline is framed by smooth red glass fences. Following the classic Chinese garden element of 'three islands in one pond', we designed a water-feature, restoring the courtyard to its natural state.”
A subtle play of light and shadow, concealment and exposure, as well as built and unbuilt spaces generates spatial tension within this zone. Through traditional landscape design techniques derived from Chinese gardens, the spatiality evokes the ebb and flow of natural terrain. Louvred slats drop down from the upper level to offer shade and hide structural columns while also framing views of the courtyard. The curves of the staircase are also featured on the second floor, where guests can enjoy breathtaking views of Qingyang Palace. MUDA-Architects states, "By borrowing, creating scenery, and framing scenery, visitors can catch delicately composed glimpses at various angles and perspectives, unrolling like the scroll of a landscape painting. Changing scenery elucidates physical and mental enlightenment with every step, as they meander through the winding path of Kuansan Town.”
The restaurant’s dining areas have been ordered around this courtyard, with many of them concentrated along the eastern edge of the plan neighbouring the temple. Among them, the tea room and bar area have been articulated in an L-shaped configuration along the southeastern corner of the plot, with sliding doors that open directly into the Qingyang Palace on the first floor. While the bar area is shaded by a towering gingko tree which brings nature into the space, the tea room is crowned by a three-tiered ceiling with wood-tone edges and a luminous film in its centre that provides subtle lighting, “creating a warm and tranquil environment.”
Alternatively, the Garden room on the first floor overlooks Qingyang Palace’s pagoda and an assortment of gingko trees towards the northeastern corner of the layout. Featuring a warm, earthy palette composed predominantly of wood and delicate white tones, the interior design here is intended to complement the presence of vegetation in its vicinity "creating a permeable space that makes visitors more conscious of their surroundings". Moreover, vaulted ceilings with subtle concealed lighting impart serenity and expand the space here.
Continuous private dining areas are situated along the western edge on both floors, meant to offer adaptive spaces for large parties to use, but simultaneously retain a sense of coherence throughout. Flexible partitions, curved wood-grain finished ceilings, and an underlying sense of minimalism typify the aesthetic sensibility here. Smaller private dining spaces are located along each corner of the layout on the second floor, for a more subdued experience. Besides this, kitchens and storage spaces occupy the northern edge of the site while restrooms are placed in the southwestern corner.
Finally, the eastern entrance features an immersive installation resembling a portal, with a moon suspended above it, and directly connects the restaurant to the Qingyang Palace. MUDA-Architects notes, “We named it the ‘Gate of Multiple Subtleties’ (Zhongmiao). The Qingyang Palace on one side symbolises profound heritage and history, while a contemporary space expresses traditional culture with a futurist twist on the other. The 'Gate of Multiple Subtleties' unfolds the experience of switching between spaces in an unexpected way. The passage is intended to add layers of experience to an otherwise simple and straightforward entrance, forming a space-time tunnel linking the past and the present.”
Name: Kuansan Town Restaurant - Oriental Cultural Life
Location: Qingyang District, Chengdu, China
Built-Up Area: 900 sqm
Landscape Area: 525 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Client: Chengdu Kuansan Town Creative Living Co., Ltd
Principal Architect: Lu Yun
Design Team: Li Aidong, Lv Chenyu, Rong Dian, Xhan Ziqi, He Fan, Fu Yao
Structural Consultant: Yuki. Law
Lighting Design: DOPI Lighting Design