by Jerry ElengicalNov 26, 2022
Standing in stark contrast to the rampage of new building and construction happening in China, this is a cultural centre that directly responds, almost indulges in nonchalant conversation with the very people whose culture it seeks to represent. While Chinese architecture undergoes a kind of parametrically driven renaissance, with swirling edifices and sizeable monolithic forms designed by starchitects dotting several of its prime city centres, searching for an identity, the Cultural Service Centre and Special Workshops in Ruyi village remain inconspicuous in appearance and entirely functional in form. Its seams appear as if emerging from the earth itself, and its very presence seems to catalyse the dichotomous peri-urban context it finds itself in the midst of.
Located in Shuikou Town in the Jianghua Yao Autonomous County, the cultural centre, designed by local architecture practice WCY Regional Studio, draws much of its spirit and an ethos of cultural representation from the unique geology of the region. Shuikou, located earlier in the immense floodplains of a “tearful” river reservoir expansion project, now lies in the flats troughed between longitudinal mountains. Furthermore, the structure is firmly planted at the juxtaposition - a near exact precipice - of ages old village settlements, and neatly ordered, planned rows of new housing blocks. This character of contrast, of co-existence in the face of tussle, manifests wholly in the design of the cultural centre and the spaces it encloses.
In its conception, the structure, which is essentially the whole building in a most direct interpretation of a skin-and-bones architecture, is a three dimensional circulation plan brought to life. Beginning from an extensive planning exercise along the site level, the building’s own morphology develops along three distinct levels, envisioned as three terraces in ascending height from north to south. The three conjoined structures harbour the cultural service centre, the atrium theatre, and special workshops respectively. Between these, the centre brings together a multitude of functions under its roof, including village offices, spaces for hosting activities for villagers including reading, arts, and cultural performances, a hub for tourism, and spaces for the display and sale of special products from the region. The variance in functions brings together recreational and daily activities for the villagers, ensuring that the centre is always operationally activated.
Serving as the nucleus of the building, an energy core, a central atrium serves as a unique space of confluence for inhabitants of the building and visitors, along with hosting customary activities unique to the region, including several local rituals and the Yao long drum dance. It was, in fact, the deeply cultural and rooted nature of these activities that prompted the architects to “intentionally construct a spatial place with both material and spiritual significance in the design”. Treated as a “spatial prototype”, the atrium ‘stage’ derives from the halls and patios of the old and new houses in the region. “The design aims to construct the atrium stage as a space where the ritual and the everyday coexist, with a certain sense of heaven and earth," states the design team at WCY Regional Studio.
The building’s exterior, unadorned as it may be, displays a unique dramatic character, a formation pure in intent, through the circulation routes of the building spiralling along the core structure, with the central atrium as an impetus, a point of emanation. Designated as the structure’s overhanging ‘eaves’, though not in the most traditional sense, these corridors provide an additional layer to the building, appearing as through retrofit onto a skin. What would have thus been an unobstructed visual avenue cutting through the structure, linking the three blocks and the site’s surroundings to the line of sight, is now animated by criss-crossing stairways and undeterred linear corridors.
Apart from the appearance, the eaves are also how the building adapts to the local hot and rainy summer climate, while also serving as a more publicly charged front for the building. “The staircase not only carries the vertical traffic function, but also serves as a spatial element and a graphical language implanted in the architectural space,” adds the design team.
This language of bare expression that the building adapts as its own is borrowed from nearby traditional settlements that the architects researched on and engaged with while designing the cultural centre. While the structure itself may be bogged by the predisposition to be misidentified as a building under construction, being composed almost entirely of low cost materials - red bricks, cement blocks, and concrete - which are commonly found in the area, it has also found a special resonance with the local public who associate with the structure on a rather personal level.
By emulating and carefully adapting local architectural elements from traditional houses, the project aims for a certain familiarity in an alien setting for the local populace, a common predicament for most public avenues today. And by baring its edifice to both human and non-human paradigms, it embraces its inconspicuousness to house tranquillity.