by Jerry ElengicalNov 26, 2022
The scale of an architectural intervention may be an important determinant in a building's identity, especially since it is inadvertently so directly tied to the functions the building fulfills. In the case of Shou County Culture and Art centre by Studio Zhu Pei, however, the notion of scale in built form is interpreted differently to create an architectural experience that is at once heightened and grounded in its linear proportions. Within a historical context - one that the building draws from succinctly in its formulation - it is at once, a microcosmic representation of an urban block, as well as a replication of older residential settlements in the same city. Interestingly enough, the cultural building itself operates on and identifies with a scale that lies somewhere in between the two, theoretically propounding how China's world-class architecture still finds a cultural grounding in its context.
As also noted in the narrative for the recently opened Panda Tower in Chengdu, Chinese architecture, even in its umbrella definition seems to stand out from contemporary architecture in the rest of the world by its intrinsic connection to the land and rich culture of the region. The case here is no different, since the massive form of the centre, punctured in places to subdue the visual heft of what would otherwise have been a monolithic cuboid, is transformed into a zone of catchment for both, human activity and climatological influences. The building's stereotomic architecture not only provides viewers a window into the nucleus of the structure, catalysed by activity and greens, it also serves to connect the many 'zones' of the sizeable structure, breaking them down into easily perceptible orthogonal blocks, now connected through narrow alleys and landscaped courts.
The culture and art centre owes its conceptual prowess to the ancient city of Shou County in the Anhui province, located amid the fertile basins of rivers Yangtze and Huai in southeast China. Both, the city’s plan and the dense urban housing typologies earmarking it were roughly square shaped - a planning influence, however informal, that clearly manifests in the building. Furthermore, the ancient city was also oriented strongly along the north-south and east-west axes, accelerating a rigid, grid-iron planning in new districts that have sprung up in the past 10 years, replacing former agricultural fields to the southeast of the city. The cultural centre thus seemingly proposes a balance, a counter to this displacement, “continuing the traditional spirit of the local place in a radically new way”, according to architect Zhu Pei.
The structure's most definitive feature, its many cross-planar perforations, emerge as interpretations of the county's urban fabric, and even individual, cellular residential units from it, as specified before. With their closed facades, centrally oriented courtyards, and narrow alleyways traversing the ways of the residence, the houses in Anhui province almost directly informed the spatial planning and aesthetic language of the centre. Several programs, including an art museum, the cultural centre itself, a library, and archives, are contained within the solid, cuboidal form, with an intention to serve as a cultural impetus for the city. The planning formulates six courtyards of varying scales to anchor these spaces around, while the courtyards themselves are further connected via a spiral loop public corridor, allowing people to wander from the ground level to higher levels in the building, without interrupting the continuity of the interior programs.
The entrance to the complex, highlighted by a two-storey high rectangular opening dramatised by virtue of its scale, leads visitors to a large entrance court, set apart from the remaining courtyards with its plaza like character, similar to “Tangwu”, a courtyard of the Huizhou housing typology. Accessed from the building’s southern end, the gate lies at the end of a bridge spanning an expansive still water body, the clear reflections of the cuboidal mass doubling the building’s volume and facia.
The architects regard these interventions, including the extensively landscaped courts and peripatetically positioned pools of water as a reflection of intelligible local ideas that help the building conjure a suitable microclimate, harbouring it from extreme conditions in both summers and winters. Interestingly, these perforations along the facia of the building may also be perceived as courtyards conceived along the vertical plane, pockets of building wherein gravity operates differently, while the unified structure emerges as an instance of a single stretch of lattice folding in on itself.
Drawing further from traditional residences in the region, the rearmost courtyards in the structure are reminiscent of back gardens prevalent within the local housing typology. An elliptical moon window carved within the concrete walls in these courtyard amplifies perspective and visual avenues, akin to a cave. Several such openings also serve to mask a majority of the vertical circulation means in the complex, including linear, unyielding stairways. By virtue of that, while the views on one side of the wall are beatifically staged, on the other side, the dramatic fervour of people disappearing behind large, tall stretches of free standing exposed concrete walls and reappearing on another level is escalated.
Name: Shou County Culture and Art Centre
Location: Shou County, Anhui, China
Client: Shouxian Government
Total Area: 30,010 sq.m.
Architecture, Landscape and Interior Design: Studio Zhu Pei
Design Principal: Zhu Pei
Design Team: Shuhei Nakamura, Du Yang, You Changchen, Liu Yian, Liu Ling, Wu Zhigang, Yang Shengchen, Ding Xinyue, Ke Jun, Wu Zhenhe, Duyao, Nie Wenhao
Structural and MEP Consultants: BIAD JAMA CO., LTD.
Landscape and Interior: The Design Institute of Landscape & Architecture China Academy of Art
Main Contractor: ShengWo Construction Group Co., LTD.