by Jerry ElengicalDec 03, 2022
A clever and multifarious use of conflicting geometries brings alive the M2 Art Centre, a multifunctional art space in Hangzhou, China, capturing attention and emotions by beckoning visitors to embark on an odyssey of discovery and inner journeys. Originally a wedding dress showroom, the high-end interiors of the art centre are conceived by SpActrum, co-founded in 2012 by Chinese architects Pan Yan and his partner Li Zhen. With dramatic visuals, lofty ceilings, and graceful surfaces that bleed in and out of each other to create a continuous screenplay of unfurling geometric designs, the M2 Art Centre “establishes a connection between geometry and emotion through geometric manipulation, which originates from our deep collective memory as humans, and goes beyond the original narrative, becoming our intuitive response to the space,” relays SpActrum, a research-oriented architectural design agency.
The initial function of the now-organic design powered a reflection on “modern women and their choices in marriage and relationships—Marriage is no longer a default option for everyone in contemporary society, but rather, a rational choice for individuals to grasp their own lives,” explains SpActrum, who has an office in Beijing and a creative centre in Shanghai. SpActrum’s design team and the owner of M2 embarked on an unusual yet entrancing exploration, driven by these inquiries—'Can a contemporary commercial exhibition space be expanded into a mind-body journey with some psychic touch, providing an opportunity for introspection and contemplation of life before the wedding moment? Can a space imbued with profound meaning serve as a versatile venue in the city, hosting various artistic and design activities?'
The initial recce by the Chinese design and architecture office revealed a site located on the plinth of a high-reside office building, as the original space catered to a gym and a swimming pool. Encountering the site’s preliminary spatial sequence, which started to unfold at the square elevator hall on one side of the main space, followed by a more than 40-meter-long, strip-shaped area, accompanied by a floor partially sunk in about 1.5 meters, and culminating in a 10-meter-high space, Yan immediately outlined the basic storyboard for the M2 Art Centre. He proceeded to step into the sunken pool design in cinematic fashion, reeling in the magnificent sense of height in the main area, and envisioned it stretching further. Walking ahead to reach the end of the pool, SpActrum's chief designer and design director drank in the scale and glory of the 10-metre-high space, instantly reckoned with a strong sense of ‘sacred calling.’
Transforming conflicts to derive an aesthetic
"The strong connection between the designer and the site made it clear that the design for ‘M2’ should be based on respect for the power of the place, seeking to express its spatial potential,” SpActrum relays, explaining the creation of an aesthetic of ‘transforming conflicts’ for the art centre’s 712 sqm, fey interior design.
“In SpActrum's design philosophy, contemporary everyday expressions are characterised by discreteness, fragmentation, and conflicts. (We) believe that rather than avoiding or mitigating these conflicts, the aesthetic of fragmentation and conflicts are the defining characteristics of our time. In non-pure, cultural spaces, designers must confront the important challenge of how to appropriately adapt to the functional characteristics of the space while continuing to explore the architecture,” Yan elaborates.
The design studio retained a critical awareness of the multiple conflicts that the space inherently possessed, weaving in creative transformations and multifaceted design interventions that formed the genesis and foundation for the ‘unique and daring’ design language articulating the M2 Art Centre, conjuring an ambience of ‘otherworldly sanctity.’
The first conflict arose, of the original spatiality that needed to be adapted to new functional requirements for the art centre. Here, SpActrum responded by choosing to maximise the potential qualities of the former space, to conceive a comprehensive artistic space that could accommodate spaces for photography, fashion exhibits, artistic events, and art exhibitions. “This approach established a symbiotic relationship between the history of the site and its present,” attests SpActrum.
The emerging spatial narrative and the ‘tension’ between the interior designer’s understanding of contemporary social conditions posed the next layer of conflict—one of the crucial roles played by the space was to showcase wedding dresses, “but in modern society, marriage is no longer a universal experience, but rather, a personal choice. SpActrum hopes that the spatial experience at M2 would not be a preconceived indulgence, but a journey that would inspire women's self-awareness and self-care,” the design team says.
The third conflict came from the interpretation of the architectural language within a complex system of values and functions—"Should the design strive for a pure geometric language throughout, or, should it be informed by a higher-level logic and concept that integrates multiple geometric languages, while also responding and adapting to the original site?” Yan wondered. As a comprehensive design solution, SpActrum elected to confront the conflict between the myriad systems, instead of avoiding or concealing them completely, while adhering to ‘geometric purity’ which, in contrast, aids in concealment.
An alien eye, a cocoon, and floating black stones
After stepping off from the elevator hall, a pathway leads into a dark, yet enigmatic space expressed in floating black stones that seem to descend from the faint light of the sky, smooth and acerbic simultaneously, recalling the mystique and mystery of the imposing ambience, when the Ten Commandments descended with the prophet Moses upon Mount Sinai. One of the black stones partially obscures a bright white opening, a cocoon of sorts, advancing into a domed space where the ground gently slopes upward.
The highest point here is adorned with an arched opening intensifying from both sides, seemingly taking the shape of an alien eye. “Looking back from the main space towards this location, the complete form of the space appears like a cocoon that contains the seeds of human beings, with the arched opening resembling an eyelid that visitors stand inside. This is the first-place visitors land upon when arriving on this alien planet, and where they take their first glimpse at the new world,” Yan paints a picture.
Peaking senses with an inverted valley
SpActrum went on to leverage the pre-existing, cathedral-like high space, by establishing the concept of an ‘inverted valley’ within the contemporary design. With utmost care, the intervention keeps the ground neat and inclusive, sponsoring the suspension of themed objects in the air for a delicate experience, where mirror-inverted reflections of typical landscape objects form an intentional, 'aesthetic tension.' "At the same time, these hillsides are geometrised, more slender, ethereal, round, and sharp than natural hills, because they are separated from the gravitational constraints of natural hills,” explains the interior designer.
“In this world, there is a unique experience of anti-gravity. The valley itself is a winding path, so when it is inverted, the peaks become hanging screens, and the path is dimly visible in the separated areas. As the viewer passes through the highest point of the cocoon chamber's opening, the ground path continues to descend, and the steepness of the valley is magnified. The peaks hang, curl, concave, elongate, and coexist. In many angles, they look like some physical representation of human senses such as ears, eyes, and mouths,” Yan continues.
A geometric vault and altar of rationality
The acutely rational and precise nature of the ground forms a ‘metaphor for human intelligence,’ contrasting subliminally with the infinite liberty of the sky stretching above. The spatiality deviates towards the diagonal direction of the oblique space, advertently extending the walking experience of users. The short steps within the space remain vertical, while the longer ones are designed as ‘mirror-like diagonals,’ complementing the original concrete structure of the pool, in tandem with exposing some of its original edges.
SpActrum regarded this as staying faithful to the site, without entirely covering up or overtly embellishing it, where the new system and the old remain in interaction with each other. The steps descend until they intersect on both sides, forming a pool, at whose end they continue to ascend, forming an aerial altar that attempts “to approach the infinite nature with rationality,” according to Yan.
This altar rests underneath the dome, its massive volume evocative of an oracle, an eternal object from beyond the sky. “Then, the holy light descends and flickers at the highest point of the entire space. Looking back, it presents the most magnificent and extraordinary scenery within the setting,” Yan adds.
A built storyline spelling life
Departing from the gigantic hat-shaped space from the stairs’ highest point, visitors step into a ‘fantastic’ main area, reminiscent of the experience of entering a movie theatre that reviews one’s life, abetted by a storyline set and spelt by design and architectural intercessions.
“The ignorant and bewildered youth arrive in this world, and the hanging peaks resemble lips and earlobes as if they are calling out, whispering, inspiring, tempting, desiring, and making noise, trying to influence the innocent new life everywhere. They may be lost or moved, but ultimately, when facing the holy light that connects heaven and earth, they look back and understand themselves. This is the main storyline of the space,” explains Yan, who, with SpActrum, puts forward critical architectural propositions such as ‘discrete architecture’ and ‘tortuous architectural frontier,’ committing to pursuing ‘profound authenticity’ in architecture and design, and empowering it with action.
The M2 Art Centre delved into two major aspects—how spatial geometry could be used to convey emotions and create feelings, and how materials and how materials and techniques could be employed concisely to realise the intended design. In the context of the former, SpActrum explored the potentials of space and established four different geometric languages: flat geometry, regular surfaces, free-form surfaces, and symmetrical free-form surfaces. “These correspond to the cocoon (the cradle when people leave their homes), classical temples (human wisdom and rationality), nature (essentially the humanisation of nature, including an understanding of chaos), and divinity (absolute grandeur), respectively,” Yan relays.
The Chinese architect and designer understands the intentions that come with realising forms and materialising spatiality, and therefore, permitted layered associations and references to be established in the M2 Art Centre, “creating a hierarchical relationship that extends the meaning of the space beyond the built space,” as per SpActrum.
For the second facet, GRG (Glass-Reinforced Gypsum) and GRP (Glass-Reinforced Plastic) shaping techniques met the possibilities of all violently sinous surfaces, while the use of white marble mirrored the visuals of classical architecture. The extensive use of light films furthered the cinematic essence of the space as an endless, far-reaching one.
“(The) M2 Art Centre is a place with unique spiritual characteristics and rich symbolic meanings. Through metaphorical spatial narrative and the use of different categories of geometric forms under the control of superb geometric mastery, the space is endowed with ambiguous and multiple meanings, with many metaphors and references hidden within the pure geometric forms. The result is a space that offers a concentrated and profound spiritual experience and provides Hangzhou with a platform for various new ideas, aesthetics, and arts to be communicated and promoted,” Pan concludes.
Name: M2 Art Centre
Location: Xingyao Centre, Binjiang District, Hangzhou, China
Area: 712 sqm
Year of completion: 2023
Interior Designer: SpActrum
Design Director: Yan Pan
Design Team: Hao Chen, Zhen Li, Yimeng Tang, Yijie Zhang, Xiao Wan, Jinyu Wan, Yiran Pan
Lighting Design: Xiaohao Guan
Special Curved Surface Construction: EGrow
Overall Contractor: Beijing Jinghui Decoration Engineering Co., Ltd.
Customised Space Music: Beijing Beibai Music Culture Co., Ltd.