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Studio Zhu Pei’s Zibo OCT Art Center adds ‘tectonic expression’ to courtyard plans

Comprising stone masonry-clad volumes linked by swooping hyperboloid roofs, the cultural complex in Zibo, Shandong Province, China, blends traditional and modernist references.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Nov 26, 2022

Distinguishing between imitation and reference is a contested topic in most creative fields. While identifying extreme cases of both the former and latter does not require a great deal of legwork, the scenarios in between them are not as black and white, as one would expect. It is no great secret that contemporary architecture exists as part of a continuum, stretching as far back as the earliest building traditions that began with primitive stone and earth shelters, that have evolved over time into the technological and structural marvels seen in the built environment, of today. Following the advent of modernism and its more pragmatic approach to spatial design, which eschewed cultural precedents to look at a home as "a machine to live in," the resurgence of traditional architectural practices is no surprise in an age where sustainable design and combating climate change must be prioritised above all else. However, the influence of the individual who uttered the aforementioned quote—Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier—and its impact on architecture today is unquestionable, perhaps even to a degree where the field as a whole is forever altered beyond recognition, simply through the realisation of his extensive and acclaimed body of work.

  • The project is located on the outskirts of the city of Zibo | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The project is located on the outskirts of the city of Zibo Image: © Xia Zhi
  • Conceptual sketches | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketches Image: © Studio Zhu Pei

Studio Zhu Pei, based in Beijing is dedicated to experimentation and research in the arena of contemporary architecture, grounding their outlook on design through a reverence for nature—to build in a manner that is rooted in cultural and contextual relevance. On this note, the firm, led by Chinese architect Zhu Pei, strives to respond to the issues of climate change and cultural rupturing, in an era ruled by globalisation and homogeneity. Now, with one of their most recent projects, the Zibo OCT Art Center outside Zibo, a prefecture-level city in Shandong Province, China, the firm has merged references taken from Chinese vernacular architecture in a manner that bears comparison to the design vocabulary of Le Corbusier.

A large pool of water has been placed to one side of the complex | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
A large pool of water has been placed to one side of the complex Image: © Jin Weiqi

The product of this fusion is an unassuming yet innately impactful piece of cultural architecture, littered with references to one of Corbusier’s most recognisable endeavours—Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut (or the Ronchamp Chapel) in Ronchamp, France. Widely studied due to its divergence from Corbusier’s signature modernist vocabulary, owing to its sculpted forms that deceive attempts at stylistic categorisation, the building has been referenced indiscriminately in other structures such as the Fawkner House in Australia, decades after its completion.

  • The entrance features a textured concrete enclosure | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The entrance features a textured concrete enclosure Image: © Jin Weiqi
  • Openings have been punched into the zone's enclosing walls | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    Openings have been punched into the zone's enclosing walls Image: © Xia Zhi

However, in the Zibo OCT Art Center, this application reference is less literal and more atmospheric in nature. The complex is itself composed of three volumes that enclose a void at their centre, connected by spreading roof structures whose undulations ‘glue’ the volumes together. A large reflecting pool is situated on one side of the complex, reminiscent of a moat in its size and placement within the plan. Viewed along its longer face, the cultural centre’s roof structures swoop upwards from the ends to meet in the centre, referencing the form of a traditional gable roof. The geometries exhibited by these elements also bear evident hints of Corbusier's designs for the famed Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh, India.

  • The blocks constituting the complex are united by a swooping concrete roof | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The blocks constituting the complex are united by a swooping concrete roof Image: © Xia Zhi
  • A courtyard space lies at the heart of the plan | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    A courtyard space lies at the heart of the plan Image: © Jin Weiqi

Courtyard homes are a recurring feature of indigenous residential architectural traditions in most nations, and the essence of this typology has been adapted to fit a number of other building types, through the ages. In Chinese architecture, this arrangement is often seen in traditional Siheyuan houses, which feature an irregularly-shaped courtyard space enclosed by built forms. The inward-looking nature of this archetype lends itself well to spaces that require silence, privacy, and intimacy. At varying scales, this spatial order can yield environments that are either modest or monumental, inviting or expansive, even when the design vocabulary borders on identical.

  • The courtyard is centred on a green mound with a tree rising from its highest point | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The courtyard is centred on a green mound with a tree rising from its highest point Image: © Jin Weiqi
  • The complex exudes an air of serenity, inviting reflection | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The complex exudes an air of serenity, inviting reflection Image: © Jin Weiqi
  • The lobby and reception | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The lobby and reception Image: © Jin Weiqi

Zibo OCT Art Center channels the spirit of this layout at a scale that possesses a sense of intimacy, but also makes a dramatic impression on the first approach. Bursting with raw texture and roughness, the complex’s façade design features walls dressed in rough stone masonry, paying homage to masonry construction techniques commonly observed in building practices native to the region. The masonry is supported by steel mesh binding on a concrete block wall with a layer of polystyrene board providing insulation to the assembly. This assembly defines the materiality of all the built forms on site, with small rectangular openings of varying sizes punched into them. From the outside, this gives the complex an inward-looking and almost fortified feel, permitting viewers to discern little about what lies inside. The inclusion of these types of fenestrations bears noticeable similarities to the windows of the Ronchamp Chapel, where similar irregularities in sizing and orientation can be seen along its surfaces.

  • The exhibition hall features a large glass wall that looks into the courtyard | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    The exhibition hall features a large glass wall that looks into the courtyard Image: © Jin Weiqi
  • White walls, stone masonry, and concrete ceilings define the interior design scheme palette in the main hall | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    White walls, stone masonry, and concrete ceilings define the interior design scheme palette in the main hall Image: © Jin Weiqi

Enclosed by the curving footprints of the three main blocks, the courtyard space in the layout’s centre is focused upon an elevated patch of grass with a tree rising from its highest point, reminiscent of a miniature landscape in its own right. Strewn around it are a set of rough-hewn stone benches like deliberately placed objets trouvés. Those visiting the centre can revel in a moment of serenity here, where regulated exposure to the project’s natural surroundings, through narrow gaps between the blocks, can be enjoyed in a controlled setting. Tranquil in ambience and calculated in its spatial purity, the space’s meditative, almost hallowed atmosphere is another point of resemblance to Corbusier’s Ronchamp, where the famed architect’s experiments were conducted primarily to create an environment that would encourage reflection.

The complex's naturalistic aesthetic channels vernacular and modern precedents | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
The complex's naturalistic aesthetic channels vernacular and modern precedents Image: © Jin Weiqi

Interestingly, this humble and naturalistic aesthetic acts as an ideal foil to the expressiveness of the roof structures, whose hyperboloid forms bridge all three volumes into a harmonious whole. Spreading eaves, which evoke traditional East Asian hip-and-gable roof assemblies, albeit in a more abstract sense, add motion to the otherwise rigid and unyielding character of the stone walls, soaring towards the skies.

The spaces within Zibo OCT Art Center possess a sense of openness tempered by intimacy | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
The spaces within Zibo OCT Art Center possess a sense of openness tempered by intimacy Image: © Jin Weiqi

Moulded in fair-faced concrete, the roofline rises, peaks droops downwards, and ascends at strategic intervals to replicate their traditional counterparts. Although the top and outward-facing surfaces of the roofs have a matte finish, the inner faces and undersides of their canopies are replete with rhythmic striations from the shuttering used to cast them, particularly prominent on the walls at the complex’s entrance. Even the shapes of the framed openings, punched into the walls around the entrance appear to be a nod to Chandigarh's Palace of Assembly. In this manner, the understated beauty of the building’s exterior is not the product of elaborate structural design or ornamentation, but rather, stems from its simplicity and astute channelling of indigenous architectural motifs with contemporary sensibilities, in a way that relates to the project’s spatial and temporal context.

The multifunctional room | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
The multifunctional room Image: © Jin Weiqi

Alternatively, this ebb and flow in the roof’s trajectory generates a feeling of tension and release inside the complex, where the dip and rise in ceiling heights dramatise the spatial journey through the layout of Zibo OCT Art Center. Beyond the main foyer, which has been laid out inside a convex volume, the main exhibition hall is towards the far end of the complex from the entrance. This structure occupies an entire stretch of the site’s periphery, while the remaining corner of the plot is home to a multifunctional room. Its layout morphs from quadrangular in the centre to fan-shaped in wings, at its extremities. The effect of the roof’s sagging—which is a product of gravity as per the architects—is on full show here, as the seemingly regular volume exhibits drastic alterations in spatiality. Striations along the curving ceiling add to this impression of spatial warping, deceiving the eye to striking effect. A large glass wall on the hall’s inward-facing side looks into the courtyard, with its transparency broken only by a series of columns that have been ordered periodically along its stretch.

  • Underground Floor Plan | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    Underground Floor Plan Image: © Studio Zhu Pei
  • Ground Floor Plan | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
    Ground Floor Plan Image: © Studio Zhu Pei

Besides the stone and concrete, Zibo OCT Art Center’s interior design palette also utilises plain white walls and wood accents—the former, another common element in the design of the Ronchamp Chapel. The irregularity in the arrangement of these punched openings—varying in proportion, orientation, and spacing, is a hallmark feature of Corbusier’s famed chapel, and the similarity in this case is virtually undeniable. In cases like these, a certain level of praise must be afforded to Studio Zhu Pei for successfully reimplementing a characteristic feature of an iconic structure, in a fashion that possesses an identity of its own, but is still innately tied to its predecessor.

Section | Zibo OCT Art Center | Studio Zhu Pei | STIRworld
Section Image: © Studio Zhu Pei

Finally, the multifunctional room exhibits a minor break in its palette from other spaces inside the complex, with wood flooring and slender furniture designs that impart it with a more ‘formal’ feel, diverging from the weighty, nature-themed character of the remainder of the complex. Like the rest of the complex, the interior here is virtually column-free and horizontally expansive—spatial qualities that were pivotal to the outlook adopted by Studio Zhu Pei in their design process. In their search for a porous, tectonically expressive structure that invites exploration and reflection, the firm has effectively captured the essence of regional architectural precedents to craft environments that can speak beyond their place in space or time.

Project Details

Name: Zibo OCT Art Center
Location: Zibo, Shandong, China
Year of Completion: 2020
Site Area: 27,792 sqm
Gross Floor Area: 2,471 sqm
Client: Zibo OCT Group CO., LTD.
Architecture, Interior and Landscape Design: Studio Zhu Pei
Design Principal: Zhu Pei
Design Team: Wilson Nugroho Markhono, Yina Luo Moore, You Changchen, Zhang Shun, Liu Yian, Ji Ming, Chen Yanhong, Liu Ling
Cooperative Design in Landscape: L&A Design
Cooperative Design in Structural and MEP: Zibo Architecture Design and Research Institute
Façade Consultant: King Glass Engineering CO., LTD.
Lighting Consultant: Ning Field Lighting Design CO., LTD.
Main Contractor: Taixing No.1 Construction Group CO., LTD.

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