by Jincy IypeSep 02, 2022
All of land, literature and history is a palimpsest of stories, lived and experienced by different factions of society. While archival texts, paintings and popular historical narratives may be guided by the Pareto Principle, and hence, tend to communicate the tales of those in positions of power and privilege, our lands, shifting and breaking, clashing and fusing, are grounds, upon which, despite fortified margins and borders, traces of the entire zoönomy are etched and laden one upon the other. These lands, in which entire ecosystems and societies have stewed, are the contexts that house new explorations in art, architecture, science, design and the myriad fields appertaining to research and innovation. One can, hence, surmise, that parcels of land—with individual idiosyncrasies that define them—are perhaps the original demonstration spaces for all things artistic or pragmatic, since early times. How did we then decide that mediums of pedagogy—whether concerned with educating individuals, actuating discourse, or simply acknowledging creative endeavours—be housed in spaces that are starkly built, with not a feature, nor an ornament that betrays their locus?
While the white cube aesthetic was considered almost revolutionary when first formalised and publicised by Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in the 1930s—in that it served the purpose of minimising distractions and emphasising the heavily abstracted artworks on display—today, its usage across art and design galleries and museums across the globe is abundant. It is, perhaps, time for designers, curators, and architects to permit the grains of sands and wafts of air to configure design and art museums and infiltrate their galleries and hallways with a definitive essence, an unrestrained flavour that speaks of its context.
A recently built space—that attempts to draw references from its locale—for the display of artworks and sculptures is the Taihang Xinyu Art Museum, located in Shibanyan Town, Linzhou City, Anyang, Henan Province, China. Designed by Wang Chong Design, the structure, fitted between the Taihang Mountain and the Cangxi River, dips and lifts, emulating the undulating scenery in which it is placed. “Shibanyan Town is located in the Taihang Grand Canyon Scenic Area. In recent years, it has been promoted to the most important sketching base in the north with the positioning of ‘Chinese Painting Valley.’ It is based on the background of the revitalisation of rural cultural tourism that an iconic art gallery is planned to be built in the entrance to the town,” Wang Chong Design shares.
In mimicking the curves dominating its context, albeit with materials traditionally used in the region, the Chinese architecture studio manages to imbue the structure with an essence that speaks of the geography and culture of the town. The Taihang Xinyu Art Museum appears in Shibanyan Town like a limb growing out of the landscape, with features that emulate the attributes defining the natural landscape in the vicinity. It does not appear like an alien addition in the landscape, but instead seems to have stood and grown in its place for many years.
The museum design is inspired by the principle that guides the creation of cyborgs. “A cyborg is a combination of a living organism and a self-regulating device. The new technology produced by engineering science is not only satisfied with restoration, but also wants to improve and enhance, which seems to be a metaphor for the design project of Taihang Xinyu Art Museum," shares Wang Chong, founder of the eponymous architecture studio. The architect, through the design of the museum, hopes to “stimulate people’s perception of culture and memory” in a fast urbanising era. In restoring and using the damaged warehouses in the vicinity, Chong manages to anchor heritage and identity, while offering a contemporary space for artistic expression. “The new building volume that integrates it provides a new direction for the possibility of urban cultural tourism development. This hybrid method is more effective than Tabula Rasa or ‘repairing the old as the old’,” the architect adds.
The spatial configuration of the museum architecture is a combination of older stipulations and new perspectives. While the northern side of the building is integrated with old warehouses, the building courtyard serves as a portal, an egress, that leads the way from the street running along the western face to the waterfront on the eastern side of the building. Visitors are welcomed into the cavernous space, from the west face, through a small stone slab suspended by a steel cable. The placement of the museum on the riverfront allows for its river-facing interface to become the focus of the design. Talking about the reaction of people to the design of Taihang Xinyu Art Museum, the architect shares, “Local residents and tourists mentioned two points, one is the subtle curved surface and bright stone colour, which make it easily jump out of the environment, and stand out from the regular texture of the village and town with a gesture of ‘harmony but difference,’ which is eye-catching but it does not destroy the beauty of nature, makes nature no longer monotonous, and adds to the aura of harmonious coexistence between man and nature.”
The curved roof of the structure is, on the one hand, inspired by the traditional Chinese roof, and on the other, is defined by its spatial relationship to the site. “In ancient Chinese architecture, the large roof is described as 'like a bird spreading its wings and a pheasant spreading its wings and flying,' as if the wings bring a light feeling," shares Wang Chong, founder of the eponymous architecture studio. While the roof, curved and spread across the span of the structure, emulates the description of the Chinese roof, its top, sloping from north to south, is designed to match the heights of the huge houses on the southern side and the warehouse on the north of the structure. With its atypical form that stands out against flat roofed and rectilinearly shaped structures in the vicinity, the Taihang Xinyu Art Museum activates the densely built region.
Constructed using locally acquired old and used stones and slates, the architects attempted to utilise traditional crafting techniques to build this structure in Shibanyan Town, also known as the Slate Rock Town. This not only helped facilitate a sustainable design approach—by reducing the amount of newly minted materials used in the creation of the structure—but also aided in the achievement of low-cost construction and the revival of local traditions pertaining to construction with stones and slates. A number of old slate slabs—amounting to nearly 40 percent of the total slate slabs—were recycled from the roofs of older traditional houses and processed to construct parts of the museum. In using a combination of old and new slates, textured and coloured in adjoining hues, the formula of “breaking up the colours” was employed.
The hillside underneath the art museum was dug to build a restaurant. The concrete retaining walls on the north and south sides of the restaurant, although irregular, offer support to this portion and the area housed over this. The floor, too, is covered in red terrazzo made out of local red sandstone aggregates. The stones acquired during the excavation of the hillside were used for the masonry of the waterside embankment, as well as for usage as ornamental stones for display in the garden. Other areas where the large boulders and stones were used, includes the supporting foundation for the warehouse. The juxtaposition of stone against the light steel structure bracing the warehouse and the textured masonry walls laid bare for the display of paintings, offer a dynamic contrast suitable for the showcase of artworks and for usage as a studio space.
Wang Chong also experimented with novel recyclable decoration methods, such as hanging a hemp rope—soaked in water-based paint—from the ceiling, combining stone strips with angle steel and acrylic to build a translucent gate, and using gravel acquired from the river to build the exposed foundation.
Apart from housing artefacts and artworks worthy of an audience, the Taihang Xinyu Art Museum also provides multi-level open spaces that offer spanning views to the nearby lake and mountain ranges. “Modern art museums often isolate the situation of artistic creation from the situation of public viewing, and create a worship of artworks with an alienated white box atmosphere. In the context of a small town, it is necessary to create an aesthetic experience of daily life. We expose the simple and rustic building materials, so that residents who face stones all day long find a familiar sense of strangeness,” reads an excerpt from the release shared by the architecture studio. Several images of the landscape such as curved alleys, long bridges, folded paths, stone foundations, gazebos, caves, and water walls are emulated in the spaces integrated within the art museum. Viewing platforms and apertures at various points in the structure beckon the influx of nature, while offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
The art museum is also built with the intent of housing not only formalised versions of creative endeavours, such as paintings or sculptures, but also encourage participatory public art. “It becomes the background of daily life, a place where people communicate and gather, it has multiple identities rather than a single one, it provides free space arrangement, inspires possibilities, is flexible and variable, has multiple sensory feelings, and becomes a community space over time,” the architect enunciates. This multiplicity of the museum is apparent more prominently in the outdoor space of the structure, with multiple entrances leading into the building, and numerous routes leading the way from the western street to the riverside on the east. The inspiration behind these spaces are cited by the architect in Chinese art created by Jing Hao and Guo Xi. An example of this can be cited in the comparisons made between the view from the warehouse window to Jing Hao’s painting from a large window.
“Traditional Chinese landscape paintings also try to describe the paths into the mountains layer by layer, which inspired us to design layers of retreats and zigzag mountaineering paths in the site adjacent to the water and back of the mountain. Of course, these designed external spaces are also based on the flow of people around the site. On the one hand, they attract a large number of people walking along the river into the building. On the other hand, these platforms have also become an excellent location to watch the opposite mountain,” the Chinese architect shares. Booths and eaves set in place allow painters to sit and sketch here, or alternatively, host barbeque nights.
The roof and the restaurant, on the other hand, become places for wedding ceremonies and art conferences. “We look forward to triggering the Medici effect here, and a public art field of inclusiveness and humanistic care will be launched,” the architect shares.
Name: Taihang Xinyu Art Museum
Location: Shibanyan Town, Linzhou, Anyang, Henan, China
Area: 1500 square meters
Year of completion: 2022
Project Type: Rural Revitalization, Old Building Renovation
Architect: Wang Chong Studio
Design team: Wang Chong (Chief Designer), Mr. Zhang Baowei, Zhang Yifei, Zhang Dongguang
Construction: Shi Yusheng, Zhao Cun
Deepening and Construction: Dang Fuzan, Huaan Installation Engineering Co., Ltd