THAD uses parametric architecture, to build among the valleys of Jiuzhaigou

The Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities takes cues from its surroundings, and Tibetan traditions, and uses modern technologies to build in an earthquake-prone region.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Nov 25, 2022

Post the 2017 Jiuzhaigou earthquake, the design team at the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University (THAD) took up a post-disaster reconstruction project for the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage Site. The project encompassed the construction of a Visitor Service Facilities at the entrance of the Jiuzhai Valley National Park. It was designed with the intent of increasing tourism in the region, by making the structure into a landmark. Borrowing from the undulations of the topography, the curves of the mountains, the flow of the river, and the dynamics of nature, the Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities have been designed to mimic the character of its surroundings.

Realising these influences through organic design and parametric architecture, THAD envisioned an architectural design that narrates the co-relation between man-made and natural elements. Adding to this concept, the project nestles in a triangular site in a valley, between the three mountains of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, also known as Aba, in the Sichuan Province of China. “The project explores how artificial construction can accommodate natural scenic spots. It achieves the exact requirements of multifarious tourism functions and remains the natural order of the original environment in a world heritage site. It gives a new expression of ‘landform architecture’ of a dynamic building complex which is deeply rooted in the indigenous culture with local characteristic input,” share the Chinese architects.

The project of Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities is located at the entrance of the Jiuzhai Valley National Park, within the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage Site | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
The project of Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities is located at the entrance of the Jiuzhai Valley National Park, within the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage Site Image: Courtesy of THAD

The valley formed by the three mountains appears to meet at the centre of the site, and so the site plan follows a pattern where most of the built volumes sit at this centre point. Following the site's shape, the built structure also diverges from this central point, gradually reducing as it moves further away. Translating to a balanced presence in its natural surroundings, the architecture dominates the centre of the site eventually submitting to nature and blending into it.

This has been achieved through careful planning, where landscape design becomes the mediator between the parametric architecture style and the nature of Sichuan. Narrating the process of designing, the architects state, “As a post-earthquake reconstruction project, the design team worked closely with experts in landscape design, engineering, ecology, and tourism planning among others, to record and evaluate site conditions after the quake as the basis for protection and renewal."

  • The project consists of a series of constructions, including the Visitor Transport Centre, International Communication Centre, Intelligence Management Centre, Exhibition Centre, and the Lingka | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The project consists of a series of constructions, including the Visitor Transport Centre, International Communication Centre, Intelligence Management Centre, Exhibition Centre, and the Lingka Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • It is a new landmark of the area and provides comprehensive tourism support | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    It is a new landmark of the area and provides comprehensive tourism support Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • The project explores how artificial construction can accommodate natural scenic spots | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The project explores how artificial construction can accommodate natural scenic spots Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • It gives a new expression of ‘landform architecture’ of a dynamic building complex which is deeply rooted in the indigenous culture with local characteristic input | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    It gives a new expression of ‘landform architecture’ of a dynamic building complex which is deeply rooted in the indigenous culture with local characteristic input Image: Courtesy of THAD

From the north, the visitors first experience the sculptural form of the Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities at the entrance square crossing the Baishui River. From the awning at the entrance to the transfer area, south of the site, most functions of the project take place. At the entrance square, the awning invites the public to the covered visitor transport centre, connected to the waiting area and the transfer area at the southern end of the building. “The awning at the entrance is cleverly shaped to associate with the Jiuzhaigou eye-like logo, which plays as a symbol of Jiuzhai valley. It is currently the largest cross-bearing glulam wood structure in China with a span of 38 metres,” share the architects. With a curvaceous form, organic roof profile, and terrace spaces that act as circulation points, the exhibition centre and the intelligence management centre encompass most functions and built spaces in them. Supporting the rising spirals and curves of the building, the architects mention, the form is inspired by the ‘Dharma Conch’ totem from local Tibet—which represents auspiciousness and completeness.

  • Based on consideration of environmental performance, an approach to wood as a traditional building material is made with modern innovation and optimisation | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Based on consideration of environmental performance, an approach to wood as a traditional building material is made with modern innovation and optimisation Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • The new working mode of ‘collaborative design in parametric design’ summarised in this project helps improve the design efficiency | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The new working mode of ‘collaborative design in parametric design’ summarised in this project helps improve the design efficiency Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • With tree columns, the structural design of the building hopes to connect the interiors to nature, rather than presenting it as a ‘concrete jungle’ | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    With tree columns, the structural design of the building hopes to connect the interiors to nature, rather than presenting it as a ‘concrete jungle’ Image: Courtesy of THAD

With a conical roof and circular plan, the exhibition centre hosts the introduction hall and desk, exhibition aisle, hall, a cylindrical courtyard, immersive cinema, and other service areas. While the main area surrounds the central courtyard, the exhibition aisle shapeshifts into a curved ramp that spirals along the cylindrical wall of the courtyard. Covering all the spaces of the exhibition centre is a radially arranged beam ceiling, that structurally and aesthetically forms the conical roof design, with a series of skylights letting natural light in. This continuity of the conical roof elongates in the same curvaceous pattern, to join the intelligence management centre—which has meteorological stations, offices, command halls, antechambers, waiting rooms, and other service areas within it.

  • The ‘Dharma Conch’ totem from local Tibetan, which represents auspiciousness and completeness, is taken as the inspiration for architectural shape | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The ‘Dharma Conch’ totem from local Tibetan, which represents auspiciousness and completeness, is taken as the inspiration for architectural shape Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • The Visitor Transport Centre with a rising spiral curved form, spatially echoes surrounding mountains through the continuous terrain guidance and its structural shape | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The Visitor Transport Centre with a rising spiral curved form, spatially echoes surrounding mountains through the continuous terrain guidance and its structural shape Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Along with the skylights in the rising spiral roofs, the courtyards in the main building help bring in the natural light into the interiors | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Along with the skylights in the rising spiral roofs, the courtyards in the main building help bring in the natural light into the interiors Image: Courtesy of THAD

With the visitor transport centre, international communication centre, intelligence management centre, exhibition centre and transfer area, the building functions at two levels. The architects transformed a large section of the first floor into a recreational garden, connected to the elevated bridge, at the south. By incorporating landscape features and open spaces in both levels of the building, the 30,000 sq.m built structure gives the perception of a smaller footprint. Furthermore, to ease circulation in the site and remedy car parking issues, the architects initiated a comprehensive regional transportation system planning, instead of opting for an underground parking system. “Elevated bridges are set up at vehicle congestion points to form three-dimensional traffic and a three-minute drop-off area is established to achieve fast entry and exit to the square. In addition, a vertical two-layer roundabout with a tourism transfer area respectively is designed in conjunction with the ticket gate. This allows transfers to take place on two different floors at the same time efficiently and thus greatly reduces congestion at the entrance,” the architects stated.

Lending the same attention to pedestrian traffic, THAD navigated circulation through walkways and elevated bridges through gardens and parks, especially the Lingka —transliteration of Tibetan gardens. As circulation is an integral part of architectural planning, the design incorporated it in a way that the nodes oscillate between the built and unbuilt. In the north of the Lingka, a giant flag tent reflects Tibetan naturalism and religious identity. “Immersed in the tent under deep cliffs, one could feel the air, water and people flow in and out with flags fluttering, bells ringing, water rippling, flowers blooming, and birds singing. The hidden cosmic movement mysteriously shaped the land and unveils itself on the flags. The ground could also be emptied of water, thus becoming a venue for various festivals and events,” added the architects. 

  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Overview of the Project | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Overview of the Project Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Sustainable architecture approaches | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Sustainable architecture approaches Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: socially responsible initiatives | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: socially responsible initiatives Image: Courtesy of THAD

In their attempt to make the project a landmark for the area, THAD designed the roof profile and awnings to act as a sculptural identity.  Responding to the large spans, the structural design of the spaces had to be carefully dealt with. Reducing the number of columns to optimise space use, around 6000 sq.m space under the platform was formed with 36 branch-like tree columns, each connecting to six continuous arches, and by choosing wood as the main material for this arch structure. The architects define the space, thus formed, as “an artificial space full of natural breath relatively created for tourists, instead of the feeling of a concrete forest." Throughout the realisation of the project, the application of parametric design seems evident. Combining local features and modern techniques to realise an environmentally responsible curvaceous structure opens discussions on the potential of parametric architecture in remote and sensitive natural terrains.

  • In the north of the Lingka, the giant flag tent inherits the Tibetan naturalism-religious identity  | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    In the north of the Lingka, the giant flag tent inherits the Tibetan naturalism-religious identity Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Immersed in the tent under deep cliffs, one could feel the air, water and people flow in and out with flags fluttering, bells ringing, water rippling, flowers blooming, and birds singing | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Immersed in the tent under deep cliffs, one could feel the air, water and people flow in and out with flags fluttering, bells ringing, water rippling, flowers blooming, and birds singing Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • The landscape architecture follows Tibetan traditional Lingka principles, hoping to generate emotional resonance with the rich natural and cultural treasure of Jiuzhaigou | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The landscape architecture follows Tibetan traditional Lingka principles, hoping to generate emotional resonance with the rich natural and cultural treasure of Jiuzhaigou Image: Courtesy of THAD

Bringing together organic shapes, parametric design, structural scales, and different volumes in the landscape design, the structure takes notes from Tibetan gardens. However, relating it to the site, the pavement of the platform and entrance square reflects the starry sky of Jiuzhaigou, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Nights,’ imparting a flowing stars effect. Talking about it, the design team shares, “Romantic starry pavement relieves the vastness and boredom of the plaza by setting graphical interaction with the entrance architecture and trees. Its curves can also become queuing guidelines to speed up entries without a dull waiting period.”

  • Traditional materials and architectural techniques of Jiuzhaigou Tibetan, such as slate tile, patterned stone walls, timber structures, etc., are applied to both interior and exterior details | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Traditional materials and architectural techniques of Jiuzhaigou Tibetan, such as slate tile, patterned stone walls, timber structures, etc., are applied to both interior and exterior details Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • The pavement of the platform and entrance square aims to “reflect” the starry sky of Jiuzhaigou | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    The pavement of the platform and entrance square aims to “reflect” the starry sky of Jiuzhaigou Image: Courtesy of THAD

The landscape design also takes into consideration the lighting, to enhance the curved forms of the building. “The general idea of nightscape lighting is to highlight the curved architecture organically and its tension of rising and falling with the landscape by the combination of transmitted lighting and cast lighting, called ‘Dynamic Moonlight’ and ‘Wind Breeze Moonlight,' ” the architects share. The project has been awarded the ‘Three-star Green Building Design’ and gold certification under LEED for reasonably planning rainwater runoff, improving the efficiency of heat and cooling sources, reducing carbon emissions, etc.

  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Ground floor plan | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Ground floor plan Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: First-floor plan | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: First-floor plan Image: Courtesy of THAD
  • Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Elevation | Jiuzhai Valley Visitor Center | THAD | STIRworld
    Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities: Elevation Image: Courtesy of THAD

Merging traditional materials and architectural techniques of Jiuzhaigou Tibetan, the Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities aim to be an architectural statement in the national park, balancing nature and human structures. Through the use of slate tile, patterned stone walls, and timber structures in both the exteriors and the interior design, the structure creates an experience that transposes the visitors from the hustle of the city to the serenity of the national park—a modern place of local culture, history, and memories of a past disaster.

Jiuzhaigou Visitor Service Facilities by Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University (THAD) Video: Courtesy of THAD

Project Details

Client: Jiuzhaigou National Nature Reserve Administration
Type: Post-Disaster Reconstruction
Location: Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province
Site Area: 89,960.92 sqm
Building Area: 30,649.84 sqm
Architects: THAD
Project Manager: Weimin Zhuang Chunlong Huo
Technical Director: Wenge Sheng
Architecture: Xiao Liu Guodong Yin Gejin Gao Feng Ding Qisheng Wen Shiyu Gong Zhongxuan Sun Yuzhu Sun Wenjuan Zhang Xiaoxu Hao
Structure: Hong Chen Xiang Liu Bo Jiang Jinyan Xu Xiaopeng Wang
Water Supply: Jiuling Liu Yanhui Cui Qinghong Shi Chunxiang Wang
Heating and Ventilating: Jianhua Liu Bing Li Xiaoyuan Niu
Electrical: Hua Xu Dan Xu Hongxia Zhang Lu Liu
Low Voltage: Hongyan Guo Lihong Liu
Green Building: Jiagen Liu Difei Yang Yang Zhao Shuaiyuan Chen
Landscape: Professor Yufan Zhu and the design team
Traffic: Professor Jinyu Duan and the design team
Signage: Professor Qingxin Qin and the design team
Interior: Zuming Wang and the design team of Beijing Tsingshang Architectural Decoration Engineering
Lighting: Professor Xin Zhuang and the design team

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