We profile China’s inimitable open architecture

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Huang Wenjing and Li Hu became architects in New York, after graduating from Tsinghua University in Beijing in the 1990s. It was there – while Li was at Steven Holl Architects and Huang at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners – that they had the idea of ​​starting their own practice. Having gained more experience and a clearer understanding of architecture, the duo eventually opened their Beijing office, Open Architecture, in 2008, the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics, on one of the hutongs distinctive features of the capital; their office is still there today.

The name Open Architecture was inspired by the type of open-source computer hardware or software that allows easy, free, and customizable component interchange. One of the duo’s first projects, Beehive Dorm, a 2009 modular building system made up of prefabricated hexagonal steel-framed cells, could be seen as a direct architectural realization of this principle.

Open Architecture’s studio is located in an old hutong in Beijing. On the walls are pictures of the practice’s Tank Shanghai 2019 and the Pingshan Performing Arts Center in Shenzhen

The practice’s groundbreaking project was Beijing No. 4 High School’s Fangshan Campus (widely known as the “Garden School”) in 2014. At the time, local authorities aimed to move away from schools downtown standard – a large block adjacent to a large, mostly empty lot – and build schools with more natural outdoor environments. “There is a huge demand for better education as the population becomes more affluent, and we wanted to create a new typology for schools,” Li says. Open’s design placed common facilities, such as the canteen, auditorium and gymnasium, underground, while covering the site with gardens that spanned the rooftops, giving nature views to students and staff in classrooms, laboratories and offices.

This unconventional approach to space has redefined the different formal and informal educational domains and led to new thinking about openness, interaction and creativity in a learning environment. With Shanghai’s Qingpu Pinghe International School in 2020, the studio took the theme further by transforming the campus into a village with 13 buildings spanning a 50,350 m² landscaped site that included a library and a theater called the Bibliotheater, which is open to the public. It was a site-specific solution to local needs – as all of their projects are.

Above are models of recent projects, including, on the left, a study for an art center in Beijing, and, on the right, the 2021 Chapel of Sound. Below is a model of the Dunes Art Museum from the UCCA in Qinhuangdao, a series of interconnected organically shaped concrete “caves”

At the launch of open architecture, China was facing an explosion of urban development that offered many opportunities – albeit with a fair amount of chaos. “When we returned, we had to readapt culturally to our way of working. We used to struggle with the lack of definition and clarity in many situations,” Huang recalls. “But then we learned to first identify the problems in the chaos and then see what the possibilities were.” A unique challenge for architects in China is that they are often tasked with creating a cultural building without knowing its eventual contents or even its intended use. “Along with China’s economic boom and rapid urbanization, the country is at a point where we need more cultural buildings; there’s a strong push from the top down, but there aren’t enough local creatives yet,” Li says.

For the 2019 Shenzhen Pingshan Performing Arts Center, the design brief was extremely limited – a large theater was needed for a newly developed area. Yet, conversely, the lack of specifics gave the architects the freedom to project their own vision of the building, an institution that connected with the general public and enriched everyday urban life. Huang and Li studied theaters across the country and assembled a team of experts to put together a comprehensive program for the design of the building and its future programming. Their proposal was so successful that it was adopted by the site operators once they took over.

Above and below, UCCA Dune Art Museum, 2018: Located on a quiet beach in Bohai Bay, Qinhuangdao, this unusual network of underground concrete galleries was designed to preserve the dune system. Photography: Open Architecture, Wu Qingshan

As one of the leading players in a new generation of Chinese architects, Open now defines the nation’s built environment on its own terms, understanding both the existing culture and its future potential. As a research-based practice, she conceives her work along two parallel axes that inform each other: one studies to produce ideas and critiques, and the other designs buildings that generate income for them.

Adaptive reuse is one of Open’s main areas of research, as shown in another recent project. Along the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, now the West Bund Culture Corridor, was a dilapidated site with five disused aviation fuel tanks and other forgotten relics of the city’s old airport. Paying homage to the site’s industrial past, while seeking to dissolve conventional perceptions of art institutions with formidable walls, they created Tank Shanghai, an open park-art center, in 2019. The tanks are now connected via a new basement, while two new gallery spaces sit in the surrounding landscape. A green setting intertwines the various elements of the 47,450 m² site. Called the “super-surface”, it provides much-needed parkland in a city with less than 20% green space. The site has since seen a return of urban wildlife.

Above and below, Chapel of Sound, 2021: Located near the Great Wall of China, this outdoor concert hall is made entirely of concrete. Thoughtfully placed openings allow sounds to flow in and out. Photography: Jonathan Leijonhufvud, ZHu Runzi

“We struggled to document the space because photographers can’t see where the architecture is,” adds Huang. “But we’ve embedded a few clues into the landscape – there’s an oculus and openings over the reservoirs that suggest activity; most of the architecture happens indoors. A similar gesture can be experienced at the 2018 UCCA Dune Art Museum, located on a quiet beach in Qinhuangdao. Resembling a primeval habitat, it is a series of connected cave-like structures beneath the sand dunes, each housing a different space. Skylights bring nature into the underground structures, which provide shelter for body and soul.

Their designs have a lot to do with coexisting with nature, says Huang, and one of their latest pieces is a perfect example. Extruded from the remains of the Great Wall, the 2021 Chapel of Sound is a semi-outdoor concert hall located in an uninhabited valley in Chengde. It was designed in pursuit of the purest sound experience. The exterior of the chapel is a rugged mix of concrete and crushed local rock that looks otherworldly and timeless. its layered structure made it simple to build (and therefore workable in its remote location) while echoing the ridged rock formations of the nearby mountains. The compact structure houses a semi-outdoor amphitheater and an outdoor stage, including a rooftop viewing “plateau” overlooking the valley and the nearby Great Wall. In the words of the architects, its existence is “collecting, reflecting and resonating with nature”.

Above and below, Sun Tower, under construction: This 50m-tall tower in Yantai, on the Yellow Sea coast, will feature a winding open-air theater and exhibition space, as well as a plat – form of observation and water games. Open architecture images

Currently under construction in Yantai, Shandong, the Sun Tower is a key upcoming project: a monolith with an equally unearthly presence. Its conical shape is sliced ​​to create a semi-enclosed structure, its floors connecting to a winding exhibition space to be filled with digital content. Atop the tower is an expanse that overlooks the splendours of the natural world; water features in the plaza below pay homage to the 24 solar terms of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, and a water channel marks the equinoxes.

The Sun Tower is intended to be a landmark; Li also wants it to “evoke ancient nature worship rituals while providing much-needed cultural facilities in the newly urbanized neighborhood.” Open architecture seeks to meet people’s physical, cultural and aesthetic needs, while avoiding the often overwhelming bureaucratic and financial obstacles that still impede architectural development in China. The practice thrives because it seamlessly incorporates social benefits into its creations. The duo concludes: “We hope to bring out the multifaceted nature of China. What we realized is that people have a lot more similarities than differences in how they want their life to be. §

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