The Architecture of China, Hangzhou Division
Amid the high-rises marching to the horizon and the housing projects eating up acre after acre of agriculture, the explosion of polished metal and tortured forms and the sheer chaos of the urban environment in....well, it could be anywhere—but, in this case, in Hangzhou, China, I findd something different. Sitting in the little minibus that is the standard transportation experience for troupes of critics and designers who troop into far-flung places to give their thoughts in return for seeing what is happening there, we suddenly findd something great: the China Academy of Art, designed by Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio in Hangzhou. It is a heartening sign of how in this big and fast-growing Chinese city it is possible to make architecture that uses the past to define new spaces, that frames community and respects the landscape, that uses old materials in new forms, and that opens up new vistas within its confines.
The campus of the China Academy of Art is by far the most imaginative set of buildings I have seen in a long time. The location is not promising: about a half an hour from the city center, replacing what used to be the Hangzhou Academy of Art’s campus right next to West Lake, the huge, central body of water that gives the city a reflective character. Surrounded by current and future housing projects, but little infrastructure, the site’s main feature is a hill. In good traditional Asian planning fashion, the school rambles around that central feature, letting students reach its vertical central park with paths and elevated bridges. But that also creates a problem, as there is little focus to the campus. Wang instead created multiple focal points within each part of the school, and connected them with waterways, irrigations ditches, and new plantings.
At the entrance, a 12-story tower marks the administrative core—this is the first part Wang designed. His budget and freedom to invent was more limited here. This area includes an administrative block whose sunscreen recalls the grilles on traditional Chinese windows, and a sports hall whose brise-soleil is a vertical row of tiles held up by a steel frame. Also, a large studio building with white plaster walls opens up to a wood-framed courtyard.
Photos by Iwan Baan
It is in the second phase of Wang’s work, around the hill and past some unremarkable buildings by others, that you begin to see his remarkable skills at invention and reuse. There he housed the studios, classrooms, dormitories, and ancillary functions in an array of structures whose variety boggles the mind. Walking around with Jan Wampler, Massachusetts architect and Aldo van Eyck disciple, I had to agree when he said, “I know there is some sort of system to all this, but I can’t figure it out, and that is great. You just keep discovering.”
Wang’s basic methodology here was to create large blocks, splay them open to reveal wooden interiors, or let them shelter courtyards also clad in wood, surround them with ramps, and cover them, where necessary, with screens. Almost everywhere, large doors open so that the whole building can be naturally ventilated. One of the largest classroom buildings sports a stretched version of a pagoda roof that mirrors the surrounding hills. Materials include bare concrete and stucco, but also reused tiles and cast-off stones, which Wang piled up into complex textures and at times enlivened with bottles or other random insertions.
It is the cuts that lift the ensemble out of being an assembly of good buildings into another realm. All architecture starts from an opening in a building frame, and so it is here: Everywhere you turn, Wang has cut through the concrete, opened up the doors, or sliced open the roof to let light in and your eye out. Everywhere vistas lead you on in directions you had no intention of going, frame a maker of art or artwork in a classroom, and, above all else, make you aware of the larger structure of the building, the campus, and the surroundings. Here, you are never alone, isolated, or out of place.
It is fitting that this is a school for art, design, and architecture. Like all great design schools, such as Cranbrook in Michigan or the Art Center College of Design in California, it teaches by being. It proposes an art that would reuse existing materials, stretch existing forms, and invent new shapes, but would always do so with a sensitivity to how we as human beings experience the world we inhabit and make. There is nothing abstract about the China Academy of Art, nothing that we cannot know with our senses, and nothing that does not continually surprise and evoke wonder. I hope the students will find it as inspiring as our little band of drop-in critics did, and will remake it directly or through their art long after we have left for our more settled situations.