Architecture as Palimpsest
Ningbo Historical Museum by Amateur Architecture Studio. Photo: Blaine Brownell.
The condition of the palimpsest is evident throughout architectural history. The life of a building and its materials is not a fixed condition, but rather a continually evolving enterprise. The Romans pilfered construction materials from older edifices to build new monuments, just as medieval populations later pillaged Roman monuments for their own building blocks. Given the profound material changes architecture experiences over time, futurist Steward Brand suggests that we define architecture not as “the art of building,” but rather as “the design-science of the life of buildings.”
The Chinese practice of wapan tiling evolved as a method for building walls rapidly using available materials in a region subject to frequent typhoons. Amateur Architecture Studio chose to use this cladding method for their design of the Ningbo Historical Museum, reusing the various types of bricks and tiles that remained after the city government razed dozens of villages to make way for a new central business district. Principal Wang Shu led masons in constructing the walls, allowing them to have a large degree of freedom in laying the dissimilar blocks. The rich detail provided by the hand-laid tiles complements the hulking mass of the museum, and the randomly placed, various-sized apertures embrace the spirit of the wapan approach.
In today’s rapidly developing China, the image of brick and tile rubble left over from recently demolished structures is unfortunately an all-too-common sight. The walls of the Ningbo Historical Museum thus serve as a haunting reminder of the past, encapsulating the bones of vanished villages in a monument that pays its respects to history at the same time it has come to supersede it.