Inkstone House OCT Linpan Cultural Center
Su Shengliang Inkstone House OCT Linpan Cultural Center

With a form shaped by an algorithm and a façade constructed by robots, the Inkstone House OCT Linpan Cultural Center may seem out of sync with the natural landscape of the Chengdu Plain, in China's Sichuan province. But technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital fabrication are not anathema to traditional Chinese culture, explains the center’s designer Philip F. Yuan, a founder and principal at Archi-Union Architects, in Shanghai. Instead, they are methods through which Chinese identity and a local sense of place can be reclaimed.

An exhibition hub for the local government and the Overseas Chinese Town Enterprises, a state-owned company, the project includes a two-story, oblong doughnut–shaped cultural center, a farm building, and a series of semi-covered walkways. At 23,680 square feet, the cultural center offers glass-partitioned exhibition, conference, and multipurpose spaces connected by an interior corridor that encircles a glazed-in courtyard featuring circular reflecting pools derived from the inkstone used in Chinese calligraphy.

The project uses "digital tectonics," Yuan’s term for a “collaboration between human design and robotics,” to interpret elements of ancient Chinese culture, including the traditional dougong, or bucket arch, which uses a bracket system to distribute a roof’s structural load onto a relatively small number of columns.

Su Shengliang

One of the building’s most dramatic and complex elements is its swooping shale-tile roof, which banks inward at an angle of 45 degrees toward the courtyard, forming a spout that directs a portion of the precipitation falling on the 27,000-square-foot roof into the pools. Nearly touching the ground, the dramatic overhang becomes the focal point of the space. For Yuan, it is a visual reminder of the connection between earth and sky, people and place. “A building should be put into the context,” he says. “I want to find this kind of special attunement, this dialogue between the building and the natural. That’s a fundamental part of Chinese philosophy.”

From the interior, the roof framing “looks like an all-timber structure,” Yuan says. A grid of curved, glulam wood rafters and purlins appear to support the exposed OSB deck, but the structure is actually a hybrid timber-steel system in which wood boards conceal the majority of the structural steel. Two continuous rectangular steel tubes ring the inner and outer perimeters of the building, supported by steel columns spaced approximately every 20 feet. In turn, the steel tubes support prefabricated, glulam wood-and-steel rafters, braced with glulam purlins of matching depth.

Each rafter comprises three essential segments: two wood members and a concealed wide-flange steel beam that ties into the outer steel tube. The wide-flange member is 16 inches deep where it sits atop the steel tube but tapers on both ends, forming a 9-foot-long, inverted triangle, which connects via steel plates and bolts to the flanking wood rafter sections. As the roof banks toward the ground in the courtyard, the curvilinear rafters increase in length, tying into the inner continuous steel tube, which also supports the roof’s dramatic dip.

Section detail through roof eave
Courtesy Archi-Union Architects Section detail through roof eave
Building section
Courtesy Archi-Union Architects Building section

Archi-Union optimized the roof’s geometry for cost and structural performance using Rhino and the Grasshopper plug-in Millipede, and by dividing the roof into sections, including the roof’s rounded corners and steep swoop, which slopes for nearly 40 feet. The cost and complexities of developing a unique structural strategy for each section was mitigated by the use of digital fabrication, Yuan says. “We can define the grid system by the cantilever scale, which is precisely calculated by our structural engineers and then precisely fabricated by the robotics.”

For instance, the wood rafters were laminated off-site and then shipped to the fabrication shop of Fab-Union, Archi-Union’s sister company, which employs about 25 people and as many computer-controlled robotic arms. There, the machines cut each wood rafter to its specified curvature. Once on-site, the prefabricated rafters were craned into place and bolted to the outer steel structural tube with steel plates.

Rectangular structural steel tubes encased in wood boards encircle the inner and outer perimeters of the Inkstone House.
Yiang Tianzhou Rectangular structural steel tubes encased in wood boards encircle the inner and outer perimeters of the Inkstone House.

With a majority of fabrication taking place off-site, in Shanghai, the construction process was vastly simplified, Yuan says. However, even the robot-constructed elements are ultimately assembled by humans, which Yuan says was the most challenging part of the project. “Traditional contractors cannot read the beam modeling very well, so we need to teach them how to use the software, how to read these details, and how to put them together,” he says. Several Archi-Union architects remained on-site throughout the six-week construction period.

Yuan says the response of local villagers toward the blending of technologies has been positive. Construction is a beginning point, capable of driving industry and, subsequently, culture. “The construction industry should be embracing these new technologies,” he says. “It’s a demonstration of the future.”

Su Shengliang