Open Architecture: Husband and Wife Designer Duo Redefining China’s Cultural Landscape
“It’s about establishing a dialogue between us as humanity and nature,” Li said in a video interview.
Chapel of Sound, a concert hall built in a valley northeast of Beijing. Credit: Courtesy of Ni Nan / OPEN
The couple’s latest project is a good example. Nestled in a valley northeast of Beijing, a short walk from the Great Wall, the rock-shaped Chapel of Sound appears to have been carved into the landscape itself. The architects added local rocks to the concrete and mimicked the sedimentary layers to help assimilate the structure with its surroundings.
Although envisioned as a place of quiet contemplation – or “a chapel without religion”, as Li put it – the building is primarily a concert hall. Instead of traditional soundproofing, Li and Huang have opted for strategically placed holes which they believe play the same role as absorbent surfaces.
The openings also fulfill two very different functions: to produce plays of shadow and light which traverse the cavernous interior as the sun moves in the sky; and let in the sounds of the breeze, birds and insects. While it may seem counterintuitive for a quiet concert space, architects were never interested in creating “perfect silence”.
Another view of the Chapelle du Son. Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Leijonhu / OPEN
“We are really trying to make a deeper connection to the ancient natural history of the site,” Li said. “There is a mysterious quality of space, and the mystery is something that interests us very much: bringing people to discover a different kind of experience. “
More than benchmarks
UCCA Dune, a new outpost of one of Beijing’s most respected contemporary art institutions, takes on the appearance of pebbles strewn across a sandy beach. The primordial spaces of the gallery, similar to caves, are not only integrated into their environment, they are partially submerged by it.
Photogenic design has helped make Qinhuangdao an unlikely destination for design enthusiasts and day-trippers in the Chinese capital. And while Li and Huang seem low-key by nature, they are keenly aware of the power of iconic architecture.
UCCA Dune, an art museum in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao. Credit: Courtesy of Zaiye Studio / OPEN
In China, this is a power that has been abused in recent years – by real estate giants calling real estate developments extravagant skyscrapers, and by local officials using big-budget cultural buildings to put their cities on. the map. But, citing the Sydney Opera House as an example, Li believes that well-designed artistic venues can give cities a distinct identity while contributing to their cultural fabric.
What open architecture is as opposed to, he said, are benchmarks for the sake of benchmarks. This position may put the couple at odds with their clients, such as when officials in Yantai, Shandong province approached them urging them to “create an iconic monument.”
Rather than walk away, Li said he convinced the city government to develop a more meaningful cultural program. Ultimately convinced their creation would serve a purpose, the architectural duo designed a sundial-inspired structure – dubbed The Sun Tower and slated for completion in 2023 – that includes a library, digital museum, and open-air theater. air.
“I think it’s a huge waste of resources to build something without knowing what it is,” Li said.
A digital render of the Sun Tower in Yantai, Shandong Province. Credit: Courtesy OPEN
“There is a huge push for cultural buildings,” she said. “(In China, we) feel like we’ve grown very quickly, but we’ve fallen behind and need to catch up to show the world that we have culture. But it’s hard to cultivate. culture and … much faster to build. why you see a lot of cultural buildings appearing with no content and no one to operate them. ”
Such charges could not be brought against Tank Shanghai of Open Architecture, a gallery that breathed new life into the site of a disused airport near the Huangpu River. Built in five refurbished fuel tanks, the venue offers not only gallery space, but also a pub, restaurant and performance venues. Landscaped parks dissolve the distinction between public space and private space, high culture and leisure.
Tank Shanghai was built in a series of disused aviation fuel tanks. Credit: Courtesy of Tian Fangfang / OPEN
Donating a community park was not just a gesture to the city – it expressed the idea that art should not stand out from everyday life.
“The purpose of a cultural building is to try to enlighten people, but nowadays they are increasingly becoming isolated objects,” Li said. “Art is set up (on a pedestal ). We want to bring it closer to the ground – to the people – and to blur the lines. “
The trend dates back to the early 2000s and Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), a huge shiny oval known locally as the “giant egg.” A few blocks from the historic Forbidden City, the futuristic and controversial building by French architect Paul Andreu sparked a wave of Western-designed monuments and, in Li’s words, “started the whole exercise” of construction. of “iconic buildings” in China.
It is also a place that has directly shaped the approach of Open Architecture. Visiting once for a concert, Li found himself on a long quest for water during the intermission, eventually finding only one place “throughout the gigantic venue” to have a drink. A small complaint, certainly, but which, according to him, showed a lack of user-centric design.
For comparison, Li then recounted a recent visit to the “fantastic” concert hall of the Berliner Philharmonie in Germany: “The break lasted half an hour, and it was like a party. It was a great social event. cultural building: bringing people together, not just listening to music when you can’t even take water. “
One of the cave-shaped gallery spaces at UCCA Dune. Credit: Courtesy of Wu Qingshan / OPEN
“Undeniably, being Chinese, we have our ways of seeing our relationship with – and our existence in relation to – nature and the cosmos,” Huang said. “But intuitively, we’re looking for something more timeless.”
“We often get this question from clients and students who say, ‘Your building doesn’t look very Chinese, where are the connections? ”Li added.“ This is because we believe in a much deeper meaning and a deeper connection to culture.
“There are two qualities of architecture which are deeply important,” he summed up. “One is to be radical. We need something that drastically changes the way we live, and it’s more urgent than ever.
“The other thing is poetry. The poetic quality of architecture is so important. It is something that you have to experience in person as you walk through the space, touch the surfaces and feel the textures.”