Saturday, 9 March 2013

Liangzhu Musing by David Chipperfield

Pristine building lines set among vegetation,
the museum was open in 2008.

If not having had a crush on Liangzhu artefacts years ago, a casual traveller like myself would not include Liangzhu Museum as a place of interest in Hangzhou.  The fair distance of 20 kilometres from the city exacerbated by the poor transportations would probably deter the less tenacious mind to make the trip.

Eventually apprehensions gave way, it was the leaning towards David Chipperfield - the architect of the building that tipped the scales in favour of this visit.  As it turned out, potential visitors could be rest assured that the half-day excursion to the museum was worth the journey.  The exhibition contents would make an eye-opening experience of a lost civilization and the architecture was an exemplification of modernity fused with cultured sensitivity.

Cartesian Expression

Mausoleum-like building with few visitors on a cold December morning.  Two views of the bridge links that precede and terminate the visit (entrance to museum on left and exit on right).

With a protracted bridge link leading to the museum portico, visitors might feel intimidated by the windowless enclosure notwithstanding its overbearing stone-cladded appearance.  Overlooked even by professional designers at times, architectural appreciation starts with the experience of approaching its entrance.  Chipperfield’s incorporation of this two-minute walk, dramatic it surely is, prepares the visitors for the transition into a lost civilization of 5000 years.

Museum entrance proper at the other side of the portico.

Upon entering the portal is an ample-sized courtyard finished with Iranian travertine stone - the material uniformly installed throughout on the interior and exterior.  This open-skied enclosure, as revealed later, heralds a series of three other courtyards each embedded with different characteristics.  These open spaces are strategically bisected with indoor galleries where archaeological remains and other materials are exhibited.

Though a single-story building, the circulation of traffic is never linear.  As the architect has well illustrated on his sketch, one is enticed to roam freely from room to room via the courtyards.  It is through these open spaces that visitors are re-connected with time and nature - the quintessential components for the making of the famous jadeite artefacts.  Apart from being the metaphysical loci, these colonnaded courtyards also act as anchors of orientation for visitors.

 Man-made site on left ( Sketch illustrating fluid circulation intended and courtyard as centrepiece.  (drawingsDavid Chipperfield Architects)

Essentially north-south orientation allows an optimum 
of sunlight to enter the courtyards.  
(drawings David Chipperfield Architects)

The museum is located in the town of Liangzhu where numerous archaeological sites were uncovered from the 1930s.  Buried in a bog-like setting, it perches on a man-made headland and is surrounded by lush planting.  The massive landscape of waterways is not designed just to please the eyes; it forms an extroverted arm of a relatively secluded being.  In the same light, the incorporation of courtyards with implications of open view, runs the risk of distraction to the exhibits if not accusation of self-aggrandizement.  Far from this claim, the low-lying building configuration amid the park surroundings is barely noticeable; its fiercely low-profiled presence demonstrates severe restraint comparable only to the architect’s demeanour.

The angular building is formally made up of four elongated boxes.  As if slid longitudinally to form the basic volumetric relationship  the boxes were then carved open and inserted with five landscaped courtyards (one of which is not open to public). By actually being in the galleries and outside spaces, one is able to be evoked on the effects of the elements and temporality upon the artefacts.  The sequence of circulation terminated on the small island ultimately reinforces the same theme only with greater magnitude.

Courtyard with water lily pond and donut-shaped rings. 
They have their unmistakable origins in
the Liangzhu relic of bi-disc (left).

Deciduous trees and shrubs planted in the cloistered courtyard. 
Stone ‘planks’ pertaining to the ceremonious chisels (right)
used by the Neolithic people are found.

Negotiating on Culture

Through the inspection of Chipperfield's works, it is not difficult to realize that context plays a critical role in the design process.  This observation is much in evidence from his more recent works of Turner Contemporary in Margate and Kaufhaus Tyrol, Innsbruck where the architect has applied the means of scale, materiality and detail articulations to respond to surroundings.

This respect to context is not literally translated as homogenization with the immediate environment,  nor is there patronization to the locals by adding surface treatments.  Rather, the responses to the context in the physical and abstract senses are well researched, analyzed and manifested with high-order thinking.  It is in the same sense that the discourse of history is well played out with his repertoire of architectural vocabularies.

Portal to the museum with blank wall behind (left) and
typical entrance doorway of hutong dwellings in Beijing (right).

Landscaped courtyard of museum (left) and
rural courtyard architecture of Shanxi province (right).

From the indigenous culture, Chipperfield has managed to integrate Chinese idioms into the design of the museum.  As seen from the above sets of images, the blank wall and abrupt change in direction at the entrance pay homage to local domestic architecture.  The trick deployed here might serve different intents, nonetheless it adds to the suspense of arrival by deferring the real entrance further afield.

Of all the inward-looking architecture in China and indeed the Middle-east, closed courtyard is indispensable and it is where the spirit of life flourishes.  On the incorporation of courtyards, the architect explains:

“Since it is a museum, and is an exploratory environment, we want to create a sequence of indoor and outdoor spaces that would take visitors on a journey through the ancient culture.  The reference to Chinese courtyards relieves the linear route while referring to architectural traditions.”  
(Architectural Record, April 2008)

 The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London by Peter Zumthor, 2011.  This building of self-effacing envelope, transition and reflections on nature shares the common denominators with Lianzhu Museum.  (photo∣ 

New Thoughts from Old School

View out to the man-made island (left) and
landscaped courtyard from the bridge (right).

David Chipperfield has often been referred to as a minimalist architect, a term that carries the association with fashion and hype.  The retail projects for Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana might add to this impression.  However the epithetic labelling could be a curse, like a candle that burns on both ends.  It induces a false sense of vanity that a serious-minded critic finds his works hard to agree with; on the other hand a fashionista might be engrossed in his elemental approach with little reflection.  Both of them only manage to obscure the course of his mission.

The building looks deceptively simple in design.  With robust ideas at hand, it is the outcome of a rigorous process of elimination.

The portfolio of Chipperfield’s works including this museum shares the common threads of heavy thick walls and inward-looking severity.  Commenting on glass and steel buildings while taking a direct riposte to Norman Foster, he sums up his values of architectural design in simple terms:

“You always have to dig a hole in the ground and pour a lot of concrete into it.  How much does your building really weigh, Mr. Foster?”

“If I thought architecture was nomadic and light-footed I’d be very interested, but it’s not true.” 
(the Guardian, Feb 6, 2011)

Without sleek curves and metallic shininess, it took a succession of projects abroad for Chipperfield to be accepted at home.  His paradigm in architecture, firmly rooted in the tradition of the Modern Movement, is not dressed with austerity to shock.  Through his robust pursuit of the tired language, modern architecture is given a new lease of life that is emblematic of his own style.  And far from being a reductionist, Chipperfield might be apologetic to be an intellect on architecture who is at once puritan for the untrained eye and esoteric to be delved upon.  Like his soft-spoken manner, his architecture requires careful examination to deduce meaning; it is a process that is hard to win true admirations from the mass public.

Two videotapes of the visit to Liangzhu Museum are as follows:

Digging into Liangzhu

Part of the Liangzhu relics on display were unearthed from the excavation site No.198 at County Wu, Jiangsu Province, 1973.  (imageLiangzhu Museum)

Ancient bibelots and well illustrated materials from the dimly lit galleries.  The 3D film show with rocking chairs is entertainment for family visitors and fun seekers alike.

The history of Liangzhu culture dated as early as 3300-2200BC during the late Neolithic era.  It was in this period of time that the civilizations of Indus Valley and Egypt had emerged; and the first writings of Sumer in Mesopotamia were recorded.  Discovered in 1936, the lost world of Liangzhu was originated in the region of Yangtze River Delta.

Evidences of agriculture and hierarchy of society are found.  Among the relics of potteries, lacquers and weavings, jade carvings are the most well-known artifacts with sophisticated design and workmanship.  However, no traces on remnants of languages are uncovered.  An introduction of Liangzhu culture is located at the following:

The official website of the museum below offers very limited information in English and frankly its contents do not do justice to the quality within.

大衛.祈柏菲的良渚思維  〈中文摘要〉

並不是因為距離和交通之便誘發筆者參觀杭州良渚博物館,事實上兩者絕非理想。當初考慮此行原於滿足早年對良渚文化的興趣。而最終排除各負面因素付諸行動還是押注對於博物館的建築師 - 大衛.祈柏菲(David Chipperfield)之期盼。考量得失,館子無論建築設計及展品質素均值得花上半天時間及承受少許顛簸



在祈氏作品中不難發現場境脈絡(context)在設計構思的重要。他的反饋絕非奉承當地品味或對應現場同質處理(homogenization),卻是高層次地作實體及概念上的回應。從本土建築,他引用了中國元素,植入玄關照壁和改變軸線導向。另外展館的庭院格局及細節亦浮現低調的東方魅力。(八年四月Architectural Record相關訪問。)





Chris White said...

Hey, I’m an interior designer and I’ve been a David Chiperffield fan for quite some time now. I love the way how he merges his creations with the surrounding environment and that distinct Chipperfield brand of mixing classic and contemporary designs on those drafts of his. I recently discovered a Portuguese furniture brand that fits perfectly on some of his projects… Boca do Lobo, have your ever heard about it ? Check out these masterpieces…

Keep up with those useful posts of yours ! Congrats on the blog, btw !

sundial said...

I am getting more interested in him than ever, he is one of the few designers that doesn't follow trends. Really hope he would develop something out of the modern design language.