Last April I accompanied some friends to a weekend sports tournament in the city of Ningbo, 3 hours southeast of Shanghai. This was shortly after the 2012 winner of the Pritzker Prize was announced, Chinese architect Wang Shu( His small practice, Amatuer Architecture Studio, is based in Hangzhou). His arguably most notable and well known work is the Ningbo History Museum (also sometimes just referred to as the Ningbo Museum). The building is situated in a massive, open space deemed a cultural area, a bit away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ningbo. The surrounding neighborhood is actually quite bleak and dead, with a only a handful of people milling about in the massive concrete plaza. Ningbo has quite a bit of exiting new architecture, but on my 3 mile walk from the university to the museum, I didn’t even pass one convenience store or see a single taxi go by. Everything felt abandoned, surrounded by half-torn down slums and empty condo towers, a sight all too common in many Chinese cities these days. But apart from the desolate locale, the building itself did not fail to impress.
From the ground, the volume appears to be an asymmetrical solid mass, with angles jutting out and instantaneous transitions of materials and patterns. Varying openings and penetrations are staggered across the facade, with no apparent rhythm or pattern. Despite the seeming chaos at first glance, the entire building is executed brilliantly, and somehow every element, which was actually carefully planned and placed, seamlessly blends together into what reads as one beautiful, simple, tactile mass. Especially when looking at the building in plan view, the entire concept is very simple and pure, appearing as a solid, near-rectangular mass with circulation and public areas carved out to maximize views and functional elements. The entrance area and lobby were my least favorite parts. To enter, one must pass under the perimeter of the building along a path surrounded by water and giving way to a large courtyard which is flanked by a poorly maintained glass (or composite?) canopy and wall panels.
Once inside, the multi-level lobby features harsh, metallic elements, contrasting greatly with the rough, warm feeling exerted by the masonry and tile facade. Also at this time, one of the large public areas in the entry was covered with horrid yellow and red banners, tables and chairs, presumably for some function to be held later in the week, which I can hardly blame the architect for…but definitely detracted from the intended feeling of the space. Inside the galleries it was difficult to get a sense of how the architecture affected the exhibits, as they were filled ground to ceiling with permanent exhibits and dioramas (think natural history museum, China style).
The circulation spaces were quite delightful, with metal screens filtering daylight light from above and trickling onto the textured walls, reminicscent of Zumthor’s Thermal Baths.
On the top level, even more of the volume is carved away and the hallways give way to exterior wooden plank walkways, expanding and contracting while the walls of the buildings jut out overhead and frame the views in a fascinating way. It invoked the feeling of walking through the carved, meandering canyons of the American Southwest. Up close, you can see (and touch!) the facade, which consists primarily of either textured concrete or salvaged brick and tile from original buildings torn down on the site. From a distance the building appears as one solid stone mass, but in reality it is a varying, perforated tapestry of multicolored and textured pieces, resulting in a cohesive, flowing and beautiful array of texture and color.
Also, it is difficult to see from the ground, but many of the roofs are green roofs, and I would love to find out more about the specific technical details, such as if they are successfully maintained and provide water collection or other useful functions. Lastly, I was extremely impressed with the detailing of the building. Although some construction details were obviously not executed very well (quality control in the field is a constant struggle in China) it was apparent that even the most mundane elements such as mechanical spaces were given careful thought and designed accordingly, such as these lovely mechanical louvers.
Overall, it was one of the most gorgeous buildings I have ever visited, and without a doubt Wang Shu deserves to be recognized for his work and contribution the design profession. There is also a small pavilion he designed across the street, which was intended to be a prototype for the museum. I sadly did not have time to visit it, but I hope I can check it out next time. If you are ever in the region, this an inspiring, evocative building and a must-see. More pictures are found below. Enjoy!