We've driven up to a place that has—or soon will have—a
density of architecture you only normally get when flicking
through a magazine like this one. But this is a real place and
that media experience is being made physical all around us.
But first, in a perverse form of denial, I'm led into the only
piece of non-architecture around—a brick site hut where
we sit on stools with coloured seats like giant Smarties. On
stainless steel trays with pressed compartments we eat a
lunch prepared with vegetables that have been grown just
around the back of the hut. On a makeshift bench-cum-shelf
is a harvest festival of a display of squashes also grown here.
This un-architectural scenario will, when everything else is
finished, be gone.
All this is taking place on a hillside. Far in the distance you can see Nanjing. If you look long enough, you can almost see the city growing like a stop-frame animation. Around us, a forest ranges to the crest of the hill above.
Scattered around the landscape are a series of structures that
might be ruins of some future civilisation. Of course, they
aren't. They are the architecture of the CIPEA project—China
International Practical Exhibition of Architecture—which
will soon become a resort hotel surrounded by an orbit of
satellite villas. But for now they are architecture at stages
between construction and completion that suggest time
might be running forwards or backwards, that these stumps,
foundations, shells and sometimes almost buildings could well
be in the process of ruination.
Soon, however, they will crystallise into an array of signature architecture. Up on the ridge there is a brutalist concrete frame that will be Ai Weiwei's artist studios. Over there, on the recently dug artificial lake, is a rectangular platform on stilts that will be one part of a SANAA villa. Down the hill is what looks like an exquisite oriental timber boat of some type, but is actually a villa designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach. It goes on: Zhang Lei, Mathias Klotz, Odile Decq, Sean Godsell, David Adjaye. These villas circle bigger buildings—a convention centre by Isozaki and a hotel by Sottsass. At the highest point of the site is the project's cultural anchor, a marker in programme, form and name that signals CIPEA's high-culture-among-nature strategy. And it's that that I've come to see.
Rising up in a blocky vertical twist is Steven Holl's
Contemporary Art & Architecture Museum. It's a tall building
—a vertiginous, skinny kind of tall—whose white form first
extrudes upwards before almost twisting into a circuit and
peering out across the landscape below.
The museum is organised in two parts: a heavy ground floor and the translucent G-shaped plan circling above. At its base, a series of angular walls form enclosures like an abstracted Chinese walled garden. Cast with a bamboo formwork that has left a horizontal ribbing underlining their connection to the landscape and painted charcoal black to densify their gravity, they intersect to form the base of the building—what in other more typical architectural arrangements would be described as a plinth. Out of this rises the body of the building, clad in translucent polycarbonate with its double wall cells giving a vertical grain that accentuates its verticality. Way overhead, twisted into sculptural form, the building's translucent whiteness almost evaporates into the sky.
But although this is essentially a two-storey building, the parts are pulled apart by at least 30 metres. This strange
vertical separation, or extreme pulling apart, reads
anthropomorphically. Maybe it's like a giant white worm
rearing and twisting into the light out of an artificial earth—
and if that reads strangely, it's because it is strange. There is
something in the off-balance white form that recalls those pale
contorted creatures at the foot of Francis Bacon's crucifixion.
But then this, too, is a kind of architectural mutant: two
buildings separated by extreme distended circulation.
Inside, the building is just as oppositional, the lower part a
solid interior that digs down into the ground, the upper part
light and hazy.
But to get up there, pre-completion, I had to go in backwards, up the fire escape, which might just be the strangest and most unsettling moment in the building. Walking up a straight run of flight after flight of unsupported steel staircase— usually the most banal of architectural elements—becomes a surreal experience. The logic of the construction—elsewhere sculptural—comes to bear on this simple piece of building, inverting a normally incidental moment. It is stretched into the best kind of spectacular dimension, an ordinary spectacular. (Just a note: if you suffer from vertigo, try not to get caught in a fire here.)
This staircase is also what gives the building its readable scale,
while other elements of the building are abstracted—walls are
planes, windows are openings, and so on. From a distance the
building's size becomes vague, so that the staircase seems to
sit dislocated within the building's visual field like a found (yet
dramatically odd) object.
Once in the upper galleries, the sensation remains less than real, even if it's not quite so surreal. They are lightweight, framed in steel with the glow of twin-wall to their outer skin. Strangely, even though we've come up so high, the views outside are heavily rationed by slivers of glass set into the polycarbonate skin, allowing us only fleeting glimpses. Even the balcony—where the view over the whole complex is at last thrown wide open—is controlled, set behind a solid core. It is as though the idea of being elevated is prioritised over the physical sensation. The galleries have that close intimacy of being in a cloud rather than offering an angel-eyed view over the landscape. In this, as elsewhere, the building does two things at the same time—though dramatic and extraordinary it simultaneously underplays these qualities. Like much of Holl's work, for all the formal boldness—all that cantilevering and vertiginous height—there is a more subtle sensation, a light, tentative quality.
What could, in other hands, blast as bombastic thrill is here
played at a quieter pitch. The effect is a strange sensation, a
kind of fast/slow, quiet/loud, big/small and extraordinary/
ordinary all at the same time.
The way architecture is conceived is the limit of what it can become. The modes of representation within which architecture is imagined transmit into the eventual built form. Here perhaps is the trace of Holl's watercolours resonating within the architecture. It's hard, for example, to imagine being angry or declamatory making a watercolour. It is a medium of different, more subtle registers. Somehow we feel these watery, dissolving sensations through the spatial and material sensations of the building.
The museum—and indeed the entire development—tells us much about architecture's position in contemporary culture and of architecture's own internal culture. That is to say what architecture is used for and, in turn, how it uses for its own ends the opportunities with which it is presented.
First, CIPEA confirms architecture's status as a commodity,
a thing that creates value. Here the value that architecture
generates is recouped privately rather than for wider social
benefit. Second, in the autonomous space that the resort
creates, a certain idea of architecture flourishes. Within this
exceptional space, the quid pro quo is this: in accepting the
idea of architecture as a mechanism of creating private value
(rather than public), architecture is at liberty to pursue its
ever-present disciplinary dream of formally autonomous
projects. A resort like this is an extreme example of
the trade-off that characterises much contemporary
architecture: by disconnecting from social and political
concerns, architecture can fulfil its formal aspirations.
Giving up claims to an all-encompassing idea of architecture
strengthens its capacity in other areas. The deal is mutually
beneficial: the more architecture does its thing, the more
value it generates for its client.
It is fortunate that right now architecture has enough disciplinary narcissism to delight in becoming the subject itself. Under these conditions architecture being Architecture is the primary function of architecture.
We might trace this architectural trajectory to the ways it is
mediated and communicated. Post Bilbao and never far from
a website disgorging an unending stream of beautiful images,
our very idea of architecture has changed. The characteristics
of architecture as an autonomous formal activity have become exaggerated while its relationship to political and social concerns have receded.
If Holl's Contemporary Art & Architecture Museum is an example of this tendency, we can also see that it is a condition which can produce an architecture that is delicate, strikingly beautiful, texturally rich and spatially engaging. Though it functions as an image, it possesses a whole host of sensations and experiences that are unphotographable.
The museum also poses a question: what happens when you turn architecture into the object of curation? How should we understand a museum—an architecture museum at that—that is contained within a museum context? Has architecture here swallowed itself and turned inside out?
Maybe we could read this as the subtext of Holl's building.
Perhaps its elongated, writhing form is a result of this prolapsed
architectural condition. On one hand we can read it as a
sculptural object in the landscape (where the landscape itself
is the museum). On the other hand its architecture twists and
turns in space, stretching out in all directions as though trying
to feel the limits of the envelope of this new kind of space where
the whole landscape has become a gallery condition.
CIPEA is fascinating because it accelerates this latent aspect of contemporary architecture. In doing so, it alters—and possibly inverts—the usual circumstances of architecture as an activity, project and product. Architecture is no longer a way of responding to the world; it is the world—or at least its own version of the world.
Meanwhile, my sympathy remains for the site hut and its
vegetable garden. In this context it stands for another idea of
architecture, something productive rather than experiential
and the point of connection to the world beyond. If we were
to extend the idea of a curated landscape, this could also
become an artefact added to the collection, retrofitted and
re-tasked perhaps by another signature architect while it
produces endless displays of squash as a form of conceptual
Design Architect: Steven Holl Architects (Steven Holl, Li Hu)
Associate-in-Charge Architect: Hideki Hirahara
Project Architects: Clark Manning, Daijiro Nakayama
Project Team: Joseph Kan, Jongseo Lee, Richard Liu, Sarah Nichols
Associate Architect: Architectural Design Institute, Nanjing University
Structural engineering consultant: Guy Nordenson and Associates
Lighting design: L'observatoire International
Client: Nanjing Foshou Lake Architecture and Art Developments ltd