Wang Shu's Time Machine

Good news from China: a politician and an architect become allies in defence of the ancient imperial road of Hangzhou. Edited by Laura Bossi.

In China, not many people have qualms about sweeping away the past – it is routinely disposed of without nostalgia. A few, however, are protesting both intellectually and physically against the bulldozers that are razing the historical centres of Chinese metropolises. The mayor of Hangzhou, for example, has undertaken a most difficult mission: he has decided to restore the remains of the city's ancient imperial road, adding inserts of contemporary architecture.

Wang Shu was called upon to coordinate this enterprise. He has since transformed his task into a collective project by inviting a series of designers to contribute, including Zhang Bin, Qian Qiang, Li Kaisheng, Li Ziangning, Tong Ming and Zhang Lei. Each has been allotted a stretch of the road, while Wang Shu will supervise their proposals and design one of the buildings himself, the museum of the Southern Song Dynasty imperial road.

As he recounts in the following article, Wang Shu has made a small building that is more time machine than museum: it preserves the memory of the emperor's road and shows traditional Chinese construction techniques. Laura Bossi

A new exhibition hall has been completed in the ancient eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, one of the seven ancient capitals of China. The building, designed by my office (Amateur Architecture Studio), was constructed at no. 112 of the Central Zhongshan Road, on the grounds of a former residence that was burnt in a fire and among the early street systems of Southern Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

A large timber structure cantilever covered in terracotta roof tiles shelters the entire structure and opens onto the Zhongshan Road. Even when the museum is closed, people can see the entire interior from the street. The programs inside are divided into exhibition rooms and tea rooms. The museum acts as a tunnel through the urban labyrinth of the city. The architecture is undeniably embedded into the city life.

In order to protect the ancient streets as much as possible, the roof design borrowed the technique of an interlocking timber arch structure system often found in bridges in southern Zhejiang Province. These structures can span long distances with minimum material and have a history dating back to 10th century Song Dynasty. However, the system has never been applied to a modern building construction before, so the structural engineers and my group had to work closely to find a solution that could comply with today's structural regulations. We were able to solve the problem by introducing small steel components partially hidden in the timber structure. Local Chinese craftsmen were employed to build the complicated roof and I'm sure that they didn't once look at the engineers drawings and instead used traditional techniques to complete it.

The structure adds a powerful expression to the dynamic folds of the roof and to the Zhongshan Road. Immediately after entering the building, visitors can experience the provocative visual impact of the continuous timber arch structure. The House of Taihu Lake, located at the northeast corner of the site, provides the entrance to the exhibition lobby and the washrooms on the first level. A spiral staircase leads to the second floor tea house and platforms. The third level is a small private tea room with the best view to the fifth facade of the road.

The large cantilever that covers the entire building projects 4m out of the street facade, inviting the streetscape into the museum. The steel and glass cover above the archeological site extrudes into the gallery interior, a design that allows the site to be semi-open.

The foundations of the Exhibition Hall of the Imperial Street were finished on June 20, 2009. I asked the construction company the deadline given by the government for the upper part of the building. The answer was August 10. Fifty days to finish a museum? I decided to apply a wooden bridge structure. Only one carpenter in Zhejiang Province knew how to make it. In order to adjust to the modern principles, many of the details were changed. In fact, it was a brand new structure. I asked them the price for constructing this and got a price that was only half as I had predicted. It was impossible. But then I realised that the craftsmen never look at the drawings. They either had no idea of the cast-on-site concrete I required. I sent an assistant to watch the construction everyday. If there was any unexpected situation, I would go to the site.

One day, I heard that the craftsmen were on the strike. The government then compromised and raised the price. Seventy days later, the building was finished. I was impressed by the craftsmen's talent. Maybe they couldn't read the drawings, but they were familiar with materials the construction methods. In fact, they finished the museum with traditional Chinese methods. Wang Shu

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