Lift-off

Steven Holl's latest effort, a soaring museum in Nanjing, investigates the spatial mysteries of ancient Chinese painting—yet tells us much about the contemporary state of architecture.

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.
Initiated in 2003, CIPEA has
so far commissioned works by
a total of 24 international
architects including, among
others, SANAA, David Adjaye,
Arata Isozaki, Sean Godsell,
Wang Shu, Zhang Lei, Qingyun
Ma and Ai Weiwei
Initiated in 2003, CIPEA has so far commissioned works by a total of 24 international architects including, among others, SANAA, David Adjaye, Arata Isozaki, Sean Godsell, Wang Shu, Zhang Lei, Qingyun Ma and Ai Weiwei
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.
Despite being a structure
designed to hover as if
suspended in mid-air, the
museum presents few openings
onto the surrounding landscape.
It could be described as a
sort of upward architectural
<i>promenade</i>, in which one
encounters a multitude of
multipurpose tiered spaces
Despite being a structure designed to hover as if suspended in mid-air, the museum presents few openings onto the surrounding landscape. It could be described as a sort of upward architectural promenade , in which one encounters a multitude of multipurpose tiered spaces
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.
Though it functions as an image, the Contemporary Art & Architecture Museum possesses a whole host of sensations and experiences that are unphotographable
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.)
Holl draws visitors into a
sensorial experience.
By gently tilting the floating
gallery, he makes them walk
up along an uphill route which
culminates in a room opening
onto the landscape
Holl draws visitors into a sensorial experience. By gently tilting the floating gallery, he makes them walk up along an uphill route which culminates in a room opening onto the landscape
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.
Holl reduces the spectrum
of his colour scheme to a bare
minimum, using a monochrome
palette that offers the museum’s
curators a neutral background
Holl reduces the spectrum of his colour scheme to a bare minimum, using a monochrome palette that offers the museum’s curators a neutral background
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.
The structural design was
overseen by Guy Nordenson
and Associates, New York.
A professor at Princeton
University, Nordenson
has recently published the
collection of essays
Patterns and Structure.
Selected Writings
(Lars Müller Publishers)
The structural design was overseen by Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York. A professor at Princeton University, Nordenson has recently published the collection of essays Patterns and Structure. Selected Writings (Lars Müller Publishers)
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.
Through his choice of building
materials, Holl levels a subtle
criticism at the impetuous
development that has in recent
years destroyed the historic
centres of China’s principal
cities. The museum’s courtyard
is paved with bricks retrieved
from the demolition of ancient
hutong courtyard houses, a
traditional feature of ancient
Chinese cities
Through his choice of building materials, Holl levels a subtle criticism at the impetuous development that has in recent years destroyed the historic centres of China’s principal cities. The museum’s courtyard is paved with bricks retrieved from the demolition of ancient hutong courtyard houses, a traditional feature of ancient Chinese cities
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?
The Nanjing Contemporary
Art & Architecture Museum
is the first museum in China
to be devoted exclusively to
contemporary architecture. The
building is heated and cooled
by 20 geothermal wells and is
equipped with a green roof
The Nanjing Contemporary Art & Architecture Museum is the first museum in China to be devoted exclusively to contemporary architecture. The building is heated and cooled by 20 geothermal wells and is equipped with a green roof
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 architectural practice.

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

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