China. Changing scapes in Architecture: Aranya Beidaihe

Medium-small spaces such as the Dune Museum, the Lonely Library and the Community Hall, specially designed for community activities, are the alternative to the frenetic Chinese construction industry.

OPEN Architecture, Dune Museum, Aranya, China, 2018. Photo: Ni Nan

Monumental both in scale and pace of construction, China’s cultural building frenzy is often tainted by criticism around its underlying motivations. Whether spurred by city administrators eager to channel governmental funding into new urban growth or by wealthy proprietors fulfilling personal agendas of proto-philanthropic nature, the ambitions of such endeavours are seldom accompanied by the professionalism required to run their programming on a regular basis. The Dune Museum designed by Beijing-based office OPEN Architecture and inaugurated on October 13 on the northern coast of Qinghuandao city begs to differ. The project is located inside the Aranya Gold Coast Community a sprawling seaside resort of villas, condos and hotels, 300km from the capital.

Development took up speed after 2013 when the land, on which a jockey club with a golf course and private residences already existed, took up new ownership. Aranya covers 220hectars off the seashore in the district of Beidaihe - with thin yellow sand and shallow waters the area became a popular destination for party cadres in past decades and now for affluent families from the Jing-Jin-Ji mega region in search of escape from congested cities.

Three years in the planning, the Dune Museum has opened eventually in partnership with the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing’s prime independent venue for the arts that is to run its programming for the coming five years. This strategic alliance was spearheaded by Ma Yin, the 44-year-old founder of Aranya, whose mindful leadership has cultivated enthusiastic following from the local architecture scene. The Dune Museum sits a hundred meters form the shore under the sand thus blending with its natural surroundings. The organic cave-like structure covers 930sqm encompassing seven interconnected indoor galleries and three outdoor spaces, the latter forming tunnel-looking openings facing the sea. The softly rounded contours of white walls, doors and windows, albeit unfriendly to the hanging of artworks, land a comfortable sense of intimacy and domesticated feeling to the spatial experience. 

Vector Architects, Lonely Library, Aranya, China, 2015. Photo: Xia Zhi
Vector Architects, Lonely Library, Aranya, China, 2015. Photo: Xia Zhi

The personable, retreated character of this type of architecture echoes along the shore in a handful of other projects Ma Yin has commissioned over past years. All are, or will be, small to medium sized spaces specifically designed for communal activities organized for both the property owners, currently amounting to over 2000 households, and temporary vacationers that number yearly in the hundreds of thousands.

Two projects by Vector Architects launched in 2015 earned the site semi-cult status, as videos went viral shortly after their opening. The Lonely Library, so dubbed by popular vote due to its location, is a neo-brutalist elongated concrete block of 450sqm with warming wooden interiors and a see-through façade of glass bricks and foldable eaves facing the water that is regularly operated by Sanlian Bookstore, one of China’s largest publishing outlets. It plays host to just a few of the hundreds of events that Aranya organizes yearly on its grounds - from classical concerts, theatrical performances and readings with renowned artists and productions, to large scale music festivals and sport competitions. 

The Community Hall is an elevated white volume of 270sqm with a high-pitched roof resembling a church and clean geometries à laAldo Rossi, that, like the library, is regularly besieged by architecture buffs, travellers and soon-to-be-wedded couples. Together with a not yet fully operational educational centre by Zhang Li of Team Minus, other confirmed projects soon to enter construction include a music hall, a theatre and a bird-viewing tower by respectively TAO Office of Hua Li, DnA Design and Architecture of Xu Tiantian and Zhang Ke’s Standardarchitecture. Having visited the site two years prior, it is evident that the real estate fabrica behind the venture is showing no signs of abating, more towers ascending rapidly behind the otherwise scattered gems that constellate the beach. 

However, this is without doubt a new-generation entrepreneurialism that attempts manoeuvring with more sophisticated ambitions in a sector that is increasingly subject to restrictive regulations in a temperamental financial market. Ma Yin’ ultimate visions align with those of the architects he handpicks and supports, a coeval generation of cultural producers that strives for a higher standard of critical practice, a meaningful relation to ‘place’, and the reterritorialization of social bonding that is otherwise fast eroding in major urban centres. An internationally recognized group of architects who are collectively contributing to articulate a building language of individuality, of rooted aesthetic and conceptual expression, they are those the younger generations are looking up to. Creating the actual space and demand for a culture and quality of design on a mass scale as big as China’s might take time, but within an imperfect picture Aranya embodies a positive tangible precedent that can foster measurable future impact.

A second site designed with a similar approach off the mountainous scenery of the Great Wall, Aranya Jinshanling, will break ground in 2019.

Vector Architects, Seashore Library, Qinhuangdao, China, 2015. Photo: Su Shengliang
Vector Architects, Seashore Library, Qinhuangdao, China, 2015. Photo: Su Shengliang
Dune Museum
Aranya, Beidaihe, Cina
OPEN Architecture
930 sqm

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