Open Architecture: “Our architecture as a Chinese landscape design”

A conversation with the studio that designed the Shanfeng Academy Suzhou cultural and sports centre, a project based on the interweaving of space and time in the Chinese tradition.

This interview is published in Domus 1079, on newsstands in May 2023.

Could our focus on “the haptic realm” in this issue of Domus characterise material and detail in your work?
In a world with rapidly evolving technology and artificial intelligence, we see architecture as the counterweight to the weightless, intangible and volatile digital world. Most of us were born with complex sensory systems through which we make sense of the world. The sensory signals are intricately linked to our emotions and invoke memories of the past or imagination for the future. It is precisely these innate abilities that make us feel alive and distinguishable from AI. Along the way, at Open, we have always been trying to create architecture that can communicate with people viscerally and emotionally, architecture that can awaken people’s senses from multiple dimensions and can touch people’s emotions and inner consciousness. After all, architecture is made for bodies and minds, not for cameras and the internet. 

What do you think is haptic time? How do you think about space? Could you imagine haptic space? 
We have been really fascinated by the intricately intertwined and seemingly endless flow of time and space in Chinese landscape drawings, especially those of the latter half of the Song dynasty. There were always multiple threads of time (also narratives) going in parallel, or intersecting or overlapping. Current time right here, lost time alive in memory, imagined time yet to come, this place and that there, spaces continuously unfolding with time, all these weave together into endless cycles of time and space with no beginning and no ending. Suzhou is a very unique city in many ways, not least of which is its montage of myriad times and spaces: ancient and contemporary, slow and hectic, poetic and brutal, all exist concurrently and challenge the elasticity of our imagination. Maybe here, our architecture can be a time machine, like a Chinese landscape drawing. Imprinted with the dancing shadow of the tree leaves and branches, the white board-formed concrete invites you to touch, immediately on the fingertip, the warmth of autumn and the wooden grain; but don’t you also sense the white plastered wall of the ancient Suzhou gardens? The refracted light from the round skylight casts an elliptical bright spot that slowly moves across the floor and climbs the wall. The colour of the light changes with the passing of time. Time is the moving light. Through the huge opening on the solid wall of the bamboo terrace, the outward gaze meets the ruthlessly mundane urban development cropping up everywhere. Turning around and through the colonnade of the covered walkways, the inward gazes move freely from the apricot trees in the spring garden to the quietly bubbling pond of the summer garden, to the colourful ebony trees in the autumn garden, and to the tiny jumping birds on the grass of the winter garden in the distance. Spaces unfold in time, the jump-cuts among different speeds and dimensions, the intertwined haptic time and space.

All photos courtesy Open Architecture

Shanfeng Academy. Cultural and Sports Centre at Mountain Kingston Bilingual School Suzhou
Project architects:
Li Hu, Huang Wenjing
Design team:
Shi Bingjie, Daijiro Nakayama, Jia Ke, Ye Qing, Fan Jianglong (on site), Giovanni Zorzi, Huang Zetian, Wang Fengya, Shou Chengbin, Crystal Kwan, Lu Di, Tang Ziqiao, Jia Han, Cai Zhuoqun, Chen Ruipeng
Local architect:
Tongji Architectural Design (Group)
Lighting design:
Gradient Lighting Design
Theatre and acoustic consultant:
JH Theatre Architecture Design Consulting Company
Landscape design:
Open Architecture + Z’scape
Mountain Education Group

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