Ningbo History Museum

Fragments of Chinese history are conserved in the facades of this building conceived as a kind of artificial mountain.

Originally published in Domus 922/February 2009

The Ningbo Museum sits on a massive unpopulated plaza in Yinzhou, a district in the city of Ningbo with a 5,000-year history that looks like it was established last year. The streets that surround it are wide enough to accommodate six lanes of traffic, but are virtually car-free. The sidewalk is lined with skinny leafless trees, shrubs and disconnected tiles of brownish-yellow grass. In the distance, the silhouettes of newly built residential towers and half-finished office buildings imply a bustling future, but for the moment the area exists in a kind of temporal limbo – its past abandoned, its future not yet arrived.

At the north end of the plaza is a broad, grey stone building occupied by the district government. It is boxy and relentlessly symmetrical in the typical style of municipal architecture in the PRC. It projects stability and strength both physically and symbolically: the building looks indestructible and the fact that the government resides in it reassures developers of the area's viability. The museum, a three-story, 30,000-square-metre block positioned on the plaza's northwestern edge, conveys the opposite. On approach, its form looks haphazard. It is apparently a box, but its sides are skewed and large chunks are missing. Its materials are inconsistent and ill-fitting. The facade is pocked with small, arbitrarily arranged windows that reveal nothing of the building's contents. It is an awkward building, but next to the muscularity of the government offices, it conveys a vulnerability that is touching, almost heart-warming, and as I approached the entrance I wondered whether this museum represents an entirely different sort of strength, the strength to embrace the unusual.
Top and Above: The east
façade of the Ningbo
Museum, People’s
Republic of china.
Designed by Amateur
Architecture Studio,
It is located in a nondescript
area next to
two large government
vuildings, a massive
plaza, and a cultural
centre. It will soon be
flanked by ten residential
tower blocks designed
by Ma Gingyun.
Top and Above: The east façade of the Ningbo Museum, People’s Republic of china. Designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, It is located in a nondescript area next to two large government vuildings, a massive plaza, and a cultural centre. It will soon be flanked by ten residential tower blocks designed by Ma Gingyun.
"Ningbo's government doesn't fear to do risky things," Wang Shu, the museum's architect, told me when we met in his building's sprawling foyer. "When we first won the competition, some people were very, very angry. They said, 'In the new, modern district you designed such an anti-modern building!' but I think that's not correct." In the architect's view, this critique is based on a constricting definition of modernity, one that places it in a winner-takes-all struggle with the past. For Wang, Modern is simply a division in a vast catalogue of materials and techniques at the designer's disposal. Over the next hour, we explored his design, leisurely taking in the museum's grand staircases and narrow courtyards, browsing its enormous collection of cultural relics. As we walked, Wang Shu sounded less like an architect than a tour guide in a nature reserve. He described valleys, caves, lakes. When we finally reached the museum's high point, a platform where the building splits into five jagged pieces, he told me, "When I designed this, I was thinking of mountains. I couldn't design something for the city, because there is no city here yet, so I wanted to do something that had life. Finally I decided to design a mountain. It's a part of Chinese tradition."
The “summit
of the mountain”,
the terrace and the
auditorium. Wang Shu
has interpreted the
idea of the mountain by
widening the range of
entrances and treating
the space inside as if it
were a kind of maze
The “summit of the mountain”, the terrace and the auditorium. Wang Shu has interpreted the idea of the mountain by widening the range of entrances and treating the space inside as if it were a kind of maze
References to the past are common in museums of Chinese antiquity. They often take the form of mimicry, as in the case of the Shanghai Museum, which emulates the shape of an ancient cooking vessel. By emphasising the inspiration he derives from nature, Wang Shu appears to align himself with this frequently silly approach. Fortunately, the Ningbo Museum is connected to Chinese history in a much more fundamental way. Towards the end of our visit, Wang stopped in front of one of the museum's inner walls. Large stretches of the building's facade are composed of fragments of various sizes, shapes and materials, and after a brief appraisal, the architect began to annotate. He pointed to a grey brick about 20 centimetres wide. "This one was produced over 400 years ago – that's the Ming Dynasty. That is a very standard size. This one is from the Qing Dynasty. Some people have found older ones. The oldest one is from the Tang Dynasty – that's 1,500 years ago."
Most of the Ningbo Museum's exterior is composed of debris collected from destruction sites around the region. The pieces were assembled using a technique known as wa pan, a method developed by the region's farmers to cope with the destruction caused by typhoons
The south facade
of the museum. The
design combines two
building methods:
reinforced concrete,
which was moulded
on the surface using
bamboo canes, and the
<em>wa pan</em> technique (the
re-use of existing materials).
The surfaces of
the walls reveal the
presence of over 20
different types of recycled
tiles and bricks,
which were recovered
when the old villages
were demolished
The south facade of the museum. The design combines two building methods: reinforced concrete, which was moulded on the surface using bamboo canes, and the wa pan technique (the re-use of existing materials). The surfaces of the walls reveal the presence of over 20 different types of recycled tiles and bricks, which were recovered when the old villages were demolished
Most of the Ningbo Museum's exterior is composed of debris collected from destruction sites around the region. The pieces were assembled using a technique known as wa pan , a method developed by the region's farmers to cope with the destruction caused by typhoons. It is a system capable of accommodating a seemingly unlimited variety of source material, a system perfectly suited to the ill-fitting, mismatched pieces with which Wang had to work. Though he had used this technique previously in his campus for China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, the Ningbo Museum offered the first chance to apply wa pan in its place of origin. "Only the craftsmen in this area know how to do this," he told me. "But if we don't use it in modern architecture I think the craftsmen will forget how to do it. When we started, many couldn't remember, so we had to use photos and teach them again." He looked over the empty streets and endangered farmland that surrounds the museum and added, "We call this a 'no memory area'. In this huge district I found only one village that was in tact, and maybe next year it will also be demolished. There is no tradition here. I designed this to try to bring their memory back." Brendan McGetrick
A series of open-air courtyards have been dug out of the inside of the building.
A series of open-air courtyards have been dug out of the inside of the building.
The main
courtyard in the
Ningbo Museum, a
full-height space that
cuts right through the
building and reaches
the roof terrace
The main courtyard in the Ningbo Museum, a full-height space that cuts right through the building and reaches the roof terrace
The Ningbo Museum's main courtyard
The Ningbo Museum's main courtyard
Wang Shu says that the
design represents an
intersection of “three
valleys crossed by
large stairways – two
on the inside and one
on the outside”. The
internal walls (also
in concrete) were
moulded with bamboo
canes as well. The
use of this unusual
technique, as with
the use of <em>wa pan</em> for
the walls, meant that
the builders had to be
specially trained: they
had lost their own traditional
knowledge.
This unusual regained
skill, however, now
means that they are
much in demand in
their own market
Wang Shu says that the design represents an intersection of “three valleys crossed by large stairways – two on the inside and one on the outside”. The internal walls (also in concrete) were moulded with bamboo canes as well. The use of this unusual technique, as with the use of wa pan for the walls, meant that the builders had to be specially trained: they had lost their own traditional knowledge. This unusual regained skill, however, now means that they are much in demand in their own market

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