Wang Shu's Mountain-Like Ningbo History Museum Made of Recycled Bricks
At first glance, the brand new Ningbo Historic Museum looks like it has been there for centuries, left behind by natural forces.
But in a nod to local building practices and to the archeological finds it contains, the museum's facade is constructed of recycled brick from the area, a ravaged patch of former farmland turned development district on the outskirts of the booming southern city of Ningbo.
The shape too — a carved geologic form that nods to the nearby mountains — is an outgrowth of architect Wang Shu's interest in the ancient practice of building to reflect natural settings. "In the Chinese tradition," he says, "whenever nature has been dramatically damaged, people tend to recreate it in artificial forms to satisfy their desire to be closer to nature."
"I ask my students to use as few adjectives as possible in all of their essays, because adjectives can easily become too sentimental," he told an interviewer in 2007. "Is it possible for us to write an article only with verbs? I always think about questions like that."
Wang also pares his architecture down to the essentials, sometimes letting his buildings dissolve into their surroundings. Set upon a small stream, the museum draws much from Chinese ink-and-wash landscape paintings — a form, Wang notes, in which man-made structures are nearly, and tellingly, absent. "That's the meaning of architecture, the place it occupies in the whole world." Indeed, from a distance, the museum barely registers on the skyline, lying low between two taller government office buildings.
In spite of its imposing scale, the building encourages visitors to get intimate with its intriguing facade. Here, Wang again clad the museum in an armadillo shell of twenty different types of grey and red bricks and tiles, scavenged from the remains of farmers' homes on the site's now fallow fields. Windows of small and erratic rectangular shapes are scattered across the walls seemingly at random, revealing nothing of the interior, looking like the portals of the pharaohs' pyramids.
Construction and Recycling
To cover the museum's 24 meter high walls — made of concrete on a wood and bamboo frame — with a continuous skin of twenty different kinds of recycled bricks, Wang guided craftsmen and builders on small mock-up experiments, and remained open to imperfections.
"Because they couldn't control the portions of different materials, the facade is a bit random," says Wang. "Where it's supposed to be a straight line, it's curved a bit. So it appears something like a living creature rather than a solid building."
The facade technique is borrowed from what is known as wapan tiling, a tradition of emergency wall building necessary after the typhoons that frequent the region. Wang had used recycled tiles, bricks and stones before, most famously in his contribution to the 2006 Venice Biennale, which placed a bamboo bridge over a sea of thousands of salvaged tiles. But his previous projects were tiny compared with the museum.
For Wang, the museum is part of a life-long attempt to resurrect traditional Chinese architecture in a way that fits with current technical approaches.
"I once thought," Wang writes, "that if the combination of traditional crafts and modern technique couldn't be applied commonly in massive construction in China, traditional Chinese architecture would be throttled in the empty talk and chicanery of architects and museums."
And alongside its ecological message, the museum is also an attempt to draw history out of the museum for the benefit of the public. Instead, history has literally become part of the museum.
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