Yangliping Performing Arts Center Has a Pickup-Stick Ceiling

Here's a different way to work with wood by Studio Zhu-Pei.

Theatre ceiling

 Jin Weiqi

We love the warmth of wood and our biophilic attraction to it. But the best thing about wood is that when used in the construction of buildings, it has far lower upfront carbon emission than concrete or steel. There have been some marvelous long-span wood structures built in China, such as Structurecraft's Taiyuan Botanical Garden Domes, so the new Yangliping Performing Arts Center in Dali, China, looked fascinating in the V2com release.

detail of wood

 Jin Weiqi

The center, designed by Studio Zhu-Pei, is not your usual black box of a theater. Instead, it is a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces designed to "subvert people's perception of theater and create a new theater concept and new experiences."

"A widely cantilevered rectangular roof spans across a built landscape of free-flowing indoor and outdoor spaces, some of which can be combined as an interacting spatial system. As with mountains and valleys, the strong shape of the roof reflects the more organic landscape below and points to the old Chinese principle of yin and yang, where two opposites combine together to form a whole. Formally expressed as organic-shaped hills, the partly sunken spaces transform into a natural garden landscape, promising a high experiential quality that extends inside to the public theatre."
Overview of roof

 Jin Weiqi

The architects tell ArchDaily: "The far-reaching and horizontally extended roof is like a big canopy. While resisting ultraviolet rays, it also shapes shadows and provides a comfortable environment for people to shade and avoid rain."

Detail of ceiling

 Jin Weiqi

Engineers can do extraordinary things with wood these days, with parametric design and sophisticated fasteners. All the photos of the Yangliping Performing Arts Center focus on the wood structure that is the underside of that giant slate-covered roof—it is very dramatic. I spent some time trying to figure out how it all worked together as a truss to hold up the roof.

Drawing of roof structure
Drawing of roof structure.

The drawings show some kind of trusses but they certainly didn't look like the photos.

Roof detail

 Jin Weiqi via V2Com

After downloading some huge TIFF files and zooming in, it becomes clear that the wood is completely decorative, and is hanging below what appears to be a steel roof structure.

closeup of lattice
Detail of Lattice.

Jin Weiqi

Steel buildings often have wood ceilings, but this one is unusual in that so much wood is just hanging there. One hopes that it is treated for fire resistance or that there are sprinklers, because otherwise, with so much surface area, it looks like the wood in my fireplace before I light it. Or maybe, it looks like a bunch of pickup sticks.

Crowded space

Jin Weiqi

There is much to admire here in terms of innovative theater design. As the architect notes:

"This building indeed subverts our traditional cognition of theater, constructing a porous, open, and fluid alternative theater, more precisely an art space. It does not strive to be a monument, but sets a stage for the vast natural landscape beyond it: back against Cang Mountain and facing the Erhai Lake. It is like a ten-mile-long pavilion outside the ancient city, welcoming people who visit Dali."
stairs and roof

Jin Weiqi

There is also no question, the giant roof is dramatic and the centerpiece of the whole project. The wood lattice underneath the roof completely changes the feel of it, adding tremendous warmth and character. The wood dominates the visual identity of the spaces under it, yet the architects never mention it, other than talking of the building as "another in-depth experimental work on the design philosophy of "Architecture of Nature." 

Metropol Parasol in Seville
Metropol Parasol in Seville.

Anual via Wikipedia

But I keep thinking that it was such a shame that the use of wood didn't go beyond the decorative. I am reminded of the Metropol Parasol in Seville that served a similar function, that was a demonstration of pushing the limits of wood as a structural material. It is a missed opportunity.