Interiors Awards 2016: Exhibition

Photography by Wang Ning

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Zibo Great Wall Museum of Fine Art
Designer: Arch Studio
Client: Zibo Yong Quan Shu Hua Yuan
Location: Zibo, China

“Merging inside and outside, this is amazing. It celebrates what is there and just underscores it, leveraging the existing building and taking inspiration from it. The integration is so seamless and beautiful.”—Jury

Zibo is a rapidly growing city of nearly five million people in eastern China. Two thousand years ago, it was the center of Qi culture, and thus one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Like most modern Chinese cities, it has its share of abandoned factories, relics of an early wave of industrialization, many of which are finding new life as art museums.

One example is Zibo Great Wall Museum of Fine Art, which aims to achieve a success similar to that of the sprawling 798 Art Zone in Beijing but on a more modest scale. Originally a pharmaceutical factory built near the city center in the 1940s, the Zibo structure stood empty for about 20 years. Beijing-based firm Arch Studio completed a fast, low-budget conversion to provide exhibition spaces, artists’ studios, a seminar room, a restaurant, and a storage area.

Having studied environmental art design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Han Wen-Qiang, the founder of Arch Studio, developed a broad perspective on art and architecture, which he views as “a medium of communication between man and man, as well as man and nature, which can enrich our feelings.” He admires Louis Kahn for the tranquility and poetry of his work, recognizing similarities between his designs and those of traditional Asian spaces.

The Zibo factory’s original building is architecturally undistinguished, but Wen-Qiang saw value in the long-span structure and the earthy texture of the three brick factory sheds. Walls were scrubbed clean with high-pressure water hoses, revealing the painted red slogans that had once inspired Communist workers. Much of the patina remains. A glass-walled concourse links these volumes with storage buildings to create a unified 41,000-square-foot interior. Ancillary facilities—including a tearoom, art studio, and meeting room—are contained within the new structure at ground level, with offices upstairs. Its transparency serves as a bridge between the paved courtyard and the stripped shell of the factory. Of the five studios, one is large enough to serve as a live-work space for an artist in residence. Floors are covered in self-leveling cement, and simple wooden furnishings augment the bare spaces.

Completed in four-and-a-half months as a design-build project, the interior is straightforward and spare. As Wen-Qiang recalls, “Because this was a quick, low-budget project, we had to use the simplest construction methods, the cheapest materials, and plans that could be easily understood.”

The client organization, Zibo Yong Quan Shu Hua Yuan, is an arts institute that focuses on calligraphy and contemporary painting. The museum curator, Zou Tao, praises Arch Studio’s work: “The art museum [offers a] strong atmosphere of culture [while] protecting a piece of Zibo’s industrial heritage. The glass building unfolds slowly, like a long scroll, to the courtyard. The flexibility, openness, and environmental charm of this space fulfill the basic demands of the museum— enriching people’s lives and assisting in the process of art creation, education, and research. The new building is like a vivacious example of Chinese calligraphy, which reflects our program of exhibiting calligraphy and paintings.”

Zibo Great Wall Museum of Fine Art is a model of adaptive reuse that places art and practicality ahead of showy architecture. With an emphasis on simplicity and frugality, it offers spaces that artists love to work and show in. Rather than an ill-conceived museum of trophy architecture, Zibo has chosen a better way.