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Opening Narrow Minds: Sifang Art Museum

In a forest on the outskirts of the former Chinese capital Najing grows a $164-million development with 11 buildings designed by leading international architects. Centerpiece of the development is the Sifang Art Museum, an exhibition that will feature works by Anselm Kiefer, Luc Tuymans and Chinese art collective Made In Company at its first exhibition. The complex also includes a hotel, conference center and 20 residential villas.

Architect:
Steven Holl Architects
Location: Nanjing, Jiangsu, China

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl

Photo: Sifang Art Museum

The Sifang Art Museum is sited at the gateway to the Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architecture in the lush green landscape of the Pearl Spring near Nanjing. The museum explores the shifting viewpoints, layers of space, and expanses of mist and water, which characterize the deep alternating spatial mysteries of early Chinese painting. The museum is formed by a “field” of parallel perspective spaces and garden walls in black bamboo-formed concrete over which a light “figure” hovers. The straight passages on the ground level gradually turn into the winding passage of the figure above. The upper gallery, suspended high in the air, unwraps in a clockwise turning sequence and culminates at “in-position” viewing of the city of Nanjing in the distance.

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, site map

Site map: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, hovering 30 ft above ground

Photo: Shu He

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, draft

Draft: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, draft

Draft: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, gardens

Photo: Iwan Baan

The meaning of this rural site becomes urban through this visual axis to Nanjing, the great Ming Dynasty capital city. The courtyard is paved in recycled Old Hutong bricks from the destroyed courtyards in the center of Nanjing. Limiting the colors of the museum to black and white connects it to the ancient paintings, but also gives a background to feature the colors and textures of the artwork and architecture to be exhibited within. Bamboo, previously growing on the site, has been used in bamboo- formed concrete, with a black penetrating stain. The Museum has geothermal cooling and heating, and recycled storm water.

Sifang Art Museum Steven Holl, façade

Photo: Iwan Baan

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, section

Section (north-south): Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, exhibition room

Exhibition room, photo: Sifang Art Museum

In China, privately built museums are new and are starting to spread. They are generally built to exhibit private collections and are open to the public. They don't receive much support from the government and generally don't have foundations or charitable status. They don't accept donations, and the government doesn't give grants, subsidies or tax breaks – and they don’t need to, because China's wealthy patrons are underwriting a major cultural boom, spending billions of Yuan on grand buildings to showcase impressive collections of art, antiques and other cultural rarities.

In this case, it is the real estate developer Lu Jun and his son Lu Xun who spend the money. When Lu Jun was first offered the chance to buy the 115-acre parcel of empty forest outside Nanjing in 2002, he originally envisioned building a luxury-villa development. But a meeting with a local Nanjing architect persuaded him to attempt something much bigger and more ambitious.

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, gallery level, floor plan

Gallery level, floor plan: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, section of the gallery

Section: Steven Holl

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, gallery

Photo: Sifang Art Museum

Lu Jun hired two architects to curate the project: Liu Jiakun from China and Arato Isozaki from Japan. The two curators then chose 22 architects to design the buildings. A comprehensive list was drafted, including the two Pritzker Prize-winners Wang Shu and Japanese firm Sanaa, artist Ai Weiwei, and British architect David Adjaye. They all agreed to participate. It took 10 years to build and many doubted the project will ever be completed. Construction was fitful: Local contractors struggled with the complex designs, money was short at times and materials were difficult to source. "I've forgotten about it," said Ai Weiwei.

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl

Photo: Sifang Art Museum

Sifang Art Museum Steven Holl, exit

Photo: Sifang Art Museum

Finally, the Sifang Art Museum was inaugurated in November 2013. Eleven buildings are mostly finished, and another three are expected to be completed in 2014. The museum, located at the top of a slope, is a modernist translucent white box, perched more than 30 feet above ground, with a view of the entire development. The villas on the grounds are not for sale but will be available for short-term rentals and retreats. The Lu family hopes that the entire complex will generate 20 million Yuan per year and so be able to sustain itself by the fourth year of operation.

Sifang Art Museum by Steven Holl, the clockwise round turn starts at the stairway

Photo: Sifang Art Museum

Perspective is the fundamental historic difference between Western and Chinese painting. After the 13th Century, Western painting developed vanishing points in fixed perspective. Chinese painters, although aware of perspective, rejected the single-vanishing point method, instead producing landscapes with “parallel perspectives” in which the viewer travels within the painting. "Contemporary art and architecture weren't very accepted here in Nanjing," said Lu Jun. "I wanted to change the narrow minds here."

Project data

Client: Nanjing Foshou Lake Architecture and Art Developments Ltd
Load-bearing structure: Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York
Lighting: L'Observatoire International, New York
Construction site: 30,000 sqft

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