Planning of structural framework: China Aviation Planning and Design Institute, Peking
Interior Design: Beijing Truebond Building Decoration Engineering, Peking
Constructor: China Construction Second Engineering Bureau, Peking
Facade: KME TECU
Monumental Wickerwork: City Museum in Chengdu
Builder: Museum Chengdu + Twohnship for culture, television, press, radio and publishment Chengdu
Architects: Sutherland Hussey Harris, Edinburgh; Pansolution International Design, Peking; China Aviation Planning and Design Institute, Peking
In China, many things are scaled a bit larger than here at home. This is also true of Tianfu Square, located in the heart of Chengdu, a western Chinese metropolis of 14 million people. With an area about the size of twelve soccer fields, Tianfu is considered the largest urban square in the region. A huge museum of science dominates the north side; a large, majestic, white statue of Chairman Mao greets passers-by in front of the structure. The city’s biggest thoroughfares go past south of the square. A new concert hall is to be created in the next few years.
In this environment, it was clear that the architects of the new city museum would be expected to create a design that was big and even monumental. The new construction was to cover an area of 65,000 m², including departments of natural history, national history and customs, an 800-seat hall for Chinese shadow puppetry, as well as a 1,000-m² area for special exhibitions.
In 2007, Scottish architects Sutherland Hussey Harris and their Beijing partner studio Pansolution won the international architecture competition for the new building. Afterwards, they were charged not only with the design and planning of the museum, but with the complete supervision of the project, which is the exception rather than the rule in China.
According to the urban situation, all the access areas of the museum are located on its east side. They open onto the square with a glazed façade sheltered from the sun only by a copper webbing. The windowless exhibition rooms, on the other hand, are on the closed west face of the building, which is clad with folded copper sheeting in a unique wickerwork aesthetic. A gateway through the building links Tianfu Square with the Huangcheng Mosque, one of Southwest China’s largest Muslim places of worship. The resulting roofed-in free space is used in many ways. In particular, market traders who had already offered their wares for sale on the nearby streets have moved in.
In order to present the architects with an extra challenge, the client wanted 30-metre-deep, support-free museum halls inside the building. In addition, the structure was to be able to withstand earthquakes measuring up to eight on the Richter scale. What’s more, Chengdu’s subway system runs under the north end of the museum, meaning that no subterranean foundation could be built there.
The folded building shell, which is largely independent of the concrete structure, is supported by a huge framework of steel diagonals. The new construction goes as deeply as 24 metres under the ground, where the technical rooms, storage and other areas are found. In order to absorb the shocks of an earthquake, the construction – including its lowest floors – rests in a gigantic concrete box set into the earth and decoupled from seismic activity.
The façade structure – lightly veiled on the east side, completely closed to the west – follows the principles of the Chinese philosophy of feng shui, which state that west-facing buildings bring bad luck. Moreover, it also works with the local climate conditions and the direct sunlight, which often shines brightly from the west in Chengdu and would have made the atmosphere inside the exhibitions rooms intolerable. The webbing and sheeting used consist of 90% recycled copper. The alloy was chosen so that the sheeting would discolour as little as possible in the severe air pollution that prevails in the city.