Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Architecture Park is Melting in the Dark (Jinhua, Part Two)

The Chinese people have gone through a lot, and if it is merely about more cars and tall buildings, then it is not worth it.
- Ai Weiwei

In my last entry, I was trying to pin down Ai Weiwei's overall project, and his relationship to the city of Jinhua, by way of a park he designed there, dedicated as a memorial to his father. This time around, I'm taking on the Jinhua Architecture Park, a pretty substantial undertaking just on the other side of the river. I'm going to make a few general provocations and then just give a walkthrough of some of the pavilions. The full photo collection can be found on Flickr; I also would recommend Evan's own consideration of the park.

While the developer for the park was originally interested in just Ai, the artist succeeded in bringing in Herzog & de Meuron as collaborators, apparently in parallel with their (ultimately unbuilt) proposal for the new Jindong district (which would have been located on the south side of the river, terminating at the Ai Qing park). Starting in 2002, Ai and the Swiss team gathered a total of seventeen international architects to design small pavilions, generally of rather loose program, to populate this new park. The only Chinese architects involved were ones Ai knew personally and whose work he admired, including Amateur Architecture, FCJZ, and Liu Jiakun.

Such "let's all do a building!" schemes are a dime a dozen, particularly in China - the Ordos 100 project in Inner Mongolia, the Great Wall Commune in Beijing, and the CIPEA development outside Nanjing have all attempted something similar in the last decade, with similar or greater numbers of participants, and probably more publicity. But given the highly political nature of Ai's background and his work, and the fact that the park across the water doubled as a filial panegyric, it's appropriate to consider the Architecture Park as something more than just another starchitectural Smurf Village.

As Ai explains it, "a park is a place where a person can, in a relatively short time, have a variety of different experiences, be those in terms of architectural form or architectural culture." While most Chinese parks are used primarily for fresh air and exercise, Ai imagines the park as an opportunity to experience new kinds of space. The effect this is supposed to have is not fully spelled out, but one can read between the lines when Ai says that the park will "allow people to use a day or a half-day of time to experience a range of possibilities, particularly young people, the children and students who live nearby. If they grow up in this kind of environment, that will change their views about the world." Which views exactly? Well, knowing Ai's politics, we can take a guess. The promise here is that architecture has the power to stimulate imaginations, to unconsciously open up the possibility of different and better worlds.

This is political architecture, not socially engaged in the sense of providing some needed practical function, or activist in the sense of directly bandying about slogans or symbols. The programs are superfluous and the built forms here are largely abstract, eschewing representation. The promise is that the experience of unusual architecture plants a seed that may lead one, later, to consider unusual politics. Am I reaching? Consider another quote from Ai:

Very small buildings are nonetheless able to wield great influence on society, and only through producing very good architectural classics can we hope to influence society. These do not need to be big buildings, nor do they require great budgets or special conditions of operation, but they do require a clear consciousness and precise grasp, as well as the diligence to complete them. If similar architectural practice occurred in other cities, it would be extremely influential for architectural taste and culture throughout China.

He couches his commentary in terms of inspiring the profession of architecture itself, but "great influence on society" is pretty wide-open. And looking at the results of the process steered by Ai and Herzog, most of the pavilions can be read as at least passable attempts at a world of fantasy and dreams. Nearly all of them play either with unexpected scale, or with the surprise found when an object "transforms" when viewed from different angles.

Of course, each building is also an architectural project in its own right, and represents the individual preoccupations of its creators. It's unclear to what extent the participants were aware of, or interested in, any political implications of the project. They may have been motivated by the interesting design challenges of a small pavilion, or (of course) the fame and glory. Many have made reference to what they see as aspects of "Chinese" culture and design. One would hope these turn out as serious engagements with the local artistic heritage, rather than superficial gestures aimed at winning commissions. Of course, given that the whole idea of a garden folly reached the West through accounts of Asian landscapes, some kind of reflection on the cultural dialogue seems almost inevitable.

So, as we journey photographically through the park, ask yourself: to what extent can a building foster the kind of political effects Ai implicitly suggests? How articulate can architecture be in discussing the real-world political situation, or proposing particular alternatives? Might the same architecture give rise just as easily to the imagination of right-wing as of left-wing change? And, finally, to what extent does the built reality of Jinhua achieve its goals?

It has to be stated upfront that someone has left Ai's cake out in the rain: by and large, the pavilions are badly run-down for things finished within the past decade. All of the ones with interior space were shut tight when we visited. Allowing that we conducted our stroll on the early side (between 7:40 and 9:30 AM on a Tuesday) it still seems apparent that the park is no longer a going concern, if it was ever well-maintained.

It may well be that the poor upkeep is a consequence of Ai's thorny status in China at this time. The local authorities might not want to go out of their way to advertise their city as Home of Ai Weiwei's Park!, or be seen spending money keeping such a park in trim. (The explanation may also, of course, be completely pedestrian - maybe one or more of the project's financial backers have gone belly-up! Or could its backers in the city government have been sacked for completely unrelated reasons? I cannot guess.)

Tellingly, the pavilion by Amateur Architecture, soon to receive a Pritzker, was actually abuzz with construction workers, undertaking some sort of renovation. These were the only people we saw in the whole park, outside of our tour group.  They were also, apparently, putting up an entirely new building, seen here, and not discussed in any of the literature I've found.

Based on our maps, we misinterpreted it as the "Internet Cafe" by Ding Yi and Chen Shu Yu. In fact, the Ding/Chen building can be seen in the background. But the decision to add a new building to this seemingly abandoned ensemble is quite odd, and potentially encouraging - - - will the rest soon be considered for renovation?

None of this, though, is really material in evaluating the park; I'm interested in intentions here.  Of course, it's tough for the visitor to get past feelings of bleak, post-apocalyptic malaise and get into the proper spirit of wonder and imagination - but table those instincts we must.  Let's look at these things already!

Till Schweizer's "Welcome Center" is the closest pavilion to the center of Jinhua, and to a bend in the river; potentially this meant the pavilion had the opportunity for a long view along the river to downtown. Thus, Schweizer approached the building primarily as a viewing platform which would situate new arrivals in the park, and give them a view of several other pavilions to draw them onward. It does have some interior space on the ground floor, intended for use as an exhibition space or at least a visitors' meeting point. "Like the Kaaba in Mekka it should be an object which rests in itself but has enough energy to encircle it in different distances." Uh, sure! The wood-lattice screen is meant to intensify these effects, shrouding the central volume in mystery while being porous enough to remain inviting. While the emphasis is on the views from the rooftop, clearly the lattice also creates interesting views of the park from the ground floor, as well as providing that space with unusual lighting effects. Of course, we arrived on a hazy, overcast morning, so we missed that part.

What I do like about this thing is the severe forced perspective created by the shear in plan and section on the upper level. This sets the right tone for the rest of the park; none of the other pavilions look like this one, but many of them feel like this one. (Nevermind the death-trap staircase.)

The "Ancient Tree", by Christ & Gantenbein AG, is a shade piece, constructed entirely of concrete, and a riff on certain Chinese garden themes. Its materiality and abstraction make it obviously artificial, but in its craggy edges (production errors and all), provision of shade, and organic curvature, it's supposed to be more "tree"-like than the highly geometricized, linear garden planning that surrounds it. The deployment of fake nature (posited as somehow realer than the "real" nature) is straight out of the Suzhou playbook. With time, of course, the paltry surrounding trees will grow in, but the "Ancient" tree will show its age more rapidly. Quoth the architects: "It establishes a habitation for people [...] shelter from rain and sun as well as from a far too perfect environment."

It's cute enough, and it's always smart to frame your building in "it's supposed to look as run down as that!" terms. Given the upkeep at Jinhua, this seems outright prescient. It's hard to really use this pavilion for anything though. There's nothing to sit on, and any game of hide and seek is guaranteed to end abruptly in tears the first time a kid, sprinting for safety, bashes their head in on one of the hanging "branches." I do like the "museum gift shop dinosaur skeleton" construction though.

Tatiana Bilbao's "Exhibition Space", a twisting concrete landscape/pavilion, is another design notionally inspired by Chinese garden principles. According to Bilbao, "We used the architecture to frame views of the surrounding landscape, but the pavilion itself can never be surveyed entirely from a single point. One must explore it to get an idea of its form." As in Chinese gardens, visual access is distinct from physical access, and multiple routes overlpa in a relatively small area. The faceted topography also becomes another one of these strategies for playing against the linear axes of the park; the big apertures, apart from framing views, work to counterbalance the seemingly centripetal geometry.

Since there were no exhibitions going (and perhaps haven't been for a while), we only got to experience it from the outside, where it provides another somewhat frightening experience in steep climbs with limited railings. But hey, what's a playground without a little danger? Once again, I find myself thinking of Cosby. "Not one kid died!"

The worrisomely titled "Baby Dragon" is our first red-dyed concrete structure; it was planned as a supervised play-area for children (although it must be said that few of the park's structures would not satisfy this brief, depending how much danger you like to allow your kids). The project is essentially a long wall with some roof overhang, perforated by bold geometric punches in eleven recurring shapes. Children can sit in, or climb through, these holes.

Perhaps anticipating some of the issues that plagued other foreign designers, HHF deliberately designed a project with a limited range of construction details - it's basically a concrete pour with some swiss-cheese holes built in. Thus, "even if the built shape is complex in its geometry, the process of the construction could be described in a very simple way." This seems not to have helped with regard to adequate rebar coverage, but I get the idea.

Liu Jiakun's "Tea Rooms" scatter their program out among seven small elevated platforms. The stated idea is to proffer something light and frail, in contrast to the heavy presence of the earthworks containing the river (not visible here, but from the river it would probably be more apparent). At the same time, the verticality of the tea rooms is supposed to contrast and/or complement the flatness of the Architecture Park generally. The minimal structures are made possible through a number of double-duty elements, with "electric poles used as columns; steel platforms composed of electric pole fittings; channel steel used as rainwater gutters." All are typical materials for municipal/infrastructural construction, an interesting choice for the restless Liu, who (like Amateur) has done interesting work in several material languages over his career to date.

Unlike the fixed forms of the other pavilions, the Tea Rooms feature a number of operable elements, and have thus suffered the most from the neglect of the park. The wall-flaps are supposed to slide out or flap out, Delorean-style, but everything's either rusted, jammed, or chained in place. It's nice to imagine them in their original condition - I like their ghostly presence in the landscape and it would make them both eerier and quirkier if they presented themselves in various stages of transformation.

As well, of course, the transformable huts would have fit perfectly with the idea of transformation and sub rosa democratic hint-dropping that drives the park; I wish I'd known about these when I was writing my exit review a few years ago, since it was basically about the use of motion and individually re-configurable components to produce a democratic-humanist relationship between individuals and the collective through architecture. Oh well! (Remind me to reformat that for the blog sometime...)

The "Public Toilets, by DnA (Design & Architecture, with principal Xu Tiantian), are another case where the inoperable condition is unfortunate, although for rather less lofty reasons. According to Xu, "[A] public toilet is indeed a private space. This simple form creates a dialogue with the natural surroundings while minimizing the land-use in the park." The periscope/funnel form keeps out rain while admitting sunlight, ventilating the bathroom, and maintaining privacy for the users. The minimal, Port-a-Potty-esque footprint for the buildings also, ostensibly, helps them blend in with the surrounding trees, although there's rather more of a clearing around them than the design renderings suggest. Note that while the forms are rationalized functionally, the composition is not - the buildings are arranged on the site in a scattered, semi-random fashion, a bad way to capture consistent sunlight but perhaps a good way to evoke the loose, fun-loving spontaneity of the Jinhua project. Certainly these would present themselves quite differently if they all lined up in a row (a la Ai Qing park).

Naturally, these are locked and not accessible - apparently one has become a convenient thing into which to hurl large sticks, for some reason. Maybe they're gearing up for a very strange, vertical bonfire event. Regardless, our group deeply regretted the inability to explore these interiors.

We sort of missed the boat on Buchner Bründler's "Manager Room". From the path, this building presents itself as a solid wall; there's some interesting plan geometry going on behind, with an angular, cellular figure playing against the rectilinear box - but we didn't go around the back. Oops. (If you're willing to navigate the architects' website you can get a good idea of the whole thing.)

FCJZ (the firm of Yung Ho Chang) gets the kind of hilarious program of "Multifunctional Space" - yes, as opposed to these other, highly specialized pavilions - but it's an interesting solution and unique in the set. Like Liu's tea rooms, this space is broken up into micro-pavilions (compared by the architects to dim sum), which are grouped together to create an interesting outdoor space, in particular an evocation of traditional Chinese urbanism. The historic city is crossed with historic gardens, whose paving patterns are applied at large scale to skin the buildings. Works for me.

Oops - here's Amateur Architecture's "Coffee House", about which I already spilled the beans in this stimulating post.

The "Archaeological Archive" is Ai Weiwei's own addition to the set, and it certainly delivers on the original promise: "a place where a person can, in a relatively short time, have a variety of different experiences." Here we find a number of surprising spatial and conceptual transfigurations within a very small space. The approach suggests a cross-pollination of approaches with Herzog & de Meuron; curiously, to my knowledge, a comprehensive study of their working relationship has yet to be undertaken.

So, Ai takes the conventional form of a gabled "house" and starts piling on the multiple-reading ambiguity. It's extruded along its length in a way that makes the southern elevation read as a barn or warehouse - while the west end reveals that both house and warehouse are actually just expressions of the abstract "sliced hexagon" - which is actually sitting on another gable, or, in a section drawing, tesselating with it. The implication - that the typological forms are actually just geometric artifacts of a larger, abstract, cellular order - is picked up in the honeycomb-like landscape pattern. (Iwan Baan's photos show the project still under construction and not so overgrown, but they also make clear the landscape strategy and its kinship with the earlier Ai Qing memorial.)

So not only is there a switching of readings as you view the different elevations, there's also an oscillation or equalization between elevation and plan. This is clearly the kind of mind-expanding provocation Ai had in mind for the whole park: the design invites you to look at a single building in several different ways, and then to stretch your brain to imagine that actually, the world we walk around on is the flat canvas surface that someone else is looking at the way we view the building. Like, woah, man.

At the same time, of course, the stretching of the gable provides enough space to house the artifacts that used to be housed here. Much of the storage space is concealed below ground, another subversion of appearances (this time picking up on the archaeology theme). The only materials are steel, glass, and bamboo-formed concrete, which supposedly evokes the patterns found on some of the formerly-displayed objects.

Toshiko Mori's "Newspaper Cafe" was meant to be sharply divided between the north, city-facing facade (a set of newspaper racks) and the south, park-facing facade (a blank surface, scaleless and neutral). Between the two is the elevated deck for, presumably, enjoying a view and reading the paper. The "newspaper" wall was to be animated by scalar games: at a distance, its collection of papers would dissolve into texture, creating "an atomized and pixelated decorative pattern." Closer up, the papers would "reveal or hide" their content as texts, depending on the viewer's angle. The park side, while it mirrors the curve of the newspaper wall, was to be a blank surface of white plaster, scaleless and neutral.

As built, it's exposed concrete, which perhaps has rather the opposite effect. Meanwhile, the paperboys seem to have missed their deliveries for a while; the only photo I've found showing the titular broadsheets in place is on the architect's website. That said, it's not entirely clear how these newspaper cases functioned. It's almost as if they were intended really as a kind of permanent cladding material rather than actual saleable goods.

Erhard An-He Kinzelbach offer up a "Multimedia Room"; I didn't find too much about this one before we set out, but you can read the architect's statement here. It basically boils down to "we started with a hollow box and distorted it based on the cone of a movie projector and the desire for outdoor seating." Fair enough - that seems like about enough of an idea for a park pavilion, and since they did have one with an actual program, it's nice that they tried to make that part of the idea.

I do wish they'd found a way to deform their single surface and gain proper steps in addition to the sittable tiers, which are just a bit too steep to be pleasantly ascended. Admirably, they stick to their guns on the single-surface (the material palette is suitably limited), and there's a nice contrast between the shiny exterior and the warm wooden interior (see photo via link above). Weathering, of course, has been unkind to this one; it's hard to keep something shiny for long without upkeep...

Johan de Wachter, beginning with his earlier firm Fün Design Consultants, designed the "Restaurant", which looks a little more spatially complex than it actually is, since you can't really get to all of those platforms. (People in wheelchairs can't get to any of them, so no grouching.) The architect's website doesn't really have much to say on this one - it's a restaurant, there was some idea of different types of Chinese dining culture, and...that's all there is.

I like it, in any case. Dunno about a restaurant but it'd make a good DOOM level and thus, in my mind, seems a reasonable addition to the playground. Not that this matters, but it's also in rather better shape than most of the other ones, by virtue of being clad in stone and having a roof (or roofs) over top of everything.

Mexican firm LAR describe their "Bridging Tea House" as a fusion of two fundamental Chinese garden elements: the bridge and the tea house. The small pockets/platforms break the space down into smaller zones, sufficiently private for contemplation of the environment. Differently-sized nooks are intended for various groupings (couples, larger families, etc.). At the same time, the dividing walls act as the structural elements of the overall space frame which spans the pond. (Or, here, the ex-pond.)

In a revealing anecdote, LAR principal Fernando Romero has remarked that, following the schematic design phase, the firm heard nothing whatsoever back from the Chinese team, until a year later when photos of the finished building arrived. That being said, the structure as-built seems to resemble the design relatively closely. I like this one too - looming over the grass from a distance, it's maybe the most surreal of all the pavilions - just this big red floating bow tie, floating into your field of vision like something from Yellow Submarine.

We didn't make it up close to Michael Maltzan's "Book Bar", but here's the skinny. According to the architect, "The pavilion's form pulls its central wall outward into two unequal, cantilevered arms, each concealing within a public space for learning" - a move supposedly inspired by an incident in Chinese history, when the books of Confucius survived destruction by the state because they had been hidden in a wall. Setting aside this "confluence between the book and architecture," Maltzan was also interested in the production of unusual visual effects through forced perspective and moire-like screens, and the interplay between the divided space and the continuous forms that pass through and around the separatrix of the wall. Judging from photos, the distorted, compressed interior indeed invokes some sense of being sealed up inside a wall, while enabling quiet contemplation. I'm not keen on the dodgy, legitimacy-seeking cultural narrative, but the spatial project seems interesting enough.

Now here's a garden folly for you, folks! It's Herzog & de Meuron's improbable, virtually undraftable "Reading Space". The form of this 64-square-meter ant farm is an adaptation of a building-skinning scheme Herzog & de Meuron had developed for the unrealized Jindong scheme. The pattern, inspired by Chinese paving and vaguely evocative of "a molecular structure or a genetic code," was to cover the district's facades, and also inform the street layout. For the park pavilion, though, this two-dimensional pattern was first set at a scale roughly corresponding to human seating requirements, then extruded through the depth of the structure. The repetition of this process on multiple faces of the cube produced strange overlaps, and ultimately most of the volume of the cube was hollowed out. Even so, the flat planes at the edges look curiously solid, an effect enhanced by the plain surface of dyed concrete - from some approaches this would appear to a big block of red cheese, after some tentative gnawing by giant rats. But actually, there's very little volume there - it's all folded surface and air. The concrete work, by the way, was done in several pours, with the aid of a retiree who was the only local craftsperson with the requisite skills.

While H & de M have elsewhere explored the spatial-overlap strategy (for example at VitraHaus), here the labrynthine section recalls no recognizable forms or types. Naturally, from a distance it approaches total scalelessness, continuing the firm's ongoing investigation into scalar and perspectival trickery, and meanwhile fulfilling the Architecture Park agenda brilliantly. Not to mention that it's a great piece of playground equipment, with the usual Jinhua caveat that you have to be comfortable with having your kids clamber around on this broken-limbs factory. I'm starting to wonder if the neglect of the park could be put down simply to parental concern....

But seriously, this thing is great. Fun but decidedly weird, it straddles the line between a cerebral, indexical project (one struggles to reconstitute the "original" faces), and just being deadpan odd in this way that refuses interrogation. Magic!

I'm also reminded of Herzog's remarks in El Croquis a few years back, to the effect that all of their projects are somehow about urban effects - or something like that. At first a head-scratcher, the claim starts to come into focus if you take a broad definition of "urbanism" as being the recognition by a given building that other buildings exist and that relationships can be set up between them. So rather than try to complicate or camouflage the park's axes (which they had a hand in drawing, anyway), the architects make sure to orient their cube directly on-axis with the other pavilions. They might not have even known what exactly those pavilions were going to be, but it's a sort of foolproof gambit: have a bunch of figural openings facing an inevitably weird, cool building and it'll end up looking like an intentionally framed bit of picturesque planning, especially since the frames cut off the foreground paving around the Herzog pavilion and turn the nearby LAR and Maltzan buildings into the garden follies they were always meant to be.

Okay - that's it! The whole Jinhua enchilada!  Please share your comments below - - unless you didn't like the piece. See, I don't think that I could take it, because it took so long to bake it...and I'll never visit Zhejiang again - oh noooooooooooo!


  1. Giant rats. Ha! I'll have to revisit my Schaulager reading. How did the rats get to Jinhua?

    Also, I wish I had the drawings to compare the jinhua pavilion, and its temporary brother, installed in the Beyeler Foundation sculpture garden a few years back, now vanished...

    I would love to read a compiled history of *all* HdM's collaborations with artists... Joseph Beuys [Basel Fasnacht Parade Floats], Remy Zaug[SUVA building, Aarau Art Museum, etc], Jenny Holzer[Cottbus early studie], Thomas Ruff[Eberswald], and now Ai Wei Wei...

  2. I think there was a third Jinhua-esque piece, not actually built but substantially drawn/rendered. All three (three?) are covered in the same El Croquis for what it's worth.

  3. you're right, there was a proposed third structure for Genoa. Here's the project info from the architects, and here's an image of the Beyeler structure.

  4. Daha, knew it! Jinhua one appears to be the best, I think, even if you wish it could have gotten a little more saturated/consistent with its appearance.

  5. (Delayed reaction: do you think they intended it as a pun? Started in JINHUA...ends in GENOA...)