Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, partners in life and in the Beijing-based design firm Open Architecture, love to play, and the buildings that come out of their 12-year-old office are exuberant structures. “China is a great place for daring and experimentation because of its speed and the scale of all the changes there,” says Li. They felt liberated in New York, where they both worked after attending Princeton (her) and Rice (him) for graduate school. America’s openness left them in shock and awe. “We grew up with walled cities, being closed in,” Li says.
Now, China has its own freedom. “When I started working in New York [for the architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners],” says Huang, “you would get a job, then you would design a building according to a set program. In China, we rarely receive clear programs or problems to solve. Instead, we have to ask a lot of questions. China is reinventing what a theater is, and what a museum is. We are part of that process.”
A case in point is Open Architecture’s Dune Art Museum, a network of nine cavelike concrete galleries carved into sand dunes in a sprawling resort on China’s Bohai Bay. Designed as an outpost for the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, the museum is a place where cutting-edge work that might otherwise suffer from the physical and political constraints of the capital can be freely displayed. “Instead of plopping a regular building down, we acted like kids digging in the sand,” says Huang. “The building disappears into the coast. You discover the art as you move down and through its spaces.”
The galleries have a rough, irregular feel, with little of the precision that Open Architecture’s work displays elsewhere—to build Dune, a local contractor hired workers who usually construct ships.
“Originally, we explored CNC-milled 3D rigid foam as a way of making formwork for the concrete,” Li says. “But in the end, the contractor chose methods familiar to local shipbuilders: wooden formwork and wooden strips and planks. This way, it feels of its place.”
Li and Huang are continuing that communal notion of building with, and within, the land with their Chapel of Sound, nestled in a valley near the Great Wall. The semi-outdoor amphitheater, which will be completed later this year, is made from asymmetrical layers of rock and concrete—like “a strange and prehistoric boulder,” to use their phrasing. Its rough forms amplify sound while harmonizing with nature.
They had a similar plan for one of their most visionary projects, a concept for a zeppelin hangar in a scientific research facility in a remote location. The hangar, which would house experimental air- ships, was to be made from prefabricated parts and covered with vegetation so that the structure faded into the surrounding mountains. “Our goal was to turn this large, highly specialized building into something that did not look like a man-made object,” Huang says.
Although the hangar was never built, Open Architecture continues to extend the possibilities of buildings, as in a high school outside Beijing where offices, classrooms, an auditorium, and public event areas weave around shared open space, and Tank Shanghai, an art and cultural center formed by five renovated aviation fuel tanks.
“Buildings have to be surprising, maybe even humorous,” says Li. “But they also need to draw you in.”
(Images courtesy Open Architecture)
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.