Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Hello Stranger

The most impressive thing about Arata Isozaki’s new museum for China Central Academy of Fine Arts is its loud aloofness. It is the crown jewel of CAFA’s campus, a world class building by a world famous architect for an institution seeking world renown. It is positioned prominently, at the campus’s north-eastern corner, next to its main entrance. From the road, its strange boomerang-shaped footprint marks it out immediately, but as you approach not much else is revealed. The exterior is obstinate and gray with few windows and no signage. It sits on a patch of green from which it distances itself via a moat of white pebbles. Once passed, it’s hard to remember what the building looks like.

The CAFA campus is practical and spatially generous. It was designed by Wu Liangyong to accommodate the growing needs of an academy that has expanded from a few hundred students to over 4000 in just a couple decades. Its buildings are boxy and built exclusively from charcoal-colored bricks. The campus’s wide pathways and plazas are strewn with flecks of art – mock-ups, experiments, role models from the European and Chinese past, abstract works from the last century – rendered in stone, wood, stainless and corten steel, plastic, or fiberglass.

In this atmosphere of architectural rigidity and artistic randomness, Isozaki’s museum appears to be aligned with the latter. It dominates its part of the campus, but doesn’t participate in it. Against the relentless consistency of Wu’s design, the new museum looks arbitrary. It is beautiful, but its beauty creates distance; its lack or openings or ornamentation (or a flag at least ) give it an indifferent, elitist air. From afar, it appears an indestructible monolith, but as you approach you notice its walls fold inward, as if the building is shielding itself from its surroundings or bracing for some impending catastrophe.

This defensive posture could be easily undone by revealing some of the life behind the shell, but the CAFA Art Museum makes no such concessions. Its very few windows are slender and rectangular, like arrow loops from a medieval castle. From certain angles, the absence of a recognizable roof gives the building the look of a barricade, or a bunker, or a stylized version of the Israeli security fence.

But a closer look reveals other things too. The building is clad entirely in slate shingles, a technique Isozaki has used before, but one that provides a poignant association at a Chinese school of fine arts where traditional brush painting is still taught, usually with the assistance of slate-based ink stones. The facade also brings the museum into chromatic harmony with its neighbors, reinforcing the neutrality of the overall plan, but improving on it. The gray of Wu’s buildings is matte and lifeless. The slate panels offer personality; they present gray in its most charismatic form – not a bland medium, but an energetic clash, a color syphoned from a thunder storm.

The structure itself is composed of three curved walls that intersect to form the museum’s three entrances and give the building an enjoyable blend of angularity and blobiness. The main entrance is modest, but entry is dramatic. The arrival hall is big, with a high (17-meter) arched ceiling reminiscent of an air terminal. Once inside, Isozaki’s fortress reveals its secret weapon – a huddle of three triangular skylights that flood the interior with soft white light and produce an atmosphere of openness and serenity unimaginable from the outside.

Light is the prevailing feature of the CAFA Art Museum. The path from the entrance hall to the exhibition spaces on the second and third floor takes visitors through a disorienting cycle of bright and dim. At one point, the two conditions meet face-to-face, producing a dramatic, fake Faustian choice between a path to darkness and a stairway to heaven.

Most of the museum’s interior is divided between permanent and temporary exhibition halls, which, in the absence of an exhibition, are distinguished by a narrow range of material differences. The spaces for CAFA’s permanent collection tend to be be more luxurious and cold, but also more charming. The predictability of their program allowed the architects to reach beyond the white cube norm and craft spaces that reflect the qualities of the work they’ll host. To complement the academy’s collection of traditional Chinese paintings, for insance, exhibition halls on the second floor were constructed of materials with a natural, premodern feel, such as canvas, wood, and stone.

The temporary halls are more generic and flexible. The most prominent is Temporary Exhibition Hall B, a cavernous all-white space on the third floor. It is the building’s climax; at once the CAFA Art Museum’s strangest room and its most appropriate. Its high ceiling, skylight, and vast, uninterrupted floor space resonate with the warehouse aesthetic that many consider synonymous with contemporary art in Beijing. But in place of the faded communist slogans and outdated equipment for which the city’s 798 Arts District is so famous, Isozaki provides modern, hygienic abstraction. Ultimately, it feels less like a warehouse than a place of worship, perhaps an early prototype for the mausoleum of Steve Jobs.

Originally published in Domus 917 (September 2008)