Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Built from memory

The Ningbo Museum sits on massive unpopulated plaza in Yinzhou, a territory with a 5000 year history that looks like it was established last year. The streets that surround it are wide enough to accommodate six lanes of traffic, but are virtually car-free. The sidewalk is lined with skinny leafless trees, shrubs, and disconnected tiles of brownish-yellow grass. In the distance, the silhouettes of newly built residential towers and half-finished office buildings imply a bustling future, but for the moment the area exists in a kind of temporal limbo – its past abandoned, its future not yet arrived.

At the north end of the plaza is a broad, gray stone building occupied by the district government. It is boxy and relentlessly symmetrical in the typical style of municipal architecture in the PRC. It projects stability and strength both physically and symbolically: the building looks indestructible and the fact that the government resides in it reassures developers of the area’s viability. The museum, a three-story, 30,000 square-meter block positioned on plaza’s north-western edge, conveys the opposite. On approach, its form looks haphazard. It is apparently a box, but its sides are skewed and large chunks are missing. Its materials are inconsistent and ill-fitting. The facade is pocked with small, arbitrarily arranged windows that reveal nothing of the building’s contents. It is an awkward building, but next to the muscularity of the government offices, it conveys a vulnerability that is touching, almost heart warming, and as I approached the entrance I wondered whether this museum represents an entirely different sort of strength, the strength to embrace the unusual.

“Ningbo’s government doesn’t fear to do risky things,” Wang Shu, the museum’s architect, told me when when we met in his building’s sprawling foyer. “When we first won the competition, some people were very very angry. They said, ‘In the new, modern district you designed such an anti-modern building!’ but I think that’s not correct.” In the architect’s view, this critique is based on a constricting definition of modernity, one that places it in a winner-take-all struggle with the past. For Wang, Modern is simply a division in a vast catalogue of materials and techniques at the designer’s disposal. Over the next hour, we explored his design, leisurely taking in the museum’s grand staircases and narrow courtyards, browsing its enormous collection of cultural relics. As we walked, Wang Shu sounded less like an architect than a tour guide in a nature reserve. He described valleys, caves, lakes. When we finally reached the museum’s high point, a platform where the building splits into five jagged pieces, he told me, “When I designed this, I was thinking of mountains. I couldn’t design something for the city, because there is no city here yet, so I wanted to do something that had life. Finally I decided to design a mountain. It’s a part of Chinese tradition.”

References to the past are common in museums of Chinese antiquity. They often take the form of mimicry, as in the case of the Shanghai Museum, which emulates the shape of an ancient cooking vessel. By emphasizing the inspiration he derives from nature, Wang Shu appears to align himself with this frequently silly approach. Fortunately, the Ningbo Museum is connected to Chinese history in a much more fundamental way. Toward the end of our visit, Wang stopped in front of one the museum’s inner walls. Large stretches of the building’s facade are composed of fragments of various sizes, shapes and materials, and after a brief appraisal, the architect began to annotate. He pointed to a gray brick about twenty centimeters wide. “This one was produced over 400 years ago – that’s the Ming Dynasty. That is a very standard size. This one is from the Qing Dynasty. Some people have found older ones. The oldest one is from the Tang Dynasty – that’s 1500 years ago.”

Most of the Ningbo Museum’s exterior is composed of debris collected from destruction sites around the region. The pieces were assembled using a technique known as wa pan a method developed by the region’s farmers to cope with the destruction caused by typhoons. It is a system capable of accommodating a seemingly unlimited variety of source material, a system perfectly suited to the ill-fitting, mismatched pieces that Wang had to work with. Though he had used this technique previously in his campus for China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, the Ningbo Museum offered the first chance to apply wa pan in its place of origin. “Only the craftsmen in this area know how to do this,” he told me. “But if we don’t use it in modern architecture I think the craftsmen will forget how to do it. When we started, many couldn’t remember, so we had to use photos and teach them again.” He looked over the empty streets and endangered farmland that surrounds the museum and added, “We call this a ‘no memory area.’ In this huge district I found only one village that was in tact, and maybe next year it will also be demolished. There is no tradition here. I designed this to try to bring their memory back.”

Originally published in Domus 922 (February 2009)