The Ningbo History Museum: Re-animating “lived traditions?
When Hadid?Zaha, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu met on the occasion of Wang’s Pritzer prize in 2012, they might have discussed their different ideas of reinvention, heritage and lived traditions. If so, it may have been a tactful conversation as Wang and Lu have rebuked contemporary architecture’s contribution to the large-scale demolition of historic urban villages and their way of life. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (2008) provides a good subject for comparison, not least because it was built on a site cleared of urban villages ? like the Chaoyangmen Soho site ? in order to provide for commercial, residential and public space development.Where Hadid-Zaha claimed to have provided conceptually ‘reinvented courtyards’ within a high-end commercial development, Wang and Lu’s publicly-funded museum seeks to reanimate the beauty of the villages, their built materials, and their lifeworld.
In a short video for Dezeen, Wang Shu indicates some of the ideas of reinvented heritage he and Lu Wenyu used in the design and process of building the museum. Integral to the design is the use of the villages’ demolition materials, including around 2 million pieces of brick and tiles collected from the rubble.The Dezeen article on the Ningbo Museum describes how these were used in “a traditional technique called wa pan, in which multiple elements of different sizes are packed together “.
The reuse of local historical materials is key to the “amateur” approach and its critique of contemporary Chinese architecture. Wang told the New York Times
“Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials …they just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory — many things inside. So I think it’s for an architect to do something about it.”
The participation of the local artisans in the museum’s wa pan building practice reinvents “lived tradition”, with some artisans re-learning their lost local tradition, while the process involved the artisan’s selection of materials and their placement in the cladding design. Wang differentiates these uses of materials as intrinsic to the lived experience of the building from the idea of historical objects placed within a museum display, whereupon they are positioned as belonging to the non-present past (he says they have become “dead”).
The spatial design of the museum also reanimates the lost lifeworld of the villages. As Evan Chakroff (2012) observes the museum is organised around two courtyards open to the sky is “a familiar form of traditional Chinese residential and temple”, which visitors access through a low gateway. Inside the visitor’s journey proceeds via large staircases and other smaller punctures that reflect “the courtyards, pathways, and captured spaces of traditional Chinese gardens”.
The museum’s “roofscape” has “the human- scale proportions of a traditional Chinese village”; the “voids slashing through the building intersect at angles that instantly recall the pitched roofs of local vernacular architecture”; while the cuts ‘reflect the width of historic pedestrian lanes’. The walls show the wa pan method mixed with bamboo-molded concrete. Here we can see the manifestation of Wang and Lu’s idea of historical reinvention where materials are used in relation totradition rather than in simple repetition: the structure relates to its history as a “new creation”.
Wang and Lu’s building invites the visitor to view the urban development from the standpoint of local history as lived tradition. if the museum re-historicizes the urban environment for the Chinese (national) visitor, it is also more specifically intended to re-memorialise for the displaced local villagers. In this it is consistent with the egalitarian public service ethos of the Amateur Architects, who view themselves as fellow artisans, on a continuum with the local craftsmen and women who built the museum’s wa pan cladding. “WangLuing” then ? the Amateur approach ? includes this egalitarian love of craft alongside the trans-historical reanimation of the lifeworld of pagodas, temples, and courtyards.
Conclusion: Reinventing for who? Reinventing towards what?
The question of what audience an architecture performs for seems relevant when comparing the different kinds of reinventions provided by the Ningbo History Museum and the Chaoyangmen Soho mall. Arguably, Hadid-Zaha’s mall speaks to Beijing’s growing middle and elite classes, both the consumers intended to flanuer their way around the mall-yards, and the displaced hutong dwellers whose property compensation may have contributed to their upwards socio-economic mobility. Perhaps the mall’s role in the political economy contributes to that upward movement. Possibly it’s mall-yards and economy are generous democratic contributions.
On the other hand, its emptiness suggests that it has not successfully reinvented the once-thriving lifeworld of the demolished hutongs, not for displaced residents, nor for middle-class and elite consumers. Nor has it yet become the engine of innovation and economic growth envisioned by its developer, merging seamlessly with the surrounding city. Soho China CEO Zhang Xin asserts, Chaoyangmen Soho is one of the buildings “forming the fate of the city”. If so, is it just one of Beijing’s vanity project for the extremely wealthy, one symbolising their power ? and the powerlessness of the displaced villagers? in a form less phallic than that of China’s tallest tower competition? The fate being foretold in Zhang’s hopes for the reinvented mall-yards may just be one of inequality and forgetting unless it’s subject to radical reinvention (for example, cheap public housing, public health facilities, libraries, education). That kind of public spirited transformation would be at odds though, with the anarchic capitalism of Patrick Schumacher, Zaha Hadid’s architectural practice partner and now CEO.
Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum, in contrast, is dedicated to remembering a lost lifeworld for the displaced urban villagers. For the visitor, the museum’s material and form reanimates the presence of the historical villages and their way of life and frames the contemporary city through that experience and view. For the local craftsmen, the building reflects their involvement in the construction of the building and the reanimation of traditional building practices (wa pan) that express the layers of local history. Wang and Lu assert that the building serves the memories of the displaced local villages, it enables their remembering. The structure, form, and experience of the building contrast with the internal exhibition, which is exactly the kind of mimetic reflection that Wang and Lu described as evidencing a lifeworld’s death.
Who is it useful to, this built lived tradition? Is it visited by the displaced villagers whose memories and history it seeks to honour? What might it mean to the displaced migrant farmer who may not have received any compensation? Would the displaced villager now living in a compensation-purchased high-rise return to visit, like the Beijing villagers tourist-visiting hutongs in order to remember? Does the museum generate economic activity that supports the strata that formerly belonged to the urban village?
Or is it intended as a place for critical reflection, a material standpoint from which a privileged viewer might desire the positive elements of the hutong lifeworld, and condemn its demolition? As such a standpoint, the Ningbo History Museum is, albeit in a conflicting way, as futuristic as the Chaoyangmen Soho. Literally grounded in dialogic history (the wa pan cladding forms the base, and was selected with the local craftsmen), it also speaks of a relationship to nature (the upper-level concrete is molded by bamboo).
The visitor views the surrounding city through lines of perspective guided by history/memory/nature, and these lines suggest a trajectory for future ‘development’, one that conflicts with the dominant trajectory of buildings like Zhang and Hadid’s mall on Chaoyangmen Lu.