by Jincy IypePublished on : Sep 02, 2022
Can modest, “introverted” buildings inspire and foster self-reflection and creativity, in an increasingly loudmouth world that seems to prefer extroversion, and its often-gregarious ideals? For Shanghai-based design and architecture firm Wutopia Lab, the creative process that led to conceiving the multi-functional Monologue Art Museum in China deliberates on similar inquiries and beliefs, in a world where introversion is not perceived as a liability, but rather, as a soft power that yields cognizant, considerate and inspired outcomes.
Commissioned by the Sino-Ocean Group, this museum’s largely simple and organic architecture is seen as a curved, soft triangle from above, disrupting a green park in Seatopia, in Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao, “dedicated to an infinite minority of people who want to be free from worldly distractions,” shares Wutopia Lab. The 1,300 sqm spatial programme of the swan white museum, from art galleries to dance studios, displays a soft demeanour yet conceals a keen purpose, that of carving out time for intentional thinking and creative recharging, in one’s own company. According to the architects, its name gives power to the one voice we must trust, and pay heed to – a single one, our own.
Three differently shaped monolith volumes, combined and interspersed with walls, meandering corridors and sundry ambiguous spaces, seem to tenderly float upon a dramatic water courtyard, taking residence within the 3,600 sqm site of the Monologue Art Museum. Comprising a theatre, yoga room, dance studio, atelier, art gallery, tea room, reception and a shallow pool and other transitionary and service areas, the museum architecture urges one to take out pockets of time, to look within ourselves, advocating for the notion that time spent with oneself is more than necessitous, for our creative souls, our wellbeing as well as the health of our relationships with others.
Chief architect and founder of Wutopia Lab, Ting Yu provides us with a brief walkthrough of the space, “The Monologue Museum is a slowly unfolding hand scroll. Starting from the small entrance of the theatre design, where the light breaks through the corners, entering the art gallery, the quiet water courtyard slowly reveals itself along the open and instinctual corridor with shifting lights, passing through the colourful yoga room to the bright art gallery (exhibition and painting rooms). Then the light fades, the path gets narrower, and you almost miss the tea room hidden behind the wall. In the end, there is a dance studio. When you exit the building, you continue along the flower wall and wade through the water in the dappled shadows. The water runs through the centre, diving the building, seemingly towards the sea. When I came across the small theatre again, I saw six trees by the water, whispering and shaking their heads in the breeze. All the scenery including sounds and thoughts slowly unfolded into (visual, tangible) paintings”.
The pensive museum allows different people to be in different spaces simultaneously, but be alone with themselves, in a purely artistic, ruminative and almost monastic sense. The museum’s plan, according to Wutopia Lab, is complex and irregular, and the structural design is not conducive to earthquake resistance. “However, when the museum is divided, except for the art gallery, the rectangular dance studio, the circular yoga studio and the oval theatre are all symmetrical and regular with excellent seismic performance. In this regard, Lao Hu (structural engineer) set up three seismic joints to divide them into four independent structural units. The expansion and deformation of the extra-long structure were released, reducing the heat stress, and avoiding structural cracks caused by temperature changes. Having to accept the seismic joints, I had to carefully design the nodes to conceal their presence on the roof, façade, and interior to ensure that my (built) painting is visually continuous,” Yu continues.
The foyer also essays the role of a small semi-circular theatre with stepped seating and was conceived as a “closed space” to keep the visitor’s attention on the performances more than the dramatic, central water scenery unfolding right outside. Detached from the main steel structure, this petite, oval theatre unfurls as a continuous closure of reinforced concrete wall panel structures, seen as an elliptical column resting on the water feature. “The inside is noisy while the outside is quiet,” the architects based in Shanghai inform.
Like a message of light and hope in the darkness, a curved skylight is scooped out right above the back of the stage in thorough cinematic effect, allowing daylight and moonlight to spill into the space like a “waterfall”, basing itself on the famous lines by legendary Canadian poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen’s Anthem – “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
According to Yu, the most artistic feature of a Chinese painting is “the line”, where different parts of a brush are employed to form various lines on paper, some straight and flexible, some thick and light, others dry and wet, all varying in thickness but continuous in being. He elaborates, “Such lines not only inform space but also its frequency. I see the boundary of the Monologue as such a shifting ink line. I use white instead of black in the architecture. The starting stroke is the small oval theatre. The point is the yoga room, the dried brush is the flower wall, the art gallery is the stroke that connects these, the thin and somewhat fast one is the corridor with a nib, then it leans to become a side peak forming a slow thick line, the enlarged art museum, then the dance studio is a stroke slowly back to the nib. At the beginning, the art gallery and the art museum are closed on the outside and open on the inside to the water courtyard, while after that it is closed on the inside and opened on the outside to the large landscape, which resembles how the pen moves.”
The Chinese firm also intended to keep a continuous visual flow between the glass surface facing the courtyard’s exterior, and the museum’s design, sans any visible structural elements. In order to reduce the self-weight of the structure and to lower the size of the structural elements, the roof is made of a whole cast layer of 40mm fine stone concrete with ribbed patterned steel plates on top to ensure thermal insulation and waterproof performance. Hu then set up an independent column overhanging beam steel units in the narrow corridor, and concealed them inside the walls, while the single-span frame overhanging beam steel structure unit was used again in the enlarged art gallery, with the maximum overhang coming to 4.6 meters. This intervention is successful in creating a completely permeable effect inside the Monologue Art Museum, with no vertical elements blocking the facade design facing the water courtyard.
“In 2009, I visited a dance school in London designed by Herzog & De Meuron. The director politely told me that dancers wanted to have a lot of light when they train. The so-called beautiful landscape and colourful façade would interfere with their emotions – so I designed the dance studio here as a translucent glass box, with enough light, but filtering out the outdoor scenery as a backdrop. Behind the mirrored wall of the classroom is the entrance foyer and the dressing room in the mezzanine,” explains the lead architect.
With coffered white ceilings, the dance studio is made of glass walls held by white frames, taking up a small mezzanine space on one side of the entire regular rectangular plan. The structural engineer suggested employing hinged connections in the mezzanine beams and columns, to ensure a single-story steel frame system and to avoid sudden changes in local stiffness on said structure, due to seismic activity.
The client proposed to transform the equipment room into a tranquil tea room – this led to the existing equipment being placed outside in two groups, one in the open courtyard, and the other in the green space right outside the art gallery. The remaining paraphernalia was turned into an installation for the Chinese architecture, while Yu, in the meanwhile, designed a leaf-shaped perforated aluminium baffle to hide the equipment placed outside.
A tree, or several trees remain as points of reference across most architectural interventions by Wutopia Lab, or as driving factors in the interior and landscape design. This comes as an extension of Yu’s fixation with Chinese artist Ni Zan’s landscape painting, the Six Gentlemen – “I gave up my dream of landscape painting after copying Ni Zan’s Six Gentlemen in my second year of studying, realising that I would never be able to be an artist like him. But those six trees became my lingering obsession. Subsequently, many of my designs see trees as a point of reference,” he shares.
The courtyard was originally designed to have white, dry-clay-stone floor, envisioned to provide the whole building a “weightless” feeling, becoming an unreal illusion. Yu elucidates, “I tried to express a somewhat melancholic mood after reflection. The painting of Six Gentlemen expresses the vast water surface with a massive “emptiness”, which makes the picture present a sublime atmosphere. In this regard, I decided to change the white into black, turning the accessible white square into a black pool that can be seen. This created a new depth visually. In this way, the white building is surrounded by a deep dark pool of silence, you stare at it while it stares back at you. The surroundings suddenly become quieter. There is only the rustling of the wind blowing through the Six Gentlemen.”
Yu relays that they did not eliminate the landscape water system in the original courtyard that takes the meaning of Winding Stream Party, an old Chinese custom where partakers wait by a winding stream, and compose poems before their cups full of rice wine float down to reach them. Yu wanted the design of this flowing water to become “a surging current in the calm water courtyard”, forming the design of water within water. The choreographed stream of water flows from the plunge and into the courtyard’s centre, spiralling and twisting, and flowing toward the soothing yoga room. It then connects with the external water system under the foundation of the building, before finally, quietly emptying into the sea, connecting the self-contained museum design to the powerful Yellow Sea, the man-made merging as one with the all-natural.
The water courtyard quiets down on most of the space it takes up, “a black that does not sink into the dark” – when Yu looked at the complete rendering of the white museum with a glass façade lining the edge of the black pool, a sort of “clichéd familiarity” arose, something that urged him to inject the space with a “little something” that would enliven it subtly. This was done by turning the highest circular yoga room’s façade into a shimmering, multi-hued gradient of stained glasses, resulting in a “glittering glass fortress” that literally adds a splash of colour to the thick dark ink that is the museum’s reserved essence.
Wutopia Lab originally formulated the glass fortress with a single floor, but the client insisted upon adding a changing area, which led to them setting up another floor above, to ensure a visual openness of the first floor was continued. They desired the glass façade to maintain vertical continuity as well. “I asked Lao Hu to hang the floor up to disconnect the floor and glass façade. Lao Hu arranged the frame in cross shape to provide horizontal lateral stiffness on the roof, combined with the peripheral ring beam to form a frame to provide torsional stiffness, forming a clear and efficient force system. He used four hanging pillars suspended from the main frame beam and hidden in the closet to lift the second-floor slab. Finally, the staircase was also suspended from the floor slab lightly. The first floor was then opened to the gorgeous light,” explains the Chinese architect.
The interior and exterior walls of the Monologue Art Museum are either made of glass, solid walls or “flower” walls. Independently or in combination, the three remain in continuity, as “shifting ink brushstrokes” that form the varying and seamless boundaries of the museum. The architects observe that to keep the five-meter-high flower walls safe and unfolded constantly, it was essential to add structural columns every 3.8m behind them. At the same time, the roof panels remain overhanging, as the compression roof of the brick wall. The intricate flower brick is a GRC (glass fibre – reinforced concrete) brick made of three per cent steel fibre content using a premixed method, where two modules combine to form the façades repeating pattern. The brick wall either runs double to frame the courtyard, or interfaces with glass or solid walls to form continuous 150-meter-long corridors wrapping around the museum’s fluid architecture.
A solo wall was cleaved in two to form a tearoom concealed behind the back wall of the straight, meandering corridor of the contemporary architecture, “just like the white gap we leave between the brushstrokes,” Yu pipes in. “It is an intimate and silent space, a corner where we hide our thoughts. I opened a long horizontal window along the height of the sight line to frame the sight as a scroll, where the Six Gentlemen were revealed.
The Chinese designers and architects share that the reason why Xiaoyan Zhang, part of the client’s team, named the art museum Monologue, was to explore his ambition of creating an island in the middle of a bustling port city in China, where people can revel in being alone (not lonely), and enjoy solitude, to truly bask in, and marvel at the effects of indulging in quietude; where one is encouraged to practice affection for oneself, by reflecting on things to improve, and carve routes to inner-creativity and peace. “It is truly conceived as a one-person paradise, and enjoying the sea that unfurls in peace somewhere nearby,” shares Zhang.
As American author and lecturer Susan Cain reflects upon in her widely regarded book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – “The highly sensitive (introverted) tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.” With most of its spatial sensibilities and employed functions advocating and catering to self-examination, solitary explorations and contemplations spurred on by creative agencies across art, music, dance, theatre, space and nature, the Monologue Art Museum ponders upon the role of architecture and contemporary design in focusing on the philosophical and humane in its purposefully introverted being.
Name: Monologue Art Museum
Location: Beidaihe District, Qinhuangdao, China
Area: 1,272 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Architect, Interior Designer, Landscape Designer: Wutopia Lab
Chief Architect: Yu Ting
Project Manager and Architect: Hao Li
Design Team and Prototype Research: Raven Xu, Zhizheng Wang, Ziheng Li, Xinping Jiang (Intern); Xinyang Dai, Jun Ge, Murong Xia, Binhai Miu (Structure)
Lighting Consultant: Chloe Zhang, Shiyu Wei, Xueyi Liu
Material Consultant: Jing Sun
Design Development: Shanghai SUNYAT Architecture Design Co., Ltd.
Design Development Team: Yumei Zhu (Architecture), Wenxiao Hu (Structure), Jiayin Shi, Bo Mao, Yaqian Mao, Yuheng Zou (Electromechanics), Bing Yu, Rui Shen, Licong Zhou, Fang Zhang (Interior), Tianjing Tianzituowei Architecture Design Co., Ltd. (Construction Drawing Design)
Landscape: Beijing Sino-Ocean Landscape Design Institute Co., Ltd.
Façade: BG&E Façade Technology (shanghai) Co., Ltd.
Client Team: Xiaoyan Zhang, Yuemin Jin, Dongfang Zhao, Junhao Li, Yue Yang, Yu Shi, Dongyang Zhao, Jiyao Wang, Hai Dou, Jiang Yu, Zhining Zhang, Ning Su, Xingwang Liu, Yishen Jiao
General Contractor: Zhongtian Construction Group Co., Ltd.
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Jincy Iype
Jincy writes and researches content centred on the best of global design and architecture. An architect by training, she enjoys picking the minds of creatives and weaving their ideas and works onto worded tapestries.
Jincy writes and researches content centred on the best of global design and architecture. An architect by training, she enjoys picking the minds of creatives and weaving their ideas and works onto worded tapestries.
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