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    What a New History Museum Means for the Future of Chinese Architecture

    The winning design for an expansion to the Sanxingdui Museum shows that Chinese architecture doesn’t have to be all eaves and courtyards.
    Dec 21, 2023#history

    In July of this year, the new Sanxingdui Museum was officially completed. This large museum, located in the southwestern city of Guanghan, just outside Chengdu, was designed to house the ever-growing number of relics unearthed from the Sanxingdui culture — one of the most mysterious civilizations to develop on the territory of what is today China.

    Since its discovery in 1929, Sanxingdui, which archaeologists date to roughly between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, has continued to surprise experts and the public alike with its massive bronze statuary, inhuman masks, gold artifacts, and vast stores of ivory. It’s no exaggeration to say it has forced a complete rethink of Chinese prehistory.

    With excavations turning up new relics every year, the old, 10,000-square-meter museum built in 1997 to house them was deemed insufficient. A design competition for an expansion adjacent to the original was announced in 2020.

    Size wasn’t the only requirement for the new building, however. Sichuan province has made Sanxingdui a focus of its tourism promotion activities in recent years, and the new museum was expected to be a landmark in its own right.

    Numerous firms proposed incorporating well-known elements of Sanxingdui art, such as the large protruding eyes of its bronze masks. But balancing the new structure with its well-regarded predecessor proved challenging. The eventual winner, China Southwest Architectural Design and Research Institute, with assistance from ISOZAKI+HuQian, ultimately took an understated, almost playful approach to the competition’s requirements. Their plan emphasized the older building; when viewed from above, the expansion continues its classic spiral curved exterior wall to draw visitors to the three exhibition areas of the new building. As for the much-anticipated “eyes,” the design team adopted an abstract approach, integrating them into a glass exterior wall.

    This low-key use of cultural symbols may disappoint those accustomed to social media-friendly design, but is arguably more fun than any literal interpretation. More broadly, the Sanxingdui Museum design reflects a longstanding conundrum in Chinese architecture: how to balance the relationship between traditional and contemporary aesthetics.

    Since the 1920s, Chinese architects have sought to create a distinctly “Chinese architecture” within the broader context of modernity. Yet there is no agreement on how to apply traditional materials and concepts such as gardens or landscapes.

    The origins of this debate can be traced back to the theory of traditional Chinese architecture formulated by Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, a husband-and-wife team considered the founders of Chinese architecture as a discipline. In 1944, while living in Sichuan, Liang completed his monumental “History of Chinese Architecture,” which cataloged the design laws and techniques of ancient Chinese architecture. Liang and Lin believed that Chinese architecture was native to China, that it emerged during a distant prehistory, developed in the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220), matured during the Tang (618–907), and was perfected in the Song (960–1279), before beginning to show signs of age and undue conservatism in the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

    A narrow understanding of Liang and Lin’s history can easily lead to the conclusion that the key to Chinese architecture lies in the use of certain stereotypical features, especially those from the Tang and Song dynasties. Reflecting Chinese characteristics in contemporary architecture would thus require directly quoting those styles, something we can see in the many large public buildings built over the past 20 years that have incorporated elements of traditional northern official architecture, including temple-style layouts, pagodas, and sloping roofs. The result of this kind of thinking is sometimes called “palace-style” architecture for its resemblance to ancient temples and palaces.

    Not all architects and scholars have embraced this approach, of course. For example, architect Wu Zhihong has expressed concern that simply channeling traditional architectural styles may result in cultural essentialism. Similarly, architecture scholar Wang Junyang has argued that, while there are reasons to integrate traditional aesthetics into current architectural methods, this should not be the only possible or legitimate approach to design.

    The Suzhou Museum, built by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, proves that there are other possibilities for historical references beyond simple appropriation. Suzhou is known for its beautiful gardens, but Pei did not simply copy their layouts in his design. Instead, he pursued an approach characterized by the design team as “Chinese yet new, Suzhou-style yet new.” Taking the roof as an example, he replaced traditional green tiles with gray granite, and reinterpreted the traditional flying eaves with modernist geometric lines. These designs integrate the Suzhou Museum into the local landscape while also modifying it. The result is a modern landmark, not just a tribute to the past.

    The design of the new Sanxingdui Museum takes a similar approach to connecting history and the modern day.

    The fact is any completed structure can become part of Chinese architectural history and can be respected and learned from. The “past” is a dynamic concept, and there is no single moment that distinguishes the absolute opposition of ancient and today. As the architects David Gianotten and Rem Koolhaas once wrote in an article on “Chinese-ness”: “Often Chinese-ness is nothing more than an explicit gesture that literally references traditional Chinese architectural elements known to the West.” The success of the new Sanxingdui Museum demonstrates that a dynamic historical perspective can alleviate the aesthetic fatigue of “palace-style” buildings while still making use of China’s native cultural resources.

    Translator: Matt Turner.

    (Header image: The Sanxingdui Museum in Guanghan, Sichuan province, Oct. 13, 2023. Courtesy of You Xudong)