The UCCA Dune Art Museum and its fascinating interplay of shapes, light and air
BY CARMELA MELONE
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)The landscape is peaceful and calm on the coast of northern China’s Bohai Bay. Nothing disturbs the view of gentle dunes and the tranquil sea. Only upon almost stumbling over it do the visitors recognise the peculiar building smoothly integrated into the sand alongside the shore. The UCCA Dune Art Museum, designed by OPEN Architecture, has been built underneath the dunes to preserve the natural landscape and protect the vulnerable dune ecosystem. It assembles a light-filled system of cave-like galleries, which offer natural and very diverse environments for visitors. We spoke with Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, the founding partners of OPEN, about the ideas behind the project and the challenges of realising it.
Please explain the idea behind the cooperation between UCCA and OPEN Architecture.
The cooperation is actually three-part, namely between us, the UCCA, and our client Aranya – at the time, Aranya was searching for an operator for the space and we suggested the UCCA. Being China’s leading independent institute of contemporary art, the UCCA obviously has an incredible wealth of curatorial expertise, which we knew could find expression in the new museum, and they were also looking to expand their presence outside of Beijing after several years of internal reorganisation. So, the timing was right and – having worked with the UCCA ourselves back in 2017, designing one of their exhibitions – we felt confident that they would be a good fit. Not long after, the three of us met and formalised the collaboration.
What challenges did you face during the planning and building phases of the museum?
Constructing the complex three-dimensional geometry of the museum’s concrete shell was one of the major challenges of the project. The formwork, which couldn’t be constructed using CNC milling or other sophisticated modelling equipment due to the weight of the concrete, was ultimately built using strips of wood, curved by hand, and occasionally more elastic materials – a traditional method often employed in the local shipbuilding industry in coastal Qinhuangdao. Although a lot of skilled construction workers were employed for the project, many of whom had worked in shipbuilding before using similar methods, it nonetheless took an enormous amount of effort and craft to complete the formwork and was certainly one of our more challenging construction experiences. One particular difficulty was transferring the 3D computer model of the building into coordinates that the on-site contractors could use. Ultimately, and after much back-and-forth testing, we had to devise our own unique system in order to do this in a way that would work with their somewhat low-tech equipment.
The building seems to integrate seamlessly into its surroundings. What was the intention behind its unique form and placement?
During our first visit to the site – a quiet beach along the coast of northern China’s Bohai Bay – my partner Wenjing and I were amazed by the immense natural beauty surrounding us. We generally do most of our work in cities, so it was surreal to look around the site and see essentially untouched expanses of sea, sky, and sand. We immediately felt that we wanted to build in such a way as to give precedent to the natural structures on site which preceded ours – namely a long dune several metres high, formed by the wind over countless years. Dunes play an important role in the coastal ecosystem, and since the boom of the seaside tourism industry in China, many of them have been levelled to make room for ocean-view real estate. We wanted the museum’s placement to reflect that importance and to question the belief that construction must be synonymous with the destruction of nature. What would happen if construction were to mean protection? If by placing the museum underneath the dune, we could ensure the dune would be spared from encroaching development? By blurring the traditional boundaries between building and landscape and between art and nature, the museum’s design provokes visitors to reflect more thoughtfully on the value of the natural environment and on the fundamental relationships between art and nature.
How did you decide on the form of the galleries accommodated by the museum?
The organic forms of the museum’s galleries were arrived at through an iterative evolutionary process of structural and architectural modelling, and are optimal for withholding the pressure of the surrounding sand. At the same time, they also respond to other qualities of the dune – its form and formlessness, along with its softness, uncertainty and unpredictability.
Unlike many other modernist museums, the UCCA Dune Art Museum allows for imperfections. Why was that important to you?
We had actually originally intended to plaster the interior of the building’s concrete shell to cover the imperfections left by the formwork, but when the formwork was removed, we were so struck by the beauty of the texture that remained on the walls that we decided to leave it exposed. The texture quite literally tells the story of how the building was made – in the imprints left behind on the walls, you can see clearly the thousands of wooden strips, each varied in size and individually shaped by hand, that were used to construct the building’s complicated geometry. Even if imperfect, we wanted to preserve that record so that visitors can see and understand that sense of materiality, and the effort and craftsmanship that went into the museum’s construction.
Which role does light play for the overall atmosphere of the building?
Natural light was a very important consideration for us in the building’s design – in fact, we consider light to be the most important material in the building. Although the museum does have gallery lighting available, for the most part the galleries are lit naturally by organically-shaped skylights and other openings. These openings were designed and positioned in such a way as to sculpt and temper beams of light as they enter the gallery spaces, carefully controlling the sunlight to ensure that no direct light falls on or passes directly over the galleries’ artwork. Refracting onto the museum’s curving walls from the white terrazzo floors, these rays of light, which change imperceptibly in shape and location as the day passes, are an ever-changing and ever-present natural spectacle. As they penetrate the heart of the dune, they transform the space into connected vaults of daylight and imbue it with a certain solemnity and power.
In addition to the interior, the building also attracts visitors on the outside. What was the intention behind creating an opportunity to experience more than just the inner concept?
The building’s exterior seeks to merge the experience of viewing and admiring art with that of viewing and admiring nature. Visitors can wander through the galleries in the museum’s interior to reflect on art; they can also wander onto outdoor exhibition terraces to reflect on the beauty of the surrounding beach or ascend a spiral staircase leading above the dune to reflect on the ocean from a lookout tower. The majority of visitors to the museum live and work in Beijing and don’t have a close relationship with nature. We wanted to make sure that the building’s exterior was not only eye-catching, but also offered an opportunity for people to experience and reflect on nature as well as art.
Please tell us about the sister project you are planning, the Sea Art Museum.
In the near future, a long pier will be built opposite the Dune Art Museum, extending into the ocean. At low tide, when the pier is accessible, visitors will be able to walk to the Sea Art Museum. Much like the Dune Art Museum, this museum will also explore the simple yet profound relationship between man, art and nature. Rising out of the water like a solitary rock, its single gallery will face and frame the horizon. Within it, only a single work of art will be exhibited at a time – allowing visitors a unique opportunity to come into solitary coexistence with both the art and the ocean. Behind the gallery, a hidden workshop will serve as a retreat for the artist. Where the Dune Art Museum is organic, primitive, collective, and subtractive, the Sea Art Museum is geometric, abstract, singular and additive. Together, the two form a unique ‘Dialogue by the Sea’.
LI HU AND HUANG WENJING
Li Hu and Huang Wenjing are the founding partners of OPEN, an interdisciplinary design studio currently based in Beijing. Under Li and Huang’s leadership, OPEN has been widely recognised for its innovative work, which includes such projects as Tank Shanghai, the UCCA Dune Art Museum, the Tsinghua Ocean Center and the Beijing No. 4 High School Campus.
Picture credit © Tian Fangfang