Chengdu Museum
© Arch-Exist Architectural Photography

Chengdu Museum

SUTHERLAND HUSSEY HARRIS as Architects

In 2007 Sutherland Hussey Harris, in collaboration with Beijing based Pan¬solution, won first prize in the international competition for the design of the new City Museum for Chengdu in Sichuan, China.


Tian-Fu Square was recently established in the historic core as a new central focus of Chengdu. The Existing Science museum forms the entire Northern edge with a giant statue of Chairman Mao saluting the main North South city axis, and on the East side a new concert hall is planned.


The New Chengdu Museum sits on the West side of the square and maximises its profile to present a façade of commensurate scale and proportion to embrace and address the huge scale of this new square and establishes a strong formal relationship to it by forming a simple enclosing rectilinear profile. The building further enjoys and celebrates this relationship to this monumental public space by extending an internal promenade of public foyers and circulation behind the entirety of the veiled façade addressing Tian-Fu Square.


The long narrow site is exploited using all the public areas to maximise a dramatic relationship with the new square, the remaining façades consequently enclose the largely hermetic exhibition halls, these are represented as a giant crafted artefact in the city cloaked in a precious skin of copper alloy rigorously profiled to play with light, shade and texture whilst accommodating all the technical requirements for ventilation grilles. Aside from the east face this skin is 'lifted' to reveal glazing at street level, allowing a more human scaled intimacy and a relationship to the interior.


The form envelopes a new undercover outdoor public space - a monu¬mental gateway through the building, offering a large outdoor public space where people can gather, cultural events can take place, even the local street market extends through to the square. This gateway within the building also creates an important connection between the C16th Huang Cheng Mosque, the most significant in South West China, and the main square. The main entrances to the museum, theatre and museum offices all connect with this route through the building.


The Museum requirements extend to over 65,000m2 of development and in¬cludes exhibition space for Natural History, History and Folk, and an 800 seat Chinese Shadow Play Theatre as well as a 1000m2 Temporary Exhibition space. A huge challenge within the project was to be able to provide the museum with their requested 30m clear span exhibition halls whilst assuring the structure is capable of withstanding an earthquake measuring up to 8 on the Richter scale. In addition to this the city's subway network runs under the Northern half of the building, resulting in the above ground section of the building cantilevering over the tunnels.


A rigid diagrid steel lattice forms the structural shell enclosing the enormous interior volumes of large climatically controlled halls, The building further extends 24m into the ground to accommodate the conservation stores, theatre and plant rooms and is structurally isolated from the effects of any earthquake via a protective box structure into which the whole construction sits.


Unusually for China, Sutherland Hussey Harris with Pansoloution design, Beijing, were retained beyond the conceptual design phase and contracted to deliver the detailed and production information stages for all the public areas of the building, the detailed design of the skin and its integration with the structure and the landscape and subsequently all site supervision related to this work.   SUSTAINABILITY Designed to respond to a compact site and height constraints, the building maximises the available use of the site whist allowing for key urban considerations such as the historic Mosque and embracing a public forecourt within the site footprint. This balance between the urban demands and the clients brief was acknowledged by the competition Jury as the unique aspect of this design.


The Public Forecourt under the body of the building is a city scaled sheltered space providing a sheltered public space from Chengdu's torrential rainfall whilst being open to cooling breezes in the hot and humid climate - a tradition which dates back centuries in traditional Sichuan architecture, known as 'grey space'.


In addition the building exploits other formal devices such as sunken courtyards and voids driven through the plan from the roof to help illuminate and ventilate as many of the public foyers as possible.


The design allows for passive energy strategies to be used throughout the building as well as immediately benefitting the space around it. Opening up vertical shafts within the plan allows stack effect to drag cooler air up into the building through a series of mechanically controlled openings. These voids are created in such a way that the geometry shelters the open external spaces below them from the rainfall, whilst being fully wrapped in glazing means the deeper areas of the plan receive daylight and fresh air.


Whilst the Eastern façade is fully glazed, a contextual response to the immediate urban environment, this results in the 'black box' museum spaces to be organised along the Western edge of the building. In China the least favoured orientation is to the West, particularly in Chengdu, (most buildings are oriented in a North-South axis) protecting the building from the West in this way respects both the traditional Feng Shui sensibilities and the need to deal with extreme solar gain.


The Eastern façade is protected by a skin of perforated copper mesh, this has been coordinated with the folding geometry to maximise views out across the square, whilst shading the interior from the harsh glare of the Eastern sun and mediating the foyer spaces between outside glare and the dimmer environment of the exhibition halls.


The skin of the museum is expressed as one homogeneous material, but designed in such a way that modulates and folds to present a variety of qualities. This is done through the tessellation of the skin profile and the arrangement of solid and perforated mesh panels, arranged depending on the demands within. The solid panels catch the sunlight dependent on their orientation the mesh panels positioned where openings are required or where mechanical equipment needs to be ventilated.


The copper alloy is comprised of 90% recycled copper and is very stable, this material was used in response to one of the clients concerns that the material should not degrade visually over time or require undue levels of maintenance. Because Chengdu suffers from high levels of industrial pollution a series of weathering and chemical tests were conducted by KME to ensure that the material applied to Chengdu Museum is of a highest quality, durability and sustainability.


Universal Design: Throughout the development of the design of the museum, from the original competition entry to the realised constructed design, there have been a series of fundamental principles that organise the building.


- The connection between Tianfu Square and the Huang Cheng Mosque.


- The controlled datum which sets the height of the elevation facing the square.


- The tesselated skin wrapping around the building, presenting an transluscent fascade to Tianfu Square.


- Finally the processional route from the entrance of the museum to the viewing gallery at the very top.


This route has been conceived as a slowly spiraling ramp, climbing through the voids created within the space between the stacked exhibition halls and the glazed eastern facade. The route is constantly joining the increasingly expansive view out toward the square with the progression of exhibition halls, culminating in reaching the top floor, which presents a panoramic viewing space looking out over the city.


The concept of a ramping floor plate punctuated with stops throughout meant that from the street there could be a continuous plane allowing the visitor a barrier free experience of the museum - a first in Chinese public buildings.


As the design evolved during a particularly long hiatus after the massive earthquake in 2008, the need for larger exhibition halls became apparent. This increase allowed less room on the fixed site to accommodate a ramped foyer space. Instead we developed the circulation to work within a thinner, vertically orientated space, aligning the lifts, escalators and stairs to arrive and depart from the same positions. This has meant we were able to maintain the experience of the journey through the museum for all users.


One of the unusual aspects of the museum is the interconnected foyer space. There are several points of access; directly from the adjacent subway station, from underground car parking, from the mall below Tianfu Square and directly from the street. There is also a public theatre located within the lower levels of the building and museum staff offices. All of these are juggled to allow public foyers to be interconnected for access reasons, whilst structured in a way to make the building easily read by the users.


Community Impact & Engagement: Throughout the design and construction of this building a variety of community groups as well as historians and academics have been consulted and engaged in order to shape the final outcome.


This as a rule is very unusual in China. The strategic development plans are worked up by local government, approved and then executed without much representation or consultation of the local populace effected. This museum however, was different. The building was conceived in order to house the recent discoveries of significant artefacts and archaeological finds that had been un-earthed in the region over the previous years. Much of these discoveries, alongside an increasingly regional shift in government has combined to allow people to start recognising, understanding and celebrating their specific cultural regionalisms across China - something long discouraged.


The pride in Chengdu of their particularly rich history, doubled by the communal spirit in the years immediately after the massive 2008 earthquake, meant the local community groups felt strong enough to make their voice heard.


The regional and local government and the director of the museum have been proactive in engaging these different groups. The director, Mr Wong, is an historian and has worked with an international group of historians to build up the story surrounding the specific finds and collections housed into the museum. It gives this museum an incredibly outward looking attitude, and acknowledges that China, and specifically Sichuan and Chengdu, exist within a culturally rich continent, with major influences from surrounding countries and places the exhibits into this environment.


The location of the site, between Tianfu Square and the main mosque in Chengdu has meant the development of the building was of particular interest to the Muslim elders that worship there. This has possibly been the most fruitful of consultations on the design of the museum.


By widening the lane at the back of the site, the entrance to the mosque is given more room, and the market stalls that used to spill over onto the previously empty site, now form a bustling narrow market place in the lane. This is in contrast as a smaller, busy, intimate space to Tianfu Square which is much more formal and expansive. The shallow and wide steps up to the entrance plaza have created a sheltered spot to sit and watch the street scene below, as well as a place to gather before and after prayers.


The huge opening in the building that this entrance plaza sits within is also a gesture to the subtlety of mixed cultures in this region of China. The state, or Han, is represented by the Museum of Science and Industry, overseen by a statue of Chairman Mao, the large Muslim population represented by the central mosque are both visually and physically connected by this large opening, the canopy of which is formed by the museum which houses a variety of objects representing even further cultural identities of the region.


Since it's opening to the public in June 2016, the museum has hosted visits of numerous local schools. The museum runs a series of programmes aimed at children, which are widening the understanding of the culture and history of the region. Sichuan province and Chengdu have a rich and slightly removed history in comparison to the rest of China. This is to with the surrounding mountain ranges, giving it a degree of isolation from the surrounding areas, which was particularly important for the development of early civilisations throughout China's dynastic periods.


Children are engaged through a variety of experienced based classes, suitable to the range of age groups regularly visiting the museum, which vary from role play in typical Qing dynasty court practices, to treasure hunts based on clues to find specific artefacts.


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