A few months ago, the Chinese singer and songwriter Cui Jian – often referred to as “The Father of Chinese Rock” – held an online rock concert with real-time streaming. The concert ignited Chinese social media as 46 million online spectators throughout the country watched on their personal devices. As part of the generation whose coming-of-age coincided with Cui’s rise to stardom three decades ago, and so having deep emotional connections to his lyrics and music, I marveled at how technology has advanced to the point that the mood of an exhilarating rock concert can be transmitted through a handheld screen and shared by so many millions.
On the other hand, I also wonder whether my remote experience would be so strong had I not previously had the real-life experience of being at one of Cui’s concerts, crowded together with thousands of others singing along to the music at the top of our lungs.
The answer is a definitive “no”. It was being there in person experiencing the scene, the sound, the space, the temperature, the air, the lights, the crowd, the smell, and all the other impalpable sensations that created such a powerful connection and long-lasting memories. That rock concert experienced online also reminded me of another thing. With the rapid advance of digital technologies and the constant bombardment of Internet and social media, people today seem to receive information and get an understanding of the world mostly through their eyes and ears. But we should not forget that we are also physical bodies with senses other than sight and hearing. In today’s frenetic dissemination of information, many sensory details are lost.
As architects, we have long thought of architecture as the medium to make connections. In the latest OPEN Manifesto, written for our new book published by Rizzoli,1 we said:
“We have been patiently in search of
architecture that is OPEN,
which establishes intricate relationships between
the forces in this confluence.
Architecture that connects us with people, to meet, exchange, and share.
Architecture that connects us with nature – trees and birds, sea and land, air and light.
Architecture that connects us with ourselves”.
How to establish these connections meaningfully is the question we constantly ask ourselves. Unlike Zuckerberg’s 2017 ambition to connect the whole world through the social media platform – now the Metaverse – for us, architecture exists as the counterweight to that weightless, anonymous, volatile digital world. In other words, architecture matters because it connects us back to what really makes us human.
I think that everything that touches me deeply – rock concerts included – inevitably awakens parts of my innate capacity to sense, feel and imagine – fundamental attributes to us as human beings. Most of us were born with complex sensory systems through which we make sense of the physical world around us: temperature, texture, sound, color, light, smell, and so on. These sensory signals are intricately linked to our emotions – feeling happy, sad, content, disappointed, etc. Our emotions may evoke memories of the past or stimulate us to imagine the future. It is precisely these innate abilities that make us feel alive and distinguishable from AI.
If architecture can awaken the multiple dimensions of people’s senses and touch their emotions and inner consciousness, then maybe it can help establish the meaningful connections we all yearn for. I am quite aware that the latest wave of architectural production is attuned to the business-driven, fast-evolving metaverse. However, I believe that only when the digital realm is able to connect back to our real-world experiences will it release its true potential. This is because our intrinsic nature as mortal beings will always find the ultimate consolation in connection with the real world.
The pandemic of the past couple of years has shown that even though the infotech revolution has greatly expanded our options and ways of life, we still long for interactions with real humans in real spaces. Remember that burning desire for a meal out with friends in an actual restaurant after the lockdowns?
Along the way, we at OPEN have always tried to create architecture that communicates with people viscerally and emotionally. Architecture is made for bodies and minds, not for cameras and the Internet. Although one has to be physically present to really experience our work, for the sake of this essay, I will try to use words and pictures to talk about some of the aspects we have explored with our architectural projects.
I have always found it interesting that Wassily Kandinsky, on account of a rare condition, had blurred senses that made him associate colors with certain sounds and moods. Although I do not have his sensitivity, for me colors are emotional and communicative; if carefully used, they can speak to people.
The deep blue of the Pingshan Performing Arts Center was probably the most difficult battle we had on that project with the municipal client at the time, which insisted on a typical red interior. We wanted the color to speak about the ocean character of the place by using the traditional blue of local fabrics to create a calm and mythical atmosphere, and a pleasing contrast to the warm bamboo panels. I really could hear the blue murmuring its age-old tales. Of course, it was no use telling our client that. It was a miracle therefore, that after many years of battling and being as persistent as the color blue itself, we eventually were able to use it.
We designed the kindergarten building for Qingpu Pinghe International School with colored vertical fins. One person told me of his “surprise” on driving by the building in one direction and seeing what looked like an orange-ish construction, only to discover on his way back that it had become blue-ish! I replied that the building is like a quietly happy child telling you that they have many sides, all of them splendid. In fact, one side of the vertical fins were painted with four shades of orange, and the other side with four shades of blue. The arrangement of the colors on each side was given by a simple algorithm for chance operations.
In complete contrast to the color story for the Pingshan Theater, the curtainwall contractor on this project meticulously accomplished our complex color scheme without querying our indications.
Can we see the shape of sound? If I were ever asked to fill a room with the lightest possible material, I would probably just play some music, even if I suppose the smart answer to this brain-teaser would be to light a candle and fill the room with light. I am always moved when a quiet room is suddenly filled with music. It is not easy to describe, but sound fills spaces just as liquid does, except that you cannot see it. Your body can sense it though. I also find it fascinating that the word “volume” has two different meanings: the intensity of sound, and the space an object takes up. The fact that one single word links space and sound is interesting architecturally, at least to me, as a non-native English speaker.
Unlike liquid, which is indifferent to the shapes of containers, sound quality is actually very sensitive to its “container” and shaped by it. Many have asked where the form of our Chapel of Sound came from. It is the result of the confluence of many things, even if finding the optimal spatial form for acoustics using one single hard material and no electrical amplification was definitely one of the key driving forces.
The effect of sound is intimately related to the scale of space. The morning chattering of a few swallows outside your bedroom window while you are still in bed might sound noisy and annoying; but the singing of a few birds in a deep valley can instill a sense of serenity and otherworldliness, by contrast, making the valley even quieter and more spacious. Traditional Chinese poems often talk about this effect.
Unlike most concert halls situated in bustling urban settings, the Chapel of Sound is located in a quiet valley far away from traffic and urban noises and so, welcomes external sounds – the symphony of nature – to come inside. A few carefully located openings on the concrete shell serve at least three purposes: visual connection with the mountains and remnants of the Great Wall; sound absorption inside the auditorium; entry of the elements into the interior.
Although the Chapel of Sound is designed as a musical performance space, we spent ample time thinking about the sound of quietness. In today’s noisy, chaotic world, we all long for a place in which to quieten down, hear the voice of nature, and even more importantly, the voice of our own hearts.
We all know that architecture has different temperatures and textures. Sometimes, it is our cognitive ability that links visual cues to actual experiences: a space can feel cold and daunting like an austere personality, or warm and welcoming like a good host, or simply stunning for its unexpected features. In fact, many people feel the irresistible need to touch a special wall surface, a unique piece of material, or a special door handle and feel for themselves. We humans are curious animals; we tend to turn a blind eye to generic or bland things. That is why we focus on the personalities of the spaces we create, and are delighted when our architecture is able to seed moments of surprise and awe in its users.
The temperature and texture palette are important in all our projects. While I never really asked our team to prepare formal palettes, that is how I compose the spaces in my mind’s eye and guide myself through the decision-making processes.
While working on the Qingpu Pinghe International School – a bilingual school in Shanghai for pupils from kindergarten to middle school – we regrouped the functional programs the client had given us and organized the whole campus as a village of unique individual buildings, instead of following the usual mega-structure scholastic configuration. Although not a profitable business approach since the usual single-design commission became several different building designs, it allowed us to create a healthy, diverse, dynamic and lively campus for kids who might have to spend 12 years of their early life in this one school. It also suited the client’s super fast-track construction schedule.
We used various materials to create a palette of diverse textures, including carbonized bamboo panels for the “teaching cubes”, dark grey natural stone for the art center, warm-white prefabricated GRC panels for the lab and admin building, and coarse blue plaster for the “bibilotheater”. One of the largest and heaviest buildings on the campus, the gym, swimming pool and canteen building has been deliberately made to look light and breathable and not an overbearing presence amid its neighbors. The translucent membrane cladding and off-white perforated aluminum panels make it appear like two white bubbles floating above a transparent glass box.
The landscape was also considered an integral part of the campus program. The wetland pond, bamboo forest, small hill, petting zoo, scattered sports fields, and open spaces all work together with the buildings to create a single warm, easy-going entity, a kaleidoscopic internal world inviting pupils to explore and discover.
Caves are a constant source of inspiration in the way we conceive certain spaces. There is something both primordial and timeless about caves. I am mostly interested in the intimate relationship between spatial enclosure and the human body. Caves may also evoke subconscious memories of the womb, our very first home. The human desire to be cradled and protected is deeply wired in our DNA. On the other hand, art in the form of paintings, instruments, dances, etc., can all be traced back to the cave.
When we were asked to design an art space on sand dunes near a beach, we decided to hide the building under them. Although our first aim was to protect the building from the force of the sea, it later turned out that we had inadvertently safeguarded the dunes from real estate development. The building became the UCCA Dune Art Museum, made up of a series of cave-like interconnected cells illuminated by various light cannons above and three oculi facing the ocean.
Going through the building is a full-body experience. The long and relatively dim entrance tunnel compresses your body and prepares you emotionally to calm down. From the reception hall – a dome-shaped space softly lit from above – you move through the various exhibition spaces, guided intuitively by your body, the flow of space and natural light. With the exception of one gallery, the curvilinear geometry creates a seamless continuity between ceiling and wall, with the result that the interior spaces wrap around you gently as you move through them.
While our aim here was to create a sanctuary for visual arts, the Chapel of Sound is a sanctuary for the performing arts. But ultimately, what we have been trying hard to achieve with all our projects is to establish a connection between our bodies, nature and the arts. Our deepest concern with the Chapel of Sound is that on entering its empty, soundless interior – a chapel in such a remote valley will not always have performances – you feel protected and at ease with yourself, in the cradle of
man-made nature and nature itself.
As architects, we mainly work with the physical and the tangible: gravity, material, tectonics, systems, solutions to problems, and so on. Yet, in moments of wonder, the void spaces created by physical architecture can touch people’s souls in profound ways. This is what I feel in the Pantheon, La Tourette, Ronchamp, the Temple of Heaven, and many other buildings – some well-known, some unknown to most. I truly believe that architecture has the power to bridge the outer physical world with our inner emotional and spiritual selves. I am not speaking about the kind of shock-and-awe effect people may get from certain imposing, flashy, futuristic-looking buildings. Rather, of the voids where one feels the passing of time, the movement of light, and ultimately, meanings that one uncovers with a perceptive open mind. Like the intentionally un-inked areas in Chinese landscape drawings, voids carved out of solids are critically important in the Chinese philosophical conception of time and space. Voids are not emptiness, but rather the medium to connect the past with the future, the defined with the infinite. It is an experience that needs our physical – not virtual – presence.
The world is swirling into an extremely complex mess as we speak. Architecture, as a discipline that relates to almost all facets of human life, is in the vortex of complexity as well. How can we not lose ourselves and find meaning in the overflow of information and disinformation? I do not have answers. But I do hope to anchor everything we do back to what makes us human beings: our innate senses, our consciousness, and our ability to imagine and hope. Architecture is our hope.
I will end this essay with images of our Sun Tower project, currently under construction and scheduled for completion by 2024. Under a starry night sky close to a dark sea, the tower stands in solitude like a light tower. Facing the vast ocean and the universe, we humans are neither too great nor too little; we are simply part of it all. We build not only to provide boxes that can shelter people from the weather. We also hope that our architecture can help people get in touch with their deep inner feelings and the symphony of nature. This is our patient search.
1 Catherine Shaw, A Radical Vision by OPEN: Reinventing Cultural Architecture (Segrate, Milan, Italy: Rizzoli, 2022)
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