China Wood Sculpture Museum
By Kevin Holden Platt
The unveiling of the China Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin – near the border with Russian Siberia – signals that even China’s frozen northern periphery is beginning to be reshaped as its economy booms. The figure behind the thunderbolt-hued building is China’s leading experimental architect, Ma Yansong, along with his MAD Architects.
The glimmering, curvilinear structure, which Ma Yansong describes as resembling “a wave frozen in time,” likewise shows that an explosion in museum construction ignited in Beijing is now reverberating across the outer reaches of China.
Architect Ma says he covered the 200-meter-long museum’s envelope with polished steel panels that will mirror the snowstorms that pound Harbin and the pale blue northern skies; his experimental design is likely to attract art and architecture fans across the country. Visitors will enter the structure through an arced opening marking the trough of a wave that flows across the façade.
Three crescent-shaped skylights, each positioned above a soaring atrium, allow shafts of sunlight (or starlight) to move through the 13,000-square-meter structure, and create a constellation of curved skyspaces.
Read about American installation artist James Turell’s Chinese skyspaces.
The museum, whose façade is the color of a thunderbolt, is designed to exhibit carvings, paintings and installations from across this subarctic region of China, where winter never seems to end.
“The building itself is a sculpture,” the architect says.
The museum will provide the first major exhibition venue in China’s icy borderlands for young experimental artists who are, like its architects, helping re-sculpt the country’s cultural future, Ma says.
Time is frozen
Its complex geometry, he adds in an interview, is patterned on water in motion that has been instantaneously freeze-framed. “It gives you the feeling that time is frozen,” he explains, “but you can still walk around and move through time.”
The structure’s arced contours and advanced engineering create a surreal dialogue with the army of rectilinear buildings surrounding it, adds Ma. Yet its curved façade curiously resonates with the cylindrical drums and onion-shaped domes of the Russian Orthodox cathedrals that were constructed around Harbin starting a century ago.
See more of Ma Yangson’s architectural designs, featured in a retrospective at the Danish Architecture Center
Architecture for God and for the people
“In the past, architecture was designed for God,” he says. “Now it is designed for capital, and in the future it will be designed for the people.”
This aphorism could describe much of Harbin’s architectural history, and its potential future.
Russian engineers and workers deployed on extending the Trans-Siberian Railway into northeastern China who settled on this side of the border, later joined by Imperial Russian Guards and refugees fleeing the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, built an array of Byzantine churches across Harbin. But these cathedrals, patterned after the soaring Orthodox structures scattered around the Kremlin in Moscow, were repeatedly assaulted following China’s own communist takeover in 1949.
During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, brigades of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards attacked cathedrals, temples, and other architectural vestiges of the ancient régime across China. As part of this war on China’s cultural foundations, many museums were destroyed and their relics looted, says Jeffrey Johnson, founder of the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture.
Museum building boom
But these days, China’s post-Mao leaders are backing a museum building boom as part of a larger “soft power initiative” aimed at boosting China’s rise on the global stage and the government’s collective image, he adds. This boom, he says, is producing about 100 new museums every year.
This, in turn, is opening more channels for the globe’s vanguard experimental architects, including Ma Yansong, to design cultural outposts across China, Johnson says.
And the leadership’s expanding focus on cultural harmony, rather than on endless class struggle, has also led to the restoration of some of the architectural icons that came under attack during Mao’s reign.
Meanwhile, Ma Yansong’s new sculpture museum is likely to become a different kind of icon for successive generations of architects. When Siberian storms crash across the border into Harbin, the structure appears as a massive wave of quicksilver moving through clouds of snow.
While designing the sculpture museum, Ma used Rhino software to create a sophisticated 3D digital model of the building and to view the shifting patterns of light and shadows projected through its skylights as the sun cut a low arc across the northern winter sky. MAD studio worked with Gehry Technologies to perfect the complicated curves of the steel panels that flow across its envelope.
Harbin Culture Island
In another district of Harbin, on the north bank of the Songhua River, Ma Yansong and his MAD architects are now racing to complete the construction of the Harbin Culture Island – a grand theatre, cultural center and waterfront park – slated to be unveiled during the city’s mid-year music festival.
Both projects, Ma says, are aimed at creating a new type of city for the future and for the people, and at helping citizens of urban China reconnect with the spirits of nature that were revered in times past.