One of the great, if seldom realized, promises of architecture is its capacity to affect change. The best architects seem to have this potential in mind constantly as they structure career-length narratives around the social impact that good design can achieve. While this is often hyperbole, and most projects are driven by functional or economic considerations, there is the occasional opportunity for artists and architects to create purely speculative work, where radical departures from established typologies suggest alternatives to the status quo. In these rare cases, novelty is embraced not for its own sake, but for its potential to generate new archetypes, to provide a glimpse into a parallel world where architecture truly has agency: where design can change society for the better.
While it’s incredibly rare for a single client and a single architect to agree on such a radical – and risky – design approach for a single building, it’s not uncommon for a city, state, or nation to sponsor curated exhibitions, where invited designers are free to experiment in pursuit of alternative prototypes.
This governmental impulse towards experimentation and exhibition can be traced back as far as London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 (if not further), where nations were invited to demonstrate the best of their industrial, scientific, and cultural products. While Britain’s intent may have been transparently propagandistic (given their industrial superiority at the time), the legacy is that every country with the means to throw such a party has had their chance , and these exhibitions have indeed produced radical works of architecture that not only introduced technical and material innovations, but demonstrated new concepts of how a building’s spatial configuration can influence the social relation of its inhabitants.
The World Exhibitions have produced the Crystal Palace (London, 1851) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889), whose structural innovations have had such an incalculable impact on the construction industry. They have produced the German Pavilion (1929, Barcelona) and the Blur Building (Swiss Expo 2002), both radical designs where the ambiguity of enclosure makes us question the place of architecture in the environment, and the role of the individual in society. They have produced the Weissenhof Siedlung (Stuttgart, 1927), credited with popularizing international-style modernism. Temporary or permanent, these structures can have a huge impact not just on the architectural design community, but on society as a whole.
With this all in mind, it’s worth looking at the Jinhua Architecture Park (2002-2006). Though not built for a World Exposition, the seventeen structures here share that revolutionary intent (and seem to me to fit in the canon of expo pavilions more than most of the propaganda-halls of Shanghai Expo 2010 ). Planned and curated by dissident artist Ai Wei Wei, each pavilion represents a new path forward for architecture, at least in the mind of the designer.
The park seems to be a reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese garden, through an extension of those principles to a massive, linear site. I’ve written before about classical gardens, where the containing boundary seems to determine the density and complexity of the space within, as if each garden designer had a certain number of elements to fit “in the box” and constituent elements were chopped, overlaid, and folded in on themselves when necessary.
In Suzhou’s Garden of the Master of Nets, for instance, courtyards are squeezed down to become mere slots of space, covered walkways peel off from the halls, which seem almost to overlap. Barrier walls are punctuated by screen windows, offering visual - but not physical – connections through four or five layers of space.
In the larger Humble Administrator’s Garden, individual buildings are scattered throughout the landscape, each representing the perfection of the pavilion form, but less complex as a whole. The Jinhua park is an extension of the latter garden type, expanded to the point where each subsequent pavilion is barely visible from the last. Each can exist independently as an ideal prototype (This separation is not caused by distance, necessarily, but by the sculpting of the ground plane into hills and valleys, and the planting of different plant species in different areas. And perhaps due to smog).
The pavilions themselves vary in quality. Toshiko Mori’s “Newspaper Stand” is all promenade, a ramp seemingly stripped from another project. Liu Jiakun’s Tea Rooms resemble a field of floating lanterns. Wang Shu’s Ceramic House has an intriguing relation to the ground plane and a unique material palette. The “Restaurant” by Johan de Wachter Architects/Fun Design Consultancy resembles a dislocated fragment of Constant’s New Babylon, or Yona Friedman’s Spatial City.
These are all interesting concepts, but it’s hard to look past the material quality: the vast majority of the pavilions are literally falling apart. Operable wall panels are stuck or broken, doors are locked or rusted shut, wood is beginning to rot, paths are overgrown. The impression is that you’ve stumbled onto the remains of some future society.
Ai Wei Wei’s “Archeological Archive” is one of the few that have weathered well. The concrete form stands in proud contrast to the other decaying pavilions (foolishly made of more than one material). The artist’s skill as a sculptor becomes apparent as one orbits the building, which offers up multiple, often contradictory associations from different vantage points.
From one end, the elevation is an ideal profile: a farmhouse - or a primitive hut – in overgrown grassland. Moving clockwise around the building, you see the profile extrude and elongate into an industrial shed. Further around, there is a sunken plaza, revealing a mirror-image of the “ur-house” and confirming its geometry as hexagonal, an imposed geometric order that can accommodate diverse activities (a formal strategy that should be familiar to students of contemporary architecture).
The sunken plaza may resemble an archeological dig, but I believe Ai Wei Wei wouldn’t be quite so literal. Continuing clockwise, the house profile is reestablished, but undercut and destabilized by the excavation. Reading the pavilion from this cinematic sequence of views, we can conclude that accelerating modernization has literally stripped away the foundation of traditional society.
Herzog & de Meuron’s “Reading Room” is equally rich. The architects have - for years, over a number of projects - been investigating the extent to which a surface pattern can be productive, in terms of expanding the façade to create interior volumes. While the architects’ early work could be characterized as minimalist-post-modern (demonstrating the lasting influence of Aldo Rossi, in projects like Blue House and Rudin House), by the early 90s their techniques had expanded to include patternmaking and graphic applique (these two threads weave together at Ricola Mulhouse, where an exaggerated industrial-shed overhang caps the patterned polycarbonate panels). By the late 90s and early 2000s, they had allowed these graphic applications to expand in scale and extend into the interior. At Prada Aoyama, the diagrid façade is proportioned precisely to accommodate the angle of the staircases, pushed to the exterior envelope, and portions of the façade pattern are extruded through the building to provide enclosure for fitting rooms.
The pavilion in Jinhua is the next step in this line of inquiry, as all interior volumes are created by the extrusion and intersection of the flat, patterned facades. The pavilion retains a rectangular envelope, and one can read each façade as a planar surface. The vestiges of a hexagonal grid are visible, but this initial condition has been heavily distorted. The resulting form is an incredibly complex but immediately understandable, scaled perfectly for climbing. One could easily find a dozen nooks or crannies, ideal for reading (or any number of illicit activities).
Following this project, the architects would go on to complete the Beijing National Stadium, in which the façade pattern expands to encompass the entire zone of support facilities, everything but the bowl. They would later combine their early minimal-postmodern house profile with the technique used at Prada to create the Vitrahaus, in Weil-am-Rhine, where the vestiges of an enclosing envelope are finally abandoned, and the interior-extrusions become self-supporting.
While the formal gymnastics of the Jinhua pavilion are impressive, and the scheme seems to fit perfectly within the architects’ oeuvre, the pavilion is smartly oriented on site to provide “captured views” from within. From various points, the concrete forms frame views out to the landscape and surrounding pavilions: the rare pavilion that directs attention away from itself.
Like Ai Wei Wei’s pavilion, the concrete form of the “Reading Room” has resisted decay relatively well. The other pavilions, however, are deteriorating rapidly. In European traditions, architects aspire to permanence, but what the Jinhua architecture park makes clear is for works of architecture or art to survive they must be continuously maintained, repaired, or rebuilt, or they will vanish into the landscape. We make our pilgrimages to Athens and Rome, but we don’t quite realize the constant vigilance required to keep those monuments intact. I wonder if it would have been better, in Jinhua, to design for temporality, to plan for demolition and reconstruction, following Confucian traditions of repetition and renewal, building anew each year, learning from mistakes, and building better each year.
Until next time…
[As always, more photos at the author’s Flickr site: Architecture by City: Jinhua.]
[This past December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. This essay was cross-posted to the author’s website - Tenuous Resilience - with many more links and photos!]
 I hope to examine the Shanghai Expo, and the role of propaganda a little more in depth in a future post.
 Notable exceptions: The Danish Pavilion by Bjarke Ingels/BIG, the Madrid Pavilion by FOA, and the Ningbo Pavilion by Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture.
Jinhua Architecture Park
reflections on architecture and urbanism in China.