An Earthen Abode, for Ancient Potter, by Studio Anna Heringer

Architecture
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Project Credits:
Project Name: China Ceramic Museum
Project Location: Lintao, Gansu, China
Project Architects:  Studio Anna Heringer 
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The picturesque Liu Jia mountains and the pristine Tao river plains, in the province Gansu, China, together form a contrasting landscape and surround the city of Lintao. This region also encompasses a rich heritage, with the indigenous Majiyao Culture hailing from this realm, its period dating as far back as 3100 BCE to 2700 BCE. Primarily a representation of the agricultural communities hailing from the Yellow River region, their renown is accredited to their traditional painted pottery, which has been extensively excavated, and at present, exhibited within the immediate surroundings of the site.

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During the 12th century CE, Lintao was known as Didao, and its location, being on a river crossing near the Yellow River, was highly strategic. This facet, in addition to the blockings along the main Silk Road, led to Didao (Lintao) becoming an important centre for trade along the Silk Road. However, despite the fact that the region held immense importance and defined a historic identity, currently, it lacks a sense of pride and confidence, generally associated with heritage. The idea of this project, as visualised by the designers, is to lend support to the client’s intent, that is, of reinstating the cultural identity of this region, and instilling pride in its history, and confidence in its potential.

 

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The magnitude of the design ideal necessitated due consideration to a global perspective. Therefore, two concerning challenges are a part of the global scenario at present. Firstly, the growing population of the world is not ensured food security, and secondly, many are deprived of safe and adequate habitat. Recognizing the underlying conflict between the two, the design philosophy adopted involved building with earth as a potential solution. The thought originates from the belief that life and death are parts of a holistic circle, where all bodies, including architecture or landscape erode over time and no material lasts forever. Therefore, the idea was to build in a way where this erosion is respected and adapted to, as opposed to evading or fighting it, in order to maintain harmony with nature.

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A derivative of this philosophy is opting to use earth as the main building material for all the structures in the proposal, for the characteristic of earth as a material is its origin, which is erosion from lands and mountains, strength, where skill and craftsmanship induce resilience equal to that of concrete and its guileless reclamation by nature over time.

 

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With the conceptual philosophy in place, the masterplan evolved within the context of the cultural background, and the potentials of the region. The masterplan invokes an intertwining of landscape and architecture, with an interpretation of the traditional Chinese ‘Courtyard’ typology. This gave rise to a building language with varies massing, an amalgamation of built and open spaces and a wide-ranging spatiality which could accommodate workshops, museum spaces and facilities. An ensured intent of the design was to avoid sealing the soil with incompatible material, as the site is situated on an agricultural land. Therefore, the vision involved building an ‘Earthen Enclave’, comprising the same earth which fosters the growth of agricultural produce.

 

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Therefore, the design itself becomes a part of the dynamic circle of emergence, life and degradation, with earth as a constructional material eventually contributing to the productivity of the land again, underlining the entwined relationship between human habitat and nature. This is further accentuated with pottery being the main element, and the functional orientation being along the Silk Route. Also, natural materials as a major building component is celebrated in this design, in an attempt to emphasize on reinstating their usage in contemporary architecture. Opting for non-standardized and locally sourced building materials is a contributory effort to highlight the diversity in rural and urban regions, enrich the culture of China’s contemporary architecture, while speaking of fair economics, and ensuring the preservation of the ecology.

 

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The journey to the site includes passages through caves carved into the mountains, which eventually left an indelible mark and played a significant role in influencing the design of this museum. The defining form of the museum is based on an interplay of ancient and contemporary ceramics, encompassing the essence of the past and the present. Ancient ceramic work occupies niches in the exterior earthen wall, and faces a second earthen wall, which is positioned in the middle, and hosts contemporary ceramic pieces, along with the functional infrastructure of the museum. There is a third earthen wall which forms the inner courtyard, and represents the reconciliation of the old and the new.

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The choice of earth as a constructional material has not only an ecological and technical merit but also highlights a relationship between the fired ceramics, and the unfired ceramic walls, emphatically representing the protection of the century old ceramics in the earthen bed of soil.3 2

In the recent years usage of concrete in China has exponentially increased, for instance, the past three years have seen such use of concrete in China that it matches the amount used in the United States of America in the past twenty-five years. Therefore, the usage of earth in the project is a milestone for sustainable building in the country, coinciding with a governmental building policy which stipulates that fifty percent of the new buildings in China in the near future will be green buildings. Currently, a mere three percent of the buildings in China can be deemed green buildings. Therefore, the design of the museum is suggestively a means to pave the way towards an architectural language which is sustainable, environment-friendly and even represents the rich cultural heritage and identity of China.

 

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 The intent of the client is to present a precious source of pride and encouragement to the people of Lintao, and incite them to celebrate their cultural heritage and the museum, therefore, supports the cause of well-being and induces self-confidence. While the region represents unique heritage, the present statistical data indicates towards a limited number of tourists. This factor, along with the study of the tendency of people to habitually visit a museum for the purpose of amassing knowledge, was taken into consideration and the design was aimed to present the museum with solely exhibition purpose.

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The spatiality emphasizes other characteristic values, such as celebration of creativity, introspection and contemplation and enjoyment of a cultural experience. Therefore, the overall programme involves a private as well as a public teahouse, a library with designated reading areas and the museum comprises two areas for conducting workshops in the historic tradition of pottery. Keeping with design aesthetics, all infrastructural units have been camouflaged within a second concentric wall around the courtyard.17

The exhibition has been divided into three separate areas, with exhibits placed inside niches, according to their age and era, or on soccles and hanging, or placed standing in eight spaces which are doubled heighted. The former two allow for more flexibility in the exhibits. Voids with double height have been significantly designed for the passage of natural light through skylights, located opposite to the earthen walls displaying ancient pottery. Exclusive pieces in modern ceramic art, created by renowned artists with international acclaim have been placed here. The inner courtyard represents a sanctuary, where dynamism decreases, and quiet contemplation is induced in the midst of the natural earth, and an open view, freely under the sky.

The design of the museum inspires the principle of following context and celebrating culture in our architectural spaces. It further exhibits an ideal portrayal of a sustainable and environmentally friendly execution of a design idea, and holistic design approach is evident exemplary.

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About the Architects:

In the words of Anna Heringer, principal architect at Studio Anna Heringer:

“Architecture is a tool to improve lives.

The vision behind, and motivation for my work is to explore and use architecture as a medium to strengthen cultural and individual confidence, to support local economies and to foster the ecological balance. Joyful living is a creative and active process and I am deeply interested in the sustainable development of our society and our built environment. For me, sustainability is a synonym for beauty: a building that is harmonious in its design, structure, technique and use of materials, as well as with the location, the environment, the user, the socio-cultural context. This, for me, is what defines its sustainable and aesthetic value.”

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