Xiangshan Campus – a critique

SAMSUNG This article will discuss Wang Shu’s award-winning project – the Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.
– by Zhang Jiayun

Xiangshan campus is situated in Hangzhou’s suburbs and is named after the nearby mountain. The campus contains more than 30 buildings and is divided into a northern and southern part by the hill. Wang Shu combines the architecture with the scenery, reflecting traditional thinking about a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. He believes that, “the mountains (nature) would never be just a landscape to the buildings; instead, they are in a symbiotic relationship”. Thus, in Xiangshan Campus, he attempts to fuse the so-called Chinese tradition: nature and architecture.

SAMSUNGHowever, this campus seems more like an experiment for Wang Shu to explore his ideology. During the construction period (Phase I) from 2002 to 2004, he fused many architectural elements with traditional characteristics, such as the timber façades, bamboo guardrails and tiles roofs. Another project in Ningbo during this period – Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum – has the same features as the campus building.

This seems to have been an important transitional period for Wang Shu because compared with the second phase, to the south, the buildings in the northern campus are still quite straightforward. Their geometric shape is predominantly based on U-shaped traditional gardens. So, when standing in front of the buildings, it is relatively easy to understand the layout and structure.

SAMSUNGAs for the southern campus, the design became more mature and leisurely than the previously; in other words, Wang Shu is no longer restricted to previous ways of working. The form becomes more flexible or ‘irregular’. The continuous curvy roof can be seen from many buildings and angles. Meanwhile, almost every building has split floors and ramps are the primary means of access. Hence, it’s a little confusing and easy to get lost in the building.

Besides, many more materials have been used here, especially re-used bricks and tiles. This is one particular character in the Phase II project: that is, most of the bricks and tiles even some fragments of crockery come from the building demolished by the authorities. In addition, students in the architecture department were required to construct the traditional rammed earth wall (a kind of loam wall that was ‘discovered’ in Shanxi Province). Later on, a laboratory constructed by students comes into operation, but is not quite finished yet.

SAMSUNGSo, what do I think? Well, the lack of thermal insulation would be the first aspect to be criticized. Too many buildings in China have no thermal insulation and a number of them don’t even have doors or windows, so these classrooms make direct contact with the outdoor environment. Therefore, if my experience is anything to go by, it will be extremely cold during wintery or rainy day and undoubtedly quite hot during the summer months. It is the case that many students complain about the temperature in the classrooms.

Secondly, it is quite dark inside, including some of the dormitories. It must be admitted that Wang Shu has his own theory on window design: some are used to enjoy the view and some perform like the view-finder. Yet most windows here are designed for the view that they provide and the effect that they have on the façade and they are not especially designed for the benefit of allowing light into the building. Wang Shu seems to have concentrated more on the form of the architecture rather than the function (and the users’ feelings). He regards the building a piece of artwork, which might not go down well with other contemporary architects as it challenges ‘form’ over ‘function’.

SAMSUNGAdditionally, the ‘Wang Shu Style’ has increasingly extensive influence on both architects and students. Undoubtedly, it is probably a good thing to try to recapture something of Chinese culture through architecture but for students, there is a downside: the form is easily copied, but the theory and ideology ignored. I was a fortunate to look around students’ work in the exhibition hall after my visit and my guess was correct, with Wang Shu having deeply impacted on students’ “own” designs.

But from my own perspective, the duty of an architect is not merely to design beautiful architecture, but also to improve the built environment. Thus, Wang Shu might be more accurately considered to be an artist in architecture, rather than as a real architect.