The Laterite Museum by Natural Build

– by Qiang Jiadong –

Laterite 2_geography

The Laterite Museum is intended for Tonling Heritage Park, Ruichang, Jiangxi province. Laterite is a red soil layer that is rich in iron oxide

, while aluminum-rich laterite is called bauxite. Here in Tonling, where the largest copper smelting plant has been producing vast quantities of copper for many years, the soils are pregnant with a variety of useful metals. A wide range of metals have been mined here for many years, so as well as a celebration of the wealth of indigenous soil-based materials themselves, this new museum will be an exhibition space and research centre exploring the rise of human civilization, from iron to bronze age.

Laterite 1_general

The museum has been designed by the architectural firm, Natural Build; recently established by Shanghai-based Yanfei Shui and other two partners. The Laterite Museum project is currently under construction and will be completed by the end of 2013.

Laterite 4_drawingField investigations and historical analysis of the particular mining structures within the site, influenced the decision to design an underground museum experience. Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons series – the drawings created in the mid-18th century to depict huge labyrinthine caverns – was studied to learn how cavernous structures might be used and perceived. Admittedly, the intent of Piranesi’s work was incarceration (Carceri d’invenzione), whereas Natural Build’s intentions are far more liberating, but understanding the perception of subterranean confinement was important in order to put a positive spin on the experience.

Laterite 3_piranesi

Carceri Plate XI – The Arch (published 1750)

Re-interpreting these mine structures for public use, while recreating some of the atmosphere of a Gothic labyrinth is the driving force of the design concept. The wide open contours of the site,  create various logical entry points. The long rectangular components differ in height and depth, and these criss-cross each other creating a system of overlapping and intersecting corridors. These may cause perceptual distorientation, but the subtle control of the layout of the “labyrinth” through careful circulation references, will remedy this.

Laterite 6_drawings interior

Laterite 6_photos interior

Several paintings were made to analyse the multiplicity of views of the exhibition space. The spatial quality of the experience and the appropriate atmospheric distortion of the userl experience were explored; many of these drawings drew direct inspiration from the Piranesi’s prison series.

The massing process creates a multiplicity of views in different directions instead of imposing one predominant view, which implies an intentional balance between the confines of the inner space compared to the freedom of the outside. The building will not only provide an unusual experience, but it will also generate potential for future exhibition expansion.

With respect to materiality, the local material has been incorporated into the building facade as an aggregate. Since laterite is a characteristic local material which is rich in iron and because it has a distinctive texture because of soil erosion, a concrete scouring technique will be used to put laterite aggregate on lower part of concrete wall. The colour gradient and the geological process emerging from roughness to smoothness will then be demonstrated on the building’s surface.

Cost constraints, as well as the difficulty of employing sufficiently skilled workers to carry out this level of intricately designed construction in such awkward circumstances means that many of the architectural and structural concepts may be difficult to translate from the drawing board to reality. Healthy communication and discussion between the designers and the construction team are needed since construction quality is the key point of the whole project. The best that can be hoped for is that a considerable budget be allocated for the essential site supervision – or project management – and that meaningful consultation with the architect be conducted throughout the construction process.

Natural Build is a new architectural firm in Shanghai and the Laterite Museum is their first major project.  As the author of this article, I have to disclose that I interned at this office during the summer recess. Because of my closeness to the project, I feel that I can only ‘describe’ rather than ‘critique’ this building; after all, The Laterite Museum is the foundation stone of the whole design team, me included. As such, I am really looking forward to the realisation of this project by the end of year… and maybe a critical article, with sufficient distance, can be written by some other author at that stage.