Guotai Arts Centre, Chongqing

— by Minghuan Xie —

Nowadays, people are seldom bored with the combination of ancient Chinese construction elements with modern architectural design.

Objectively, many would agree that it is a positive development: fusing modern and traditional Chinese architecture. However, because of the extensive usage of concrete and steel as a global phenomenon, traditional Chinese structures, like many culturally sensitive designs across the world, has lost its functional sense. As Rem Koolhaas argued in his recent Venice Biennale thesis, in many ways only a symbolic sense of national architecture remains.

So many designers are driven to use erroneous methods – grandiloquent formalistic expressions of ancient construction elements or concepts – for they concentrate on the symbolic aspect too much. This article will introduce the Guotai Arts Centre as an innovative example of how to do it well. It is a building that reconsiders the use of traditional “Chinese construction elements” thus making this architecture more than just symbolic.

Site Plan of Guotai Arts Centre

Guotai Arts Centre designed by Cui Kai in 2005 is located in the Central Business District (CBD) of Chongqing city in the heart of China. As a new art centre, this project is composed of a concert hall, a theatre and an exhibition room. In front of the building there is a public space.

The issue of how to connect the outside space and the inside space is one that architect long thought over. The solution has been to use a Chinese construction element called “Ti-Cou”… a solution that also reflects its project purpose. As Cui Kai has stated, the project was aimed to express the spiritual content of traditional architecture in a new way. “Ti” as an ancient Chinese character, means cutting ends of the wood, and “Cou” is a construction method that repeats the timber alternately in different directions.

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Outer Views of Guotai Arts Centre

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Outer Views of Guotai Arts Centre

The main body of the building is made by 600 “sticks” of “Ti-Cou”. The strong traditional Chinese style is clearly expressed by these huge-scale red and black steel bars, encouraging people to associate the building with ancient Chinese crafted roof brackets. Similarly, the China pavilion in EXPO 2010 used bracket concept as well. However, in my opinion, the China pavilion is a typical formalistic architecture, for its red brackets are designed mainly for symbolic expression. By the way, the Expo pavilion was massive, out of place and quite inappropriate.

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Inner Views of Guotai Centre

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Inner Views of Guotai Centre

Reflecting on his Guotai Arts Centre, the architect treats the “Ti-Cou” is a real part of the building instead of only being a decorative element. Thus “Ti-Cou” becomes the core element of this building: a structural element but also a conceptual element. On one hand, “Ti-Cou” creates a spatial blend between outside and inside, since “Ti-Cou” extends from outside space to the inner architectural space. Guests might find that they are walking spontaneously into the building.

On the other hand, the overlapping “Ti-Cou” elements creates a large number of different spaces. For visual aspect, there is real and philosophical depth meanwhile, in practical terms, it increase the speed of natural air circulation. On this point, each “Ti-Cou” has its own function. Over 60 percent of the “Ti-Cou” were designed as ventilation ducts. By using this ventilation system, its running cost can reduced significantly compared to standard system costs. The rest of the “Ti-Cou” were designed as the load-bearing structures. Overall, the design of the “Ti-Cou” element demonstrates an equilibrium between architectural aesthetics, functional services and supporting structure. Few Chinese-style modern architecture could reach such a level of simple complexity – or multi-faceted design ambitions.

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Plans of Guotai Arts Centre

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Sections through Guotai Arts Centre

Guotai Arts Centre is an example of contemporary modern architecture in China. There are countless other buildings which are blended with traditional Chinese elements of late, and many are now built everyday. However, Guotai Arts Centre provides us a different way of doing this type of architecture, one which attaches importance to the detailed design stemming from construction techniques of traditional Chinese architecture adapted to modern buildings. This is more subtel than simply copying the shape – the roof – of an old building. This architecture isn’t perfect, but it could inspire us to use traditional architectural elements in order to design buildings in different ways. It need not only be from ancient China, but from different culture’s heritage as well.

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