Atelier Diameter’s latest project is small but mighty.
The Art Gallery Extension of Nanjing University of Arts is the latest project from Shanghai-based architecture studio Atelier Diameter; it’s a small project with a great sense of public space and stunning concrete texture, that plays with arch elements and volumes.
We caught up with the architects to find out more about this fascinating project.
Where did the conversation with the client begin and what was their brief?
It all starts with a phone call. We were informed of this project over the phone. And the next thing we know, we were sitting down face to face with the director in charge in our client’s office on campus. Our client wanted to renovate the common room on the ground floor of a residence hall and add a small house in the open space between the buildings for two institutes to restore and exhibit ancient European oil painting and Chinese porcelain tiles respectively. But we suggested at the beginning that the add-on house should be situated to the side to spare the small square in the middle; and then we discussed our proposal to establish a connection between the two exhibition areas.
Tell us about some of the new design features that were unique to this project?
The design has several attributes. First of all, it goes beyond the functional requirements of an enclosed exhibition space. Instead, we created an extra outdoor space for students so that even if the exhibition is not on, people would still enjoy gathering around the place or simply walking pass by. Secondly, to indicate both kinds of display contents, oil painting as well as porcelain tile, we tested a special texture of concrete, hoping to build associations with multiple senses of the material. The third feature is the organization of the sight line. For example, one can only see an arc shaped piece of the sky from the outer staircase, and the small square is only visible when sitting under the arcade… The visual game adds much fun to the walking experience in the space. Another distinctive trait of the design is the form of the architecture. Since it is located on an artistic campus, naturally I hope to make the building a sophisticated contemporary art installation as well, which is pure, tranquil, and elegantly styled at the same time.
Of course, we also put a lot of thought into the design of the staircase. In the process of the floor plan retrofit, a staircase was moved to the middle of the trees in the adjacent pedestrian street. The staircase was assembled by simple corten steel panels in Mondrian style, which became a vibrant element contrasting to the main building.
Can you talk about the use of materials throughout?
Apart from glass, the only finish material is fair-faced concrete. Its delicate and pure texture is very much in line with what I expect of this house.
However, there is one special treatment for the material we used. We applied a customized concrete with a rough texture on the inner interface of the outer vault. A special mould was used to create such a texture, as mentioned above, as powerful as the brushstrokes in Van Gogh’s paintings. One can also see it as a metaphor for broken porcelain tiles. The particular texture makes this space a highlight of the project. What does it imply? Besides suggesting the contents of the exhibition, it also indicates the image of a “cave”. The coarse concrete under the specially designed low colour temperature beam spots furnishes this space with a certain rustic warmth and a sense of security.
How did you tackle issues surrounding sustainability?
Sustainability was primarily considered as to leave scope for future adaptation to the possible changes in the use of the building and to allow the artistic energy that permeates all the crevices of this pedestrian street in the dormitory area to last and to thrive. First, the extension was situated as close to the south side of the site as possible, reserving the open space in the central area (on the opposite side there is a bookstore and on the other side a flower shop) to encourage a variety of student activities in the area. The northeast corner of the building was set back to preserve an existing sycamore tree. The setback also provided space for a helical staircase to direct people from the upper floor to where the tree stands – a set of seats was also customized using the exemplary concrete slab to welcome people to sit and stay under the tree.
A long and narrow atrium space between the first and second floors of the interior showrooms was set up with natural light drawn from the roof. In the beginning, our client believed this small atrium was unnecessary, considering that the upper and lower levels would be used by different institutions. But I convinced them to keep it in case that the two floors would be used by the same organization in the future. If so, a light steel staircase would be easily added here to connect both levels.
What was the most challenging part about this project?
The most challenging part was to ensure the construction quality of the fair-faced concrete, especially the customized concrete with special texture. We wanted to make the building pure and elegant, but if the concrete was not well poured, it would be extremely difficult to repair it later. Fortunately, manager Yang of the construction team is very attentive. He loves the house as much as I do (he changed his WeChat profile photo to the picture of this building after the project and keeps it till this day). Even under the huge pressure of cost control, he was willing to knock out and redo a section of the curved concrete exterior wall that was not perfectly done, which was a very difficult decision to make under the circumstances. Of course, we also struggled a bit in making the concrete mould with special effects using the raw material of the oriented strand board. Many repeated trials were taken to achieve the expected effect.
Can you talk about the contrasting elements of this project?
This is a small house, elegant and quiet on the outside. But the internal space is surprisingly warm and playful, thus I hope people can experience and enjoy all aspects of it. Regarding the vault space, also known as the “cave”, in addition to the coarse texture of the surface, we intentionally decorated it with the colour temperature of the lighting and the irregularly distributed beam spots to address its semi-enclosed feature. We even placed a section of thick tree trunk against the wall as a seat to enhance this impression, creating a feeling of being illuminated by candlelight for people inside.
This is another little game where Eastern and Western culture intersect at one point: the vault space may remind you of Plato’s “allegory of the cave” on one hand; on the other, there is also an idiom in ancient China using the Chinese character with the meaning of “a cave” to describe people who “have a penetrating insight into matters”. We incorporated the allusion to traditional wisdoms in the context of an artistic campus in a modern city.
How would you describe this project in three words?
Public, tranquil, and warm.
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