The Ningbo Museum, which won a Pritzker prize for architect Wang Shu last year, is a challenging edifice. Combining traditional elements and materials with monumental modernism — in its most uncompromisingly brutalist manifestation — it realizes a peculiar complex of delicacy and terror.
Wang’s signature facades already display the same ambiguity in embryo. His vast sheer planes, shown in the Ningbo Tengtou pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (2010), memorialize a demolished past. The bricks and tiles from obliterated villages are recycled into exquisitely tessellated, endlessly absorbing surfaces, sparsely punctuated by irregularly oriented and distributed windows. The tension between crushing scale and intricate composition is immense (and intimate). Subtle drifts of texture and color from the non-uniform materials make the walls into sensual displays of abstract pattern, whilst their massive geometric rigor approaches a state of absolute menace (with an unmistakable military-totalitarian edge).
In the structure of the Ningbo Museum, this tension is compounded to an almost hysterical pitch by a hybrid structure, fusing the flattened village mosaics with colossal blocks of comparatively homogeneous textured concrete. The building looks like a modern fortress, assembled in an architectural language of hard defensive pragmatism. Every aperture is pressurized in the direction of a slit, as if even minimal openings were a reluctant concession to weakness and vulnerability. For the landmark cultural institution of an open, commercial city, nestled deep within China’s traditionally pacific Jiangnan region, this structural vocabulary is jarring, and indubitably provocative. If it has a message, it is not easy to decrypt.