Ningbo Museum, Ningbo, China — Architectural Meditations on History
I returned to Shanghai yesterday after a weekend in Ningbo. The arguable highlight of the trip was Wang Shu’s Ningbo Museum.
Some biographic orientation: Wang Shu is the first Chinese architect to receive the Pritzker Prize. He hails from Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur province of Xinjang. Wang’s buildings are characterized by a creative appropriation of reused materials, as well as atypical shapes and proportions. In contrast to the bulk of contemporary world class Chinese architecture, Wang’s work supplies a strong injunction to historical reflection.
The Ningbo Museum is composed of concrete covered bamboo, but more provocatively, layers of recycled bricks. The museum is located in the heart of new-Ningbo, on the same square as a government administration building (I am kicking myself for passing the opportunity to take a photo… something like this).
As with the bulk of Communist-Chinese architecture, the government building beside the Museum denies the existence of history. It presents a sort of timeless monument to authority and techno-Confucian administration. Ningbo itself–like many second tier (sub 10 million pop.) Chinese cities–is full of steel and glass high-rises that have the feeling of being as yet unoccupied. Having been made all at once, traffic bottle-necks in spontaneous and seemingly arbitrary locations where urban planners have yet to calibrate usage. Scarcely a block over, streets are altogether uninhabited. Alongside the expanse of newness, displaced rural life can almost be heard, but it seems remembered by no monument other than the Museum.
I often frame my infatuation with China through the above-described steel and glass futurism. Newly minted cities, where capital and desire flow, uninhibited by the knots and nodules of past or tradition. Nonetheless, the site / sight of the museum complicated the picture.
W. Benjamin writes in “Unpacking my Library”
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. … amid the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper.
Benjamin’s mediation speaks to Wang’s Museum. For Benjamin, moving apartments presents an opportunity to reframe the historically laden materials that surround him. The disturbance of the order of things gives rise to a nearly sacred opportunity to remember. In the case of Wang’s museum, by appropriating the recycled bricks of the very houses demolished to construct new Ningbo, a door is opened through which the past speaks. Please take a minute to contextualize the final picture in the below series (the close up of the bricks) within the broader shots that are evidenced. The seal, of an unknown brickmaker, taken from the rubble of an unnamed and demolished home, calls back to prior configurations of space, time and life.
Any modern city is built on the ruins of the past habitations. Unfortunately, glass, steel, or Communist slate are construction materials that conceal historical violence. Wang Shu’s material, by contrast, allows buildings to function as demonstrative microcosms of cultural and human history.