Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

2Jul/100

Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.

17May/102

Xiguan canal resurrected

IMG_4878copy

I stumbled on an interesting urban renewal project last week while searching for old PRC propaganda posters.  I had googled Guangzhou antique shops, and was pointed to Lizhiwan Road, on the eastern edge of Liwan Park in Fangcun District.  But when I got there, I found that almost all of the shops had been shuttered.  Workers were using hammers and pry-bars to demolish the small brick stalls built up next to the sidewalk.  Curiously, one side of the road surface had been cleanly cut away, revealing a deep concrete trench below carrying some very nasty water.  At first, I assumed that this was just another sewer replacement project.  But then I noticed the architectural renderings plastered to nearby fences that show the street is being turned into a canal to better attract tourists.  Locals were gazing at the renderings trying to make sense of what their community will soon become.

I can't be sure, but I would suspect this road used to be a canal that was covered during some past modernization project.  Or, it's possible that the trench was built as a sewer and has always been one.  There is still a some untreated sewage pouring into the now open trench from the surrounding neighborhoods.  That will have to be addressed, probably by capturing the waste water inlets and directing them to a new drain under the canal.  That will mean the "real" river will be below, with a man-made clean river pumped above.

Restoring urban streams long hidden and neglected is a good idea, and one that has been gaining popularity as a renewal tool.  One example is the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul.  Restored streams do a lot to improve the quality of life in cities dramatically.  They provide a corridor for walking and cycling, a gathering place for community interaction, etc.  Like railroad trestle parks and bike paths, they create a new way to move through the city, stimulating new connections that can expand people's idea of community and create fresh thinking. They also provide an area where urbanites can access some nature.  While they're not really natural, as a product of intense planning and construction, restored rivers do introduce elements of nature back into the city.  If the project scale is large enough, it can attract wildlife such as amphibian, fish, and even bird species into the restored corridor.

In the river restoration sense, this project is a good start.  It's sure to improve the popularity area as a tourist attraction, assuming it can successfully deal with the sewage problem.  The scale of this project is too small to create a corridor that can improve the city as a whole.  But there are some other streams around Guangzhou that I hope will receive similar treatment.  One is the twisty Daohaoyonggaojia elevated road that runs north from the Jiangwan bridge.  The road was built to alleviate traffic North South traffic congestion by taking advantage of an unused corridor, a large stream.  It follows the twists of the stream, casting a shadow over the stream and making it a rather neglected and underutilized resource.

I'm not sure where all of the antique vendors have gone for now, but they will be back.  Chinese small businessmen are nothing if not persistent and dedicated. Removing the stalls is revealing the old buildings behind and will allow the community that used to be cut off from the park to better connect to this area.  According to the rendering, these stalls won't be coming back.  Instead there will be an interior antique mall somewhere in the project. I'm sure some of the vendors will see that as an improvement, but I don't.  Little storefronts on the street are a part of traditional Chinese urban planning.  Without the established vendors on both sides of the street, the street will be less interesting, with or without canal.