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Studio Zhu-Pei designs Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum that pays homage to the town’s porcelain-making heritage

October 22, 2020

Jingdezhen, known as the porcelain capital of the world for its 1,700-year-old pottery-making legacy, has a new cultural attraction – the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum designed by Studio Zhu-Pei. Located in the centre of a historical area, the site of the museum is adjacent to the Imperial Kiln ruins that surround many ancient kiln complexes.

During the era of Ming and Qing dynasties, Jingdezhen exported a huge amount of porcelains to Europe. The town’s topographical features include valleys surrounding rivers, hills, and mountains. The early settlements of the city developed around the old kiln complexes which included kiln, workshops, and housing. The street pattern was generated by nature and the porcelain industry. Most of the small alleys in between kiln complexes have always approached the Chang river to enable the transportation of porcelain products. The main streets have always been along with Chang river to bring all businesses and commerce together.

Situated on a fairly restricted historical area adjacent to the east side of the Imperial Kiln ruins, the plan of the Imperial Kiln Museum was aligned with the north-south street grid of Jingdezhen. With its entry, water pools, and bridge facing west, embracing the open file of Imperial Kiln Ruins to welcome visitors from Imperial Kiln Relic Park. Pedestrians can wander through the forest under the green canopy, going through the bridge, flowing into the foyer of the museum.

The Imperial Kiln Museum comprises more than half a dozen brick vaults based on the traditional form of the kiln, each of the vaults is of a different size, curvature, and length. They were naturally applied to the site, carefully integrated with many existing ruins including a few ruins that were found after the construction.

The unparalleled, linear, and arched structures of the museum, like old kilns, reach below the level of the street to not only give the flexibility to adapt itself into the complicated site, but also to achieve the intimate scale of interior space. This strategy – in part also as a response to the height of surrounding historical buildings – leads to productive ambiguity in relation to the building’s horizontal datum. The “insertion” of the building into the ground of the site produces a series of public spaces at street level.

More importantly, it allows for the design of a number of more intimate open vaults, and courtyards within the museum. Most of those public spaces are covered and are protected from the rain because it is hot and it rains a lot during summer in Jingdezhen. One of those open spaces, with two open vaults sited on both ends, also reveals the traces of the historic fabric on the site.

When visitors walk on the bridge, enter the foyer, and turn left, they will pass a series of arched exhibition spaces lightly varied in size and with contradicting openness (enclosed or open to the sky) to encounter a subtle stair at the end, flowing down to the underground level with five sunken courtyards. Meanwhile, visitors can obtain a three-in-one (kilns-porcelains-people) museum experience when they see those porcelain, ruins, and sunken courtyards which create manifold layers’ experiences with ancient bricks on the façade.

On the other hand, a right turn at the foyer will respectively pass through the bookstore, cafe, tea room, and finally reach a semi-outdoor area under the arch, witnessing a picturesque scene. When daytime surfaces, these arches reflect the waves of water while low horizontal gaps tempt people to sit down on the floor to see the long horizon of the Imperial Kiln ruins. A similar surprise is also created when a visitor sees the Longzhu Pavilion of the Imperial kiln ruins through the vertical seams when they are on the way to the auditorium before accessing the foyer.

The five sunken courtyards varied in size have a different theme: gold, wood, water, fire, soil. Those five themes not only reflect old Chinese thinking about the earth but also associate with porcelain making techniques. The overall experience of the museum attempts to rediscover the roots of Jingdezhen, to recreate the past experience among kiln, porcelain, and humans.

The architect was fascinated by local ancient kiln tectonics and materials. Referring to the past, craftsmen built the brick kiln without scaffolding in a very special way. Thin and light brick kiln achieved maximum interior space with minimum materials, the brick kilns appeared in organic forms reflecting heat flow from one end to another.

The basic structure of the museum is an arch structure system, it is made up of concrete poured in between two layers of masonry brick walls. A small arch is laid out perpendicularly to connect two arches.

Using recycled kiln bricks to build houses and all kinds of buildings is a significant character in Jingdezhen because brick kilns have to be demolished every two or three years in order to keep a certain thermal performance of the kilns. The entire city was covered by recycled kiln bricks. Those bricks record warmth and are intrinsic to the character of the city itself. In the past, the children would take a warm brick from the firing kilns to place in their schoolbags to keep themselves warm the whole day during freezing winters.

The materials of the museum are dominated by bricks – recycled old kiln bricks are mixed with new bricks to reflect the local culture of construction. This interweaving of two different historical phases proposed by the combination of new and old bricks must arouse interest, curiosity, create new questions, and give new answers. By creative interaction opportunities between the musuem and people, the historic cachet reflects the museum’s aim to create contemporary archaeology.

Visitors can have a 360-degree sensory experience through the repeated contact between exterior and interior that stimulates the touch, smell, hearing, and sight and transports them into a sort of trip between the past and the present.

Even the light evokes active and tangible memories and is proof of how ancient techniques can be reinterpreted and reread in a contemporary way. The interior natural light is achieved by both skylight and sunken courtyard and is inspired by smoke holes of the ancient brick kiln. The skylight in the hollow cylinder shape is distributed on the top part of the arch to provide natural light during daytime and artificial light at night time.

Founded in 2005 in Beijing, Studio Zhu-Pei is one of the leading Chinese architecture firms with a focus on cultural projects. It is recognised for its experience and its ability to blend forms, space, and light with great contextual sensitivity and to utilise the unique qualities of each project to create a concept-driven design. The studio specialises in seamlessly integrating new projects into contexts with particular natural, cultural, and historical importance.

The practice’s founder Zhu Pei, Hon. FAIA is the founder and principal designer of the studio. He is the dean and professor at the School of Architecture, the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He has taught as a visiting professor at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He has also served as a jury member at the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2011.

Project details:

Project name: Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum
Location: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, China
Year of completion: 2020
Area: 10,370m²
Architecture, interior and landscape design: Studio Zhu-Pei
Cooperative design: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University
Design in charge: Zhu Pei
Front Criticism: Zhou Rong
Art Consultant: Wang Mingxian, Li Xiangning
Design team: You Changchen, Han Mo, He Fan, Shuhei Nakamura, Liu Ling, Wu Zhigang, Zhang Shun, Du Yang, Yang Shengchen, Chen Yida, He Chenglong, Ding Xinyue
Consultants: Structural, MEP and Green Building: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University
Facade: Shenzhen Dadi Facade Technology CO., LTD.
Lighting: Ning Field Lighting Design CO., LTD.
Acoustic: Building Science & Technology Institute, Zhejiang University
Client: Jingdezhen Municipal Bureau of Culture Radio Television Press Publication and Tourism, Jingdezhen Ceramic Culture Tourism Group
Main Contractor: China Construction First Group Corporation Limited, Huajiang Construction CO., LTD of China Construction First Group

See the full image gallery here:

Photos: schranimage, Tian Fangfang, Zhang Qinquan, courtesy of Studio Zhu-Pei

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