“Novelty is embraced not for its own sake, but for its potential to generate new archetypes, to provide a glimpse into a parallel world where architecture truly has agency: where design can change society for the better.”
With these words, architectural designer and theorist Evan Chakroff struck on the profound sense of hope embedded within the sculpted walls of Jinhua Architecture Park, planned and curated by dissident artist Ai Weiwei. It is approaching a decade since 17 experimental pavilions were completed on the banks of the Yiwu River, each embodying the explorative spirit of contemporary practice and hinting at an urban future that would never come to pass.
Herzog and de Meuron’s Reading Room; © Evan Chakroff
Now uninhabited and slowly deteriorating following political wrangling over maintenance of the structures, the forgotten park contains surreal artifacts designed by some of the most influential architecture firms of the 21st century. One of the highlights is the Reading Room by Herzog and de Meuron, a vermilion sculpture of angular nooks that explores the possibility that surface pattern can be manipulated to create inhabitable space.
Ai Weiwei’s Archeological Archive; © Evan Chakroff
Ai Weiwei’s own Archeological Archive resembles a traditional farmhouse or industrial shed, but its textured concrete façades and adjacent sunken courtyard are characteristically cloaked with sociopolitical metaphor. Walking around this enigmatic structure, Chakroff concludes that “accelerating modernization has literally stripped away the foundation of traditional society.”
FR-EE’s Bridging Teahouse
HHF Architects’ Baby Dragon
Two further crimson-coated structures — the Bridging Teahouse by FR-EE/Fernando Romero Enterprise and the playful Baby Dragon pavilion by HHF Architects — both echo Herzog and de Meuron’s Reading Room in terms of color and programmatic sensibility. FR-EE’s bold structure combines two traditional, Chinese garden typologies — the teahouse and the bridge — with a flame-red flash of contemporary flair. Meanwhile, the more muted concrete of HHF’s inhabitable wall creates different conditions for interaction between all people, from the young to the elderly.
Tatiana Bilbao’s Exhibition Room; © Tatiana Bilbao
Meanwhile, the Exhibition Room by Tatiana Bilbao reveals its different facets incrementally through exploration, provoking curiosity in a manner reminiscent of traditional Chinese gardens. Comprising irregular volumes in rendered concrete, stone and glass, Bilbao’s structure is designed to surprise inhabitants with an unfolding sequence of tunnels, pathways and terraces.
Michael Maltzan Architecture’s Book Bar
Michael Maltzan’s angular Book Bar encapsulates the ancient relationship between architecture and books throughout Chinese history. Over 2,000 years ago, a descendant of Confucius concealed the philosopher’s texts in a wall when the emperor ordered all Confucian writings to be burned. Public spaces for reading and learning are concealed within tapered voids, shielded by perforated walls that reveal fleeting glimpses of the surrounding landscape.
KNOWSPACE’s Multimedia Room
Further along, the parametric Multimedia Room by KNOWSPACE incorporates a large glazed façade that serves as both entrance and interior projection screen. This small theater is wrapped by a continuous surface that forms a topographic landscape, providing stepped terraces on the exterior where people can gather to observe the rest of the park, fusing the digital and physical realm within one structural entity.
Toshiko Mori’s Newspaper Café
Toshiko Mori’s Newspaper Café is a concrete and glass display case that embodies the contrasting pace of life within the city and the park. The north façade, facing toward the city, exhibits the ever-changing front pages of news across the entire elevation. The south-facing side, looking toward the museum, river and park, is designed to address a more contemplative space, inviting the display of art.
Christ and Gantenbein’s Ancient Tree
One of the most surreal structures of all, though, is Christ and Gantenbein’s Ancient Tree, a concrete canopy that merges natural forms with the raw materiality of technical construction. The folly provides an abstract counterpoint to the more inhabitable structures, inviting visitors to find shade beneath undulating forms reminiscent of an old, gnarled tree for our postindustrial age.
Johan De Wachter Architects’ Restaurant 13
Wang Shu’s Coffee House; via Knowlton School of Architecture
Jiakun Architects' Tea Rooms; via Jiakun Architects
Wang Xing Wei and Xu Tian Tian’s Toilets; via Flickriver
The landscape of architectural curiosities goes on and on — Restaurant 13 by Johan De Wachter Architects and FünDC stands near a tile-clad Coffee House by 2012 Pritzker Prize-winner Wang Shu. The translucent boxes of Jiakun Architects' Tea Rooms seem to float in the morning mist. Even the Toilet Block by Wang Xing Wei and Xu Tian Tian is a sculptural marvel.
In his essay entitled “Ruins of an Alternate Future,” Chakroff compared Jinhua to the grand expositions of old, from London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 to the World Exhibitions of Paris, resulting in structures like the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower — architectural icons of extraordinary ambition and lasting legacy. However, one of the participants in Ai Weiwei’s park — architect César García Guerra of Spanish firm FünDC — viewed Jinhua in a different light, saying:
“I differ on your appreciation and parallelism of Jinhua’s park and the expos. This was meant to be a permanent, open and public park. Success was almost guaranteed, especially in a new neighborhood. But political reasons came along and created this abandoned monster.”
This eclectic architectural monster may have been neglected, but it remains an eerily beautiful place nonetheless. For more crumbling contemporary icons, take a moment to explore Casa Sperimentale, Rome’s fading brutalist relic.