[Guest Post] The Poetry of the Little-Known Red Brick Gallery

Dichen Ding is an Architectural Designer in New York City. She was born in China, received her Master of  Architecture from Columbia University and is currently working for TEN Arqitectos.

The Red Brick Art Gallery not only holds valuable artwork within its brick shell, but also offers amazingly choreographed and masterfully-crafted brick spaces that unfold as you move through them. Located in Northeastern Chaoyang District, Beijing No.1 International Art District, the entire gallery complex is around 20,000 square meters (about 180,000 sf) and the gallery itself takes up half that area. The Red Brick Art Gallery was founded by art collector Shijie Yan and Mei Cao and opened on May 23rd, 2014; the architect behind the gallery and its garden is Yugan Dong, a professor at Peking University’s architectural research center.  Dong is an architect who specializes in the use of red bricks; in this project he continues his exploration of red brick as an essential architectural element.  His efforts form a unique architectural language – as well as peaceful contemporary garden – in this modern gallery.

Top Image: Red Brick Art Gallery, All Photos Courtesy Red Brick Art Gallery.

Figure 1. Exterior View of Red Brick Art Gallery

Figure 1. Exterior View of Red Brick Art Gallery

The main building of the Red Brick Art Gallery has three stories: two floors above ground and a smaller cellar below. The building contains 9 gallery spaces, 2 public lounges, and one designated area for art related products. The sprawling complex also features a lecture hall, cafeteria, dining hall and members’ club are also located in this zone, which allows the visitors to enjoy the scenery at the same time. And it’s the scenery that sets it apart: the gallery’s modern garden aims to create the same natural and powerful resonances traditional Chinese gardens. Moreover, the Red Brick Art Museum uses its unique construction and representation methods to blur the boundary between architectural and courtyard design and elaborate the experience in three intricate layers.

First, as famous poet and writer from China Juyi Bai once said in his article “Delicacy Hides in the Seemingly Clumsy,” what makes the design special and delicate is not the luxurious ornaments and intricate decorations but the smart and considerate utilization of the space. Dong transformed the existing hall into a gallery exhibition space that’s inspiring and sublime. By and large, contemporary landscape design is becoming more and more superficial, almost like pure pattern design. To avoid that, Dong drew from the thousand-years of Chinese garden design to choreograph a garden and landscape experience that’s enjoyable and resonating to walk through, look into, and live in. Last but not least, as the buffer zone between the interior of the gallery and the exterior forest in the north, the courtyard creates a smooth connection between the two parts, eventually resulting in a fluent experience throughout the three layers.

Figure 2. Buffer Zone between the interior Gallery and exterior courtyard

Figure 2. Buffer Zone between the interior Gallery and exterior courtyard

Figure 3. Entrance Lobby

Figure 3. Entrance Lobby

Dong uses the element of light to make the entrance lobby of the gallery a soft buffer between the exterior and the interior. The entrance is a glass door kept between two thick brick walls. When you are outside, the inside is relatively dark and the door is like a window that only allows the visitor to clearly see a reflection of him or her self. But when you enter the space, you’ll find yourself in a completely different atmosphere. When you walk into the entrance hallway, lights are casted into the space through the seams of the wall, providing you with warmth and softness. This sublime and sacred feeling calms visitors down and lays a foundation of peace so that people can enjoy the artwork wholeheartedly.

Upon entrance is a square hall, in the middle of which is a round exhibition space that’s stepping down. That together with the double height spaces increases the vertical dimension of the space, which also corresponds to Chinese courtyard design features.

Figure 4. Central Exhibition Space

Figure 4. Central Exhibition Space

After the square hall there sit the stairs leading downwards, which functions as an amphitheater. The small square hall is lifted up to eye-level. There is a gap between the wall and the floor so that you can see into the space in which there would be small exhibitions and seminars. The seam of sight gives people a rough idea of what’s going on in the space and stimulates their curiosity.

Figure 5. Gap of The Lifted Small Hall

Figure 5. Gap of The Lifted Small Hall

The courtyard is a narrow pathway that’s connecting the gallery and the garden in the north. Dong strategically incorporated different sorts of veins and plans to cover up the lights in the neighborhood so that people can enjoy the space without being interrupted. Apart from that, he drew from Chinese traditional garden design and used its signature round door element to introduce a sequence of layered space which makes traveling through them an experience that’s rhythmic and exciting.

Figure 6. Sequence of Round Doors in the Courtyard

Figure 6. Sequence of Round Doors in the Courtyard

The same language is also used to create windows and doors, the circularly shaped openings act as frames, providing different view angles looking at the space beyond. The architect really cares about the experience and tries to calibrate it for visitors that go through the spaces. Everything you encounter, you see and you smell is choreographed for you just to stimulate an atmospheric representation of Chinese culture. It’s a nostalgic experience many Chinese visitors and still refreshing for those less familiar with traditional Chinese architecture.

Figure 7. Round Doors on the Facade

Figure 7. Round Doors on the Facade

When the garden finally opens up after all the emotional build-up, it is surprisingly peaceful and poetic. The natural scenery responds to the gallery itself via using the same architectural language, the geometries, the layout and the repetition. However, the main material for the garden is stone, which is a colder and quieter material than brick. This decision allows the garden to be a utopia for the mind after the resonating experience inside the gallery.

Figure 8. Garden

Figure 8. Garden

The overall sequence of the spaces is like a well-choreographed dance, filled with the balance between light and heavy, brightness and darkness, density and openness. In a way, the building section is a representation of western architecture, a confined system all by itself, functioning within its own parts while the garden is definitely a reflection of traditional Chinese landscape and courtyard design, aiming at an integration between the built and the nature. The integration of all these opposing elements made the design full of tension and forced the organization to be concise and accurate.

Figure 9. Ground Floor Plan

Figure 9. Ground Floor Plan

From the ground floor plan map, we can see a very rigid layering structure in both directions. The interior spaces of the gallery form a west to east sequence of exhibition, and along the way the interior would diffuse out into the long and narrow outdoor sculpture hallway, where the circular-shaped doors on the facade opens up to the scenic garden. Further into the north, after the courtyard with the repetitive series of round doors, the space gradually unfolds and opens up to the garden, allowing people to relax themselves from the intense experience in the gallery and reflect on their thoughts and emotions inspired by the design.

Apart from the intricate design of the layering spatial sequence, another highlight of the project is how Dong used a repetitive material and created such a portfolio of various spaces, which also strengthened the effect of different layers of spaces. The architect incorporated various methods and techniques to create diversity from the same materials. At the corners of the exterior wall of the gallery, red bricks overlap to create a unique folded corner while allowing each brick to stay intact. Sometimes the turning point would be aligned with a wall, functioning as a structural member while preserve the aesthetic qualities. Different lines and geometries create a lighter structure composed by the heavy and solid material. When the gaps between the two layers of walls are filled with light and shadows, walking through them becomes an intriguing experience where the space is always turning and always changing.

Figure 10. Corner Detail

Figure 10. Corner Detail

Different materials are also used in different ways so that their own quality can be made fully used. Stones, bricks and shingles are all put together repetitively to create different texture and different experience. The walls of the sculpture hallway are made of piles of shingles, which is porous and light, beyond that is a layer of brick wall with vertical window slots. This two screens together provide privacy of each space while still allowing plenty of light to infiltrate, which guarantee a sublime but not stuffy experience inside of them. In some of the brick walls, pieces are taken out while others are pushed forward, creating an interesting play of transparency and thickness. All of these techniques evidence the diversity of spaces that one material can generate as well as the Dong’s architectural talent.

Figure 11. Courtyard Wall Detail

Figure 11. Courtyard Wall Detail

Figure 12. Wall Detail

Figure 12. Wall Detail

As a gallery, the Red Brick Art Gallery is dedicated to motivate the development of Chinese Contemporary Art Industry through its high-standards in the curating process for exhibitions and efforts in combining art collecting, research, education and public events. It’s also working towards the goal of setting up an operating model for Chinese contemporary art museums.

From an architectural designer’s point of view, the importance of this building is not only limited to the content inside but also is the space itself. The masterful use of brick material to create such a wonderful sequence of spaces that leads people through the layers is amazing and results in a beautiful experience. In addition, the fact that the architect thinks about traditional architecture element and try to bring it back to modern design is admirable. After all, learning from the essence of history and our heritage and transforming it to improve our current and future life is what makes us develop, improve and advance.

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