Barrel-vaulted archaeology of the Imperial Kiln Museum

by Ofentse Sefolo
Barrel-vaulted archaeology of the Imperial Kiln Museum

One of the world’s most anticipated buildings, the Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln Museum, designed by Studio Zhu-Pei, recently celebrated its completion.

Composed of nine barrel-vaulted elements structured in concrete, the building stands out for its brick cladding that is composed of a mix of new bricks and recycled bricks, the latter from kilns in the Chinese city known for the making of porcelain.

The historical site context
Located in the centre of a historical area, the site of the museum is adjacent to the Imperial Kiln Ruins, surrounding many ancient kiln complexes. Jingdezhen is known as the world’s “Porcelain Capital” because it has been producing pottery for 1 700 years, and during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Jingdezhen exported a massive amount of porcelain to Europe.

Jingdezhen was growing, naturally fitting in the valleys surrounding the rivers, hills and mountains because of the porcelain industry. The early settlements of the city developed around kiln complexes, which included workshops, and housing.

Steeped in history
Situated on a fairly restricted historical area adjacent to the east side of the Imperial Kiln Ruins, the plan for the Imperial Kiln Museum was aligned with the north-south street grid of Jingdezhen, with its west-facing entry, water pools and bridge, embracing the open file of the Imperial Kiln Ruins. It is welcoming visitors to the Imperial Kiln Relic Park and public pedestrians to wander through the forest under the green canopy, going through the bridge and flowing into the foyer of the museum.

Conceptualising a masterpiece
The Imperial Kiln Museum comprises more than half a dozen brick vaults based on the traditional form of the kiln, with each of the vaults a different size, curvature and length. They were all naturally applied to the site and carefully integrated with many existing ruins, including a few ruins that were discovered 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 achieve an intimate scale of interior space. This strategy – in part also 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. Also, more importantly, it allows for the design of a number of more intimate open vaults and courtyards within the museum. Each of these public spaces is covered under shade and offers protection from the wet summer months. Two open vaults, situated at both ends of the space, reveal traces of the area’s history.

When one walks over the bridge to enter the foyer and then turn left, you will pass a series of arched exhibition spaces lightly varied in size and with contradicting openness (enclosed or open to the sky). A set of stairs at the end gently slopes down to the underground level that holds the five sunken courtyards.

Sunken courtyard Photo credit: Studio Zhu Pei

The interior space offers visitors a three-in-one experience of kilns, porcelain and people as part of the museum experience.

When turning right, one passes a bookstore, cafe and tearoom before the space finally opens to reveal a semi-outdoor area under the arch, delivering a breathtakingly picturesque scene. During daytime the arches’ surfaces reflect the waves of water, while the low horizontal gaps invite one to sit down, bringing into view the horizontal lines of the Imperial Kiln Ruins.

Equally surprising is the view from the Longzhu Pavilion of the Imperial Kiln Ruins, which becomes visible through a vertical seam as one makes your way along the foyer while entering the impressive auditorium.

Continuing, one encounters the five sunken courtyards, which all vary in size. Each has its own unique theme – gold, wood, water, fire and soil – all reminiscent of the ancient Chinese culture and its relationship with the earth, which is also strongly associated with porcelain-making techniques. The overall experience of the museum tries to rediscover the roots of Jingdezhen, to recreate the past memory of experience among kiln, porcelain and human being.

Materiality and structure
The studio team was fascinated by the tectonic and material structure of the ancient kiln. The basic structure of the museum is an arch-structure system, which is produced by pouring concrete between two layers of masonry brick walls, creating a small arch which is then laid out perpendicularly to connect the two arches.

The museum’s facade is dominated by old kiln bricks which have been mixed with new modern bricks, reflecting how the old can be used to renew. “The past cannot be erased but can be rewritten by recounting a new awareness and maturity, a sort of contemporary archaeology,“ says Zhu Pei, the Studio’s design principal.

The interior’s natural light is achieved by incorporating skylights in the sunken courtyards. Inspired by smoke holes of the ancient brick kilns, the skylights in hollow cylinder shapes are distributed on the top part of the arch to provide natural light in the daytime and artificial light at night.

Visitors will have a 360-degree sensory experience through the repeated contact between the exterior and interior that stimulates the touch, smell, hearing and sight, transporting visitors into a journey between past, present and future.

• Architects: Studio Zhu-Pei.
• Location: East gate of Royal Kiln Factory, Junction of Shengli Road and Zhonghua North Road, Zhushan District, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, China.
• Project year: 2020.
• Photographs: Studio Zhu-Pei, Schran Image, Fangfang Tian.
• Area: 10 370m².
• Co-architects: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.
• Design principal: Zhu Pei.
• Front criticism: Rong Zhou.
• Art consultant: Mingxian Wang, Xiangning Li.
• Design team: Changchen You, Mo Han, Fan He, Ling Liu, Zhigang Wu, Shun Zhang, Shuhei Nakamura, Shengchen Yang, Yang Du, Yida Chen, Chenglong He, Xinyue Ding.
• Structural consultant: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.
• MEP consultant: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.
• Green building consultant: Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.
• Landscape design: Studio Zhu-Pei, Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.
• Exhibition design: Studio Zhu-Pei, Beijing Qingshang Architectural Ornamental Engineering Co. Ltd.
• Interior design: Studio Zhu-Pei, Beijing Qingshang Architectural Ornamental Engineering Co. Ltd.
• Facade consultant: Shenzhen Dadi Facade Technology Co. Ltd.
• Lighting consultant: Ning Field Lighting Design Co. Ltd.
• Acoustic consultant: 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.

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