Ruins of an Alternate Future: Jinhua Architecture Park

One of the great, if seldom realized, promises of architecture is its capacity to affect change. The best architects seem to have this potential in mind constantly as they structure career-length narratives around the social impact that good design can achieve. While this is often hyperbole, and most projects are driven by functional or economic considerations, there is the occasional opportunity for artists and architects to create purely speculative work, where radical departures from established typologies suggest alternatives to the status quo. In these rare cases, 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.

Ancient Tree | Christ & Gantenbein AG

While it’s incredibly rare for a single client and a single architect to agree on such a radical – and risky – design approach for a single building, it’s not uncommon for a city, state, or nation to sponsor curated exhibitions, where invited designers are free to experiment in pursuit of alternative prototypes.

This governmental impulse towards experimentation and exhibition can be traced back as far as London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 (if not further), where nations were invited to demonstrate the best of their industrial, scientific, and cultural products. While Britain’s intent may have been transparently propagandistic (given their industrial superiority at the time), the legacy is that every country with the means to throw such a party has had their chance [1], and these exhibitions have indeed produced radical works of architecture that not only introduced technical and material innovations, but demonstrated new concepts of how a building’s spatial configuration can influence the social relation of its inhabitants.

The World Exhibitions have produced the Crystal Palace (London, 1851) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889), whose structural innovations have had such an incalculable impact on the construction industry. They have produced the German Pavilion (1929, Barcelona) and the Blur Building (Swiss Expo 2002), both radical designs where the ambiguity of enclosure makes us question the place of architecture in the environment, and the role of the individual in society. They have produced the Weissenhof Siedlung (Stuttgart, 1927), credited with popularizing international-style modernism. Temporary or permanent, these structures can have a huge impact not just on the architectural design community, but on society as a whole.

Tea Rooms | Liu Jiakun

With this all in mind, it’s worth looking at the Jinhua Architecture Park (2002-2006). Though not built for a World Exposition, the seventeen structures here share that revolutionary intent (and seem to me to fit in the canon of expo pavilions more than most of the propaganda-halls of Shanghai Expo 2010 [2]). Planned and curated by dissident artist Ai Wei Wei, each pavilion represents a new path forward for architecture, at least in the mind of the designer.

The park seems to be a reinterpretation of a traditional Chinese garden, through an extension of those principles to a massive, linear site. I’ve written before about classical gardens, where the containing boundary seems to determine the density and complexity of the space within, as if each garden designer had a certain number of elements to fit “in the box” and constituent elements were chopped, overlaid, and folded in on themselves when necessary.

In Suzhou’s Garden of the Master of Nets, for instance, courtyards are squeezed down to become mere slots of space, covered walkways peel off from the halls, which seem almost to overlap. Barrier walls are punctuated by screen windows, offering visual – but not physical – connections through four or five layers of space.

In the larger Humble Administrator’s Garden, individual buildings are scattered throughout the landscape, each representing the perfection of the pavilion form, but less complex as a whole. The Jinhua park is an extension of the latter garden type, expanded to the point where each subsequent pavilion is barely visible from the last. Each can exist independently as an ideal prototype (This separation is not caused by distance, necessarily, but by the sculpting of the ground plane into hills and valleys, and the planting of different plant species in different areas. And perhaps due to smog).

Restaurance | FDC

The pavilions themselves vary in quality. Toshiko Mori’s “Newspaper Stand” is all promenade, a ramp seemingly stripped from another project.  Liu Jiakun’s Tea Rooms resemble a field of floating lanterns. Wang Shu’s Ceramic House has an intriguing relation to the ground plane and a unique material palette. The “Restaurant” by Johan de Wachter Architects/Fun Design Consultancy resembles a dislocated fragment of Constant’s New Babylon, or Yona Friedman’s Spatial City.

These are all interesting concepts, but it’s hard to look past the material quality: the vast majority of the pavilions are literally falling apart. Operable wall panels are stuck or broken, doors are locked or rusted shut, wood is beginning to rot, paths are overgrown. The impression is that you’ve stumbled onto the remains of some future society.

Ai Wei Wei’s “Archeological Archive” is one of the few that have weathered well. The concrete form stands in proud contrast to the other decaying pavilions (foolishly made of more than one material). The artist’s skill as a sculptor becomes apparent as one orbits the building, which offers up multiple, often contradictory associations from different vantage points.

From one end, the elevation is an ideal profile: a farmhouse – or a primitive hut – in overgrown grassland. Moving clockwise around the building, you see the profile extrude and elongate into an industrial shed. Further around, there is a sunken plaza, revealing a mirror-image of the “ur-house” and confirming its geometry as hexagonal, an imposed geometric order that can accommodate diverse activities (a formal strategy that should be familiar to students of contemporary architecture).

The sunken plaza may resemble an archeological dig, but I believe Ai Wei Wei wouldn’t be quite so literal. Continuing clockwise, the house profile is reestablished, but undercut and destabilized by the excavation. Reading the pavilion from this cinematic sequence of views, we can conclude that accelerating modernization has literally stripped away the foundation of traditional society.

Herzog & de Meuron’s “Reading Room” is equally rich. The architects have – for years, over a number of projects – been investigating the extent to which a surface pattern can be productive, in terms of expanding the façade to create interior volumes. While the architects’ early work could be characterized as minimalist-post-modern (demonstrating the lasting influence of Aldo Rossi, in projects like Blue House and Rudin House), by the early 90s their techniques had expanded to include patternmaking and graphic applique (these two threads weave together at Ricola Mulhouse, where an exaggerated industrial-shed overhang caps the patterned polycarbonate panels). By the late 90s and early 2000s, they had allowed these graphic applications to expand in scale and extend into the interior. At Prada Aoyama, the diagrid façade is proportioned precisely to accommodate the angle of the staircases, pushed to the exterior envelope, and portions of the façade pattern are extruded through the building to provide enclosure for fitting rooms.

The pavilion in Jinhua is the next step in this line of inquiry, as all interior volumes are created by the extrusion and intersection of the flat, patterned facades. The pavilion retains a rectangular envelope, and one can read each façade as a planar surface. The vestiges of a hexagonal grid are visible, but this initial condition has been heavily distorted. The resulting form is an incredibly complex but immediately understandable, scaled perfectly for climbing. One could easily find a dozen nooks or crannies, ideal for reading (or any number of illicit activities).

Following this project, the architects would go on to complete the Beijing National Stadium, in which the façade pattern expands to encompass the entire zone of support facilities, everything but the bowl. They would later combine their early minimal-postmodern house profile with the technique used at Prada to create the Vitrahaus, in Weil-am-Rhine, where the vestiges of an enclosing envelope are finally abandoned, and the interior-extrusions become self-supporting.

While the formal gymnastics of the Jinhua pavilion are impressive, and the scheme seems to fit perfectly within the architects’ oeuvre, the pavilion is smartly oriented on site to provide “captured views” from within. From various points, the concrete forms frame views out to the landscape and surrounding pavilions: the rare pavilion that directs attention away from itself.

Like Ai Wei Wei’s pavilion, the concrete form of the “Reading Room” has resisted decay relatively well. The other pavilions, however, are deteriorating rapidly. In European traditions, architects aspire to permanence, but what the Jinhua architecture park makes clear is for works of architecture or art to survive they must be continuously maintained, repaired, or rebuilt, or they will vanish into the landscape. We make our pilgrimages to Athens and Rome, but we don’t quite realize the constant vigilance required to keep those monuments intact.  I wonder if it would have been better, in Jinhua, to design for temporality, to plan for demolition and reconstruction, following Confucian traditions of repetition and renewal, building anew each year, learning from mistakes, and building better each year.

Until next time…

As always, more photos at the author’s Flickr site: Architecture by City: Jinhua.

This essay was cross-posted to the author’s blog on Archinect. For a nice, thorough rundown of the individual pavilions, check out Addison’s post over at Codename Albacore.


[1] I hope to examine the Shanghai Expo, and the role of propaganda a little more in depth in a future post.

[2] Notable exceptions: The Danish Pavilion by Bjarke Ingels/BIG, the Madrid Pavilion by FOA, and the Ningbo Pavilion by Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture.


  • Great stuff, much more efficient than my long attempt to tell the same story (which I’ll be recapitulating in blog form soon enough) and I love the little zinger insights – like the narrative you add to the transforming-form story of the Ai Weiwei building.

    One thing that remains to be determined is how much the lack of maintenance is down to political circumstance and Ai’s outsider status; knowing that Ai Weiwei planned the whole thing you have to wonder if the local government didn’t want to be seen as funding, polishing, and promoting the work of a disapproved dissident and tax evader, &c. Does this matter? I’d say yes, because the “temporary expo” suggestion misses the idea that this thing would offer something unique to the city in the long run, relative to other possible ideas about a “park,” in that future generations of kids who grew up playing here would have these transformational spatial experiences, get their heads expanded, and so on. Whether or not that would have happened I don’t know (the scheme sort of depends on the adjacency of the never-built, Herzog-designed new town to the south), but it certainly would have been ruled out by the temporary-expo approach…

  • Thanks, man. This is a fun one….. I do wonder if the city has turned it’s back on the park to avoid that association, but you could easily find a dozen other examples of relatively new construction projects, underutilized, and falling into disrepair (especially the infamous “ghost cities”). Ai Wei Wei’s association w/ the Bird’s Nest didn’t seem to do that one any harm (though maybe he “saved” it by downplaying his role and criticizing the design…).

  • Fair points all. I would also be hesitant to pin this one on the cowardly municipal government, except that I remember, when I first voiced this theory on the microphone, getting some slow, significant nodding from Alex’s direction – as if to say “Sounds pretty darn likely to me.” I suppose we’re lucky the place wasn’t torn down, or peppered with “inconspicuous” plain-clothes cops a la CCD…

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  • César

    Dear Evan,

    Thanks for the update, great photos.

    We had the good lock to be chosen by Ai Wei Wei and H&dM for the design of pavilion 13.

    As you can check on our site: the main idea of our production, and of this specific structure, is to provide scenography, scaffolding-like on this one, for life to happen.

    We propose ourselves solely as the creators of the background. But when the background becomes the main actor due to the lack of life (users) and love (maintenance) failure happens.

    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.

    I hope that China and Wei Wei shake hands before everything disappears. There are good intentions and lots of work on the creation of all pavilions (there are even two from Pritzker price winners…).

    I wouldn´t love anything more for this project that seeing it full of people, used for the three different speeds and ways of eating, as we foresaw…

    Best and congrats for the blog!

    César García

    • Cesar – thanks for the comment! It’s great to hear some feedback from the designers. Your pavilion at Jinhua was one of the most impressive, and you’re right it’s a shame that no one is actually using it. Incidentally, I will be going back to Jinhua again next month – it will be interesting to see if anything has changed in a year….

  • César

    Hi there – We´d love to see more pics 😉

    For what I can remember, the district offices for the project (local government) where on a new building right beside the Ai Wei Wei monument in front of the park across the canal. Maybe they can give you a hint on why it is unfinished (or at least give you the official excuse…)

    Moreover, at the time of start of works of the park, and also on the opposite side of the canal, H&dM were starting to build a new residential neighborhood with very innovative brickwork. I do not know if that was stopped as well or not. At that time we saw some wall brick real size mock-ups.

    If you need more insight on the project’s processes we’ll be glad to help…

    César García

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