Any new art space gives the opportunity for cutting edge design. The Dune Gallery in Beidaihe, China goes one better and integrates its innovative design right into the landscape. By Jeremy Torr.
One of the newest and most innovative art galleries in China has been opened at the seaside resort town of Beidaihe, on the outskirts of Qinhuangdao and a few hours from Beijing.
Administered by the respected Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), it is billed as one of the world’s first truly sustainable art galleries, both in terms of its built environment, and in its operational methods.
“UCCA is excited to move beyond its flagship (main) location in Beijing with a permanent presence in this stunning building in a gorgeous natural setting,” said UCCA Director Philip Tinari.
This description is primarily because the 930 square meter museum, which includes ten galleries (three outdoor and seven indoor) and a café, disappears beneath the sand behind its flowing entrances.
It is completely built underground.
Instead of being built onto the ocean foreshore – an impressive enough location in its own right – the galleries are carved into a dune several meters high behind a white sand beach. It’s a far cry from the interiors of many modern urban art galleries with their stark and unadorned surroundings.
The structure’s architects, Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of OA, say the space, with its sand-enclosed entrances that lead visitors into the bowels of the earth, echoes the feel of entering a set of caves.
They describe it as being, “interconnected, organically shaped and … echoing … the earliest forms of human inhabitance, whose walls were once home to some of man’s first works of art.” Which sounds a bit airy-fairy, but is actually a great concept for an art gallery.
Ceiling openings pop up randomly throughout the building, as in a natural cave network. Each skylight-like hole has a different orientation and size, which enables the light levels in every gallery to “frame the changing expressions of the sea and sky throughout the day, and also provide natural lighting for the museum’s spaces at all times of the year,” say the designers.
The decision to create the museum underneath the dune, say OA’s Li and Huang, was born out of what they call their “reverence for natural surroundings” as well as their desire to protect the established yet vulnerable dune ecosystem, built up over thousands of years. As such the roof of the galleries is stabilised by low-rising shrubs and other ground cover.
“Because of the (gallery), the surrounding sand dunes will be preserved instead of leveled to make space for ocean-view real estate developments, as has happened to many other dunes along the shore,” say the architects in their overview of the design’s ethos.
Sustainable build, operate
This approach to maintaining the established environment is reflected not only in the building’s unique relationship to its surroundings, but also in its sustainability credentials.
The sand-covered organically-shaped roof greatly reduces the building’s summer heat load, and a low-energy, zero-emission ground source heat pump system replaces traditional air conditioning by tapping into the balancing effects of deep geothermal temperature stabilisation sink.
“Respect for nature is displayed not only in the building’s unique relationship to its environment, but also in its efforts towards sustainability,” say the architects.
The design also attempts to duplicate the atmosphere of the outside nearby environment by – again unlike many urban galleries – deliberately bringing shifting imperfections in the transmission of light into each gallery.
The design also focuses on traditional, close-to-nature methods used during the building process. The complex curves of the building’s internal walls were shaped by hand by craftsmen including shipbuilders from nearby Qinhuangdao, using formwork made from offcuts and scraps of wood and other materials.
This has enabled the interior walls to retain a primeval, irregular and imperfect texture from the scrap-built formwork, in keeping with its position under the wind-blown dunes.
This ‘digging’ style of construction was inspired by the action of children on any beach, say the architects. “This (approach) creates a series of connected soft spaces resembling caves, the primal form of human inhabitance. Between the sea and the sand, a hidden place emerges, intimate to the body and soul," they add. That sounds pretty arty to us.
The opening exhibitions focus, fittingly, on nature with photos, videos and installations by several local artists. Director Tinari says this approach will be maintained.
"It (the museum) is in the right location and in the right building,” he said. “We look forward to working with great artists to show their work in this new context,”he added. “And to offering our members and visitors the chance for an unforgettable art experience by the sea.”