Chinese Futurism: A Much Overlooked Design Movement

By Published On: May 3, 20224 min read

When we think of Chinese commercial architecture, a bland, banal uniformity comes to mind. But there’s one Chinese architecture firm called OPEN that is putting some of China’s cultural institutions — whether it’s concert halls or the Sun Tower — on the map.

Often overlooked, cultural architecture falls into the category of commercial real estate, because it includes music venues, art museums and more. By employing futuristic design, OPEN is defining the latest wave of avant-garde Chinese cultural architecture. In one building, a group of circular pools hover around a silo-shaped tower, while another features a rock-shaped home that looks like something out of “Dune.”

Their work is so stunning, it has been compiled into a photo book being released by Rizzoli USA called “A Radical Vision By OPEN: Reinventing Cultural Architecture,” which is out April 12.

The book features over 30 different designs by the Beijing-based firm. The book’s author, architecture writer Catherine Shaw, said they are “reinventing and responding to China’s complex and fast-changing cultural landscape with projects that mark a new era for contemporary Chinese cultural architecture.”

A gallery is built on the beach.

Aerial View | Image provided by Rizzoli Publishers

Some examples of their work include a contemporary art gallery buried beneath a sand dune, while another is an open-air theater in a mountain valley near the Great Wall of China.

Beijing-based OPEN was first founded in New York in 2006 by Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, before opening an office in Beijing. Their goal through commercial spaces is to “address the most urgent issues facing our environment and society,” the duo, who are a married couple, wrote on their website.

According to CNN, the couple are known for creating some of the most avant-garde and “thought-provoking Chinese arts destinations.” As Li told CNN, “It’s about making a dialogue between us, as humanity, and nature.”

They work on urban design projects, landscape design, architecture and interior design projects across China and beyond. The firm recently won the Architects Regional Council Asia Award for Architecture 2021 for their UCCA Dune Art Museum on Bohai Bay in northern China. The project also won a gold medal in the Social and Cultural Buildings and honors the architectural works of Asian architects in Asian countries.

An art installation sits against a setting sun.

Chapel of Sound | Image provided by Rizzoli Publishers

As they write in their manifesto, architecture is more than just aesthetics, but rather in our era and society, it has the power to “transform people and the way they live, while striking a new balance between the man-made and nature.”

They explain how they “take on this challenge directly, emerging itself in the ample opportunities along with greatest difficulties at the same time, to test with our own vehicle, the power of architecture and its potential being in the greatest social and environmental transformation ever in human history to date.”

Both architects worked in New York before co-founding their firm. Li Hu worked at Steven Holl Architects in New York for 10 years, while Huang Wenjing worked at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for seven years.

As the architects behind OPEN, Li Hu, and Huang Wenjing, who founded their firm in 2003, said in a statement: “What we strive to do is create closer connections between ourselves and the natural world through architecture, exploring how the work of man and nature can intermingle. We believe in innovation only if it can improve people’s lives and the environment and even then, we look for the simplest solutions.”

The architects aim to design each pioneering project based on the climate of each project’s surroundings. “In doing so, they not only consider how cultural architecture looks, but how it works,” Shaw, the author of the book, explained.

Each project photographed in the book is included alongside blueprint drawings, interviews, archival material, plans and sketches.

A gallery is filled with art.

Tank 3 Interior | Image provided by Rizzoli Publishers

The book is more than just a coffee table photo book. It aims to provide a fresh perspective on contemporary Chinese cultural architecture. It also sheds light on the inspiration of these Beijing architects, their challenges and how each project has an impact in China.

In the book’s foreword, Rotterdam-based design curator Aric Chen explained how significant the architecture firm’s contributions are to China.

“OPEN is one of the leading protagonists in this shift toward an architecture that responds more profoundly to China’s needs, circumstances, and possibilities.”

“Their work, like the museums and a hybrid theater-library that we see in this book, shows that, at its most consequential, built form is the reification of context in all senses: social, cultural, and systemic, as well as physical, urban, and formal,” Chen said.

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