Uncertainty about the value of recent heritage in China allows for bold but sensitive approaches to adaptive reuse, says Jee Liu
It is well understood in China that historic buildings can be repurposed to drive the development value of an area, acting as a draw to a larger site that can then be developed with a standard speculative model. With domestic tourism becoming a large emerging market, older buildings are seen in a new light, with many historic areas now recognised as important touristic destinations through the ‘A – AAAAA’ national scenery listing system. New types of retail, art, entertainment and office space are also being created within historic environments. These pressures attract funding or investment for restoration but drive ‘pastiche’ reconstruction in many cases, for example the Xintiandi area in Shanghai.
When a building is protected in China by listed status it places a heavy burden of preservation and rebuilding with little room for alternative ideas. Conversely, with no listing there is little protection and minimum guidelines on how to approach conservation or adaptation. This is particularly complicated when it comes to the conservation and adaptation of twentieth-century heritage where the discourse is on-going and the listing criteria is still developing.
Top: Visitors enter the lower-ground-floor hall through the remains of concrete structures that once supported machines.
Above: At the front of the museum, concrete columns are now wrapped in a pleated curtain of perforated aluminium.
Chongqing Industrial Museum, recently completed by my practice, WallaceLiu, is a good example of all the above as a project that was initiated to drive the wider regeneration and development of a large post-industrial site, and intended to become a significant new cultural destination for the city.
The Chongqing Iron and Steel plant was built in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, with many of the machines brought from the Hanyang Iron Works in Wuhan – the first state-owned iron and steel factory, built during the Qing Dynasty in 1894. When the site was acquired by the local authority in 2011, after the shutdown of the factory, there was a genuine desire from the new owner to preserve as much as possible but little idea about what approach it should adopt for adaptation and reuse. An international competition was launched to seek ideas for the masterplanning of the wider site, with the intention to locate a museum within the former factory, but it was not until 2015 that the specific site was chosen. The rest of the historic sheds were to be repurposed to host additional exhibition space, offices for creative industries, a boutique hotel and retail spaces.
WallaceLiu was commissioned in 2016 to develop the design of the museum and – significantly – to take the project all the way to realisation. The site for the 7500-square-metre building occupies approximately one quarter of the steel formation sheds and faces the main public square that is kept from the original factory. The site in 2016 featured the skeleton of the original factory which is essentially a patchwork of long sheds. Old brick partition walls and the asbestos roof had been removed, and the roof trusses had been sent for repair. Complex and layered views were opened up by the removal of these elements, revealing the rich colours and patina of use on heavy concrete columns and steel beams. We were able to meander across these remaining structures and discover rich ground conditions.
The central hall was created within the foundation pit that was once used to cool large pieces of steel. Boxes that contain exhibition spaces were lifted off the ground to create a permeable ground floor. They are linked by bridges that give views of old beams, columns and trusses.
The fundamental approach in our design was to preserve that experience – free movement and exploration of a permeable ground condition. This is achieved by the removal of a single entrance and extending the journey through public spaces across the ground and lower-ground floors before entering the museum.
The new building is constructed from a lightweight steel frame which allowed volumes to be inserted in between the old structures. This frame sits on a concrete plinth that forms the lower- and upper-ground levels. The heavy remaining skeleton of the old factory is part of the new composition and is left as much as possible as it was. We decided to lift the metal boxes that contain the enclosed exhibition spaces off the ground to create more permeability and cover for that ground experience.
Another fundamental principle was to create a careful layering of new and old features which allows visitors to build up the sense of the former factory and provides opportunities for them to encounter the historic features in multiple ways. For example, the main hall is entered via a set of old pillars that would have supported machinery and, as visitors cross from one metal box to the other, the scarred beams and columns are revealed in a direct way.
Although the original features are shown as aged, we also proposed practical repairs. For example, the top section of the existing concrete columns was rebuilt, and the original signal green roof trusses and metal beams were recoated to incorporate a fire-resistant layer under new paint.
The museum opened in November 2019 and has become an important destination for the city, hosting various international events and temporary exhibitions.