Wuzhen’s new art museum, comprising a series of concrete-form modernist cubes ‘floating’ above Yuanbao Lake, was designed by New York-based architect Hiroshi Okamoto. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Wuzhen’s new art museum blends local culture with modern design

Small town outside Shanghai has become a favoured tourist destination thanks to its blend of old and new

A small town in the countryside outside Shanghai has unexpectedly emerged as one of the country’s favourite leisure destinations thanks to its beguiling blend of old and new cultures.

“Even I’m not quite sure what is real and what is fake,” muses one Chinese journalist while strolling through Wuzhen, a 1,300-year-old canal town on the southern edge of the Yangtze River.

The “water-town” is a low-rise maze of traditional stone lanes, shop houses and courtyards nicknamed “Venice of the East” thanks to its arched bridges and canal landscape. Part restoration, part recreation, it has been so successful in attracting tourists from across China that other towns are turning to the state-owned Wuzhen Tourism Company, which led its revival, for advice on how to do the same.

The secret to Wuzhen’s success is about celebrating what makes it unique, says the company’s senior planning consultant, Shao Yun. “It also has to feel authentic otherwise we would be just like any other town.”

The town’s new art museum, dedicated to the late painter, scholar, poet and writer Mu Xin (1927-2011), offers a good example of how the company has successfully highlighted local culture. The artist was born in the town and although he moved to the United States after the Cultural Revolution – during which he was imprisoned three times for being an intellectual – he returned home for the last five years of his life, sparking a renewed appreciation for his philosophical writings and ethereal landscape paintings.

The 6,700 square metre building comprises a series of concrete-form modernist cubes “floating” above Yuanbao Lake, and was designed by the New York-based architect Hiroshi Okamoto. Before co-founding his own firm OLI Architecture in 2010, the designer worked with I.M. Pei on the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Miho Institute of Aesthetics in Japan.

The design is a deliberate effort to reinterpret the centuries-old urban landscape in a contemporary yet sensitive way, a welcome change from the outlandish architecture typical of other new art museums opening up across China.

“We spent time in the area and realised it is the waterway that connects and separates you,” Okamoto says. “We wanted to expand and contract space in a physical and experiential way, keeping the scale very low so 60 per cent of the building is at below grade while the landscape of concrete volumes creates multiple viewpoints.”

The design also reflects the town’s traditional use of wood and masonry. “We re-interpreted it in a very light grey tone; concrete using wood to create texture,” Okamoto says. “The colour was very important even though it was very difficult to achieve. It took us many experiments to get the exact shade but in its refined form it is one of the most beautiful building materials.”

The design is a deliberate effort to reinterpret the centuries-old urban landscape in a contemporary yet sensitive way

Working with untrained local contractors initially proved a significant challenge, especially when it came to creating the complex board-form concrete façade. “At some point, however, the local team suddenly seemed to get what we were trying to do, and from then on they seemed proud of what they were doing and learned very quickly,” Okamoto says.

The ultra contemporary form and materials are also in keeping with Mu Xin’s work, Okamoto says.

“Living in the United States and experiencing classic and contemporary China means his work can be related to in many different ways,” he says.

Inside, this takes the form of an unusual stepped library overlooking a serene traditional stone garden, and a small cafe with triple-height glass doors that open onto a contemplative courtyard pond.

A variety of galleries arranged over three floors offers different experiences of the artist’s work.

“When we first met Mu Xin we noticed that his paintings were at a very small scale so we wanted to present a lot of his work on tables to allow a one-on-one experience,” says Okamoto.

The galleries have also been kept dim, reflecting Mu Xin’s preference for keeping his own living environment and studio darkened. Standout pieces include a series of intricate ethereal landscape paintings – and the artist’s personal cache of handwriting, including extracts from his Prison Notes, which imagined dialogues while he was in prison between him and other famous thinkers and artists.

Okamoto says that when shown the designs for the museum shortly before he passed away, Mu Xin made a sole comment to indicate approval: “Wind, water, and a bridge.”

“We had wanted to recreate the aesthetics of Mu Xin who framed everyday scenes in his stories and paintings,” says Okamoto. “So it was gratifying that he saw what we wanted to evoke with subtle experiences instead of one dramatic form.”