UCCA Dune Art Museum
Carved into a sand dune on a quiet beach in Bohai Bay, the UCCA Dune Art Museum by Open Architecture integrates adventurous structural design and local building techniques to suggest exciting new possibilities for typically neutral exhibition spaces.
Af Henry Stephens
According to the architects, the museum’s unique form is motivated by a desire to preserve the site’s fragile dune ecosystem, “formed by natural forces over thousands of years”. Rather than leveling the dunes to realize their project, the architects opted for a building form that integrates itself into the existing natural environment. Ironically, this approach has the added benefit of preserving the sand dunes in its immediate vicinity — in China, dune ecosystems are often destroyed to make way for profitable seaside real estate developments.
The museum itself is a vascular network of irregularly shaped concrete shell structures. These primitive, dome-like spaces were built as a means to house a series of different galleries, a cafe, and a reception area. Resting above these spaces are the dunes themselves, the museum acting as a kind of giant framework to bear the weight of the landscape above. Additionally, the building’s natural roof greatly reduces its heat load in the summer. Upon approach, visitors are led through a long, dark tunnel deep into the dunes, past the small reception area, before entering the largest of the gallery domes. Rather than the neutral white box that defines the typical gallery space, the museum’s rooms are smoothly carved grottos illuminated by circular apertures.
The eight main gallery spaces vary in size, each one a unique shell geometry with a unique skylight to match. Uniquely oriented to each gallery space, these roof apertures form a distinct relationship between the museum and the ever-changing weather outside, while providing natural light year-round. The skylights range from roughly punched holes through the concrete shells to bizarre, distended geometries that reach down into the spaces below. The simple combination of light and space results in a carefully choreographed sequence of different spatial conditions — from light to dark, inside to outside, and everything in between.
Though painted white in the tradition of gallery spaces the world over, the shell structures have been cast in-situ by local craftsmen, many of them former shipbuilders, over a formwork of rough timber boards. As a result, the complex, double-curved concrete surfaces become faceted and textured — the subtle form of surface ornamentation a result of their making. Combined with the proximity to the landscape, this surface treatment is a curious counterpoint to the usually sterile aesthetic of exhibition spaces.
From the museum’s landscaped roof terraces, the relationship between site and building is perhaps most visible as the dramatic skylight forms protrude upward through the dunes — hinting at but never revealing the exhibition spaces below. The UCCA Dune Art Museum hints at a new promise for museum buildings: one where the primacy of spatial experience, and the proximity to a natural landscape, creates new atmospheres and experiences in what are usually neutral exhibition spaces. Here the relationship between building and site is blurred rather than distinct — but in a way, that enhances possibilities rather than constraining them. The site becomes a fluid extension of the exhibition content in the building’s myriad gallery spaces, and the building an apparatus for framing, understanding, and re-contextualizing the site.