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Shanfeng Academy

A Powerful Design Molded by Geometry

OPEN Architecture

Shanfeng Academy
By Yehuda Safran -

The town of Suzhou is world famous for its Scholar Gardens and Pavilions. About 100 km west of Shanghai, it was famous for its silk production and one of the points of origin of the Silk Road. The project analyzed here is sited relatively far from the historical city in a quarter that stands to benefit hugely from this new development. Its designers, Huang Wenjing and Li Hu, principals of Open Architecture, spent a number of years studying and working in the USA. Wenjing ended up working with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, and Li Hu worked with Steven Holl, first in New York and later in the Beijing office. Their background helps us understand their orientation with respect to the language of contemporary architecture.

There are hardly any more enlightened communities in any society than their schools. Here, Shanfeng Academy, the Cultural and Sports Center of Mountain Kingston Bilingual School, comprises five diverse volumes built of the same material – board-formed white concrete – and linked by a covered walkway. The different geometries of the punctured volumes lend each an individual character: circles and spheres for the theater, rectangles for the library, triangles set in relief on the solid upper walls for the gym, and squares to indicate the Energy Cube.

Consistently maintaining these individual characteristics over such a large and demanding project is as rare as it is difficult. The rhythm is maintained by following the curve, introducing natural light and never neglecting the role of shadow in the composition. Recalling Leon Battista Alberti’s division of architecture into either a system based on walls or a system based on columns, the academy in Suzhou clearly belongs to the first category. The shape of the walls determines the different character of each pavilion. Some are striking in their curvatures, not just in terms of their shape but in the way the light is reflected in these geometries, lending them a...

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