As one of China’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Nanjing University, and in particular its renowned Department of Art Studies and Education, warranted a cultural institution of equal stature. Shanghai-based firm Atelier Diameter has answered the call with an expansion of the university’s on-campus art gallery. The now 565-square-metre space deftly marries texture, striking forms and public space to create a cultural hub for the school.
The Nanjing University campus, located on a narrow plot in the city centre, has been continuously transformed and upgraded over the past 60 years. The result is a rich pastiche of new and old buildings, interspersed with lush hillside plants. The new gallery faces a small square between the dorms: a bustling locus of activity on campus. The site is bookended by two thoroughfares, a city road to the east and a stone-paved university pedestrian street to the west, a popular student hangout replete with cafes, bars and creative shops. This link to community was a key driver of the design. Each of the gallery’s floors is visually connected to the street and the original bridge, rendering the space accessible to both the student population and the public.
Sited on the renovated ground floor of the university’s 46th dormitory in the “Creative Street District,” the two-storey exhibition hall is centred around two different media: the lower level is devoted to ceramics, while the upper level features restored oil paintings. The extension juts from the dormitory building like a sculptural appendage. The original joint between the two structures has been reinforced with embedded steel bars to meet today’s technical specifications.
Clad in elegant fair-faced concrete, the new structure is artfully integrated into the campus, which was primarily built using the same material. The gallery’s design was not just influenced by the campus’ history, but also the local context of Nanjing (the architects drew inspiration from the vaulted archways of the Wuliang Hall of Linggu Temple). In particular, the building’s double arches on the second floor hint at the western art exhibited inside.
The building’s pre-cast concrete facade renders the irregularly shaped structure with a pleasingly rational rhythm. Its circulation spaces, however, reveal a surprise. Both the curved staircase at the site’s northwestern corner and the vaulted veranda that penetrates the second floor have been clad in textured concrete. “The special texture is a metaphor for the brushstrokes of oil paintings and the fragments of ancient ceramics,” the architects explain. The surface finish is enhanced further when it is lit up at night, imbuing the arcade with a cozy ambiance.
Though the art gallery is small in size, it was designed to make an impact as both a symbol of Nanjing University’s rich artistic life and a gathering place for students and faculty. Despite the limited building area, nestled between crowded dormitories, the architects have embraced every opportunity for public space to create a new amenity on campus.
Nanjing University’s sculptural and richly textured concrete structure by Atelier Diameter is itself a work of art.