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Once the epicentre of the eighth-century BCE Chu state and its robust culture, Shou County in Eastern China is steeped in history. Now, the area near the south bank of the Huai River and at the heart of Anhui Province welcomes its latest landmark: the Shou County Culture and Art Center. Constructed in a new city a mere two kilometres from the historic town, the sprawling design by Beijing-based Studio Zhu-Pei draws on the structure of the town’s former walled community – and other regional vernaculars – to create a sombre centre that carries a distinct sense of urbanity.

Nestled behind an austere facade patterned with deep rectilinear punctures inspired by the forms of traditional courtyard houses, the 30,010-square-metre complex weaves together exhibition spaces, a cafe, classrooms, lecture halls, archives, studios and much more. References to Chinese residences, with their closed facades and narrow alleyways, continue within as various programs radiate around the 11 courtyards interspersed through the rectilinear site.

Gracefully folding over a shallow moat that surrounds the south and eastern edges, three stone bridges direct visitors inside from the site’s verdant surroundings. This winding central public walkway continues past the stone-tilled outer walls to reveal generous courtyards framed by monumental reinforced concrete surfaces.

“The space is unpredictable,” says the studio, led by architect and educator Zhu Pei, “and light and shadow continually shift to surprise visitors, allowing them to feel the artistic spirit of traditional Chinese architecture expressed by the principles of ‘hide, breathe, cultivate and wander.'”

The winding circulation path through the project opens out to a variety of outdoor environs, replete with shallow pools, stones and slender stalks of bamboo swaying against the monochromatic concrete.

Contrasting these natural elements, carefully choreographed stairs, pathways, bridges, balconies and vertical circulation add a striking patterning of solid and void that achieves a bold chiaroscuro effect as the sun passes.

Deeper within, the language of incision expressed on the facade echoes: cavernous slits into the structure recalls the exacting work of Japanese architect Tadao Ando while a large, circular moon gate and semi-circular void (a reference to a traditional fan) riff on the weight of the late American architect Louis Kahn.

The dramatic sloping rooflines of the two-story structure further emphasize an inward-looking quality, all while creating apertures to contemplate the endlessly shifting sky above. Together, the largely introverted building “reflects the grace, inclusiveness, and vitality of the ancient city of Shou County, which has withstood the test of time,” explains the studio.

Restraint, balance and harmony define much of the considered structure – the same qualities found in many great works of art. “Shou County Culture and Art Center,” says Pei, “is designed to draw people in to discover and experience it; unlike a beautiful sculpture that can only be viewed but not experienced.”

Shou County Culture and Art Center Embraces Chinese Vernacular

Studio Zhu-Pei crafts a sprawling yet intimate arts complex inspired by the heritage of China’s Anhui Province.

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