Imagined as a new cultural hub within an upcoming district in the city of Suzhou, China, the recently revealed design of the Shanfeng Academy by Beijing and New York-based firm OPEN Architecture has been conceived as an intervention in educational architecture that builds a bridge between the region’s heritage as well as its aims for the future. The project’s role in this regard is to serve as the focal point of a campus for a new K-12 international school, catering to a cohort of nearly 2,000 students. In tandem with this fundamental purpose, the development is also expected to function as an interface between the institution and the larger urban realm around it by granting the public access to some of its facilities when the school is out of session.
As per the architects, this institutional design venture leans into Suzhou’s history as a city that was heavily associated with high culture and refinement. Throughout the ages, numerous reputed scholars, artists, and writers have been drawn to the serene natural beauty of its gardens and their adherence to Chinese ideals of balance and harmony. These principles, coupled with the prevalence of elements such as Gongshi, also known as scholar’s rocks, traditional paving arrangements, and the astute introduction of water features constitute the essence of traditional landscape design in Suzhou. Tying this aesthetic sensibility to the final structure was a prime concern throughout the design process, in order for the project to cement itself as a significant addition to the evolving metropolis of modern-day Suzhou.
Li Hu and Wenjing Huang, Co-Founders of OPEN Architecture share their thoughts on the design in an official statement saying, “Finding radical strategies to deal with complex challenges through a practical outlook, while creating architecture that is poetic in spirit and deeply connected to local cultural traditions, was at the heart of this project.” To this end, the new complex will contain a library, an art centre, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a grand theatre with a capacity of 1000, a black box theatre, as well as a forum. In this respect, the project treads an intriguing line between public space and private institutions, by taking advantage of the amenities housed within it to connect with local communities. On surveying the extent of the venture and ascertaining the necessary level of density needed for the diverse functions it would need to perform, the Chinese architecture practice resolved to configure the layout as a set of five individual buildings broken up by courtyards and covered walkways that knit the development together into a cohesive whole.
Hence, this decision dealt away with the prospect of having to house all the project’s functions within a single massive building, while also allowing for a greater degree of segregation between the development’s varied range of users extending from kindergarteners to high school students. “By breaking down the mass and pulling them apart, voids are created in the form of four gardens and semi-outdoor spaces,” notes OPEN Architecture.
The gardens separating the built forms have been themed around each of the four seasons, with links in circulation conferred by covered walkways that shield users from the seasonal heavy rains of Suzhou. Each garden features plants that have been specially selected to represent transience in nature, in accordance with their respective theme while also referencing norms in the region’s traditional landscape architecture. “The gardens act as buffer zones between high-density masses, reflecting Suzhou’s own garden heritage,” explains the design team. Additionally, the development also contains an unnamed fifth garden along the rooftops of the walkways, which have been decorated with tall grasses and herbs. This zone is connected to the wing hosting the classrooms by means of a short bridge.
Aligning with OPEN Architecture’s propensity towards sculpted, monolithic structures that exude a sense of monumentality and subtle elegance, the conceptual massing on-site possesses all the qualities necessary for a landmark when viewed from afar. Board-formed white concrete will be the primary material medium used to realise these structures – its weight and muted texture contributing to the visually imposing appearance of the complex. However, inside the development, the complex play of levels and enclosure seen throughout serves to mediate the sense of scale, making the entire experience more intimate and relatable for users. This relatively unostentatious palette honours the white-wall-grey-roof structures in Suzhou’s traditional architecture, placing emphasis on the contrasts between geometric and curvilinear forms as well as the numerous voids and fenestrations that puncture their façade designs.
Natural light and ventilation have also been prioritised in the design, to minimise energy consumption and maintain thermal comfort indoors. While conceptualising the campus plan, the architects worked in close conjunction with the local design institute to ensure that the campus centre would be located on the main street itself. To cement its links to the streetscape outside, a café and a courtyard will be placed along the street on the ground floor near the pick up and drop off area, adding a commercial component to the program. With construction already underway, the design team reflects on their long term aspirations for the project, mentioning: “We hope that this campus centre can become a new type of cultural hub, combining the city’s rich cultural heritage with the contemporary dimension of this newly urbanised neighbourhood.”
Name: Shanfeng Academy
Location: Suzhou, China
Building Area: 13,676 sqm
Design Timeline: 2020-2022
Status: Under construction
Client: Mountain Education Group
Program: Library, Art Center, Gymnasium, Swimming Pool, Grand Theater, Black Box Theater, Forum, Gardens
Principals in Charge: LI Hu, HUANG Wenjing
Project Team: SHI Bingjie, Daijiro Nakayama, JIA Ke, Ye Qing, FAN Jianglong (on site), Giovanni Zorzi, HUANG Zetian, WANG Fengya, SHOU Chengbin, Crystal Kwan, LU Di, TANG Ziqiao, JIA Han, CAI Zhuoqun, CHEN Ruipeng
Local Design Institute: Tongji Architectural Design (Group) Co., Ltd.
Landscape Design: OPEN + Z’scape
Theatre & Acoustic Consultant: JH Theatre Architecture Design Consulting Company
Lighting Consultant: Gradient Lighting Design Inc.