There’s a dozen metaphors that apply to Steven Holl’s latest project, a pair of museums in Tianjin, China. The structures are the exact inverse of each other, like a key and a lock, or a pair of interlocking puzzle pieces. Holl and his office have chosen the yin and yang, a Daoist idea that originated, appropriately, in China.
Like Holl’s most recent Chinese project, the Ecology and Planning Museums will be fairly huge: roughly 90,000 square feet each, sited directly next to each other on a reclaimed salt pond in Tianjin Ecocity, a city of 350,000 that is being built from the ground up outside of Beijing.
Tianjin Ecocity, if you’re not familiar with it, is a planned development zone that China is planning jointly with Singapore. The government bills it as "the world’s largest ecocity," a low-carbon urban experiment that China hopes to replicate across the country. Like Masdar before it, Tianjin Ecocity will be filled with "green spaces" and "social harmony," according to the developers (to their credit, there are also plenty of legit benchmarks in place for testing whether the Ecocity is environmentally viable model for the rest of China).
Like many city-from-scratch development projects, Tianjin Ecocity hopes to attract investment and buyer interest with flashy condos and cultural institutions. That’s where Holl and his office come in—the past two projects the starchitect has built in China have been massively successful. With the pair of Ecology and Planning Museums, he’ll get to flex his legs artistically, untethered by the obligations that come with building apartments or condos.
And flex he has: The sculptural concrete museums are formal mirror images of each other, a visual one-liner that must have been delightful to design. Visualize them like this: Start with rectangular block of clay. Then use a knife to slice several amorphous tunnels through the solid block. Next to the clay, arrange the carved-out pieces the way they were situated inside the block. The Planning Museum is the hole-riddled clay block; the Ecology museum is made from the extra pieces of clay. "Like the Chinese ‘Bau Gua’ or ‘Yin Yang,’ these forms are in reverse relations," the office writes. "A slice through the mounds, like a slice through time, exposes these shell specimens embedded in concrete."
As their names suggest, the two museums are dedicated to two of the biggest challenges facing China today: the environment and urban planning. On the one hand, we have the Ecology Museum, where visitors will travel downward through exhibitions about the cosmos, the earth, and humans ("visitors learn that ecology is a subject much larger and deeply rooted than is currently inscribed in the modern discourse," explains Holl’s office). Right next door, the Planning Museum is dedicated to exhibitions about the growth of urbanism, which, obviously, has played a major role in the ecological crisis facing China (and the earth) today. It’s an odd double whammy of a development, and Holl’s yin yang solution is a brilliant double entendre.