Here's why this Beijing community art centre makes visitors enter via a cold, dark basement

With currrently closed doors due to the COVID-19 crisis, M Woods remains innovating: the institution (now with two locations in Beijing) is taking form as a virtual museum, with a presence on the social simulation video game Animal Crossing. The digital space was launched with a livestream event on video platform Bilibili.

Beijing – ‘With the increasingly rapid pace of modern society and the endless stream of calls and messages, modern cities today are providing less space for us to see and enjoy an artwork in peace,’ says Shuhei Aoyama, director and architect at B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio. It’s an issue the Beijing practice founded by Aoyama and fellow Japanese architect Yoko Fujii addresses in its M Woods Art Community Renovation Project, part of the revitalization plan for Beijing’s Longfu Temple area. The project aims to keep alive the area’s traditions while exploring new possibilities for exhibition design.

The art hub’s circulation is designed to counteract the flood of external input of which Aoyama speaks. Visitors are welcomed not into a brightly lit atrium but a low-ceilinged basement. ‘Because the underground area was originally a civil defence space, the floors and walls are very thick to prevent radiation. In summer when it’s hot outside, it’s suddenly cooler underground – and vice versa. In addition to variations of light, we wanted this change of temperature to offer a sense of entering another world.’ Here, a series of interconnected rooms offer a maze-like experience, helping to slow down visitors and further reduce their field of view. What’s more, the thickness of the walls and floor block phone signals, removing still more unnecessary distraction.

Eventually, visitors encounter the stairs that lead to the first-floor exhibition space. ‘The two continuous but distinct environmental experiences create an illusion,’ says Aoyama. ‘In addition, the loss of spatial positioning makes people temporarily forget the impetuousness of the outside world and regain the calmness of mind to enjoy the exhibition.’

Ascending the building corresponds with gradual increases of ceiling height and space. Natural light begins to intensify, and outside scenes are revealed. While the east façade is windowless, its apertures shielded by crumpled galvanized steel sheeting, the west side features a number of windows and balconies that look out over one of Beijing’s hutong areas, making the ‘old city’ part of the visitor experience.

Location Qianliang Hutong 38, Longfusi St 95, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China

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