In Xi’an, China, the Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts is focused on the restoration and exhibition of ancient Chinese murals. Illustrating a comprehensive history of Chinese painting, its permanent collection of 88 panels spans the Neolithic period to the Qing Dynasty. Located just south of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a World Heritage site, the museum sought to become an architectural landmark in its own right. To meet this brief, Shanghai firm Neri&Hu have designed a striking addition at the museum’s eastern entrance: a circular form which evokes the firm’s previous work at the Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery and Aranya Art Centre.

Close up of red travertine facade

Surrounded by more traditional Chinese vernacular on three sides, Neri&Hu’s lantern-inspired design intervention seeks to illuminate the surrounding urban fabric while making space for the museum’s expanded cultural and commercial programs. Through careful consideration of massing and detailing, the structure fits into the site like a missing puzzle piece, minimizing its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

Red building with circular core between Chinese vernacular structures

Serving the adjacent pedestrian street, the new building preserves the former museum’s galleries and restaurants while adding retail space and public restrooms. Visitors enter the museum via a public square in front of the building. Neri&Hu have partially retained the original wide steps down to the lower plaza, which is conceived as a continuation of the ground floor for the public. Indoor escalators concealed within a sculptural form also lead to the partially sunken cast-in-place concrete base that hosts the galleries, playing with spatial compression and expansion throughout the journey. A triple-story light well at the base of the plaza imbues the space with drama and intrigue.

Red travertine structure with stepped roof and masonry walls

Defined by its post and lintel construction, the elevated podium platform is a grid of stone columns and glass curtain walls. The glazed retail spaces highlight the separation between the carved-out base and the sculptural massing above.

Interior view of Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts

It is these upper levels where the inspiration of a lantern becomes clear. The circular structure, composed of diamond-shaped red travertine masonry units arranged at regular intervals, delicately filters light into the lounge space, which is used for dining and entertainment. The dramatically stepped ceiling structure not only creates a striking spatial quality on the lounge level but also serves as a hollowed-out bowl-shaped amphitheater on the level above.

Courtyard view of Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts addition by Neri&Hu
Amphitheatre at Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts

Accessed via a passageway on the northwest end of the building, the outdoor space is an extension of the lounge, and serves as a venue for various public activities as well as private performances or even runway shows. The rooftop landscape is visible from any space above the second floor, facilitating a new level of access for the community. Though its design is a stark departure from the local vernacular, Neri&Hu’s addition to the Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts feels at home on its site, sensitively integrated into the urban fabric.

Courtyard view of Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts addition by Neri&Hu

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