Preservation of cultural identity gained new significance after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake rocked Chengdu, the capital of the province in southwest China. The government, in an effort to attract tourists and to establish a biennial celebration of Chinese traditions in cuisine, music, dance, language, and storytelling, developed the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Park in partnership with UNESCO. The park features more than 270 acres of open and programmed space, including exhibition and performance venues and a hotel.
Visitors to the park can take in the multidimensional and almost dizzying masonry skin of the Lanxi Curtilage, which translates loosely to “courtyard.” Designed by Shanghai-based studio Archi-Union Architects, under the direction of principal Philip F. Yuan, an associate professor at Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the 4,000-square-meter (43,056-square-foot) restaurant and private club feature a linear layout inspired by traditional gardens found in southern China. A series of courtyards within the masonry skin transitions from casual to formal; during the biennial festival, these spaces open to the public and provide a serene setting for sampling traditional Chinese street food, such as barbecue.
Made from a traditional and locally sourced material, the blue-gray brick was formed from a mixture of soil with concrete, brick, and stone aggregate. In accordance with the building design’s abstracted nature theme, the masonry walls, which run the length of the curtilage, follow a rippling, coursing pattern derived from a digital interpretation of water.
The pattern is a notable departure from the typical running bond. Archi-Union’s designers used the graphical algorithm editor Grasshopper, integrated with Rhino’s 3D software, to define nine different brick sizes as well as brick layout sequences. The largest masonry units, which are called the preliminary units, measure 100 millimeters (4 inches) tall by 500 millimeters (20 inches) long and wide; they establish the base of the pattern.
Archi-Union alternated courses of preliminary units with courses of subsidiary units, which also measure 100 millimeters tall, but are 350 millimeters (14 inches) long and range in width from 60 to 220 millimeters (2.5 to 8.5 inches).
Though the design of the rippling walls was inspired by nature, it was also guided by the building’s program. The bonded brick pattern expands and contracts to create surfaces reminiscent of waves. Archi-Union enlarged joints and omitted mortar to capture views and light in some wall expanses, creating brick screens; where more privacy is needed, it compressed the joints to form a solid face, resulting in a surface gradient.
Archi-Union established a template of five different joint dimensions; this pattern repeats every two building column spans, which run about 6 meters (20 feet) each. The building’s columns—which, as in many traditional Chinese structures, are made from brick and reinforced with steel to withstand seismic forces—are sandwiched between two wythes of brick.
Maintaining a tight tolerance was crucial to ensuring that the pattern coordinated with column locations. Yuan initially considered using a robotic arm to lay the bricks. However, automating the process proved too expensive. Anticipating a learning curve for local brick layers, Yuan sent a member of his team to the site to teach them how to read his diagrams. It only took a few days for them to catch on. “The local workers are very bright, gave us some feedback about the design, and made suggestions on how to make the joints look better,” Yuan says. “Actually, they taught us.” The workers completed the brick walls in three months, while the overall curtilage was completed in about 18 months.
Though Louis Kahn famously insisted that a brick wants to be an arch, 3D computer modeling has allowed designers to envision brick patterns and surfaces in entirely new ways. But that doesn’t mean thousands of years of craftsmanship will be thrown out the door anytime soon. “I think it’s possible to use digital technology to design while still infusing buildings with cultural meaning and tradition,” Yuan says. “By teaching workers new truths of an old material, together we create a new materiality.”