Long-forgotten Chinese museum design now reality

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Plans created 20 years ago by Kerry Sizheng Fan for a museum in Hubei Province, China, have at last been realized. The museum, celebrating the rich cultural history of the area, has been built and is now open to the public.

Nearly forgotten after so many years by Fan, a Bowling Green State University instructor of architecture, the project got off the ground unbeknownst to him. Fan has taught at BGSU for 11 years since leaving China to further his architecture studies at Cornell University. He was surprised to learn, in 2007, that the last component of the museum had been completed and an official opening planned. He got to see the results of his efforts when he and his family traveled back to China.

The initial plan was to create an extension of the original small museum in which to display artifacts from China’s Three Kingdoms era, a politically turbulent yet culturally dramatic time from about CE 200 to 280. As an instructor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in central China, Fan worked on the project in collaboration with a colleague, Professor Zhang Lianggao, who was exceptionally well versed in the history and culture of the region.

“Every boy in China knows a lot of stories about the Three Kingdoms,” Fan said. “It was a short but storied time.”

However, the project’s backers changed their minds and wanted a more focused display for a nationally famous set of chime bells dating to the third century BCE, in the Warring States Period. The idea was taken up by the local government, and the plan was enlarged to include three more pavilions to accommodate the display content and in anticipation of a staged government funding program.

The new idea seemed fitting, said Fan, as Hubei is geographically important in both of these ancient periods. In the midsection of the Yangtze River, it is close to the Three Gorges Dam. The museum is situated beside Donghu, or East Lake, in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province.

Fan worked on the design for the museum for more than two months. Incorporating features of earlier cultural periods, he used forms reminiscent of pyramids and tombs, with slanted columns that suggest the timber framework of Chinese traditional buildings. Based on the third evolution of the design, Fan made a rendering that was accepted into the National Gallery in 1987 and published in The Architectural Journal the same year. The colors and style of his rendering call to mind an ancient painting. The design was also featured on the cover of the local architectural journal in 1989.

The museum as it stands today is a bit more conservative than Fan’s original design and was accomplished by a major design firm in the region. “Several other designs were attempted by the firm, but eventually the structure as built seems to have come back to a modified version of my plan,” Fan said. Even with the changes, it is easy to see all the elements of the basic plan still in place.

While the time between conception and realization seems long, Fan says, “It is interesting to note that in the history of architecture, extensively dragged-out design and construction of high-profile projects were by no means rare. The construction of Gothic cathedrals can easily stretch for several decades or even over a century. A recent example was the famous Sydney Opera House: Planning began in the late 1940s, the design competition was in 1955, and the building was not completed until 1973.”

Compared to those earlier marathon projects, perhaps it is lucky that Fan saw the completion of his project within just two decades.

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(Posted July 28, 2009 )

Updated: 12/02/2017 01:09AM