CNN  — 

With China experiencing a museum boom, and cities of all sizes building cultural venues at unprecedented speed, there is something refreshingly modest about Li Hu and Huang Wenjing’s approach to architecture.

The husband-and-wife duo, founders of Beijing-based practice Open Architecture, are responsible for some of the last decade’s most thought-provoking Chinese arts destinations. Best known for transforming a series of aviation fuel tanks into a popular riverside gallery in Shanghai, the pair’s understated theaters and performance spaces offer a welcome dose of subtlety in a country with skylines all too often blighted by bold statements.

“It’s about making a dialogue between us, as humanity, and nature,” Li said in a video interview.

Chapel of Sound, a concert hall built in a valley northeast of Beijing.

The couple’s latest project is a case in point. Nestled in a valley northeast of Beijing, a stone’s throw from the Great Wall, the boulder-like Chapel of Sound looks as if it were carved from the landscape itself. The architects added local rocks to the concrete and mimicked sedimentary layers to help assimilate the structure with its surroundings.

Although envisaged as a place for quiet contemplation – or “a chapel without religion,” as Li put it – the building is primarily a concert hall. Instead of traditional soundproofing, Li and Huang opted for strategically placed holes that, they claim, play the same role as absorbent surfaces.

The openings also serve two very different functions: Producing plays of light and shadow that travel across the cavernous interior as the sun moves through the sky; and letting in the sounds of breeze, birds and insects. While this may seem counterintuitive for a quiet concert space, the architects were never interested in creating “a perfect silence.”

Another view of the Chapel of Sound.

“We’re really trying to make a deeper connection to the ancient natural history of the site,” Li said. “There’s a mysterious quality of space, and mysteriousness is something we’re very interested in: bringing people to discover a different kind of experience.”

More than landmarks

Over 150 miles to Beijing’s east, in the seaside city of Qinhuangdao, an equally mysterious art museum offers a different take on Open Architecture’s manifesto pledge of “striking a new balance between the man-made and nature.”

UCCA Dune, a new outpost for one of Beijing’s most respected contemporary art institutions, takes the appearance of pebbles strewn across a sandy beach. The primordial, cave-like gallery spaces are not only integrated with their surroundings – they are partially submerged by them.

The photogenic design has helped make Qinhuangdao an unlikely destination for design-lovers and day-trippers from the Chinese capital. And while Li and Huang seem unshowy by nature, they are acutely aware of the power of iconic architecture.

UCCA Dune, an art museum in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao.

In China, it’s a power that has been abused in recent years – by property giants branding real estate developments with outlandish skyscrapers, and by local officials using big-budget cultural buildings to put their cities on the map. But, citing Sydney Opera House as an example, Li believes that well-designed arts venues can give cities a distinct identity while also contributing to their cultural fabric.

What Open Architecture is opposed to, he said, are landmarks for landmarks’ sake. This stance can put the pair at odds with their clients, like when officials from Yantai, in Shandong province, approached them with an invitation to “create an iconic landmark.”

“That was the only brief: ‘Make a landmark,’” Li recalled. “They came to us and said, ‘We want something like the Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards.’ And I said that was exactly what we don’t want to do.”

Rather than walking away, Li said he convinced the city’s government to develop a more meaningful cultural program. Eventually satisfied that their creation would serve a purpose, the architecture duo designed a sundial-inspired structure – dubbed The Sun Tower and set for completion in 2023 – that incorporates a library, digital museum and outdoor theater.

“I think it’s a huge waste of resources to build something without knowing what it is,” Li said.

A digital rendering of the Sun Tower in Yantai, Shandong province.

The idea that architects should only create buildings that are needed seems simple enough. But it is one often ignored in China. With the country’s government now pumping billions of dollars a year into the cultural sector, supply can outstrip demand, leading to unused vanity projects and “ghost” museums. When it comes to culture, the “build and they will come” model that has accommodated China’s breakneck rural-urban migration, may not apply, Huang said.

“There is a huge push for cultural buildings,” she said. “(In China, we) feel as if we have developed really fast, but left ourselves behind and need to catch up to show the world we have culture. But it’s hard to cultivate culture and… much faster to build. So that’s why you see a lot of cultural buildings pop up with no contents and nobody to operate them.”

Such accusations could not be leveled against Open Architecture’s Tank Shanghai, a gallery that breathed new life into the site of a decommissioned airport by the Huangpu River. Built into five renovated fuel tanks, the venue offers not only gallery spaces but also a pub, a restaurant and performance facilities. Landscaped parks meanwhile dissolve the distinction between public and private space, high culture and recreation.

Tank Shanghai was built in a series of disused aviation fuel tanks.

Offering community parkland was not simply a gesture to the city – it expressed the idea that art should not stand apart from everyday life.

“The purpose of a cultural buildings is to try and enlighten people, but nowadays they’re becoming more and more like isolated objects,” Li said. “Art is put up (on a pedestal). We want to bring it closer to the ground – to the people – and blur the boundaries.”

Universal values

That homegrown designers like Li and Huang are being entrusted with a new generation of Chinese venues should come as little surprise. But the cultural landscape has long been shaped by foreign forces. From Zaha Hadid’s sculptural Guangzhou Opera House to a Norman Foster’s long-awaited museum in far-flung Datong, Western names are frequently asked to oversee China’s biggest contemporary landmarks – not only for their technical prowess and avant-garde designs but, often, for the prestige.

The trend traces back to the early 2000s and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), a huge, shining oval known locally as “The Giant Egg.” Just a few blocks from the historic Forbidden City, French architect Paul Andreu’s controversially futuristic building sparked a wave of Western-designed landmarks and, in Li’s words, “began the whole exercise” of constructing “iconic buildings” in China.

It is also a venue that directly shaped Open Architecture’s approach. Visiting once for a concert, Li found himself on a long quest for water during the intermission, eventually finding just one spot “in the whole gigantic place” to get a drink. A small gripe, admittedly, but one he felt spoke to a lack of user-centric design.

By way of comparison, Li then recounted a recent visit to Germany’s “fantastic” Berliner Philharmonie concert hall: “The break was half an hour, and it was like a party. It was a great social event. That is the true purpose of a cultural building: bringing people together, not just listening to music while you can’t even get a water.”

This is not to suggest that Open’s founders are somehow opposed to Western design in China. After all, Li made his name under Steven Holl, one of the most prolific foreign architects operating in the country, while Huang once worked for the late I.M. Pei in New York. And although the pair welcome a leveling playing field for local firms, they see their designs as neither Chinese nor Western, but an expression of something universal.

One of the cave-like gallery spaces at UCCA Dune.

“Undeniably, being Chinese, we have our ways of looking at our relationship with – and our existence in relation to – nature and the cosmos,” Huang said. “But intuitively we’re searching for something more timeless.”

“We often get this question from clients and students who say, ‘Your building doesn’t look very Chinese, where are the connections?’” Li added. “That’s because we believe in much deeper meaning, and a deeper connection to culture.

“There are two qualities of architecture that are profoundly important,” he summarized. “One is being radical. We need something that radically changes our way of living, and this is more urgent than ever.

“The other thing is poetry. The poetic quality of architecture is so important. It is something that you must experience in person by walking around the space, touching the surfaces and feeling the textures.”