Shenzhen, China

With thousands of artists in the area busily forging famous (and obscure) paintings, Dafen is an intriguing place for an art museum. A “village” within the city of Shenzhen, it features streets and alleys packed with studios producing counterfeit paintings, many of which are bought to decorate hotel rooms in the United States and elsewhere, To help upgrade the neighborhood and attract tourists, the local government help an invited competition for the museum and selected Urbanus Architecture & Design, a Chinese firm with offices in Shenzhen and Beijing, to design the building.

Urbanus’ proposal went beyond the design of a building to include a program of uses for the institution itself. “A typical art museum would be out place,” says Yan Meng, one of three partners at Urbanus. Less a ‘museum’ in the traditional sense, and more a mixed-use arts center, the project responds to both the topography and unique cultural setting of its urban environment. Urbanus designed a three-story building, in which each floor has a different function. The ground floor, which is open to an adjacent plaza, provides areas for local artists to sell their paintings and an auditorium for public events. On Level 2, the architects designed a collection of white-box galleries with 8,000 square meters of space for exhibitions. On the top level, they created a series of indoor workshops and studios and outdoor community spaces that mimic the intricate grid pattern of Dafen village; rising up between the open courtyards here are boxy skylights that bring daylight to the exhibition spaces below “We made a sandwich,” notes Yan, who conceived the project not just as a cultural facility, but as an extension of the site’s unique topography.

The museum serves as an important connector at the edge of a neighborhood, providing a number of paths through the building and to the surrounding area. Pushed against the side of a hill, it negotiates a shift in terrain that had previously separated the village below from a school and a middle-class residential development above. The architects saw the museum as an opportunity to knit together the different areas. To do this, they integrated two bridges reaching out to the upper areas, a path cutting through the third-floor, and public access spaces within the museum. Unfortunately, the city has not opened the bridges yet to the surrounding areas, compromising the building’s function as a place that can bring people together.

The museum’s façade has also raised a lot of eyebrows. The architects took the village grid, angled it, and superimposed it on the building’s concrete envelope, creating a collection of recessed rectangular spaces. Over time, artists from the surrounding neighborhood will be invited to paint in these alcoves, turning the building’s inexpensive, grey-painted concrete exterior into a colorful collage that celebrates Dafen’s quirky local industry.