Ningbo is a pleasant 2.5 hour drive from Shanghai, a trip that would otherwise take four hours if not for the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, an impressive feat of Chinese infrastructure which opened in May 2008. It spans 36 km (22 miles) and takes almost 20 minutes to cross by car. Looking out on both sides of the bridge on a foggy day, it’s as if one is standing on an isolated island.
And from afar, Ningbo’s own new landmark, the Ningbo History Museum, looks like a stone ship run ashore; it’s particularly stunning against spring’s blue skies. Its exterior is marked by lean, asymmetrical lines, colored with a blend of salvaged grey stone and orange brick.
I was particuarly excited about visiting the Ningbo museum after learning that its architect, Wang Shu, has become the first Chinese to win architecture’s prominent Pritzker Prize, awarded by the Hyatt Foundation of Chicago. Wang’s style leans towards minimalist and angular lines with an emphasis on Chinese materials — but his preference for local ingredients rarely means merely traditional results (Wang laid out his style in more detail in an interview with Architects Newspaper.)
Inside, the museum’s vast atrium is mapped by giant angled slabs running along all sides of each floor. The interior is huge — maybe too huge — and the layout almost disappointingly generic in comparison to the impressive exterior. The upside: the museum is spacious enough to accommodate droves of visitors even at the peak of May Day — which was probably what Ningbo’s government had in mind when it gave the museum its the generous plot of land.
The exhibits span three floors which detail the history of Ningbo (or Mingzhou [明州] as it was once called) from the Hemudu culture,in 4800 BC (cave men-like with stone tools) through the dynasties as Ningbo became a seaport and part of the southern Silk Road.
Generous strolling space has a calming effect on the normally hectic Chinese crowd. I watched a father clutching his son’s hand, patiently explaining how Ningbo’s trade was opened after being closed off during the Ming dynasty. The mother stood behind the duo, a wry smile playing on her lips.
The best part of the Museum has to be its expansive, wooden-deck roof where Wang has chosen to plant a cafe and resting areas, each keeping with the overall theme of sleek and slanted.
Ironically, visitors looking for a slice of historical Ningbo have better chances away from the new museum building; relatively nearby are the beautiful Tianyi Pavilion (天一阁), one of the oldest library estates in the country, and Chiang Kaishek’s ancestral home (将氏故居) in Xikou (溪口) a 40 minute drive from the city.
This post is a revised version of the original, and was cross-posted from ShanghaiStreetStories.com.
Tags: Architecture, China, Museums, Ningbo