Shifting sands: Inside UCCA's newest art museum Dune

A stunning building and scenic seaside day out

Images: Ni Nan, courtesy of OPEN Architecture
300 kilometres and a mere 90 minutes by train from Beijing sits the Aranya Gold Coast. A spot you might tentatively dub 'the Hamptons of Beijing', due to its popularity with Beijing's holiday home-owners, this coast now houses the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art's newest art museum, UCCA Dune. This is a unique structure of interconnected cave-like cells embedded almost entirely within the wind-swept sand dunes of the shore.


The area is no stranger to contemporary architecture. Nearby beaches also boast a modernist beach-side chapel-cum-community hall and the Sanlian Public Library, whose isolation and Le Corbusian minimalism earn it the title of 'the loneliest library in the world'. However, unlike these buildings, which are almost surreal implants from more populous urban landscapes, and as part of an area besieged by ocean-view real estate developments, UCCA Dune is more consciously self-aware in its design: it is both a preservation of one of the few remaining sylvan slips of land and designed to reflect the shape of the dunes in the area.

After Nature installation view.

Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of OPEN Architecture, who led the project, describe their decision to build the museum under the sands as 'born out of both a deep reverence for nature and a desire to protect the vulnerable dune ecosystem, formed by the wind and sea over thousands of years'. Indeed, almost as if recoiling from the complexities and scale of so much environmentally degrading urban development, the architects here returned to the cave, one of humanities earliest forms of shelter, and the playful limits of simple childhood sandpit construction as the basis of their design.


The interior of the space itself is a chain of rooms, which one explores through intimate tunnels, bright rooms punctured by single skylights, a turreted spiral staircase and nest-like outdoor galleries. Meanwhile, the entire structure, save for a few cavernous openings, has been sunk into the original topography, with the area restored by a covering of sand and local shrubs. With development in China and along this stretch of coast itself showing no signs of slowing, Dune sets an important example for environmentally sensitive building – even if it is still an environment supported by an enormous mass of concrete underneath all the sand.


The museum’s inaugural exhibition, After Nature, deals with this rather depressing paradox: the idea that the human footprint is now so prevalent that it is not only climactically but geologically inextricable from nature. As UCCA Director Philip Tinari bluntly puts it, 'Anthropocene interventions have rendered that romantic view of sublime nature irrelevant.'

After Nature installation view.

In China, such development has occurred at a startling rate and it is such change that the nine artists featured in the show, all born between 1942 and 1988, have witnessed first-hand. For Li Shan, the concern is bioengineering and climate-related food poverty; his 'Scribble 2' and 'Scribble 3' series are close-ups of strange organic corn hybrids and decaying matter. Other artworks include Zhuang Hui and Dan Er’s 2009 piece 'Leftover Material from the Carpenters', large copper sculptures rendered to resemble wooden offcuts lie carelessly across the room in an elegant reflection on waste.


Outside, Nabuqi's 'Destination' (2018) is an apocalyptic, post-nature portrait with fake plants and an overturned billboard advertising a Photoshop-perfect tropical getaway that can no longer be saved by its man-made scaffolding. This is both the story of China's past 30 years and, given the recent urgent warnings issued by the UN on the imminent global environmental crisis that we are facing, a poignant and stark view of its future. The sands are shifting.

By Helena Poole

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