Suzhou Chapel, Suzhou

Designed by: Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
For client: Octave Floor area: 700.00 M² Year of completion: 2016

About the Project

The design of the Suzhou Chapel takes its cues from vernacular architecture of the Jiangnan region of China - known for its soft palette of textured grays and whites. Brick walls of different heights interweave to form a choreographed landscape journey guiding the visitor’s approach. Assembled in various bond patterns, the brick walls add a textural layer to the façade, building patina over time, in which the architecture begins to emerge as if having been there for generations in a seamless integration with the surrounding natural landscapes.

The white box perched atop is composed of an inner layer punctured with openings and an outer layer of perforated metal. The use of a double layered façade creates a sense of mystery and spectacle to the building - in the daytime, it emits a subtle reflection, while at night it glows from within. Contained within the white box is the main chapel space, a light-filled 12-m-high room, with a mezzanine and a cage element with wooden louvers hanging above. A grid of glowing light bulbs and delicate bronze details give a touch of opulence to the otherwise quietly monastic spaces. Bespoke wood furniture and crafted wood details compliment the simple material palette of gray brick, terrazzo, and concrete.

What’s unique about it

As a city of numerous UNESCO heritage sites, Suzhou is rapidly losing its cultural identity with the new developments surrounding the old city. As a critique on the current condition, the chapel’s design approach is about seeking a dialogue between the contemporary and cultural heritage, between the built form and nature. This is achieved through the architectural expression and careful selection of materials.

Paying respect to nature and its context along the lake, the base uses sunken courtyards and wrapped wall elements to merge with the landscape. The brick walls deliberately dissolve the boundary between the earth and the building mass. Collected from demolition sites across China, the recycled brick represents a continuity with the culture and history of the local people, which is crucial for a building that is to be used as a core part of the community. Conversely, the white box above is decidedly modern and minimal with its purist cubic geometry. Clad in perforated and folded white metal sheets, the white volume dissolves quietly into the sky during the day, leaving only traces of its base. At night, it glows like a beacon at the heart of the development.

Through the discourse between old and new, traditional and modern, raw and refined, the chapel sustains a cultural heritage that refreshes the mind, the body, and soul of its community.

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