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Shou County is located in the center of Anhui Province, on the south bank of Huai River. In ancient times, it was the home of the Chu culture and where Liu An, King of Huainan, edited a compendium of ancient Chinese philosophy and composed poetry. The old town of Shou County is roughly square in shape and surrounded by rammed earth walls, with the outward-facing sides of the walls covered in brick above an elevated stone foundation. The entire wall is inclined slightly inwards to allow the stone layers at the bottom to sit firmly in place. The city moat lies to the southeast of the city; Fei River to the north; Shouxi Lake to the west; and Bagong Mountains can be seen in the distance. A walk across the ancient bridges, a stroll through the old town, or an exploration of the ancient relics can offer boundless inspiration. The city walls wrap tightly around the chaotic, scattered, and diverse buildings of the city, creating a sudden change in the experience of the environment once the threshold is passed.
The buildings within the city are constructed in the courtyard house typology, which differs from those in northern China and the Huizhou houses in southern Anhui. The typology of the buildings in the old town of Shou County strongly reflects the characteristics of the region’s climate, as well as the local culture and way of life. Along the narrow streets, the vertical courtyard houses have small windows and solid walls—a typical weatherproofing feature to protect occupants from the cold in winter and heat in summer.
Shou County Culture and Art Center was built in a new city one or two kilometers southeast of the old town, on what used to be empty, flat farmland with a lack of landscape features. Many new tall, generic buildings surround the area and fail to reflect the local climate and local culture. The blandness of the project site resembled a blank piece of paper for Zhu Pei offering the potential for a multitude of creative opportunities. The county government was open-minded in that it didn’t insist on specific design requirements, however, it demanded the project “be built quickly and completed next year.”
The building needed to include an art gallery, cultural center, library, and archive. Cultural and art centers are not new in China. Many were built between the 1950s and 1970s under the influence of the former Soviet Union. Nowadays, they have been endowed with a range of new possibilities, including creating urban public space for cultural activities. Shou County Culture and Art Center is designed to draw people in to discover and experience it; unlike a beautiful sculpture that can only be viewed but not experienced.