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The Mobius Strip Gives Form To A Buddhist Temple In Shanghai [Q&A With Designer Wang Qing]

A futuristic design inspired by religious architecture of the past.

by Erica Huang
17 July 2012, 6:52pm

If you conjure images of the spiral shape in architecture, two famous structures will likely come to mind. One is the once-largest mosque in the world, the Great Mosque of Samarra, and the other is Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York. Combine the religious purpose of the former with the unconventional design approach of the latter, and you’ll start to get a picture of the new spiral building that will likely become China’s first contemporary Buddhist temple.

Shanghai-based architecture firm Miliy Design recently released the proposal for this unusual project. Although still waiting for the approval of Buddhist authorities, and engaged in a search for more funding, the project has already created some buzz in the Buddhist and architectural design communities alike.

We spoke with the architect in charge of the project, Wang Qing, to get an inside scoop about this potentially extraordinary temple.

Creators Project: How did this unusual design idea come about? Who commissioned it?
Wang Qing:
The client is a devout Buddhist from Taiwan. He invested in this project based on his religious, commercial, and public interests. He wants to promote Buddhism by building a contemporary Buddhist temple near Shanghai. We even went to Taiwan to do research of contemporary Buddhist temples to serve as a reference for our design. There are several internal discussions between the client, ourselves, and involved artists.

Were there any stylistic or cultural difficulties in designing the Buddhist Temple?
After modernism, "style" is almost dead in academic architecture. In school, we don't teach students style anymore. We mostly teach them how to understand the situation, identify the problem, and find a way to solve it. In this case, we have a unique difficulty, one of cultural representation. All the temples we see are traditional Chinese buildings. There is no contemporary Buddhist temple in China. In fact, temples have evolved on a different timeline than other building designs, locations, and styles in history. Fundamentally, a temple is just one type of architecture. All architectural design methodologies could be applied to this building design. We read some Buddhism sutras and extracted one of the basic concepts—reincarnation. We use the Möbius to represent this concept.

How did you keep traditional Buddhist elements in the design?
First, we had to distinguish traditional building elements from Buddhist elements. Some of the elements are just traditional building elements, like the big roof, or the big red column. Some of elements are Buddhist elements like the icon of Buddha and sutra. Then, we only took the Buddhist elements as a visual reference to apply to the building in a contemporary way.

In the process, we actually tried more than a dozen forms and created a matrix to cross-compare and fully discuss them. On one hand, we started from some basic contemporary design methods to test out the possibilities of form-making to understand what the form itself could be. On the other hand, we read Buddhist sutra about the description of heaven and the wisdom of Buddhism. Crossing these two processes, we achieved a relatively optimal result.

What does the inside of the temple look like? How do people engage with the building?
The inside space of the temple will be very special and interesting. Due to the spiral form, the inside space will gradually move from low elevation to high elevation. There won't be a clear distinction between ceiling, wall, and floor—everything transforms and evolves. That is also important. We want visitors to feel this transforming space and get the idea of reincarnation.