China meets Canberra

15 April 2014
Keeping spirits out. A hole in the wall evil spirits cannot jump through at the new Australian Centre on China in the World building. Picture by Belinda Cranston


What’s red and blue and grey and keeps evil spirits away?

The new Australian Centre on China in the World building at ANU has been designed to appease both locals and the Chinese.

Grey walls made of stone, one of which has a big round hole carved out of its centre, are keeping evil spirits away from the building.

Designed by Bejing-based architect Gerald Szeto and Canberra firm MunnsSlyMoore, the sleek, minimalist building also features windows with geometric pinwheel patterns, splashes of red and blue, and a split level garden that is sympathetic with Canberra’s four distinct seasons.

Other features include glass planes resembling cracked ice, five salvaged rocks representing five sacred Chinese mountains, and a bamboo forest, rather than glass doors, guarding an office area.

ANU staff and students have occupied the building since February.

Historian and CIW depuy-director Associate Professor Benjamin Penny says the design is as much about fitting into the Canberra landscape, as it is allowing a Chinese person with a sense of their architectural heritage to recognise distinctive aspects.

“Out one side of the building, you can see Black Mountain,” he says.

“Out another, you can see Sullivan’s Creek. Mountains and water are very important in the way Chinese landscapes are conceived.”

The board room features furniture by Canberra icon Fred Ward, famous for his use of simplistic, unstained Australian timber.

Grey stone walls require those who enter the complex from the Fellows Lane entrance to travel in an s-shape.

Australian Centre on China in the World at night. Picture by Ben Wrigley

Australian Centre on China in the World at night. Picture by Ben Wrigley.

“Starting from the top there is a spirit wall,” explains Penny.

“And that was consciously put there. The idea behind it is that spirits, particularly bad spirits, can only travel in straight lines.

“And so they can’t get around.”

Nor can they jump through a hole in another wall, referred to as a moon gate.

Patches of red and blue add colour to the building's grey exterior.

“Red is a strong, traditional colour in Chinese and blue refers to the wrappings on traditional Chinese books,” says Penny.

An official opening involving the Commonwealth government, which put up most of the funds for the stately building, will occur later in the year.

In the meantime a colourful array of lanterns, some of which were made during a workshop at the ANU School of Art, will grace the new building.

“The lantern has a very long history in China,” says ANU College of Asia and the Pacific honours student Will Zou.

“It keeps the fortune that will keep you prosperous.”

Watch a video about paper lanterns being made for the new building here.

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