Location: Ningchuan Road / Heqing North Road, Ningbo, China
Client: City of Ningbo
Site area: 12’376 m2
General floor area: 24’929 m2
Status: Completed in 2019

Architecture (competition stage): playze & SCHMIDHUBER
Architecture (execution stages): playze
Local design institute: Shanghai Institute of Architectural Design and Research
Landscape design institute: Ningbo Institute of Urban Construction Design and Research
Façade consultant: RFR Group, Shanghai
General contractor: Hwaking Construction Group
Interior/exhibition design and construction: Feng Yu Zhu, Shanghai

Photo credits: CreatAR Images, Shanghai


Shortly after the successful collaboration for the German Pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the two practices playze and Schmidhuber joined forces again to win the invited competition for the Ningbo Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Eight years later the construction has been completed and the center opened to the public. It is located at the heart of the newly built “Ningbo Eastern New Town” adjacent to the city hall and the civic square.

Prompted by surging urban growth in many of the nation’s larger cities, the specific typology “urban planning museum” has been invented to present achievements in urban planning and development to the public. The Ningbo Urban Planning Exhibition Center is supposed to be more than just a simple presentation space. It shall be a forum for all stakeholders of the urbanization process. It combines programs for interested citizens, children, planning professionals, academics, civil servants and government members. The goal was to create an engaging, accessible public space in the new district, and thereby foster the dialogue between citizens and decision-makers.


To emphasize the role of the center as a public venue, it has been developed as a continuation of the surrounding waterfront landscape and is therefore an integral part of the public park. Connecting pathways, bridges and streets have been woven into a topography leading to the many entrances of the building. The boundary between park and building has been blurred.

The enormous volume containing 24’929 m2 floor area has been split into four main blocks connected by a central atrium. This leads to a faceted outer perimeter breaking the overall scale of the building and creating comfortable humane spaces around the volume. As an architectural antithesis of the surrounding “mega-blocks”, it brings a certain intimacy to the neighborhood. The building invites to stroll around and to explore various spaces, views and activities.


The City of Ningbo has a rich history in ceramic production. It was here that the so-called Ceramic Road began. The city played an important role in the national and international trade of ceramics throughout the civilization’s history. That said, the use of glazed ceramics is not simply an homage to the local traditions of Ningbo; the building’s textured glazed ceramics also create ephemeral reflections of surrounding landscape. These reflections animate the facade with varying intensity depending on time of day, season, and weather.

From a distance, the building skin appears like a natural extension of the surrounding landscape. With its form and reflective qualities, the façade modulates visually with its context. Up close, this modulation is also applied in the deployment of the facade system and details. It functions much like a natural filter of leaves. The ceramic screen gradually shifts between being nearly transparent to fully opaque, according to program needs and views to the surroundings; while around exhibition areas the tiles overlap tightly, they open up in gathering areas to allow ample daylight and scenic views. At night, the pattern glows from inside as shadows populate the facade’s curved apertures.


The exhibition halls are mainly allocated on the third and fourth floors of the building. The first and second floors offer a large variety of public spaces, including a restaurant, library and reading space, meeting areas, a children's education and playground, classrooms, as well as a large multi-purpose event hall. On the roof, that is also directly accessible from the landscape, a café invites visitors to relax and enjoy the views of the surrounding city.

There are four main entrances on the second floor leading directly to the central atrium. The exhibition path starts on the top floor and follows a ramp system around the atrium. It is a fluid sequence of spaces without clear boundaries. It is therefore like a natural continuation of the outdoor landscape concept. Visitor shall explore the exhibition much like an urban neighborhood. They choose their own individual path through indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces, as well as lounges and terraces with scenic views of the city deliberately connecting the exhibition content with the newly developed urban surroundings.


It was never the intention to demonstrate the capabilities of digital tools by means of this project. Nevertheless, this building couldn't have been designed, developed, produced and built without the help of cutting-edge digital technology. In order to cope with the complexity of the spatial allocation and coordination of the structure, curtainwall, secondary structure and ceramic skin a tailor-made computer script had to be coded. The script automatically generated a 3D model of the structure and façade, as well as production drawings for the respective contractors.

The entire planning has been coordinated between the different trades in a central BIM model. This allowed us to control and direct the integration of sustainable building technologies including controlled ventilation, collection and reuse of rainwater, photovoltaics, etc. Furthermore, this model also served as a basis for cost estimations, scheduling, tendering, site supervision and future maintenance of the building.


The entire project from competition stage to completion took a little more than eight years. Ever-changing decision makers, many new regulations, updated urban plans, new team members, and many other unexpected developments asked for a lot of patience. It was crucial to keep focus on the core aspects of the project and to mediate between the different forces.

The result is more than just a building; it is the outcome of a long journey of negotiations between the different stakeholders of a public building project. Ironically, the making of the urban planning center could be understood as a miniature version of the urbanization process itself.