Located on a quiet beach along the coast of Bohai Bay in northern China, the UCCA Dune Art Museum designed by OPEN’s founding partners LI Hu and HUANG Wenjing has opened to the public. Carved into a dune several meters high along a quiet beach in Qinhuangdao, the 930 square meter museum, whose rich program includes ten galleries and a café, gently disappears beneath the sand. Largely enveloped by the dune, its interconnected, organically shaped spaces echo those of caves—the earliest form of human inhabitance, whose walls were once home to some of man’s first works of art.

 UCCA Dune Art Museum / OPEN Architecture UCCA Dune Art Museum / OPEN Architecture

The decision to create the museum underneath the dune was born out of the architects’ deep reverence for nature and their desire to protect the vulnerable dune ecosystem, formed by natural forces over thousands of years. Because of the museum, the surrounding sand dunes will be preserved instead of leveled to make space for ocean-view real estate developments, as has happened to many other dunes along the shore.

Respect for nature is displayed not only in the building’s unique relationship to its environment but also in its efforts towards sustainability. Openings throughout the building, each with a different orientation and size, frame the changing expressions of the sea and sky throughout the day, and also provide natural lighting for the museum’s spaces at all times of the year. A sand-covered roof greatly reduces the building’s summer heat load, and a low-energy, zero-emission ground source heat pump system replaces traditional air conditioning.

 UCCA Dune Art Museum / OPEN Architecture UCCA Dune Art Museum / OPEN Architecture

Other details speak to the building’s unique construction methods. The complex three-dimensional geometry of the building’s concrete shell was shaped by hand by local workers in Qinhuangdao (some of whom were former shipbuilders), using formwork made from small linear strips of wood and other materials. The architect deliberately retained the irregular and imperfect texture left by the formwork, allowing traces of the building’s manual construction to be felt and seen.

 UCCA Dune Art Museum / OPEN Architecture

In the near future, a long walkway will be built opposite the Dune Art Museum, extending into the ocean. At low tide, when the pathway is accessible, visitors will be able to walk to the Sea Art Museum, which will rise out of the sea like a solitary rock. Together, these two museums will form a “Dialogue by the Sea”.