Industry and its aftermath collide on the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, where a concrete canopy of arches shelters a new gallery full of surprising spaces
China has 2.5 million millionaires − 80 per cent more than last year − and more than any other country except America. On the 2013 Forbes China Rich List, Liu Yiqian currently appears at number 200 (with $900 million), slipping from number 171 in 2012 when he actually had a hundred million fewer dollars. Described on one Chinese website as ‘the king of corporate shares’, he made his fortune in real estate and pharmaceuticals but has put his wealth to use as a renowned art collector. In April 2014, he broke the world auction record for Chinese porcelain, paying $36 million for a Ming Dynasty porcelain ‘chicken cup’ in Hong Kong. Quoted in arts magazine, Jing Daily, Liu’s wife Wang Wei says: ‘in terms of the optimal selection, stocks and art works are almost the same’.
The first Long (‘Dragon’) Museum opened on Luoshan Road in Pudong, Shanghai two years ago. At that time, it was China’s largest private museum showing an extensive collection of Revolutionary Period ‘Red Art’ and classic calligraphy. That museum, designed by Chinese artist and minimalist architect Zhong Song, is a plain box, entirely granite faced, that has been described in the Chinese press as Brutalist because it is a heavy, lumpen structure, devoid of windows. Ironically, its uncomplicated form actually seems to help to celebrate the content.
Just two years after that museum opened, Liu and Wang have just completed a second one, also in Shanghai. This one, known as the Long Museum West Bund, has been designed by Liu Yichun of Atelier Deshaus and will continue to house the client’s own acquisitions as well as displaying art from around the world. The government’s five-year plan for Shanghai pledges that by 2017 the city will emerge as China’s cultural capital, comparable to major Western cities like Berlin or London. Furthermore, as Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone is just starting to allow art auctions to be held in Shanghai − as a rival venue to Hong Kong − so the increasingly important Chinese gallery collections will be encouraged to loan and bring in touring exhibitions.
One of the sites earmarked for this cultural (and economic) makeover is the south-west bank of the Huangpu River; a 19-hectare ex-industrial site that was recently tested out with the Shanghai Bund biennale (AR February 2014). Immediately afterwards, the site was rebranded as the ‘West Bank Media Port’ which is busy transforming itself into a cultural landmark development, featuring film studios, TV production and digital entertainment companies, from established players like Dreamworks to new media start-ups.
‘The coal silos seem to have been treated as a monolithic objet d’art, with no genuine connection between this crumbling piece of Maoist industrial history and the resulting building’
In this ex-industrial area, much has changed. Heavy industry has been moved out and now wedding couples canoodle along the newly laid promenade, expats amble, skateboards trundle, and the nouveau riche walk their dogs … while a group of migrant labourers struggle to control a concrete power float that seems to be dragging them into the long grass. The contradictory scene of old and new world is exemplified by the rapid churn of contemporary architectural developments on the quayside while hundreds of huge barges, heavily laden with carbon-intensive industrial products, chug up and down the riverside. Similarly, the new Long Museum currently sits alongside the nine-month-old relic that is Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s Bund Biennial cloud pavilion. One year is a lifetime in this rapidly evolving area.
The new Long Museum has been designed to play with this concept of change and the modern-versus-post-industrial condition. Situating a new 17,000sqm art building on the site of the old coal-loading yard is an attempt by the local government to renew the area while capturing some of its urban memory. Here the tramlines have been retained and the huge concrete silos, constructed in the 1950s, remain as one of the key features of the site. However, while the museum itself is impressive, there is something unconvincing about this play with the historic urban grain.
For example, the coal trolley tramlines have been encased in cobblestoned paths but veer off at tangents to the building. Given that the tramlines were here first, such curious angles imply that the building doesn’t really respond to these historical routes in any coherent way. (This is compounded by the fact that a sculpture has been plonked directly on top of this rail route to undermine any sense of its importance as a meaningful heritage motif.) Secondly, the coal silos seem to have been treated as a monolithic objet d’art, with no genuine connection between this crumbling piece of Maoist industrial history and the resulting building. Admittedly, visitors can walk on the top of these silos where they have been overlaid with timber decking, but this misses the point. Impressive though this structure is, it appears to be merely an obstacle on the site. In fact, it is such an obstacle that it has caused the museum to be cut in half. Two parts of the new building are isolated from each other, divided by the coal hoppers, so that the main gallery to the north and a smaller gallery to the south are each entered separately.
The reception area in the north gallery is accessed from the break in the silos, and from there, the remarkable geometry becomes apparent. The building form is generated from what the architect calls the concrete ‘vault umbrella’ columns. These strong structural forms (that are also expressed in the external elevations) fan out at the head to provide a cantilever structural frame for the roof, while other shear walls tie into the original structure of the converted pre-existing basement. The architects insist that the form of the umbrellas is a ‘visual echo’ of the coal hoppers, but this is not entirely convincing. In fact, for this reviewer, there is a faux-industrial symbolism, a false impression that the building has been created from infilled, extant industrial arches rather than being a new-build.
That said, the geometric rigour of this construction, using vaulting radii to generate the spaces, has resulted in some impressively cavernous rooms: four-storey-height volumes with curved soffits in exposed concrete. This allows for the equal treatment of huge Big Character banner art (that dominates the space) and small pieces of work on expansive, non-distracting walls (that demand that the visitor steps closer). The opening exhibition of contemporary works was accompanied by an intense set of curatorial notes pasted on the concrete surfaces that added greatly to the appreciation of the displayed art works. For example: ‘Artists born in the 1960s have innate antipathy towards “grand narration” and do not have any lofty ideas or sense of mission.’ Or ‘Globalization has brought about economic growth and scientific progress, both of which have shed light on the artists’ thought … after the Cultural Revolution.’ Or, a guidance note on how to appreciate ancient calligraphy reads: ‘converse with delight; interpret the subtlety; observe in silence … only by doing so can one complete the spiritual journey’.
The more physical journey around the building is full of three-dimensional surprises, with low-level galleries opening up into full-height spaces; walls cut away into mezzanine-style balconies, or dramatic curved walls that lure the visitor into quiet spaces and out again. The staircase to the basement area is tiered into 1.5 metre landings that act as individual gallery areas. The architecture allows visitors to lose themselves while reassuring them that they are still connected.
Each adjoining volume − some at right angles, others in parallel − creates very interesting connections, infilled by rooflights and shutters, which the architect says has been the most awkward part of the building to get right. These junctions are infused with light, which is then cast onto the concrete curvature and dissipated without glare. As in a cathedral (that overused analogy for galleries), the light here is a crucial means to contemplation. As in a temple to art (that seldom used analogy for galleries), this building seeks to display the works to their best advantage.
‘The new Long Museum has been designed to play with the concept of change and the modern versus the post-industrial condition’
Indeed, even its dramatic interior is secondary to the art work on display, serving to enhance the role of the gallery, in other words, to show off the art works. Unlike the tendency of so many modern galleries to celebrate the ability to look outwards, this one focuses on the content within. Architect Liu Yichun says: ‘We want to push the viewer back to the arts itself, so that visitors can again focus on what’s inside the frame. That way, they can think about the meaning of the art.’
Light is allowed in through large, gable end windows, but restricted by internal manifestation on the glass and by the external perforated metal sheets, which lends the appearance of a woven fabric. It is a clever detail, allowing a subdued even light to infiltrate the spaces even on a bright summer’s day. It blocks views in and restricts views of the surroundings so that there is no distraction from the gallery display.
All surfaces are very high-quality, as-cast concrete, impressively handled. And the detailing is beautifully simple whereby the entire building seems to be simply a concrete shell with unobtrusive delicate LED light fittings hanging from preformed slots in the soffit. Such is the hidden − almost secret − detailing of the mechanical engineering, that the expression of the building’s form is unimpeded. Liu says, ‘Unlike an arch, the umbrella allows the plan to become free and the space flows. As a result, there are multi-meanings in the space [as] the structure changes from being simply a technical thing, into a cultural thing. The free form expresses freedom within the space.’