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Long Museum in Shanghai, China by Atelier Deshaus

Highly commended AR_EA 2014: Shaped by the cultural currents of history and its physical remains, the industrial landscape of Suzhou Creek in Shanghai is now the site of a radical new art gallery

The Long Museum, the newest art gallery in Shanghai, speaks to an honest engineering aesthetic. Concrete shell, steel grillage, towering proportions, machine repetition, ribbed vaulting, geometric composition, factory functionalism: Behrens-esque. It straddles a pre-existing, ’50s, heavy industrial, coal conveyor loading bridge, so it is tempting to describe the museum in Warholian terms as a production house of art. In fact, the motif is much simpler and much more rooted in the historic urban grain of the site. It is emblematic of the history of the city.

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Site plan

Shanghai is feted as the first modern city of China, opening up to foreign trade after the first Opium War ended in 1843. It thus became the birthplace of modern Chinese industry with concomitant improvements in its urban condition … especially for the foreigners living it up in the non-Chinese concession areas. When Mao came to power in 1949, Shanghai was ‘punished for its colonial and imperialist past’ and received particularly harsh measures to blot out Western decadence. Shanghai was, in Mao’s words, ‘a centre of despotic power’. So the next 30 years saw a rapid period of industrialisation and collectivisation without significant urban development. Hong Kong academic Gary Pui Fung Wong notes: ‘From the 1950s to the 1970s, no new buildings were completed on the Bund’; existing warehousing was converted and factories lined the waterfront as industry grew. After Mao’s death, the period of opening up embraced development, modernisation and capitalist dynamics. Shanghai’s skyline is evidence of such liberalisation. But questions are beginning to be asked about what was lost in the process, in terms of built heritage and urban memory.

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A coal bridge by the museum

This is the shifting context in which the museum sits: a huge modern construction on the site of an old coal dockyard adjoining the busy quayside. David Chipperfield’s maxim ‘architecture provides a sense of place in an increasingly confusing world’ is apt. (Indeed, for some, there is a hint of his Forum Museumsinsel here.) The architects are adamant that the design of their building is not defined by its physical urban surroundings, but their architectural product is unmistakably a remembrance of things past.

It was only in 2010 that the Shanghai Cultural Relics Committee started to document heritage buildings along the 10-mile stretch of riverfront in the Yangpu District. Initial findings identified more than 1 million sqm of historic warehousing − in various states of disrepair − south of Suzhou Creek. The recent strategic plan to revitalise this stretch of the river insists that developers place high importance on discovering the waterway’s ‘historical spirit’.

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Section AA

So capturing the essence of industrialisation is the cultural and political generator of the design concept, but the more prosaic remnants of the site’s industrial past played a significant part too, inasmuch as the site contained below-ground remnants of a structural grid comprising basement walls and large concrete stub columns at 8.4m centres. This, says the architect, was the ‘inevitable starting point of the design; an unavoidable restriction on the design possibilities’. The question of  whether architectural integrity giving rise to functional clarity is allied to structural honesty exercised the project team.

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Section BB

‘In the context of contemporary architecture that constantly turns to urbanism and society,’ Liu Yichun, director of Atelier Deshaus, explains, ‘we wanted to explore if there was any chance for construction to be independent, and to have a place of its own’. Thus ensued long arguments about the contradiction between rationality and architectural ontology or essentialism but the architects still wanted to create spaces where ‘new things could evolve’.

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Gallery interior

Despite the grid, the free-form plan has been premised on the non-proscriptive way that people use contemporary gallery spaces. Contrary to the proscriptive routes through many established galleries, ‘musing’ is now a preferred way of ‘using’ a contemporary gallery. Hence the idea of free-flowing spaces. Speaking of springing points, the concept of the arched roof structure arose from the process of making large-scale models. Here, the architect uncovered the spatial and volumetric possibilities created by the structure: an ‘arc’ when aligned together, a ‘half arc’ when grouped together, or a ‘cross vault’ when described by the pinwheel layout.

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West facade, model

An ‘umbrella’ cantilever was designed to span 8m independently, and though the project engineer approved it on paper, Shanghai’s seismic codes meant that a damper would have to be included between each umbrella to make it operate as a whole structure system. In the end, cost and time restraints dictated that each umbrella would be linked by smaller beams allowing flexibility such that, in the words of the architect, ‘if small earthquakes occur, these connection beams would still fulfil their structural role, while in bigger earthquakes, these beams are designed to break’. Those considerations, seemingly purely technological, were necessary to ensure the structures’ free layout.

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Axonometric

The column supports are tied into the basement stubs and are provided with a central void for services. Similarly, the core of the arches comprises 200mm concrete with a void to house cables, air con, and so on. So the walls and ceilings are remarkably uncluttered. Simple holes cut into the soffit allow single electric cables to connect to hanging light fittings. Smoke and fire detectors poke out of shared oval holes, partly recessed to minimise the visual intrusion. It is a pleasure to be in such an uncluttered environment that allows the art to speak for itself.

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First floor gallery

Liu refers back to the essential memory: ‘When we put people inside a building, the meaning of space suddenly no longer merely belongs to the structure. For example, when we see an arch, in particular a huge arch or dome-shaped space, Rome comes to mind.’ As a result, early in the design process, the architect decided to visit Hadrian’s Villa near Rome specifically to study the conception of concrete vaulting to achieve a ‘classical quality’ in the finished building. It was undoubtedly a trip well made. It has helped Atelier Deshaus make a classic on a grand scale, aided by an almost spiritual light.

Long Museum

Architect: Atelier Deshaus

Photographs: Su Shenglian

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