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Riverside Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects, Glasgow, UK

Vantage points of the museum open up to reveal the zinc clad five-peak roof profile of Zaha Hadid’s first cultural building in the UK. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), cuts a rather lonely figure. Built to re-house Glasgow’s much-loved Museum of Transport, this twisted metallic shed lies at the confluence of the Kelvin and Clyde Rivers, its immediate surroundings a derelict wasteland.

This barren prospect is typical of a large part of what was once one of the busiest ports in the world, yet has long since been subjected to a gradual and painful decline. The nearest buildings are ‘Glasgow Harbour’, an array of utterly generic new flats constructed in anodyne regeneration style. The flats are thus far the only other built components of a Clydeside masterplan, of which Hadid’s museum was originally to be the cultural focal point. ZHA won the competition to design the building in 2004, but since then the financial collapse has given the project an unexpected air of gloom.

From the northern, landside prospect, the museum is wide and rather non-descript, enlivened only by the entrance facade, which is defined by five peaked roof ridges with simplified ‘noddy-house’ profiles. Homogenously clad in zinc, it has more than a hint of an out-of-town distribution shed, although from ground level there are intriguing partial glimpses of its sinuous roof. Like all architectural ‘icons’, however, the building has one photogenic side. From a corner, at the water’s edge, the visual juxtaposition of the moored tall ship Glenlee, the looming facade and hints of the voluptuous roof appears undoubtedly impressive.

The museum’s form is generated by a roof profile that sweeps along a series of curved paths, running from one facade to the other. The interior is organised along these same paths, creating the main exhibition space as a single unbroken volume stretching 120m from end to end, with the outer zones holding the enclosed programme. A series of glass reinforced gypsum (GRG) panels turn the roof’s folding underside into a remarkably smooth surface, which is broken only by seams at intervals of every few metres and neon lighting at the base of each roof ridge.

This is all tinted in a pistachio green colour, which - although initially jarring - sets off the exhibits remarkably well. The collection is made up of a plethora of different vehicles, from model ships to massive Glasgow-built railway locomotives, which are crammed into the space across the floor, arranged up the walls and occasionally hung from the ceiling.

This busy, rugged approach to the curation means that Hadid’s first cultural building in the UK is a far cry from the cool art spaces of her Stirling Prize-winning MAXXI in Rome (AR July 2010). Furthermore, spatially it is also substantially less complex than its Italian counterpart. As Hadid describes the Glasgow project: ‘It’s a simple idea. The building is connecting two waterways so it is a liquid, fluid design - a third metallic river.’ From a Pritzker Prize winner this explanation lacks a certain depth, but Hadid is much more convincing when she evokes ‘motorways’ and ‘trains moving through a landscape’.

On this level, the museum makes sense, with the curved roof lending a metaphorical dynamism to the space. However, when Hadid begins to rhapsodise about the conceptual relationship of her ‘soft shed’ to the shipbuilding industries that once dominated the Clyde, the tenuous symbolism falls apart. Essentially, a quasi-industrial, historically charged brief feels fundamentally mismatched with ZHA’s luxurious architecture.

This perhaps results from the building’s uncanny lack of detail. There are basically only two materials, with all surfaces as smooth as they can possibly be, and almost all edges rounded off. The effect is that the architecture reads as a scaled-up computer model that has been dropped in from non-space. This is typical of the direction that ZHA has taken in thelast few years under the parametricist agenda of Patrik Schumacher, whereby an obsession with digital tools has led to designs that appear to exist only to justify ever-more outlandish shapes.

The main problem in this context is that the outlandish shape is only partially visible from ground level, and the curves of the building don’t really make sense unless viewed from directly above. Even though this might make for wonderful renders, it seems destined to be lost on those who will physically encounter the building. Furthermore, the engineers speak of the Herculean efforts that have been expended in reconciling the architect’s design aspirations and constructional possibility. Realising the capricious squiggles of the roof necessitated a veritable forest of steelwork before this £60m exercise in structural virtuosity was then entirely hidden away behind the eerily homogenous cladding.

Meanwhile, at the nearby Kelvingrove Art Gallery, there is currently an exhibition of astounding works by artist Patricia Cain: ‘Drawing (on) Riverside’. This displays what the construction of the museum might have revealed before everything was sealed up to create the architectural equivalent of an ambassadorial limousine.

In drawing serious parallels between the gloomy, Gothic spaces of the construction site and the chaotic, Piranesian qualities of the old shipyards, Cain makes clear a richness of allusion and historical depth lacking from the Riverside Museum. It leaves the impression of a consummately realised but ultimately rather shallow building.

Credits

Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Structural/Services Engineer Buro Happold
Landsape Architect Gross Max
Exhibition Design Event
Main Contractor BAM Constructing
Zinc Cladding Rheinzink
Sanitary Ware Duravit

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