A coal-conveying platform from the 1950s and a parking garage from the first decade of the 21st century act as unlikely form-givers to Atelier Deshaus’s new Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai. The 355,000-square-foot project deftly serves the art it displays—the private collection of local couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. Yet its ability to create striking architecture from undervalued remnants of previous construction may be its true masterpiece. By turning these liabilities into assets, the building stands out from the myriad of new museums being built in China.
Liu Yichun, principal of Shanghai-based Atelier Deshaus, welcomed the coal-conveying platform that Sun requested remain on-site. Liu says that when the original function was removed from the object, its structure revealed its inherent beauty. It now stands like an oversize sculpture at the entrance to the museum. Liu sought to mimic its unadorned aesthetic in his design, creating a bare, cast-in-place concrete building with none of what he calls the “beautiful clothes” of other museums. He used subdued materials—perforated aluminum panels and glass—and set them flush with the concrete to establish smooth surfaces. The perforated metal filters sunlight into aboveground galleries.
While Liu embraced the midcentury relic on-site, he had less enthusiasm for the more recent concrete parking garage, an underground structure that was the only completed part of a proposed tourist center. Its grid of pillars spaced 28 feet apart didn’t promote the kind of spaces he wanted for the museum, but he finessed this by embedding an irregular pattern of concrete walls in the structure that rise one or two stories above grade and then splay into arches that support the roof. They produce a mix of grand, vaulted exhibition spaces that Liu likens to a Roman ruin or a spacious cave. At the top of some arches, windows shaded by fixed metal louvers bring additional daylight into the space. Liu acknowledges the influence of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum on his design.
The sectional contrast between the repurposed underground floors and the new ones above works well with the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Re-View, which opened in March. Ancient Chinese scrolls, paintings, and calligraphy sit comfortably in lower-level galleries with low ceilings, dark painted plasterboard walls, and electric light. Contemporary art—a mixture of large and small paintings and sculpture—alternately fill the vast spaces of the vaulted upper floors or sit humbly within them, to dramatic effect.
The variety of galleries in the Long Museum West Bund differs from the regularity found in the first museum that Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei commissioned in Shanghai: the box-shaped Long Museum Pudong, which opened in 2012 on the opposite side of the Huangpu and was designed by Zhong Song. According to Wang, that museum was built to accommodate the full range of the couple’s collection, so it called for standardized spaces for presentation. Floors exhibiting the country’s contemporary, revolution-era, and traditional art have similar gallery spaces, regardless of content.
The new West Bund museum was designed to be a more flexible place. Re-View, which runs through the end of August, features works from Liu and Wang’s collection. But Wang plans to hold exhibitions of outside works, fashion, and even automobiles. The bold, vaulted galleries could enliven these diverse shows. Ancillary spaces such as a reading room, children’s activity center, and an outdoor film-screening area add to the museum’s versatility. (Some of these—including an auditorium, restaurants, a design shop, and a VIP room—are still under construction.) The various functions are split into two main wings that straddle the central coal-conveying platform.
Walkways on the first and second floors connect the two halves, and bridges extend from the museum to an elevated promenade that runs along the river. Circulation around the outside of the building is crucial to its design. “The museum belongs to the park,” says the architect. In other words, it is not merely a destination for art aficionados; it is also something you might come across as you walk your dog.
The project’s role as a civic catalyst may seem odd to Western readers more familiar with museums built to be stars rather than team players. But the museum-building boom in China—like that in the United States in the late 19th century—reflects cultural aspirations, and is also intended to establish urban centers. The Long Museum is one of the first buildings to be completed in the West Bund; construction of office and entertainment structures will follow.
Building cultural anchors for new developments is a common practice in China today. Less common is preserving architectural and industrial remains found on-site. At the Long Museum West Bund, Atelier Deshaus shows that history can serve contemporary architecture, and that even the most unlikely artifacts can be sources of beauty.
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