Museum Design in China

[ 2015-01-30 11:40:46 | 作者Author: OUNING ]
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Making of a Museum in the 21st Century, edited by Melissa Chiu, texts by David Adjaye, Rustom Bharucha, Janet Carding, Melissa Chiu, Caroline Collier, Clémentine Deliss, Adam Lerner, Glenn Lowry, Sophie Makariou, Jessica Morgan, Hammad Nasar, Lars Nittve, Ou Ning, Walid Raad, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Wang Chunchen. Published by Asia Society, Jan 29, 2015.

Shrine of Knowledge, Palace of Aesthetics, or Theater of History:
Museum Design in China

Ou Ning

Museum, perhaps museum in his memory…
- Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1962

In the December 21, 2013 issue, The Economist cites the Chinese Museums Association statistics that in 1949 China had just 25 museums, and that in 2012, that number has increased to 3,866 museums, of which 451 opened in 2012. According to the current plan announced by the Chinese government, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, and now it has surpassed the goal early. America, in comparison, only had 20-40 museums built per year prior to the 2008 financial crisis. (1)The same article also references the term “museumification”, coined by Jeffrey Johnson, director of China Megacities Lab at Columbia University, in response to the Chinese museum boom. “Museumification” roots from “gentrification” and precisely sums up the motivation behind the museum-building fever. As a rising political power, China needs cultural achievements to manifest its “soft power”, and through museum building, its emerging capital can catch up with its strides in power and bring forth social impact, while acquiring land for even larger commercial gain.

The fanatic towards museums in China is somewhat similar to the European courts during the Age of Discovery in the sixteenth century, when cabinets de curiosités or wunderkammers flourished to show off the riches and treasures they have collected from oversea colonies. In order to promote the great Chinese empire’s long history and its liberal, pro-globalization image today, the Chinese government launched the massive project of public museum construction to either house historical artifacts or display contemporary art. The scheme at once masks the nationalist political agenda and declares the ambition to compete in the free market. The involvement from the private sector for museum development, on the other hand, provides a showroom for private collectors’ venture in art to demonstrate their taste in culture, and an ethical support to their profitable projects. Many of the private museums are built and operated by real estate developers, as they have come to realize that building museums is an effective means to obtain land and to market the adjacent residential projects with a cultural package. This motive largely affects the design of Chinese museums.

The National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) is the highest level of national art museums in China. The original building was designed to store and present a collection of ink paintings, calligraphy, oil paintings, prints, and sculptures, which lags behind the development of contemporary art in China. After the closing of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the plans for a new building began to form. The new building is located in the Olympic Common Domain, according to the Beijing Master Plan 2004-2020. Expanding north of the existing 7.8-km north-south central axis of Beijing, the Olympic Common Domain with various completed Olympic venues and facilities, will include many new public cultural facilities, such as Sinology Center, China National Arts & Crafts Museum, China Science and Technology Museum, and the new NAMOC building, all in the planning stage. The new NAMOC building measures 130,000 square meters, will become the largest art museum in the world by completion, and will collect and display twentieth-century art from China and beyond. The architectural competition began in 2008, and received over one hundred proposals from architecture firms across the globe, including Pritzker-winning starchitects Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Jean Nouvel.

Drawing inspiration from the Chinese calligraphic form of “one”—a horizontal stroke in ink—Nouvel’s winning design was considered “the most representative of the essence of the twenty-first-century China”. Even though Nouvel borrowed the calligraphic movement to shape the building, he did not take the traditional Chinese symbol literally, but gave the museum a strong contemporary identity with a crystal clear glass façade. In addition, he ingeniously used the nearby dragon-shaped waterscape and Olympic Green, and the future gathering of museumgoers outside the building to his advantage by mirroring their reflection on the façade. What’s most impressive on his architectural rendering was a sea of red flags floating above the museum’s main entrance, which could be interpreted in different ways: the residue of the French imagination of Maoist intellectuals from the May 1968 uprising in Paris, or the undercurrent applause to the in-office Chinese political power and nationalist ideals. Whatever the implications, Nouvel’s design triumphed over Gehry’s reserved first bid in China that veered on the conservative, Hadid’s arrogant “universal approach” of her signature digital distortion that lacked specificity, and Koolhaas’s weak architectural form in his proposal and the fact that his new Chinese Central Television Headquarters attracted much criticism in China.


[National Art Museum of China, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel.]

Regardless of the heated competition, architects remain the hot subject in the Chinese museum boom. The Today Museum, founded in Beijing in 2002 by real estate developer Zhang Baoquan on his residential project Apple Community, is the first Chinese private art museum. The site used to be industrial facilities, now transformed by architect Wang Hui. Wang sealed all the windows, but kept the original brick structure. The interior floors made way for an atrium suitable for large scale installations. He also added an asymmetrical steel staircase by the entrance, updating an architectural time capsule of industrialization with contemporary taste for geometric design. Also in the past decade, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, founded in Beijing by Belgian collectors Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens in 2007, and the Minsheng Art Museum, established in Shanghai by China Minsheng Banking Corp in 2008, were also converted from old factories to fit galleries, bookstores, cafés and restaurants by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and QingYun Ma, and by Liang Jingyu, respectively. The design of these museums were either remodeled or expanded following contemporary art museum standards but maintained the integrity of the original buildings. Coupled with proper business operations, the museums successfully rejuvenated the once dilapidated industrial neighborhoods, setting up a popular urban renewal model in China.

There was a period in China when Richard Florida’s theory of Creative Class and Guggenheim’s Bilbao Effect were all the rage. Both the Chinese government and private investors saw the creative industry as a breakpoint for urban renewal and future development. For many cities and communities, commissioning architects to design museums of curious shapes seemed the only way to stay competitive. The Ningbo Museum designed by Wang Shu opened in 2008, making a bold statement with its sloping and radiating grey walls made up of recycled bricks from numerous demolitions sites, juxtaposing traces of time with dense and random window openings, while the angular walls outline the history and memory the museum harbors. In 2012, Wang became the first Chinese recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize with his designs for Ningbo Museum and the Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. The innovative aesthetics that roots from Chinese traditions, explores the memorial function of architecture, and connects new structures with the pressing reality of Chinese urbanization only started to garner more domestic support after the Pritzker recognition.


[Ningbo Historic Museum, designed by Wang Shu and Amateur Architecture Studio. Photograph by Iwan Baan.]

The Isozaki Arata-designed Himalayas Museum, which was developed by realtor Dai Zhikang as part of his commercial project Himalayas Center, opened in 2012 with its alien structure imitating that of forests and limestone caves amidst a complex of hotel, theater, and luxury shopping mall in Shanghai. The same year, collector couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei opened the Long Art Museum envisioned by Zhong Song in Pudong, Shanghai. The pale granite cube has few windows and is home to the couple’s classical and partial contemporary art collections. (They later opened another space in Puxi especially for their contemporary collection, designed by Liu Yichun). In 2013, Lu Jun and his son Lu Xun founded Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, where Steven Holl captured the populist “Chinese-ness” with a hanging structure of custom-made bamboo-mold concrete. Part of the ambitious Sifang Parkland, formerly known as the China International Exhibition of Practical Architecture, Sifang Art Museum is the only building in use out of the 24 buildings on the 50-acre plot to be designed by two dozen architects and artists, of which 11 are completed.

Indonesian entrepreneur and collector Budi Tek opened his namesake Yuz Museum in 2014, renovated from a hangar in the old Shanghai Longhua Airport by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, the designer of the 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. Fujimoto added a new wing completely of glass, welcoming in the view of surrounding greenery and making it a “green box”. Coming up is an even crazier museum project in Fujian province, where artist Cai Guo-Qiang in collaboration with the city government will establish a contemporary art museum in his hometown Quanzhou, with an estimated 1.2 billion RMB (200 million USD) budget. The project initially consulted Norman Foster but later went to Gehry. Gehry’s proposal in 2013 for Quanzhou Museum of Contemporary Art appeared much more aggressive than his NAMOC bid, but continued his architectural language, with a fluid glass structure emerging from a cluster of metal shapes resembling a blooming flower. While in Pingtan, near Fujian capital Fuzhou, antique collector Lin Xiaoqiang has invested in China’s largest private museum, Pingtan Art Museum, which broke ground in 2013. Architect Ma Yansong designed the floating island utopia around the concept of “Shanshui City”(a city of mountains and rivers), and conjured streamlined hills meandering between the sky and the ocean. With the interior entirely an imitation of natural landscape, visitors are expected to journey through heaven and earth.


[Pingtan Art Museum, designed by Ma Yansong and MAD.]

The desire for spectacle in the Chinese museum boom presented architects the opportunity to realize their unrestrained vision. Some may argue these dreams can be nightmares for others. This not only implies the difficulty in execution that contractors face, but also the bad influence the emphasis on appearance have on developers and visitors, because the quality of a museum cannot be solely judged by its exterior; the functionality and planning of the space and exhibition design matter even more. In China, the challenge in museum-building does not lie in constructing the physical space but its place in society, content, exhibition design, audience cultivation, sustainability, and a sound infrastructure supported by a regulated system, professional knowledge, and experienced personnel. The Chinese museum fervor is propelled by power and capital, often too focused on spectacle making to accommodate the real purpose of museums. Inevitably new museums are reduced to empty shells without exhibits or curators, and museumgoers are really there for the air conditioning, not the programming.

What, then, is the purpose of museums? The museum in Chris Marker(1921-2012)'s La Jetée (1962) displays animal specimens in the style of a natural history museum, product of the Age of Discovery, symbolizing a trove of knowledge and a trigger in the protagonist’s memory. Museums hold and categorize knowledge for humankind, archive the collective memory of humans, support historiography with evidence, and stage historical narratives. Through their audiences, museums pass on the human experience and create new memory. Museums can also be a palace for aesthetics, with a clear flow throughout the well-lit open exhibition spaces for artefacts, treasures, and artwork. As public spaces, museums make knowledge and the right to define history accessible to all and allow free, democratic exchange of opinions. The design of museums should thus administer the aforementioned values, though in China, due to the growing mentality as a dominating power that encourages showing off its wealth, and the limitation of political structure and ideology, the core values of museums often become marginalized or completely deteriorated.

With most of the newly established museums favoring exotic form over function, much waste in resources becomes inevitable. The majority of history museums have to service communist ideology, their historical narratives therefore abide to the communist view of history. When lacking artefacts, they often fill the void with artificial constructs, which defies the purpose of presenting an objective truth for their audience. Owing to the didactic nature of the political propaganda, it makes audiences feel they are forced to accept institutional values. Their exhibition design usually takes after two styles. One is that of the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum, with aisles of glass display cases lit dimly with spotlights permeating with the dreary atmosphere of a colonial treasure trove. The other is that of the commercial trade show, equipped with new media and interactive technology to fabricate a raucous catering to the growing demand for entertainment. Contemporary art museums, in contrast, appear more and more like shopping malls, as the bustling of art bookstores and cafes almost takes over the existence of exhibitions, and fashionably-clothed individuals mingle with drinks in hand at exhibition openings, barely sparing artworks a glance.

A museum should convey its mission through architectural and spatial design, free of political agenda and commercial aspiration. A good museum design should help visitors pay attention to the programs and present a seamless viewing experience for new knowledge and history and art education. Relying on the fantastical imagination of architects alone is far from enough for Chinese museum design. It has to be assisted by the wisdom of the likes of museum directors, curators, exhibition designers, artists, historians, and museologists. Of course, it also demands a pivotal change in the system and the state of affairs. For China, there is still a long way to go.

March 9, 2014, in Bishan. Translated from Chinese by Kelly Ma. Published in Making of a Museum in the 21st Century, Asia Society, Jan 29, 2015.


(1)“Mad about museums: China is building thousands of new museums, but how will it fill them?”, The Economist, holiday double issue, December 21st , 2013.
[最后修改由 OUNING, 于 2015-01-30 12:49:37]


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