With the Opening of the West Bund Museum, Reflecting on Shanghai’s Cultural Mega-Developments

The Chipperfield-designed, Pompidou-affiliated arts space fits into a unique but precarious spatial and development context, our correspondent writes.

The entrance to the new West Bund Museum in Shanghai. A roof supported by a single column creates a terrace underneath that frames views of the adjacent river and riverbank. Courtesy Simon Menges

“I always like buildings that surprise you with their physicality. There’s an architectural quality which is not about the form or the image, but something you can only sense in person,” says Alexander Schwarz, partner and design director at David Chipperfield Architects Berlin. “I think there are moments when that occurs with our project, but there could have been more.”

Schwarz is referencing the firm’s West Bund Museum, opened in November of last year and situated on the banks of Shanghai’s Huangpu River. Commissioned by state-owned Shanghai West Bund Development Group, the new museum is the area’s latest addition as it continues its transformation from industrial zone to cultural district: Adjacent to the new Museum sits Open Architecture’s clever conversion of five 49-foot-high aviation fuel oil tanks into contemporary art center Tank Shanghai. A little further upriver is Sou Fujimoto’s revamp of a former airplane hangar into the Luz Museum and the striking concrete geometries of Atelier Deshaus’s Long Museum.

Though these privately-financed museums are grouped together under the marketing umbrella of the new West Bund quarter, they are spaced relatively far apart from one another. The nearly 7-mile stretch of disparate buildings is connected primarily through a riverside boardwalk and swathes of newly-planted landscaping. “It’s not like London’s South Bank,” Schwarz says. “Generally, the West Bund buildings are singular on the river bank. They aren’t small, but they each have a pavilion-like quality.”

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Exposed concrete defines much of the interiors, including the gallery spaces. Courtesy Simon Menges

Since West Bund Museum’s opening last year, much has been made of the fact that Chipperfield was commissioned to design a museum without a collection. Schwarz’s explanation for the museum’s basic concept—three independent volumes connected by a double-height atrium—arose from the brief’s generic requirement that there be multiple uses for the nearly 27,000 square feet of exhibition and event space. It was only near the end of construction that the West Bund Group confirmed a five-year partnership with the Centre Pompidou. The agreement, apparently at a cost to the West Bund of $2.98m annually, will see the Pompidou stage exhibitions until 2024. While such models have been popular in recent years between Chinese developers and Western cultural institutions—among them the Victoria & Albert Museum and Design Society in Shenzhen and Yuz Museum’s two-way partnership with LACMA and Qatar Museum—one can’t help but wonder as to the future uses of the buildings once the partnerships expire.

In attempting to answer similar questions in relation to the building’s immediate use, the architects faced a number of difficulties in designing to such a generic brief. Rather than with, for example, Berlin’s Neues Museum where Chipperfield rebuilt around an existing collection, at West Bund, the works to be shown arrived after the building’s completion. But because of the Pompidou’s exacting specifications for the display of their holdings, the architects had to reconfigure their own structure post-completion. “It was almost like adapting a found industrial structure for museum purposes, rejudging what had been built,” Schwarz says. “It required a completely new way to see the building.”

Courtesy Simon Menges

During the building process, Schwarz continues, a number of changes were made which departed from the initial design. What is now the smoothly-finished double-height colonnaded atrium, for example, was initially planned as a series of internal-external horizontal terraces in exposed concrete. The atrium was changed after the Pompidou joined as partner, at their request. The exhibition spaces were to have been built around a steel structure and instead were completed in rough exposed concrete.

“In terms of materiality, surfaces were finished in the complete opposite way to what we had planned,” says Schwarz. “I would say the building quality is good enough, but the concept suffered due to material qualities and the detached construction process.”

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the project is the way it connects to the river. Steps link the Huangpu to a wide esplanade and one of two ground floor entrances (the other entrance faces the road on the opposite side). From here, a second set of external steps sweeps up to a first floor entrance and a superb terrace. Supported by a single massive tapering column, the lobby roof projects out over the terrace, framing views of the river. It’s by far the most surprising and exhilarating part of the museum. Given the lack of a curatorial collaborator from the outset, it’s little wonder that the most engaging aspects of the building are those with no direct relationship to the exhibition spaces.

While the West Bund Museum isn’t a lamentable building, it certainly doesn’t speak of Chipperfield at his restrained, luxurious best. Even Chipperfield himself described the structure as having a “generic feeling.” Perhaps the original design did exhibit the chilly clarity so visible in the office’s previous museum projects, but, if so, some of that has been lost in the transition from design to completion. Yet Schwarz’s honesty regarding the construction quality and its impact on the final design, seeing in the project something of a missed opportunity, is refreshing. Not every building is a masterpiece and even the merely satisfactory has its place.

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