Excellent Design Creates Better Performance

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One of the most eagerly awaited cultural buildings in Scotland (and possibly the UK) finally opened its doors last week..

One of the most eagerly awaited cultural buildings in Scotland (and possibly the UK) finally opened its doors last week – for a sneak preview at least – following an almost 10 year gestation, 4 years construction, and at a cost of £74m. And as architectural events go Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects, which stretches and soars out of the ashes of this former Clyde side shipyard, is no anti-climax. In fact this must be as good as it gets in terms of visceral museum experiences.

As home to the city’s transport, engineering and shipbuilding legacy, it’s fitting that the new museum (literally) rises to the occasion as a hub for one of the most important – and best loved by many locals – municipal collections of this ‘Second City of the Empire’. With the glazed peaks of its huge vertical gables glinting and gleaming when the sun manages to make a brief appearance out of the charcoal grey sky, the new museum emerges from its still slightly blighted post-industrial waterfront setting like a Koh-I-Noor in the rough. Indeed it’s hoped that the building will have a rejuvenating effect on the stop-start regeneration of this area of the Clyde Waterfront, which is a big ask for a cultural building. But if any can pull to off, it’s this.

Of course the building has also been attracting a fair amount of attention for reasons other than its architectural prowess, mainly by dint of the fact that its Pritzker Prize winner and UK-based Zaha Hadid’s first major public commission in her adopted country, with a general feeling of disbelief that it’s taken so long. Although that’s not to say that this particular commission wasn’t without its critics, as many believed that a local rather than ‘Starchitectural’ solution might have been sought when the appointment was made in 2004. Reports also emerged throughout the build of cost-cutting exercises, compromising the grand overall vision.

However, the emergent building shows little sign of penny pinching, design dilution or discord. It undoubtedly bears the hallmarks of a Zaha Hadid Architects design in its thrusting, dynamic and streamlined form. But it is also site sympathetic, reflecting the industrial aesthetic of the jagged roofed warehouses further downstream. And the Z shaped form of the building, whooshing towards the water’s edge like some elaborate, excited skid, seems to emblematically echo the collection within, much of which was built for speed.

The detailing of the building is remarkable. The smooth zinc skin with ‘invisible’ guttering reflects the passing overhead clouds; and the snaking spine of the roof, which incorporates most of the building’s plant, provides seamless and spectacular support to what is effectively a column-free monumental shed.

The concept for the building as described by the architects:

The historical development of the Clyde and the city is a unique legacy; with the site situated where the Kelvin flows into the Clyde the building can flow from the city to the river. In doing so it can symbolise a dynamic relationship where the museum is the voice of both, linking the two sides and allowing the museum to be the transition from one to the other. By doing so the museum places itself in the very context of its origin and encourages connectivity between its exhibits and their wider context.

The building would be a tunnel-like shed, which is open at opposite ends to the city and the Clyde. In doing so it becomes porous to its context on either side. However, the connection from one to the other is where the building diverts to create a journey away from the external context into the world of the exhibits. Here the interior path becomes a mediator between the city and the river which can either be hermetic or porous depending on the exhibition layout. Thus the museum positions itself symbolically and functionally as open and fluid with its engagement of context and content.

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