Zaha, you see (Iraqi-born, London-based since her 1970s student days), is one of those starchitects who spent her youth designing extraordinary things that never got built – even when, as was the case with her abortive Cardiff Bay Opera House of the early 1990s, she won the competition to build it. When she finally started building for real, it was an important moment.
And then it became normal for Zaha to do real stuff around the world, such as her recently-completed opera house in Guangzhou, China. And so the reaction set in. She is not fashionable among the younger architectural cognoscenti who have turned against the funny-shaped ‘icon’ architecture of what is now the old guard, and prefer sober, rationalist, stuff, the duller the better. Her designs have evolved as you would expect, however. Once daringly jagged, they have become more rounded, swirlier. She and her design partner Patrik Schumacher adhere to an ideology of computer-generated form known as Parametricism, which I can’t begin to explain. Instead, let’s consider how all this shakes down into a transport museum in the postindustrial wasteland that is Clydeside, pepperpotted with other newish cultural buildings but with no sense of cohesion.
You know Mr. Whippy ice cream? The kind that swirls out of a nozzle? Seen from above, not that many people ever will, the Riverside Museum is a bit like that. A fluid swirl with a facetted surface. Only silvery, as the whole building has a carapace of seamed zinc. As a ground-based being, however, your first impression as you approach it is not so much of fluidity as of a strange kind of industrial shed. What makes it different from a real industrial shed is three things. First, its two ends – one facing inland, one right on the Clyde where the fine old restored barque ‘Glenlee’ is moored – are of dark glass. Secondly, its roof is concertina’d into asymmetrical, longitudinal peaks, sliced off sharply at the ends. The building, like Mr. Whippy’s products, is an extrusion. And thirdly, it is not set out in a straight line but in that gentle zigzag form. It takes a wandering stroll from one end to the other, curving first one way, then the other, then back again.
Inside, the concertina roof repeats, snaking overhead. But what struck me first was not so much the shape of it inside, but the colour. The whole place, except for the floors, is finished in a relentless pistachio green, including even the handrails on the stairs. This feels less like ice-cream, more like cake icing since the interior was lined with some kind of plaster or fibreboard before painting.
You can see what Zaha is doing, and when she explains it (listen to Royal Academy audioboo, below) she says the same: this is a transport museum, not a white-walled art gallery. The surrounding context – or as much of it as it not wasteland – is tough, industrial. The building does not try to be exquisitely detailed, particularly given the things inside it – cars, trams, buses, trains, boats. As for the fluidity, that’s to do with the fact that it is built on the confluence of two rivers, where the Kelvin flows into the Clyde.
All this is clear enough – as is the fact that a meandering linear museum recollects meandering roads and railway tracks. Plus the thing is built from steel like ships, rather than Zaha’s more usual concrete. For an icon-building architect it’s extraordinarily contextual, in fact – just across the river, you can see a big ship-industry shed with a sawtooth roof which Zaha acknowledges as one of her influences. But all this does not quite add up to a thoroughly convincing building. Though maybe the arrangement of the collection inside has something to do with that.
Curatorially, there is just far too much stuff. Cars crawl up the walls as if trying to escape the giant frozen traffic-jam on the floor. Either the building needs to be twice as big, or the curators need to edit their display down by 50 per cent. True, there are some fascinating objects there. But they are not all equally fascinating. How many old cars do you need, really? A bit more space round some of the real stars, such as a mighty Glasgow-built steam locomotive from South Africa’s railways, would pay dividends.
But maybe what gets me more is this. 33 years ago, a young Norman Foster reinvented the museum as a giant shed or hangar. It was and is the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Originally clad in ribbed silvery aluminium, now a smooth white material, it has full-height glass walls at each end, like Zaha’s. It is rectangular, a shed aspiring to be a temple, now a listed building. It has its drawbacks but you can’t deny its power. In Glasgow, it is as if Zaha has taken this illustrious precedent, and stretched, squeezed and twisted it like nougat. So I can’t help seeing it as something of a perhaps unintentional parody or caricature. And that’s OK, too – why ever not? But it means I can’t take it quite as seriously as perhaps it would like to be taken. Meanwhile, 1970s Foster is swinging right back into fashion among the rising generation of architectural hipsters who now routinely sneer at Hadid. Well, the early work is always the best, isn’t it?
What the Riverside Museum demonstrates is the now well-worn desire of cities to have new museums that are also architectural wonders, so drawing more visitors. To do this, you run a competition and sign up an international name. Another example is the new £72m Museum of Liverpool (opening July 19), a curious stiff bow-tie of a building, designed originally by Danish architects 3XN until they fell out with the council, upon which it was finished by others. It is right on the World Heritage site of the city’s waterfront and I’ve looked at it a lot and I still can’t figure out why it’s that shape.
But there is another way. In Edinburgh, they have spent £46m on clearing out and thoroughly refettling an existing architectural wonder – the former Royal Museum with its virtuoso Victorian galleried atrium. Glasgow architect Gareth Hoskins has brought a much-needed new clarity to the place and opened up previously unseen street-level galleries. It reopens on July 29.
In Bristol they have achieved the industrial-shed feel by, amazingly, converting an actual, existing 1950s industrial shed into the city’s new £27m museum, just opened on the docks known as the ‘Floating Harbour’. It was alphabetically coded ‘M Shed’ when in use, so that’s what it’s called now it’s a museum. Anglo-Australians Lab Architecture have done a workmanlike job, keeping their flourishes to a minimum and dropping a new floor on top a la Tate Modern. And do you know, a straight-down-the-line job like that has produced a pretty good generalist historical museum.
Glasgow’s Riverside Museum is by no means the last gasp of the ‘icon’: the V&A, for one, plans to build one in Dundee. Architectural spectacle has always been part and parcel of the museum-building world. But this pre-Crash cultural building on the Clyde, first designed in 2004, does have the whiff of another era about it.
Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, 26th June 2011. Photos © Hufton + Crow and Hawkeye (Glasgow), Richard Bryant/Arcaid (Bristol) and Andrew Lee (Edinburgh). Other photos by Hugh Pearman.
Royal Academy Audioboo: Hugh Pearman discusses the Riverside Museum with Zaha Hadid http://audioboo.fm/boos/382047-hugh-pearman-talks-to-zaha-hadid?playlist_direction=reversed
Zaha Hadid Architects: http://www.zaha-hadid.com
Riverside Museum, Glasgow: http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/riverside-museum
M Shed museum, Bristol: http://www.mshed.org
Lab Architecture: http://www.labarchitecture.com
Museum of Liverpool: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol
3XN Architects: http://www.3xn.dk/en/
National Museum of Scotland: http://www.nms.ac.uk/royal_museum_project.aspx
Gareth Hoskins Architects: http://www.garethhoskinsarchitects.co.uk/
The Sunday Times online (£) http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk