Who would have thought it: a French invasion of China!
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel has released further images of his design for the National Art Museum Of China, which commenced construction this month. It is set for completion in 2017, after which it is expected to attract 12 million visitors a year — this would make it comfortably the busiest art museum in the world, overtaking the Louvre in Paris. Big numbers, and even bigger ambitions — an extraordinary press release from the architect claims the museum will undoubtedly take its place “among the greatest museums of the world.”
Construction work is beginning just over a year after Nouvel was announced the winner of an international design competition for the project, beating two other architects who youmay have heard of: Dame Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. It was a major coup for the Frenchman, and caps an incredibly successful period in terms of major public commissions for his firm — Atelier Jean Nouvel also designed the under-construction Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which possesses similarly ambitious goals of global cultural prominence.
Jean Nouvel has much in common with his prestigious competitors — like Hadid and Gehry, his firm has adopted a "signature style," using a consistent language around the world and transforming his work into a recognizable architectural brand in the process. Nouvel’s signature lies, unequivocally, in the art of perforation — the permeable facades displayed in these new visuals echo a number of his other projects, namely the Doha Tower (winner of CTBUH Best Tall Building Award in 2012), the Arab World Institute in Paris, and the aforementioned Abu Dhabi Louvre.
The gleaming lattice wrapping the building is evocative of bird cages, lanterns, and lacy table cloths, filtering sunlight and producing a magical display of dappled light within the huge public atrium. Within this space, there appears to be a substantial internal garden, bringing with it an explosion of autumnal color that contrasts remarkably with the snow-white finish of the museum walls.
The effect is aesthetically enticing, providing an atmospheric visual similar to the weaved dome and ocean pools of Nouvel’s Louvre. Public areas throughout the building take the spotlight here — further images show a vast "Summer Hall" on the ground floor, its ceiling coated in gold as a reference to the splendor of traditional Chinese art. A swooping funnel of glass provides a spectacular centerpiece to the atrium at the building’s heart.
Furthermore, a huge rooftop terrace with covered walkways provides additional space for visitors to meet and mingle. Each of these features, lavish in their scale and detail, indicates that the public spaces are taking the spotlight ahead of galleries, where actual artwork will be displayed. Why? Let’s dip back into Nouvel’s press release, relentlessly grandiose in its language:
“At the beginning of the 21st century museums are still too often considered as places for conservation, consultation, and education. These are useful functions, but based on conventional thinking and cultural consumption. The museums should become lively places, resonating with invention where exhibits prove that sensations and emotions triggered by art are amplified by time, by the complicit juxtaposition of works from various times, and all the eras of invention.”
Untangling this comically convoluted manifesto, those “lively places” are clearly delivered by a generous public realm, both inside and outside the building.
Unlike the private, protected spaces of many conventional galleries, these spectacular public zones are designed to gather and socialize in, to be photographed and shared around the world, acting as a natural advertisement on social media for the museum across the globe. As a consequence, it appears that the art is taking a backseat to the architecture— the building is a spectacle to be marveled at, when previously museums acted as passive containers, subtle backdrops in front of which the artist’s exhibits could shine.
This is the antithesis of a gallery such as Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum, where the building was designed around precisely prescribed pieces by a minute collection of artists. It therefore follows that the experience within Nouvel’s museum may well be less personal, and certainly less intimate, than that of Ando’s. This is understandable, perhaps, given the scale of the undertaking — however, in order to judge more accurately, it would be valuable to see far more visuals of the individual exhibition spaces to supplement the "wow factor" public realm images.
Despite these misgivings, the images offered up are undeniably striking, and suggest the potential that this building could, indeed, form one of “the greatest museums of the world.” The only question that really remains is: can the reality match up to these ethereal renderings?
I will be following construction progress with interest to find out …
The Angry Architect
Images via Architizer