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ZHA@MAM, Shanghai

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MAM is an acronym of Modern Art Museum Shanghai where there’s currently an exhibition called CLOSE-UP of the built and unbuilt output of British architecture firm Zaha Hadid Architects. Four questions.

  1. Why in an art museum?
  2. Why China?
  3. Why now?
  4. Why?

Starting from the top, Marcel Duchamp said all you need do is put something in an art gallery for it to become art, or at least Dada art. By the same token, if you put a collection of architectural models, visualizations and images in a trade centre with only cursory descriptions and no plans sections, analysis or comment, then what you get is a trade show. I think I’ve just answered the other three questions.

Shanghai has many art museums and art galleries along that famous bend in the Huangpu River known as The Bund. The Museum of Art, Pudong was never going to be a suitable venue. It’s very central and highly visible but was designed by Jean Nouvel.

That’s it with the big window, just to the left of the red funnel.

The West Bund Museum opened in 2019 as centerpiece of a new art sector in Shanghai and is tops for art cred. It’s less central but has beautiful spaces and large galleries but was designed by David Chipperfield. It’s busy anyway May 1 to September 5 with a major Kandinsky exhibition.

Nearby PowerStationOfArt wouldn’t have been suitable were its exhibits not diverse, inclusive and educational.

Lastly, there’s China Art Museum which is China’s 2010 Shanghai Expo pavilion repurposed by a team led by He Jingtang. Its collections and exhibitions are mainly of modern Chinese art but, even if they weren’t, I can’t imagine a ZHA exhibition here.

All in all, ZHA were lucky to be in MAM Shanghai. Designed by Atelier Deshaus. Opened 2016.

Atelier Deshaus is little known outside China but they’re a Shanghai practice with a growing reputation for arts buildings, notably their 2017 Taizhou Contemporary Art Museum. They’re one of a number of Chinese practices reclaiming territory formerly occupied by foreign architects.

Over 600 art galleries and museums were completed in China last year. If architects’ career paths follow the progression we’re led to believe they do, then that’s a lot of career-starters.

MAM Shanghai is conspicuously located on the east bank of The Bund, a pleasant walk down the embankment and a 2-yuan ferry ride across the river. It’s not huge but the airy ground level space leaves you unprepared for the two upper levels into which the CLOSE-UP exhibition has been shoehorned. One gets the feeling the exhibition had to be at MAM Shanghai no matter what.

Cross section courtesy of Atelier Deshaus via ArchDaily

MAM Shanghai is an amazing building. An umbrella structure is used to suspend floors from the original structure. Coal was once carried by conveyor and loaded into the hoppers (that now occupy the middle of the second and third floors) and emptied into trucks at ground level. This ground level is fully glazed and has the museum entrance, shop and cafe. The floor with the angled hopper sides is also fully glazed, while the floor above it has solid walls. Its exhibition area is extended by fitting the hoppers with floors and making openings in some of their upper walls. One has a glass floor at level 3 from which you can see the café two floors below and the level above. Fascinating.

The middle four hopper uppers have been combined into a single space..

Atelier Deshaus took a disused piece of infrastructure that would otherwise have been demolished and, with an economy of physical and technological resources, extracted maximum value from it. I thought this the real future of architecture. Someone somewhere has surely written that the building maintains a connection with Shanghai waterfront’s industrial past, or has layers of time etc. but this is just interpretation for Western architectural media. Adapting this building was simply the most economical thing to do, a cost-benefit calculation as ever it is with buildings no matter how large or small, grand or humble.

Between the ticket counter and the exhibition entrance proper are four shapes suspended in space. This is your first and last opportunity to walk around a model and view it at eye level and in natural light. Already we’re being encouraged to think of these shapes as sculptures and not the oversimplified representations of buildings that they are.

This is probably unfair to sculpture since sculpture isn’t obsessed with denying materials, tectonics and gravity. Me, I don’t understand why a building should aspire to be sculpture in the first place but, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because Art is one of the most cost-effecient ways of adding value to materials and since buildings can’t be paintings then sculpture it has to be.

The fourth shape is Serpentine but it’s hidden by Aliyev.

We’re told this is the first major exhibition of the work of Zaha Hadid Architects in China.

The Shanghai exhibition begins with two panels, one describing Zaha Hadid’s first trip to China in 1981 and tells us how impressed she was by Chinese painting and Chinese gardens and how the very next year she won the competition for The Peak in Hong Kong which is in China. The other panel describes the achievements of the commercial behemoth that is Zaha Hadid Architects today.

The disused coal hoppers occupy the middle of the exhibition space on the second and third floors. However, all window area on this second floor has been blocked to create more hanging space and a dark and tight space [hence the exhibition title CLOSE-UP?] Illumination has been sacrificed for hanging space. Rather than have the content compete for attention with the city and river outside, the decision was made to limit the exhibition experience to factors that can be controlled. This could be just control freakery but it could also be that the fiction of the models is more difficult to maintain in a real city in the real light of day. A bit of both I’d say.

A wall of photographs along the second floor end corridor commemorates the career highlights of Zaha Hadid the person. Architects generally don’t like having their photo taken with other architects. I didn’t see Rem Koolhaas or Philip Johnson but I did see Patrik Schumacher in two, Margaret Thatcher in one and, in another, billionairess property developer client Zhang Xin (Galaxy Soho, Beijing, 2012; Wangjing SOHO, Beijing, 2014; Lingkong SOHO, Shanghai.2014; Leeza SOHO, in Beijing, 2019).

Leveraging the Zaha Hadid legacy while downplaying its role was never going to be easy and this exhibition is a first attempt to tread that path. I understand why talk of creative evolution is now taboo but, even so, ordering the projects by job number would still tell us something about sequence without implying an end. Perhaps some future scholar will assign ZHA-numbers to the office oeuvre? For now, what we get is an exhibition arranged according to building type, with additional categories for interiors, digital, research, etc. Building categories on display include HIGH-RISE, CULTURAL, MIXED-USE, SPORT, CAMPUS & HQ, TRANSPORT and so on. There’s no HOUSING category because housing only exists as a program item in MIXED-USE and HIGH-RISE developments. A people practice this is not.

The word housing does appear twice in the Graph & Function Representation corner even if the act of living is treated with disdain. Modular Unit Detail: Pocket Living Interior is a hotel room.

It’s bad enough having to peer into dimly lit perspex cases and stoop to read even the inadequate descriptions but I’ve only just noticed that someone thought it important we know what the models are made of, as if the models themselves were works of art.

I’d been tipped off about the other project for Data Drive[n!], Algorithmic Housing. With this project, the spurious text “Undisclosed” makes me think the descriptions were lifted from business development manager project sheets.

Much can be said about this project because there’s sufficient information to understand it. Fire escape distances are satisfied and maximum travel distances minimized but I can’t see what “data” and “algorithms” have brought to it. Solar exposure has been “verified” but nothing done to equalize it. Given that the units are Nakagin-sized with beds up against the window, is facing six apartments around a 6m x 6m lightwell really a good call? The problem I have with data and algorithms is that we’re never told who chose the data, what weightings they gave it, and how the algorithm was designed to link it. Once again, we’re not seeing an over-concern for people. A more immediate grievance is that someone thought this ugly and nasty project worthy of exhibiting. Sorry to be banging on about this but IT’S THE ONLY PLAN IN THE ENTIRE EXHIBITION. People deserve better than this. Even in an exhibition.

Moving on, I saw projects I’d never seen before and now can’t unsee. I wondered what they’d be like to experience as a pedestrian.

All in all, the exhibition seems lifeless and out of place in an art museum. Property trade fairs such as MIPIM or Cityscape at least have a purposeful buzz to them. Art galleries do too when the purpose of the exhibition is to instruct and inform and visitors are encouraged to think about the content.

I recommend the Kandinsky exhibition at West Bund. The exhibition begins with a section on early influences (such as the Oriental art Kandinsky collected) and early works such as this one I’d not known about.

Around the corner was a section on the development of abstraction and I was pleased to see this next one.

Further along was a section on The Bauhaus years and how Kandinsky’s work changed again, even though his abstractions were now beginning to look quite representational. That section culminated in works such as these exhibition design sketches reproduced at scale in a room just before the section devoted to his final Paris years. Wassily Kandinsky died in 1944 but I left feeling I knew a little bit more about the artist and a better understanding of what he did.

ZHA’s disinterest in what information gets fed to the general public is no surprise to anyone who’s read The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol. 1. The firm admits no conceptual space for self-reflection let alone analysis or criticism from outsiders.

I’d seen this next model at 2007 Cityscape Dubai when the project was going to be an office building. I imagine it’s here because it’s a living fossil from pre-crisis times. They just don’t design them like this anymore.

“Located on a prestigious waterfront plot within Dubai’s new masterplanned Business Bay district, this gem-like Opus Tower unites has a diverse program of serviced apartments, luxury hotel rooms, commercial accommodation and offices. The building is conceived as a functional podium and cube which hovers above the ground. Eroded in its centre is a freeform void which is clad in tinted double-glazing, allowing views inside and through the space. Forming a key icon in Dubai’s skyline, the cube accommodates has 110 serviced apartments across the upper floors and a 96-room hotel in the lower floors, with offices sit either side of the central void. The podium levels house a range of bars, restaurants, night clubs and retail spaces as well as a beach deck with pool and shaded terraces. During the day, the cube appears full and the void appears empty. At night, a spectacular lighting design display activates the void and brings the space to life as an iconic presence in Dubai’s skyline.”

The model for Beijing Daxing Airport impressed me more than anything else, even if only because airports are big and serious and have to work well. For decades they were shaped like birds with long wings getting the most gates into the shortest average distance from the passenger and baggage handling terminal. This one’s a starfish for much the same reasons but, unlike a starfish, has a void at its centre echoing, I learn, “principles within traditional Chinese architecture that organize interconnected spaces around a central courtyard”. (The modern traffic roundabout is British invention of the 1960s but Paris’ Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile has been directing traffic from many directions around a central void since 1806.) I don’t know why things like this happen. Is it lazy PR copy? An over-belief in one’s own inventiveness? Or an under-awareness of what others have done? A lack of desire to engage honestly with an intelligent public? Not providing visitors with sufficient and accurate information prevents them from forming their own opinions. It works. A child is more likely to ask why this building is red.

I’d had enough. I left with the impression Zaha Hadid Architects can do anything and everything except design an exhibition. As I was leaving, the first guests were arriving for the opening of the REVERSO watch exhibition on the fourth floor.



  • Your putdowns of a somewhat sorry international architectural scene (it’s all about celebrating the triumph of Capitalism isn’t it?) are always entertaining. Thank you. Zaha, alongside Rem and the rest, all started so promisingly back when we wuz a bit younger and very sick and tired of Corbu and Mies, and POMO was already deflating too. Maybe our times are not unlike Late Gothic times, when rotated spires and undercut stone pretending to be made of spirit spit began to seem less than it was. The 16th c. opted to pursue a Classical promise of an Absolute Beauty that would in time seem as empty as the masonic masterpieces it replaced. We theorize too much, to conceal ennui. At least, let us recognize that after 300 or 400 years, all this sham will seem much more interesting, and time travelers will want to visit our interesting times to escape theirs.