Zaha defies her critics with first major public commission in the United Kingdom
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 it 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 collection itself – which features 3,000 exhibits and over 150 interactive displays telling the city’s 'Clyde Built' story – is arranged around the building almost like some grand scale industrial doll’s house, with locomotives cheek by jowl with Ford Capris, trams, fire engines and ship models. And all set against an ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ painted backdrop, which has proven to be one of the main talking points of the building - particularly as it comes from an architect synonymous with a Minimalist, pared-down palette when it comes to colour. Project architect Johannes Hoffmann shares with the assembled audience that the actual colour used to define the interiors is ‘Decorous Lime’.
And ‘decorous’ pretty much sums up Zaha Hadid’s appearance at the midday press conference held at the new Riverside Museum; a polite and fairly short affair that saw the architectural Grande Dame experience a fever pitch of deference (‘Maam’) from one clearly overwhelmed representative from Glasgow City Council. Hadid was on fine, and clearly relaxed, form at an event hosted later in the evening by Glasgow Museums at the Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, which saw the designer in conversation with her architectural champion and pal Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum and former Director of Glasgow 1999, Year of Architecture and Design.
Resplendent in satin, leather and fur, Hadid was generous in praise of her Glasgow City Council clients at the Riverside Museum, and the close nature of their collaboration: “We should all be on the same side but I’m often perceived as being on the other side,” confessed Hadid. The architect also described her fondness for Glasgow and her love for the ‘intensity’ of cities in general: “I holiday in cities,” she admitted. And perhaps the highlight of the evening came when Sudjic quizzed the architect as to whether she could sense a younger generation of architects coming up behind her, only to receive a fairly unequivocal ‘No’, to the delight and amusement of the packed audience. Who perhaps didn’t need too much reminding that it would indeed take a good one (and an audacious one to boot) to step into Zaha’s Manolos.
The Riverside Museum opens to the public on 21st June.